Close the gap by teaching social skills
By Abigail Thernstrom, Los Angeles Times June 27, 2004


Affirmative action may seem like yesterday's issue. It's been a year since the Supreme Court sanctioned race-conscious admissions policies in two University of Michigan cases, and, today, no students are chanting: "Hey, hey, ho, ho, affirmative action must not go." But the court promised those policies would be temporary. It was a careless and irresponsible promise. Unless American public education is radically reformed, the issue will endure and the flames of ideological passion will burn again.

Racial preferences in admission to institutions of higher education are driven by the racial gap in academic achievement in the K-12 years. And until that gap is closed - until black and Latino students have much the same academic profiles as whites and Asians - colleges and universities, all of which want "diversity," will traffic in racial double standards in admitting applicants.

Comments by Sloan: Because of the well documented differences in average IQ among racial groups, it is unlikely that academic performance of groups will become similar. The Washington Post in 2004 lamented: "Equality Still Elusive" among American school students. Fortunately, research shows that IQ/ academic performance plays a smaller role in one's success in life than is commonly thought. Social Skills and personal qualities account for at least 2/3 of success. And research shows that minority students perform at least as well as White students in these critical non-IQ skills. A key point: Unlike IQ which is stable after age five, a person's social skills can be improved. Schools that provide social skills training will be both more successful in teaching academics and in providing valuable non-IQ success skills, as recommended in the rest of the LA Times article:

The racial gap in knowledge and skills is a catastrophe, and the picture has been getting worse for approximately 15 years. At selective colleges and universities, the number of non-Asian minority applicants "with high grades and test scores" has not "indeed increased."

Through the 1970s and much of the 1980s, the scores of black students on the National Assessment for Educational Progress, the national academic achievement test, were rising nicely. And then they dropped. The typical black student today is leaving high school with an eighth-grade education. The majority of black students in 12th grade are scoring in the test's "below basic" category. Only 0.2 percent of black youngsters are "advanced" in math. (The figure for whites is 2.3 percent, and for Asians 7.5 percent.) Latinos are doing only marginally better.

In the last five years, in searching for superb inner-city education, I made a discovery: Almost all excellent schools teaching highly disadvantaged kids look very much alike - and quite different from most regular public schools.

These schools combat what Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson has called "the greatest problem now facing African Americans." And that is "their isolation from the tacit norms of the dominant culture." His statement is really the academic version of Bill Cosby's recent remarks in which he talked about black parents who are not parenting and about kids who can't speak standard English and who will be shut out of the world of economic success.

This is how the best inner-city schools I know address that "isolation from the tacit norms of the dominant culture." In addition to an academically superb program, they demand that their students learn how to speak standard English. They also insist that kids show up on time, properly dressed; that they sit up straight at their desks, chairs pulled in, workbooks organized; that they never waste a minute in which they could be learning and always finish their homework; that they look at people to whom they are talking, listen to teachers with respect, treat classmates with equal civility, and shake hands with visitors to the school.

These are skills as essential as basic math. Without them, disadvantaged children cannot climb the ladder of economic opportunity.

But such schools cannot be created within the normal structure of public education. It is no accident that those I came to admire were all charter schools; their principals needed the authority and autonomy to shape a distinctive education. And such schools cannot function unless teachers and families have chosen to be there - with the understanding that they will be asked to leave if they choose to reject the discipline and dedication that the principals demand.

In fact, the seeming success of these schools suggests an argument for "school choice" a little different from the usual one. Choice, its advocates say, will create a market in which many brands of education will appear. And while that has its appeal, I'm more interested in the emergence and success of one particular brand for inner-city kids - that which provides an
education in math, yes, but also in a range of personal skills and habits they will need to succeed. And it is a system of school choice that is essential to the flowering of such schools.

Cosby went where most educators would not even dream of going. They are terrified of demanding what are misleadingly called white, middle-class skills and values. But if we are to close the racial gap - if we truly want to leave no child behind - we will need to pull black and Latino kids into the norms of mainstream American society. With courage and commitment, it can surely be done.

Go to:
Using Social Quotient surveys to help in social skills training

Go to: Affirmative Action effects of SQ

Go to: Participate in classroom research grants on Social Skills

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