Last week the media dutifully reported the typically depressing news about black boys’ scholarly chops from the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) survey. More than three times as many white fourth-grade boys as black ones read proficiently or better. By eighth grade, white boys are doing almost four times as well as black ones in math.
Numbers, though, cannot always speak to us as clearly as words: The most depressing result in the survey is that inner-city black boys generally do worse in the aggregate than white boys with learning disabilities.
There has been the usual hand-wringing about what this news means for the prospects of a generation, and so on. It’s a “national calamity,” according to the Rev. Al Sharpton. But overall, there has been only so much hand-wringing, and it’s partly because these NAEP reports so rarely tell us much new. After decades of discussing a black-white gap in reading and math scores that has not narrowed meaningfully since the ’80s, one should be pardoned for wondering if there is much more left to say.
We are to think that black kids will continue to lag behind Scarsdale Sarah and Port Washington Peter until they get to go with them to well-appointed, lushly funded suburban schools. But especially because that doesn’t exactly seem to be on the horizon, it’s easy to think that these NAEP scores are just the way it’s going to have to be indefinitely, like global warming. Or you might chalk it up to the fact that, as articles on the survey have noted, black kids are less likely to have health care, or two parents.
The tragedy is that the discussion about black kids in school — boys as well as girls — takes place as if there were some great mystery about how to teach children from disadvantaged homes how to read. An entire plangent and circular conversation drifts eternally over a problem that, at least in the case of reading, was solved way back during the Nixon administration.
Back then, in the early ’70s, Siegfried Engelmann led a government-sponsored investigation called Project Follow Through. It compared nine teaching methods and tracked their results among 75,000 children from kindergarten through third grade. It found that the Direct Instruction (DI) method of teaching reading — based on sounding out words rather than learning them whole (phonics), and on a tightly scripted format emphasizing repetition and student participation — was vastly more effective than any of the others. And for poor kids. Including black ones.