By David Paulin
How do you motivate failing students at a troubled high school, one plagued by abysmal test scores and soaring dropout rates? Leave it to guilt-ridden white liberals to throw money at the problem – all while failing to understand or admit why many Hispanics and blacks are failing.
Ten months ago, liberal educators and do-gooders in Austin, Texas, got a reality check after launching an Obama-style program at a troubled high school, one composed overwhelmingly of low-income Hispanics and blacks. The program proposed to pay failing students $6-per-hour to get free after-school tutoring. Not surprisingly, the cash-for-tutoring program was derided by the handful of conservatives living in Austin, a bastion of ultra-liberal politics.
So how did the good-hearted educational experiment turn out? Recently, Austin's school district issued a detailed report on the program that offered math tutoring at troubled Eastside Memorial High School. And as conservative skeptics had pointed out from the start, it underscored that money alone cannot solve some complex social problems.
This is not to say the program did not benefit some students: It did. However, its failure to meet expectations -- with only a handful of students even electing to participate in it -- underscored an old complaint among conservatives: Cultural and behavioral problems are the real reasons that so many black and Hispanic students are poor academic performers. In Texas, their dropout rate is about three times higher than for white and Asian students, and this reflects national trends.
Yet liberals invariably blame this dysfunction on their favorite social ills -- discrimination, racism, and poverty. And presumably this also explains out-of-wedlock pregnancies and discipline problems at some Austin schools where most students are low-income Hispanics and blacks.
Lots of kids have trouble with math, of course. And many middle-class parents are all too familiar with the burden of arranging for expensive tutors and seeing to it that their kids do their homework and go to summer school. Doing anything less would mean their children have a slimmer chance of getting into a decent college.
Accordingly, you'd think students and parents at Eastside High School would form long lines to get into the cash-for-tutoring program. Yet teachers were unable to even fill the program's 20 available spots.
Consider some of the hitches that quickly developed in the tutoring program that provided one-on-one instruction in Algebra 1. The thrice-weekly classes were provided by teachers from a local community college who earned $12 per hour.
Referring to the “challenges” of recruiting students, the school district's report noted that teachers "personally invited and provided program information to 75 students, 83 percent of all eligible students." Yet they encountered a shocking level of apathy -- just 16 students ended up completing the enrollment process. And before long, seven had dropped out.
In the end, only nine students finished the program.
Elaborating on the frustrations associated with launching cash-for-tutoring, the report noted: “Eleven other students completed the program enrollment process; however, those students either did not show up to participate or only participated in one or two sessions.”
Fortunately, private donations funded the program for the spring semester. The final tab: $18,569.
Why did so few students end up enrolling? Some said they had "after-school commitments.” Others were disqualified due to truancy or other "discipline" problems that cropped up before the program started. And some who had expressed an interest in the program failed to enroll due to a "lack of follow-through.”
Interestingly, the school district's report failed to mention the race or ethnicity of the nine students who completed cash-for-tutoring.
Until recently, Eastside High School was known as Johnston High School. But after failing for five straight years to meet state standards for minimum dropout rates and academic standards (mandated by George Bush's No Child Left Behind Act) Johnston was closed by the state. The new name, Eastside Memorial, was part of a reorganization that sought to boost academic performance. Among other things, 50 percent of the school's students (about 80 percent Hispanic and 18 percent black) were transferred to other schools.
However, conservative critic doubted this would reverse the school's low scholastic performance -- not with one half of the same students from Johnston attending Eastside. And many derided the school district's policy of moving failing students into better-performing schools, calling it a cynical effort to keep schools from failing by spreading around underachieving blacks and Hispanics among schools with more whites and Asians.
That cash-for-tutoring failed to interest most students and parents should have surprised no one. Austin's school district had already provided free tutoring to underperforming students thanks to No Child Left Behind. Yet only a handful of eligible students – less than 2 percent -- took advantage of the free tutoring that cost $1,000 per student.
Twenty years ago, the majority of Johnston's students were white. But when Johnston closed, it was overwhelmingly Hispanic and had been for years. The school's 1,000 students had an 83 percent attendance rate. Dropout rates were 20.3 percent for blacks; 16 percent for Hispanics; and 3.7 percent for the school's handful of white students. Only 68 percent of Johnston's students graduated.
Culture of Failure
The soaring dropout rates for Hispanic youngsters at Johnston and other Austin high schools are interesting given that many Hispanic students are either the children, grandchildren, or great grandchildren of Mexican immigrants who flooded into Texas over the past few decades.
Most of those immigrants, legal and illegal, were high school dropouts. According to experts on immigration, the dropout rates persists into the fourth generation. So much for the notion that lower-class Mexican immigrants eventually absorb American middle-class values – values that were, conversely, quickly absorbed or already embraced by European immigrants.
Austin's liberal political class nevertheless regards “diversity” and “multiculturalism” as bedrock virtues that have made their open-borders city a better place to live than it was a couple of decades ago. Back then, lily-white “Anglos” comprised Austin's biggest majority, and its biggest minority was comprised of Mexican-Americans whose Texas roots went back for generations.
When Austin's liberals put forth cash-for-tutoring, they defended it as a way to attract poor Hispanic and black students who supposedly worked after-school jobs to help support their families. They believed these poor yet hard-working youths would quit their jobs and jump at the chance to earn $6-per-hour to improve their math skills.
However, conservative critics pointed out that few if any students lived in abject poverty. Many parents dropped them off in nice SUVs and pick-ups sporting fancy hubcaps. And many kids wore designer clothes and carried cell phones or I-Pods. Interestingly, groups of Hispanic and black youngsters waiting around town for school buses (at least the boys) seldom seem to carry school books.
What did the nine students who completed the cash-for-tutoring program think about it? According to the school district's report, they “reported they would participate in another tutoring program paying incentive money. However, only 61.6 percent of the respondents reported they would participate in a tutoring program that did not pay incentive money.”
The “poverty” found in some parts of Austin, the state's capital, is ultimately a poor excuse for educational failure or student apathy. Liberals may scoff at the notion that culture and values are to blame. But how do you explain what's taking place inside ramshackle schools in developing countries like India and China? There, bright-eyed students are eager to learn. Nobody pays them to show up and apply themselves.
Millions of Europeans in the 19th and early 20th Centuries made sure their kids graduated from high school, and they hoped they'd go to college. And like many Asian and Indian immigrants are doing today, some immigrants from Europe distinguished themselves as overachievers: European Jews may have lived in low-income parts of New York City, but they managed to have enough money to have book in their homes. And they prospered in spite of the anti-Semitism that kept many from attending America's top universities.
Many middle-class Cubans who fled Castro's communism also distinguished themselves in America. The glittery skyline of Miami – the so-called capital of Latin America -- is a monument to the accomplishments of Cuba's business and professional classes who fled to Florida.
Many immigrants from the Caribbean and Africa are doing well too, thereby defying the liberal critique that they ought to be performing as badly as low-income African Americans and Hispanics.
Putting a positive spin on the cash-for-tutoring program, a story in the Austin American-Statesman declared: "Eastside cash-to-learn program shows some promise."
Yet even that politically correct newspaper could not ignore the fact that so few students had expressed an interest in the program. The man behind cash-for-tutoring, former Austin Mayor Bruce Todd, told the daily paper: “It was the first time it was done, and you know if you do something in high school that’s not cool yet, that can be difficult.”
It was an interesting choice of words -- the program was “not cool.” Yet Todd remained upbeat: “We learned a lot and I expect we’ll have much better participation next semester.”
Thanks to exploding Hispanic birthrates and illegal immigration from Mexico, Texas is now among several states in which “white Anglos” are now a minority, comprising just under 50 percent of the population. Not surprisingly, the booming Hispanic population has coincided with the soaring dropout rate over the years.
Regarding those dropout rates, the Texas Education Agency noted: "In 2007-08, the Grade 9-12 dropout rate for African American students (5 percent) was more than three times as high as that for White students (1.5 percent), and the rate for Hispanic students (4.4 percent) was almost three times as high."
The state agency explained: “An array of complex, interrelated factors contribute to dropping out. Family and personal background, academic history, and characteristics of the school all may influence the decision of a student to stay in school."
It was a diplomatic way of putting it -- the words no doubt calibrated to avoid antagonizing state's ethnic and racial lobbies.
Last year, eleven of Austin's public schools received the state's lowest rating due to poor academic performance. And despite Eastside's new name and other changes, its students are still performing poorly, as are those at several other high schools.
What do do? Besides cash-for-tutoring, Austin recently hired a new school superintendent with one qualification that liberal elites found attractive: She was black. (At least that's how Meria Carstarphen describes herself, even though she looks white.)
Austin's education leaders had been obsessed with hiring a superintendent who was Hispanic -- to please the city's ethnic lobbies -- and that upset the private search firm the city hired: Its president accused officials of engaging in “racial politics.”
Yet no matter because Carstarphen – as Austin's first black and female school superintendent -- can still confront messy problems that Austin's guilt-ridden white liberals are reluctant to face head-on. And if black and Hispanic students keep failing, well, the fact that it happened on Carstarphen's watch lets Austin's liberal political class off the hook.
Carstarphen, 39, is earning $275,000 annually, and if she improves Austin's troubled schools she'll get a bonus of up to $25,000.
Interestingly, the Texas Declaration of Independence of 1836 stated that one reason for severing ties with Mexico was its failure "to establish any public system of education, although possessed of almost boundless resources."
Today, boundless resources may not be enough to undo the culture of failure persisting among low-income Hispanic and black students. To earn her $25,000 bonus, Superintendent Carstarphen clearly has much work to do.
This was originally published at The American Thinker and later at FrontPage Magazine.