TUSCALOOSA LIBERALS: A puzzle emerges!


Part 4—The Atlantic finesses the gap: A puzzle emerges in The Atlantic’s portrait of D’Leisha Dent.

Dent is president of the senior class at Tuscaloosa’s Central High School. She’s one of seventeen students in Central High’s Advanced Placement English class.

According to journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, Dent is “an honors student since middle school” who “excels in school” and has engaged in “touch honors coursework.”

There’s a lot more to say about Dent, who seems to be a superlative young person. Last fall, she was Central High’s homecoming queen. She’s also a three-time individual state champion in track. She’s a member of the mayor’s youth council.

Here’s the puzzle:

The honors student who excels in school keeps scoring around the twentieth percentile on the ACT. On that basis, it looks like Dent won’t be able to attend a four-year college, despite the fact that she’s president of her senior class and a state champion athlete.

An honors student who excels in school can’t get into college! In our view, Hannah-Jones finesses this puzzle all through her 9900-word report.

What do we mean when we say that Hannah-Jones has finessed her report? When we say her report is structured in a way to please us lazy, uncaring liberals?

More to the point, how should sensible people resolve the puzzle we’ve just described, in which an honors student who excels in school can’t get a nibble from a four-year college?

To resolve that puzzle, let’s consider the way Hannah-Jones describes a series of Tuscaloosa high schools in her three-generation profile of D’Leisha Dent’s family. That progression starts with James Dent.

D’Leisha Dent’s grandfather, James Dent, graduated from Tuscaloosa’s Druid High School in 1968. At that time, Tuscaloosa still hadn’t dismantled its dual school system in the wake of the 1954 Brown decision.

Druid High School was the school for Tuscaloosa’s black kids.

As she describes Druid High, Hannah-Jones seems to tell two stories at once. We’d say the finessing starts:
HANNAH-JONES (4/16/14): By the time he started his freshman year in high school, in 1964, a full decade after Brown, just 2.3 percent of the nearly 3 million school-aged black children in the old Confederate South attended school alongside white children. None of those children lived in Tuscaloosa. At Dent’s school, Druid High, students learned from hand-me-down textbooks and lagged behind their white counterparts on achievement tests. The curriculum pushed students toward learning a trade instead of preparing for college.

Even so, Dent’s experience at Druid reveals a truth often lost in the history of school integration. Though its resources were not as rich as those of the all-white Tuscaloosa High, Druid was a source of pride within the city’s black community. Its students soaked up lessons from a committed staff of all-black teachers, many of whom were exceptionally talented, in part because teaching was among the only professional careers open to black southerners at the time. What the school lacked in racial diversity, it made up for in economic variety: the children of domestic workers walked the halls with the children of college professors. Condoleezza Rice was one of Dent’s schoolmates.

McDonald Hughes, Druid’s tall, stern principal, instilled a sense of discipline and of possibility in his students. “He’d grab you by the shoulders,” Dent recalled with a laugh. “He wanted you to succeed.”
Did you follow that? The students at Druid High “learned from hand-me-down textbooks and lagged behind their white counterparts.” They were “pushed toward learning a trade instead of preparing for college.”

One paragraph later, they are “soak[ing] up lessons from a committed staff of all-black teachers, many of whom were exceptionally talented.”

There’s no direct “contradiction” there. Technically, all those claims can be true.

We have no doubt that there were superb teachers at Druid High, in part for the reason Hannah-Jones states. (At one time, the teaching staff included Condoleezza Rice’s mother.) We have no doubt that students like Rice “soaked up lessons” from these teachers, though Rice’s family fled to Denver early in her high school years. (She graduated from St. Mary’s Academy, an all-girls Catholic school.)

In that passage, Hannah-Jones tells a familiar, accurate story about black education during the era of legal segregation. In essence, it’s the story of the “talented tenth,” the famous group which saved literacy within the black community during the many long years (during the centuries) when the majority culture was trying to stamp it out.

Even so, the story of a talented tenth omits ninety percent of the tale. In this case, Hannah-Jones makes no real attempt to describe what life was like for the average kid at Druid High—for students like James Dent.

How far behind did those students “lag” under the weight of centuries of educational oppression? All through her 9900-word sponge bath, Hannah-Jones seems determined to keep us from wondering or finding out.

James Dent, a superlative person, graduated from Druid High in 1968, then went to Vietnam. Two decades later, his daughter, Melissa Dent, had a very different high school experience.

By now, Tuscaloosa had completely merged its black and white high schools. Melissa Dent attended the new Central High, the city’s sole public high school.

Every kid in the city went there, black as well as white. In principle, that was a great, good idea.

In line with that obvious fact, Hannah-Jones pours on the praise for that version of Central High. Once again, we think we see her finessing things a bit. She’s telling two stories at once:
HANNAH-JONES: In the fall of 1979, Central High School opened to serve all public-high-school students in the district—no matter their race, no matter whether they lived in the city’s public-housing projects or in one of the mansions along the meandering Black Warrior River. The mega-school, a creative solution to a complex problem…was spread across two campuses—ninth- and 10th-graders at the former black high school, now called Central West; 11th- and 12th-graders at the old white high school, called Central East.


Over the years, Central racked up debate-team championships. Its math team dominated at state competitions. The cheerleaders tumbled their way to nationals, and the Falcons football team trounced local competitors so badly, some refused to play against it. Central students were regularly named National Merit Scholars. In 2001, the state found Central’s projected dropout rate to be less than half Alabama’s average.

“Central and its resources could reach any child,” said Robert Coates, a former principal of the school.

The school was hardly perfect. Black students were disproportionately funneled into vocational classes, and white students into honors classes. Some parents complained that competitive opportunities were limited to just the very best students and athletes because the school, at 2,300 students, was so large. And the white flight that had begun when the courts first ordered the district to desegregate continued, slowly, after the formation of the mega-school. But despite these challenges, large numbers of black students studied the same robust curriculum as white students, and students of both races mixed peacefully and thrived.
Could that earlier version of Central High really “reach any child?” Principals will always say such things. Journalists will always quote them.

That said, Hannah-Jones never tells us how many black students “studied the same robust curriculum as white students” during that era at Central High. Tacking in the opposite direction, she also says that the school was “funneling” black kids away from honors classes during this era.

Rather plainly, she suggests the school was doing this “funneling” on an inappropriate basis. She offers no evidence that this was the case, but she lets us picture the worst, as we “Tuscaloosa liberals” very much enjoy doing.

Most repellently, Hannah-Jones never tells us who was winning those debate and math team championships at Central High. She never tells us who was winning those National Merit scholarships, or even how many there actually were relative to Central’s size.

Instead, she lets us imagine the best about the wondrous school which was winning football games and debate trophies. Some of us then clip passages from her portrait and repeat her happy-talk portrait of Central High.

Central High “was not a bad school,” we tell our progressive readers. “On the contrary, it was renowned for its football team as well its debate team.”

News flash: A large school can have a top debate team and still be a lousy school. Question:

Aside from the large student population which helped it dominate on the gridiron, is it true that Central High was a good school in that era? If so, how good was it?

By that, we mean the following:

How good a job did Central High do with its many students, black and white, who came from low-income, low-literacy backgrounds? How good a job did Central do with its black kids who weren’t the daughters of professors, as Condoleezza Rice was—who weren’t the talented tenth?

In fairness, Hannah-Jones probably has no way to answer that question. That said, she largely finesses this basic point, no matter which high school or which era she is discussing.

Today, D’Leisha Dent, a superlative kid, attends a Central High which is quite different from the citywide mega-school her mother attended.

Today, Central High is all black (overall, Tuscaloosa’s student population is about twenty percent white). According to Hannah-Jones, its boundaries have been drawn, and sometimes baldly gerrymandered, to make it the high school for Tuscaloosa’s poor black kids.

Even as she draws this portrait, Hannah-Jones maintains the happy talk. D’Leisha Dent, who “excels in school,” has engaged in “tough honors coursework,” we are pleasingly told.

It’s only at the very end of Hannah-Jones’ long report that we learn about Dent’s failure to produce a college-ready ACT score, despite her multiple efforts and her desire to succeed. In deference to our cluelessness, Hannah-Jones never raises a fairly obvious question:

Should D’Leisha Dent have been enrolled in an AP course at all? By normal standards, did this superb young person actually quality for “tough honors coursework?”

Also this: Did any “tough honors coursework” actually occur in her AP class? Is it possible that this was an Advanced Placement course in name only?

Another obvious question is skipped as Hannah-Jones finesses basic facts. To formulate that question, we need to return to her portrait of today’s Central High School.

In the year 2000, the Tuscaloosa school board voted to end the arrangement in which Central High was the city’s sole high school. Instead, the board decided to establish three smaller high schools.

Two of the schools, Northridge and Bryant, would be majority black. Today, the smaller, reconfigured Central High is all black.

D’Leisha Dent attends the version of Central High created by this new plan. At one point, Hannah-Jones offers a familiar portrait:
HANNAH-JONES: The night the Tuscaloosa school board voted to split up the old Central, board member Bryan Chandler pledged that there would be no winners and losers. Yet while [the new] Northridge [High School] offered students a dozen Advanced Placement classes, the new Central went at least five years without a single one. Journalism awards stretch wall to wall in Northridge’s newspaper classroom, but for the better part of a decade, Central students didn’t have a school newspaper or a yearbook. Until last year, Central didn’t even offer physics.
We are supposed to be angry as we read about the previous lack of AP courses at Central. As always, this makes us feel good.

A truly horrible question isn’t supposed to enter our heads: By normal standards, how many students at Central High actually quality for such courses? In a piece which runs 10,000 words, Hannah-Jones evades and finesses such basic, uncomfortable questions again and again and again.

In fairness, Hannah-Jones didn’t invent this familiar practice, which serves to keep us, the nation’s liberals, feeling good about ourselves. Our journalists have finessed such questions for decades now. They finesse such questions in their sleep, the way other life forms breathe.

This conduct is designed to please liberals and mainstreamers. In our view, this conduct tends to be very unhelpful for superlative kids like Dent.

Tomorrow: The superintendent’s tale


  1. Well it only took three more "Parts" to get to affirm this exchange among commenters in Part 1

    "I would like to know whether black students learned more during Central High's integrated period than they do now. The article could be read to support that. It says: Central emerged as a powerhouse that snatched up National Merit Scholarships and math-competition victories... However, without knowing the race and financial background of the students who won these awards, the reader cannot tell whether poor black students are doing worse today than they did during the period of integration." David in Cal

    "Indeed. And there is probably no way to ever know, DinC.
    Nor is there any way to know if anyone will misinterpret the article the way Somerby suggests a "northern liberal" might.

    In fact the only misinterpretations I have seen are from Somerby readers." Anonymous

    1. Are questions "misinterpretations"? Is it really a misinterpretation when readers respond in the way they've been led to do by the author?

    2. IMHO, not necessarily. That said, perhaps so.

  2. Perhaps these uncomfortable questions are arising because the article is focusing on what happens at the end of the K-12 sequence, instead of the beginning. Last night, CBS reported the 12th grade NAEP scores but said nothing bout the 4th and 8th grade scores. The 12th grade scores are a measure of what was happening a dozen years ago, not recent performance by teachers and schools. Similarly, Dent's difficulties probably go back to the organization of her school district and the quality of instruction way before the current situation.

    Just as there are pleasing stories being told by Hannah-Jones, there are also pleasing assumptions that conservatives leap to, such as that poor black children do not have the capacity to benefit from instruction, that they cannot learn, that liberal interventions such as preschool do no good. That is why these horrible questions are not asked -- because it gives permission to racist explanations for racial disparities. If you want to discuss these questions, you will need to supply the reasons why such explanations are incorrect or no one will go there.

    1. there are also pleasing assumptions that conservatives leap to, such as that poor black children do not have the capacity to benefit from instruction, that they cannot learn, that liberal interventions such as preschool do no good.

      Or that their parents are irresponsible and a significant contributor to that fact is government. Progressives don't wish to invite that criticism because it can't be argued against with anything but R-bombs.

  3. Not to quibble, but I have questions about the quality of your quantification. How many words were in this article?

  4. Rubber, meet road.
    Shit, hit fan.
    Puzzle, be solved.
    Lazy liberals, be pleased.

  5. (She graduated from St. Mary’s Academy, an all-girls Catholic school.)

    Twice as many graduates of Catholic high schools go on to complete college, and Catholic high schools are funded at half the rate per student per year of public high schools.

    One might find some answers to what went wrong for this motivated young lady if one considers the differences between Catholic high schools and public high schools, and the differences between the numbers of parents involved in the respective students' lives, and their level of involvement.

    Although it could be racist to contemplate those factors.

    1. That or she could be Protestant. Twice as many of them go to Hell as Catholics, but not nearly as many wind up in Purgatory.

    2. The outcomes for students attending non-Catholic private schools are also much better than those attending public schools.

    3. When you cherry-pick students it is easy to produce better outcomes.

    4. Catholic school admissions policy is to accept any student whose educational needs may be served and in the case of high schools specifically, who has completed eighth grade.

    5. Catholic schools admit children who can pay tuition (which limits the pool) and they are able to kick out students who do not do well (which limits the pool). They can define a group of students whose needs they are unable to serve and then exclude them. Public schools cannot do that. That is cherry-picking.

    6. Catholic schools do not kick out students who are not doing well. Their parents will make that decision rather than continuing to spend $7,000-$15,000 a year on high school tuition that isn't working. And that tuition creeps up every year, reaching the point by now that it is excluding many middle class families.

      But comparing Catholic and other private schools to "public schools" lumped into one huge category is a fool's errand.

      First off, private schools don't have expenses that public schools are mandated to have -- one of the largest being bus transportation which is a huge expense. Plus, they are not mandated to have "special education" for children with special needs.

      Catholic schools also pay their teachers far less than public school systems, and they have a devil of a time (excuse the pun) retaining math and science teachers, especially at the high school level as a result.

      You might have a better comparison with suburban public high schools as far as outcomes, and as a parent of a Catholic high school alumna who has competed in speech throughout her high school and collegiate career, I can assure you that that public schools -- especially the well-funded schools in the suburbs -- are turning out outstanding students.

  6. There are many who believe discipline in the classroom is very important. It may well be the case that minority students fare better in Catholic schools because discipline there tends to be better than in typical public schools with high black enrollment. To be clear, I'm saying that many of these schools tolerate disruptive students to a greater degree than is tolerated in Parochial schools. IMHO teachers are often forced to tolerate such students because of policies that follow liberal educational theory.

    1. You were doing fine until you got to "follow liberal educational theory." Are you overlooking that public education is supported by taxes and that participation in education is a right in our society that cannot be denied to children because they misbehave? It is democracy, not liberal theory, that requires that ALL children be educated. There are court cases that dictate this, not liberal professors.

      A disruptive child is often a child whose educational needs are not being met. You cannot just label children disruptive and kick them out without first trying to diagnose why the child is being disruptive.

    2. By "discipline," conservatives tend to mean punishment. Teachers think of discipline as effective classroom management. I think conservatives look at the latter and get confused because they don't see anything they recognize as old-style discipline and then they conclude that the class is not being taught properly. Punishment has serious liabilities that interfere with learning and it is good that it is absent in most classrooms these days.

      When you kick a disruptive child out of a classroom, how does that child get educated? I think those teachers with disruptive kids are trying to figure out how to teach such kids, not how to tolerate them. No child goes to school to be tolerated.

    3. Yes, 6:12 and 6:04. You both have a point OTOH when you let disruptive children remain in the classroom, how do the other children get educated?

    4. You were doing fine until you got to "[t]here are many who believe ...."

    5. You talk about disruptive children as if disruptiveness were part of their nature not a symptom that something is wrong, as if some kids are and others are not disruptive. Disruptiveness is a behavior, not a trait or characteristic inherent to a particular child. Any child may or may not be disruptive under certain circumstances. You figure out why a child is disruptive and deal with it and then that child is not disruptive. If you manage the class room and attend to the needs of kids, fewer of them will be disruptive at any given point. Helping disruptive kids be less discruptive IS education. Kids get educated when teachers have the training, a manageable class size, resources (including aides) and the ability to meet the needs of the kids assigned to them (whether special ed or regular classroom). The idea that education will improve if you kick out all the bad kids may work, but you are not educating kids that way, just achieving higher test scores. Kids that get kicked out of school don't participate as citizens of society and become criminals and other sorts of problems to us all down the road. It is better to help them succeed by dealining with the learning difficulties early on.

    6. Kick the disruptive students out of the classroom and put them in a "special" classroom or school. The liberal philosophy of let the delinquent and poorly raised kids drag all the rest down because "racism" is insane.

      Another difference with private school is cultural expectations. The same kid who would be a discipline problem in a public school will not be one in a school in which the expectation alone is different. These expectations start and home and are reinforced at school. They neither exist in the homes of many nor are they reinforced in their public schools. Instead, progressives make excuses for lousy parents, absence of standard of expectation, and delinquent behavior.

  7. Interesting essay, somewhat related topic:

    I Don’t Need Affirmative Action To Succeed – And Neither Do You

    When America was still a deeply prejudiced nation, African Americans needed affirmative action to ensure they wouldn’t be passed over for positions or rejected from schools simply because of their race. However, today we live in a society where political correctness doesn’t let us acknowledge the progress that has been made since then, lest we think we live in a “post-racial” society.

    While I’ve never thought that, I do think we have reached the point where we can scale back laws demanding racial quotas. I have a hard time understanding why working to get rid of racial quotas is a step backward. If anything – it’s a step forward – because it acknowledges that, in a country where there are black professionals in every arena, as well as a black president in his second term, America is moving leaps and bounds ahead of its deeply racist past.

    1. Yeah, Crystal Hill, the author of this piece in yet another right-wing campus rag, don't need no stinkin' affirmative action because

      I come from a middle-class background, and have had chances and opportunities that many of my white peers from lower socio-economic backgrounds haven’t had. I would be dishonest to pretend that I was somehow less privileged than them, when I have been able to advance because of the opportunities given to me, some deserved and undeserved.

      And, hey, if she's from a middle-class background and received advancement because of her opportunities, earned and unearned, then you must be the same.

      By the way, as irritating as the blithe self-assurance of these baby right-wingers is, I find their shear careless ignorance worse. Here's Crystals lede: "The Supreme Court recently ruled affirmative action is unconstitutional."

      Er, no.

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  10. There are lots of that think self-discipline within the class is essential. This could function as the situation which group college students cost much better within Catholic colleges simply because self-discipline presently there is commonly much better than within standard open public colleges along with higher dark registration.

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