Paying for the hard bigotry of no expectations

October 15, 2005|By GREGORY KANE

How high do you think Fantasia Barrino's "self-esteem" is now?

Ms. Barrino - simply "Fantasia" to her cult of adoring fans - won the American Idol competition two years ago. Since then she has had several hit records and achieved superstar status.

Alas, one of those songs was called "Baby Mama," Fantasia's paean to single mothers.

That included those single mothers who are divorced or widowed. It includes those single mothers who are being good mommies and are involved with their children's education and crack the whip whenever the young 'uns get out of line.

It also includes those single mothers who live for dysfunction and irresponsibility. Fantasia made no distinction between the two types of "baby mamas" in her song.

Included in the ranks of "baby mamas" at one time was Dr. Benjamin Carson's mother, who, though illiterate, saw to it that her two sons could read and write. Fantasia's mother, according to a report on the television show 20/20, can't read or write either.

Neither can Fantasia.

That fact was also revealed on the 20/20 segment. Fantasia dropped out of school in her hometown of High Point, N.C., virtually illiterate. Before she auditioned to be on American Idol, she had never worked a day in her life. She couldn't, what with some picky employers demanding a literate work force and all.

Fantasia acknowledged that she faked her way through American Idol auditions, pretending to merely mispronounce lyrics on the teleprompter for songs she didn't know. There was no problem, of course, for the songs she did know. Fantasia had already memorized the lyrics.

She had to do the same thing when it came time to sing "Summertime," a song she didn't know at all. You have to admit, it was quite a feat of both legerdemain and thinking on your feet, which proves Fantasia had the intelligence to read and write all along.

How, then, was she illiterate when she dropped out of school?

Through the courtesy of our good old friend social promotion, that's how. At least that's how one North Carolina resident saw it.

Last week, I spent three days in Greensboro, N.C., which is right next door to Fantasia's hometown. I talked to a young man, a North Carolina native, who attends North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. How, I asked him, could Fantasia drop out of school not knowing how to read or write at all? Are High Point's schools that bad?

"They just keep passing you from grade to grade," the young man told me. Students get passed whether their reading, writing and math is up to grade level or not. Sound familiar?

It should. We have a social promotion problem of our own.

Let's go back five years. Honchos in the Baltimore school system boldly proclaimed that social promotions were dead. No longer would students pass to the next grade if they didn't meet performance standards for the previous grade.

It took exactly three years for Baltimore school muckety-mucks to wimp out. In the summer of 2003, they backpedaled from the "no more social promotion" policy faster than Gene Tunney backpedaled after Jack Dempsey put him down for The Long Count.

What was the reason for abandoning the no-social-promotion policy? Our peerless leaders - peerless because there's not another group like them, and other school systems should be thankful for that - discovered that the policy meant not only that some students would have to repeat a grade once.

They might have to repeat a grade - horror of horrors! - twice. Oh, the humanity!

So rather than hold students back a second time, school officials promoted them. But they had a plan. Because the schools were unable to teach them what they were supposed to know in nine months, our leaders provided flunking students with summer learning packets, so they could master the material in a mere six weeks.

So social promotion is now "in" again in Baltimore. Apparently, it never went out of vogue in High Point. What drives it?

It's what some conservatives have called "the soft bigotry of low expectations." It's more like the hard bigotry of no expectations. Most of Baltimore's students are black, as is Fantasia. Can you imagine officials in a predominantly white system tolerating the social promotion of thousands of white students?

There are a number of culprits responsible for this hard bigotry of no expectations, and black leaders aren't exempt. Black students are passed not knowing anything because some school leaders figure - correctly - that black leaders will accuse them of racism.

There's also what I call the self-esteem racket. Students are promoted without knowing anything because, some folks figure, flunking them will harm their self-esteem.

Fantasia said it hurts that she can't read to her daughter. How high do you think Ms. Barrino's self-esteem is now?

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