African Americans at Sidwell Friends

I have now had word from Ellis Turner, the Associate Head of Sidwell Friends School, with further information on the racial composition of the school. He reports that 12.8% of his students are African-American. But when we compare this percentage with US Census figures for the District of Columbia, where 55.4% of the population is Black, we can see that African Americans at Sidwell are not doing well — they have less than a quarter of what their share would be if the student body were representative of the District.

Mr. Turner also reports that a further 13.2% of the student body reports itself as “multi-racial” (the Census figure is 1.5% for multi-racial in the District). The significance of this figure is not clear to me, and, unlike Mr. Turner, I cannot see that it mitigates the very low African American presence at the school.

Moreover, given this low African American presence, I must repeat that the only figure published by the school for “students of color” on its website — 39% — is misleading.

Finally, Mr. Turner has taken me to task for my suggestions that Sidwell share some of its resources with the public. I have made these suggestions for two reasons: 1) Like all non-profits, Sidwell is the recipient of significant public financial aid by way of tax benefits; and 2), more important, such sharing is required by the professed values of the school. Here are Mr. Turner’s comments:

Further, you make an erroneous assumption in stating that we do not
“share some of your resources with the public, especially with those
children who have no hope of ever attending your school.” We have many programs and co-sponsored activities which do just that.

Please investigate before you publish.

I have invited Mr. Turner to let me have details on these programs and co-sponsored activities, and I will put them on my blog as soon as I receive them. It would indeed be good if there could be a public discussion of what SFS does to share its bounties.

Three Athletic Fields, Five Tennis Courts, and a Six-Lane Track

Facilities on the fifteen-acre Wisconsin Avenue campus … include the Earl G. Harrison, Jr. Upper School Building; the Middle School Building; Kogod Center for the Arts; Richard Walter Goldman Memorial Library; Zartman House … three athletic fields including one with all-weather turf surface; five tennis courts; and a six-lane track.

The five-acre Edgemoor Lane campus in Bethesda includes the Manor House … and athletic fields and two playground areas with climbing equipment.

So who wouldn’t want to go to Sidwell Friends School in Washington, the new center of learning for the Obama girls ? Can you imagine, three athletic fields, and all those tennis courts, and six whole lanes of track ? Or rather, who couldn’t go …

For starters, those not judged “academically talented” cannot go. The school says as much. Moreover, there is a requirement to submit to intelligence tests as part of the application process: the WPPSI, the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence for the youngest, then the WISC (Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children), and then on to the SSAT, etc. etc. Sidwell demands (conventionally defined) intelligence and rejects those who do not perform well on standard tests. What of the “Quaker values” of the school, proclaimed on its website, that would require a more egalitarian approach ?

The Quaker belief that there is “that of God” in each of us shapes everything we do at Sidwell Friends School. It inspires us to show kindness and respect toward one another. It motivates us to recognize and nurture each person’s unique gifts. It teaches us to apply our talents in service to others and to work courageously for peace.

So there is a disjunction between what is professed (egalitarianism) and what is practiced.

The (in my view) immoral notion that power and the good things of the world should be distributed unevenly to those judged to have “merit” — i.e. the advocacy of a “meritocracy” — was savagely satirized by the most profound sociologist I ever met, the late Michael Young, in his widely quoted but rarely appreciated “The Rise of the Meritocracy,” 1958. Forty three years later he revisited the topic in an op-ed piece, Down With Meritocracy.”

Back to the Sidwell Friends School admissions. Doing well on conventional tests is a hurdle, but, so it would seem, is money. It costs around $30,000 in tuition and fees, and even those who have benefited from financial aid, roughly a third of the student body, still pay an average of $10,000 per annum.

Finally we come to the problem of the race of the students. Does it matter ? Well, according to the professed “Quaker values” all races should have equal access to all those athletic fields and tennis courts. The school prides itself on its “diversity,” and has in fact appointed a number of “diversity coordinators” (at least one of whom has a Ph.D.). But in fact the school equivocates more than a little on how racially diverse it is.

We are told on its website that “39% of the student body [2008-9] are students of color.” “Of color” is not a census term, so it’s a little difficult to evaluate exactly what it means. We do know that the US Census reports the current population of D.C. as being 34.5% White, and 63.6% as belonging to other races. So, as a first approximation, we know that a white child has almost twice the chance (1.76 times) of going to Sidwell as someone “of color.”

But what exactly does “of color” mean in the Sidwell context ? The Census categories are white, black (African American), Asian, and “other races.” Now there is a world of difference, from the point of view of educational opportunities, between African Americans on the one hand and Asians on the other. I would suspect that Sidwell’s “students of color” include Asians and children of diplomats, among others. To know just what Sidwell’s profession of diversity means in practice, we would need to know the percentage of African Americans in its student body. I have written to Sidwell’s administration and my inquiry was duly acknowledged, but I have not yet received the figures. If and when I do, I will report them here.

A Modest Proposal for the Sidwell Friends School

The Sidwell Friends School in Washington is in the news: once more, important and powerful people are sending their children there. It is by all accounts an excellent school. It has the resources to assure the best in teachers, in equipment, in curriculum, and in caring parents. In all these areas Sidwell, like other such private schools in the District, stands in sharp contrast to the public schools of the nation’s capital. These are struggling, and, the affluent and influential having deserted them, are now ghettos for the non-white and non-privileged.

Like other non-profit institutions, Sidwell would be exempt from local taxes, and contributions to Sidwell would be deductible from income taxes. So taxpayers, including the poor who cannot afford to send their children there, are nevertheless asked to pay for some of its costs.

But many of Sidwell’s parents are on record for improving the lives of the poor. This is certainly true of the powerful politicians that are now preparing to send their little ones to Sidwell in the coming year. Sidwell’s own Board of Trustees has voiced similar sentiments:

We cultivate in all members of our community high personal expectations and integrity, respect for consensus, and an understanding of how diversity enriches us, why stewardship of the natural world matters and why service to others enhances life

It isn’t cheap to go to Sidwell, in fact it’s downright expensive. Tuition and fees come to over $30,000 per child per year (with twenty-two percent of the student body receiving some degree of financial aid). At these prices, “service to others” means, primarily, others who are well off.

And here is another disquieting thing about the Sidwell philosophy:

We seek academically talented students of diverse cultural, racial, religious and economic backgrounds.

Those who are not “academically talented,” whatever that term may mean, what are those students, chopped liver ? Is that the meaning of the “Quaker way” that is so proudly touted by Sidwell ?

In other words, there is a bit, more than a bit, of a disjunction between the high-minded sentiments of parents and Board on the one hand, and the elitist nature of the program on the other. It doesn’t look good.

But wait… this blog has some solutions.

Sidwell and its parents have tremendous resources that they could make available, to some extent at least, to that vast majority of District children who have no hope of ever becoming Sidwell students. Here are some ideas, submitted with all the humility for which this blog has become justly famous:

● Sidwell parents could be asked to make financial contributions to enrichment programs at the public schools. Whenever a Sidwell parent makes a tuition payment, a “Service to Others” (STO) surcharge could be added.

● At least some of Sidwell’s resources could be made available to all students in the District. Perhaps there could be classes in art appreciation, or college-entrance preparation, or music, or whatever, free of charge to all children. Perhaps the STO funds could be used for these services.

● Some of Sidwell’s parents command considerable venues on their own. The White House itself will soon be one. Perhaps such facilities could be used for regular enrichment programs for all of the District’s children.

P.S.: How many of the Sidwell folk can be found in this part of Washington ?

How the Jews Voted: Exactly 78 Percent for Obama ?

Hasidim of Brooklyn: Strongly for McCain
photo by wayupnorthtonowhere
Upper Westside: Probably Obama Country
photo by Ed Yourdon

My friend was an Obama supporter. “Seventy-eight percent of the Jews,” he told me, “voted like me.” How did he know, how does anybody know anything ? The New York Times. Of course. All the news that’s fit to print.

Nobody in authority asked me my religion when I voted. That doesn’t happen, and if it did it would be illegal. But it appears that there are “exit polls” in which professional pollsters place themselves in front of polling places and importune voters who have just voted. I myself have never encountered such a pollster in more than 60 years of voting, but I have been told that this is, roughly, how the conversation goes:

Sir, would you mind telling me for whom you have just voted ? Thank you so much. Just a few more questions …. years of education ?, occupation ?, etc. etc., and yes, “religious preference.” And then of course there is a quick peek to ascertain race.

As a result of such exit polling, we have information on a national scale that has been shown to be more-or-less accurate for the broad demographic groups. We know that McCain, like Bush before him, received a convincing majority of the white vote. And, this time round, we know that Black people voted Obama in overwhelming numbers. The same reports that tell us these well-established things also purport to tell us about the Jewish vote: 78% for Obama. The trouble is that unlike the large demographic groups, the small minority of Jews in this country (between one and two percent of the population) make any such precision illusory.

The New York Times, for example, carried a report on the exit poll that was conducted by Edison/Mitofsky on November 4. It seems that 17,224 voters, at 300 polling places nationwide, were interviewed that day by E/M. Among these there were about 350 Jews, of whom 78%, or about 270, said that they had voted Obama, with almost all the rest having voted McCain.

To what extent can these 350 individuals be said to be representative of the American Jewish electorate ?

The sample of 300 polling places, or about 5 per state, represents about one quarter of one percent of the nation’s voting districts. It was drawn as a random sample of all the nation’s districts, and, for purposes of the larger population, can yield reliable results. But to accept its validity as representative of the Jewish population, we have to assume that the Jews of the country (roughly one or two percent of the population) are randomly distributed, more or less, over all the voting districts, all over the country. The proportionate size of the Jewish communities of Williamsburg and Borough Park would have to be similar to those of Idaho and Utah. If that assumption does not hold, there is no validity in the result. (There are statistical techniques — oversampling — used for the larger minorities, to correct for some of these problems. There is no indication that such techniques have been used for the Jewish population. I have written to Edison/Mitofsky to get details of their methods, but so far I have had no reply.)

The Brooklyn Paper has reported overwhelming support for McCain in Hasidic neighborhoods. No doubt there was heavy support for Obama on the Upper West side. The Jews of Wyoming, Idaho, Utah ? It is doubtful that the national pollsters ever encounter any of these at all. A valid sample of the American Jewish electorate would have to encompass such diversity. A national sample of all American voters, if it is of practicable size and complexity, cannot do this.

These exit polls almost certainly overstate the extent of Jewish support for Obama, for this reason: since they are based on methods that seek to create representative samples of the American population as a whole, they may do an adequate job of reaching Jews who are well dispersed in that population. But they cannot adequately reach those dense pockets of Jewish population that consist, to a large extent, of Orthodox Jews. And it is probable that these Orthodox pockets were much more favorable to McCain.

Did the Jews generally favor Obama over McCain ? Probably yes. But to the extent of 78 % ? Not likely.