The September 2005 issue of Physics Today (page 54) carried Fred Jerome’s Opinion piece, “Einstein and Racism in America.” Jerome relates the experience of a young African American PhD recipient who was ignored while waiting for a job interview, and expresses disappointment with assumptions made about minority applicants for academic jobs in physics. Later, the writer refers to “racial tracking in the public school system.”

That last phrase struck me forcefully, because I have never seen such tracking in Fairfax County, Virginia. Students are not assigned to a school or class because of their color; the “tracking” is geographical, and the high schools south of the Beltway have the worst problems.

If 30% of the students in a given county are black, and 70% of discipline problems are among black students, what is going on? If racial equality truly exists, then 30% of the students should give rise to 30% of the discipline problems. Likewise, if 30% of an area’s population is black, then I would expect 30% of that area’s physics PhDs to be black. I did not understand why that is not the case until I saw the behavior of too many black students in the public schools. That behavior leads them away from academic strength, and when members of one ethnic group fall out of the academic pipeline in their teens, the effect shows up at the advanced levels.

One gauge for measuring the disciplinary problems is to interview public-high-school teachers—particularly substitute teachers, who have tried to follow lesson plans in many different schools and are tempting targets for students yearning to be disruptive. Ask substitutes what kind of student, in their experience, is most likely to be loud, to engage in social interaction instead of following the lesson plan, to show the greatest disregard for the rules, and to do the least work.

For the past five years, I have been a substitute teacher in all the high schools of Fairfax County. I have observed student behavior before I open my mouth and after I have read the lesson plan to the class, and I have observed who turns in papers as directed. I know the trends with respect to minorities, and how those trends relate to geographical location in the county. Certainly trends have exceptions. But the trends cannot be ignored if a teacher’s or a district’s planning depends on them.

Science prompts the question “Why?” To answer, start with what you see and work backward. I suspect the answer is found in the student’s home. A student who is a high achiever is interested in working. If she is interested in working, she learned that at home. If so, she has caregivers who emphasize it and consistently supervise progress. The opposite situation is the young people you see out on the street at night looking for trouble, because their parents are afraid of them.

Certainly I want all people to have their track record evaluated with a color blind. And I would like to have experiences in the classroom that have no correlation with skin color. But I see trends too often to forget them, and political correctness is useful only for winning elections or grants. I meditate on what will happen later to young people who have so much disrespect for the opportunity that tax money affords them. And I don’t think expectations at the top will change until environments at the bottom change for the better, in many, many homes. Self discipline and concentration are foundations of scholarship.