Shirley Malcolm never gives either of her children, ages 5 and 7, one pair of matching socks to wear. She gives them two or three pairs, all mixed up. She tells them to match them, then select a pair that harmonizes with their outfits. Why does she push her children through that exercise? It's a matter of basic learning habits, she says. ``Black children are not being taught to think. Hispanic children aren't learning to do for themselves. Minority children in America are falling farther and farther behind white children in achievement,'' she says.
A scientist as well as a homemaker, Dr. Malcolm was keynote speaker at a recent kickoff conference, ``Computers, Technology, and Issues of Equity,'' to set up a program to help Boston's minority students improve in school work and standardized tests.
``Education received by minority children is inappropriate for the high-technology era,'' says Dr. Malcolm, who directs the Office of Opportunity of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. ``The level of reading is [11- to 18-percent] below white achievements. Although more young people are graduating from high school, dropout rates are increasing among minority students. Fewer black students are attending college than 10 years ago.
``A program directed toward moving the education of minority children out of the Dark Ages is needed not only in Boston but in most black communities throughout the nation,'' Dr. Malcolm says.
``The reality is that blacks have a higher rate of unemployment and lower scores in achievement tests than whites,'' she says. Any program to motivate minority students to achieve should involve parents as well as experts in science and high technology, Dr. Malcolm adds.
She gives these statistics:
Black children score lower on reading tests than white children; and the older they get, the worse they score. Significant gains were made during the 1970s, but the gap between blacks and whites remains.
Black students are twice as likely as white students to quit school. The dropout rate is 25 percent for blacks 18 to 21; 40 percent of female dropouts cite pregnancy as the reason for leaving.
White students are 45 percent more likely to attend college than black high school graduates. (In 1977 black and white high school graduates attended college at the same rate.) Poverty eliminates many blacks: Only 18.8 percent of the poor enrolled in college, but 34 percent of blacks above the poverty level attended college in 1983.
``Americans in the underclass, regardless of race, don't take the courses in high school that prepare them for engineering, economics, and computer science,'' Dr. Malcolm says.
Two national agencies are speaking out, too.
Black children are ``sliding backwards,'' says a report, ``Black and White Children in America: Key Facts,'' published last May by the Children's Defense Fund, a child advocate organization.
``Creative remedies can reverse bleak trends,'' says an article in the September 1985 issue of Focus, the newsletter of the Joint Center for Political Studies, a black think tank.
``Facts and figures say Boston's black youth need help,'' says Ellen S. Jackson, dean of affirmative action at Northeastern University. She bases her comments on recent US Census Bureau statistics and a report, ``The Emerging Black Community of Boston,'' published by the Institute for the Study of Black Culture of the University of Massachusetts at Boston.
Boston blacks lag behind whites in income, employment, education (test scores and years of schooling), and housing, she says. A majority of black children live in single-parent, female-headed households, 70 percent of them below the poverty level.
``Putting computers in school is not enough,'' says Theresa Perry who codirects the Boston minority-student project. ``High-tech . . . must prepare black students to solve problems of every day living.''
``We ask you to lend your expertise to a two-year pilot project to bring black children into the mainstream of a high-technology and computer-intelligent world,'' E. L. Griffin, a consultant and project codirector with Dr. Perry, told those attending the conference.
Project goals are twofold, says Mr. Griffin:
To emerge with redesigned teaching practices, based on the idea that ``all children can learn.''
To provide black children with hands-on experiences in using high-tech resources.