Race is a bigger indicator of success than economic status in Lynchburg city schools, asserted Jay McClain, assistant superintendent for instruction, at a school board retreat yesterday. Even when controlling for economic disadvantage, white students show pass rates about 20 points higher than black students, he said, as reported by the Lynchburg News & Advance.
“This is really, really important information. People have often tried to use … poverty as a proxy for race, like saying the reason why there are racial differences is because of poverty, and therefore ignoring the importance of race,” school board member Regina Dolan-Sewell said. “And you’ve got the numbers right here saying … poverty matters, but race matters separate from poverty.”
“It’s not just poverty. Poverty’s huge, but this is so clear that it’s not just poverty, that…we are systemically funneling our children of color in a different direction,” said board member Jenny Poore. “You’re not guilty because you acknowledge it. … But if you don’t pay attention when you see a chart like this, then yeah, you are guilty.”
Sadly, Lynchburg is not an outlier. With a handful of minor exceptions, the phenomenon applies across the state. No one likes these statistics. All Virginians want to live in a society that gives every kid, regardless of background, a fair shot at succeeding in life. Broadly speaking, the questions are: What do we make of the racial disparity? And what do we do about it? Of the two questions, the first is the more important. Until we have an accurate diagnosis of why racial differences in school performance persist, we cannot hope to devise appropriate prescriptions.
No one disputes that performance on the Standards of Learning (SOL) pass rate at Virginia schools is heavily influenced by the socio-economic status of the families the students come from. Students from affluent backgrounds (as measured by their enrollment in free meals programs) tend to perform significantly better than their disadvantaged peers. Disadvantaged students, whose lives are in flux due to dysfunctional family situations, have an up-hill struggle for obvious reasons. But socio-economic status explains only half (in every rough terms) of the variability.
What other factors might create the racial disparity in educational performance? That’s where it gets tricky. The discussion quickly polarizes around liberal and conservative ideological views; partisan narratives trump rational debate. I will try to be as objective as I can. Here are some commonly touted explanations explaining the difference in performance between blacks, whites, Hispanics and Asians:
- Culture matters. Asian students consistently out-perform all other ethnic/racial groups, even when adjusted for socio-economic status, suggesting that something about Asian culture (the “tiger mom” phenomenon, perhaps) is the differentiating factor. Likewise, it can be argued, African-Americans have unique cultural attributes arising from a history of slavery, segregation, lingering discrimination in the post-segregation era, disproportionate exposure to the corrosive effects of the welfare state, disproportionate family breakdown, an assertion of black cultural identity, embrace of a culture of victimization, and concomitant rejection of “white” norms such as the emphasis on academic achievement.
- Institutional racism. While overt racism has largely gone underground, residual racism and “white privilege” persist in America’s institutional structures and subtle cultural stereotypes. Differences in academic performance can be attributed to such factors, say, as the fact that African-American students are disproportionately likely to be punished for school infractions, or the fact that black youth are disproportionately likely to be arrested for victimless crimes such as drug possession. Negative stereotypes may influence even well-meaning teachers to treat African-American students differently from their white and Asian peers.
- Better schools. A variant of the institutional racism explanation, this theory says that predominantly white schools have better principals and more seasoned teachers than predominantly African-American schools. The better teachers and administrators gravitate toward schools with students who pose fewer disciplinary problems, with the result that students of those schools benefit from superior instruction. Because those school populations are disproportionately white and Asian, those groups benefit from this trend.
The evidence is pretty persuasive that inspired teachers and administrators can make a difference. Insofar as the racial/ethnic gap in school performance can be attributed to school-related factors, improving the quality of instruction at black-majority schools is an appropriate focus of public policy. The question is how do we keep the better teachers and administrators in schools — particularly middle schools and high schools — where students are frequently disruptive, sometimes violent and often less receptive to learning? Do we pay teachers more? Do we open up the profession to less-credentialed teachers to apply? Do we weed out poor teachers more aggressively? Do we create better teaching conditions by enforcing stricter discipline and/or addressing the emotional needs of disruptive students? There are lots of theories, but nobody knows the answer. The optimum mix of policies is unlikely to come from a top-down solution devised by the educratic elite. It’s likely to bubble from the bottom-up as the result of widespread experimentation.
Even if we found the optimal mix of school policies, almost everyone agrees that there are limits to what schools can accomplish. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds come to Kindergarten less prepared than children from affluent backgrounds, and they tend to fall further behind over time. The liberal-progressive solution — the “hail Mary” solution progressives pray will work when all other nostrums have failed — is to level the playing field by introducing universal pre-K for four-year-olds in programs like Head Start. While some experiments with pre-K have have proved positive, they typically required an intensity of resources that Virginia schools systems cannot remotely afford. Meanwhile, other studies have demonstrated that the effects of pre-K are fleeting. A carefully constructed study by Vanderbilt University (funded by the federal government, not the Koch Brothers) found:
At the end of first grade, there were no statistically significant differences between [Tennessee Voluntary Prekindergarten Program) participants and nonparticipants on the WJ measures with one exception. There was a significant difference that favored the nonparticipant group on the Quantitative Concepts subscale.
In other words, the pre-K students ended up worse off! Oops. The findings of this study were consistent with many others.
Where does that leave us? I think we need to have realistic attitudes about what public policy can accomplish. We can improve educational performance on the margins by learning what works from the best-performing schools and applying the lessons to under-performing schools. We can support programs like Communities in Schools that tap government and not-for-profit resources to help children and their families cope with homelessness, hunger, mental illness, substance abuse and domestic violence. And we can work to minimize the disruptive and violent behavior of students who undermine the learning experience of the majority. I think these strategies can make a difference, but I am not confident that they will close the racial gap.
Beyond those measures, we should give a ticket out of under-performing public schools for children whose families are motivated to get them something better. That means doing something that the ossified educational establishment of Virginia has been utterly unwilling to consider: Create more charter schools and use vouchers to give poor families the purchasing power to seek educational alternatives. If you want to talk about institutional racism, consigning children from poor, African-American families to failing schools is the worst institutional racism of all.
(Hat tip: Jim Weigand.)There are currently 1 comments highlighted: 117858.