Richmond’s Progressive Petri Dish…. Where Black Kids Are the Science Project

by James A. Bacon

One of the more interesting questions of 2019 is whether public figures like Governor Ralph Northam and Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras are more interested in striking poses that make them look enlightened on racial issues or in actually bettering the lives of African-Americans. In many cases, I would argue, progressive social policies are all about making educated elites feel righteous, not about the people they purport to help.

The latest example is a proposal under study by Richmond schools to “spread the cream,” so to speak — to distribute the relatively small percentage of white students among a larger number of of schools. The justification for scrapping the neighborhood-based school system, according to Kamras, is that “diverse” schools improve academic performance. The plan, he has said, “will provide academic and social benefits to all children of all backgrounds.”

But will it? Remarkably enough, that proposition can be tested with data from Richmond public schools. John Butcher, of Cranky’s Blog fame, has pulled Standards of Learning pass-rate data for white-majority Mary Munford Elementary and William Fox Elementary with that for two predominantly black elementary schools, Barack Obama Elementary and John B. Cary Elementary.(Cary would be merged with Munford under one of the proposals.)

Source: John Butcher

It turns out that economically disadvantaged black kids in the two black-majority schools pass their English and Math SOLs at higher rates than their peers in the white-majority schools. Same goes for those not economically disadvantaged. Believe it or not, black kids in Richmond appear to learn more when they aren’t around white kids.

Wait… What? How is such a thing possible? We’ve been told for so long that the separation of races in America’s public schools is a root cause of black academic under-performance. It is an article of faith among liberals and progressives. True, back in the Jim Crow days of “separate but equal,” black schools were never treated equally, at least not in terms of resources. But this is 2019, not 1959. Richmond schools spend significantly more per student than those of neighboring counties, and federal programs steer additional money to schools in poor neighborhoods.

One possible explanation for Butcher’s results lies in data I cited in yesterday’s blog post: “An Empirical Analysis of ‘Acting White,'” a 2005 paper by Roland G. Fryer Jr. and Paul Torellli published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The “acting white” phenomenon has generated considerable debate in social scientific circles. Many questions were unresolved as of 2005. Do black kids resent the academic achievement of their successful peers or resent their emulation of supposedly “white” behavior such as answering questions in class, taking advanced courses, and speaking with “proper” (as in white) diction. Scholars also proffer different models to explain the phenomenon. One is the “oppositional culture identity” model in which criticism of acting white is a response to white racism. The other is the “sabotage” model in which black students jealously sabotage their successful peers. Fryer and Torelli see the negative behavior as driven by peer group loyalty.

Regardless of the causes, there is ample evidence to suggest that the phenomenon is real. The authors summarize their findings this way:

We demonstrate that there are large racial differences in the relationship between popularity and academic achievement; our (albeit narrow) definition of ‘acting white.’ The effect is intensified among high achievers and in schools with more interracial contact, but non-existent among students in predominantly black schools or private schools.

Let me repeat that last phrase. The phenomenon is “non-existent among students in predominantly black schools or private schools.”

Source: John Butcher

Fryer and Torelli see the social punishing of black peers who “act white” as an adolescent behavior. It may or may not be a factor among pre-adolescents in elementary schools. I merely offer this as a possible explanation for Butcher’s data showing higher English and Math SOL pass rates for disadvantaged students in predominantly black schools.

There may be other explanations for Butcher’s counter-intuitive data. Perhaps the teaching styles of teachers at black schools are better geared toward black students than the teaching styles geared toward middle- and professional-class white kids at William Fox and Mary Munford. Perhaps federal assistance steered to poor schools provides more resources for the predominantly black schools. Those possibilities, too, are worth examining.

Whatever the reason for the discrepancy, Butcher’s data clearly contradicts the idea that black kids necessarily learn more when they’re around white kids. Fine-tuning the racial composition of Richmond schools for the purpose of improving the academic performance of black children is a highly risky proposition. Indeed, it could backfire. Richmond school board members need to decide if they want to make poor black kids the petri dish for a progressive social-engineering experiment. They need to choose: What’s more important, ideology or outcomes?

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14 responses to “Richmond’s Progressive Petri Dish…. Where Black Kids Are the Science Project

  1. Before commenting on this data, I need some clarification. First, are the pass rates shown for all students in those categories, or just the black students? Second, there are two bars for ED–one %ED and one is just plain ED. However, both are shown in %. What is the difference between these categories?

    • My understanding is that the pass rates are for all economically disadvantaged kids in those categories. The assumption here is that in the City of Richmond there are very few white “economically disadvantaged” kids, and that economic disadvantage in these particular schools applies mainly to black kids.

    • My take is that %ED describes the percentage of kids in a school who qualify as ED. ED is the percent who passed the tests. Not ED is the percentage of kids not categorized as ED who passed the tests.

  2. Jim. An idea ! Resegregation!

  3. Does any of this data take into account teachers “helping” kids to pass? Does the Mayor and Governor believe whites are smarter, and some will rub off on the blacks? Or is it about money, or lowering white scores? How many of these children are from two-parent families? You can’t just look at some data and make decisions. You have to look at all of it. You do make a point: elites always think they know best –and when they fail, it’s covered up and they invent a different problem.

  4. My instinct is that these results may not tell the story that is being assumed in this post. Munford and Fox are, first of all, majority white. Second, the ED% in those schools is much lower than in Obama and Cary, with the result that significantly fewer individuals are involved at Munford and Fox than at the two predominantly black schools. Therefore, a few poorly performing kids at Munford and Fox could have had a disproportionate effect on the passing percentage at those schools.
    I am not contending that these are not significant findings. They do seem to undercut the prevailing theory behind the rationale for redistricting the schools and the data should be investigated further. Recent research has indicated that the way economically disadvantaged kids fare in school is much more complicated than we thought years ago. There is the issue of peer pressure not to “act white” that Jim has raised. There is also evidence that black kids do better under black teachers than they do under white, middle-class teachers, another factor he mentioned.
    One factor lost in this discussion is that the passing rates for kids at Obama and Cary, for both ED and nonED, are higher than what I remember as the passing percentages for the system as a whole. So, something right must be going on at those schools and the school officials should be trying to find out that is.

  5. Dick, You are right, I could have done a better analysis. In the main post, I published a table showing disadvantaged and not-disadvantaged pass rates without regard to race/ethnicity. To make my point, I should have honed in on the SOL performance of black students. I wish I had. My argument would have been stronger.

    Courtesy of John Butcher again, here is the table showing SOL reading pass rates for black disadvantaged and not-disadvantaged students at all four schools.

    And the SOL math pass rates for black disadvantaged and not-disadvantaged students:

    The differences are astonishing. There can be no doubt that black kids had higher pass rates in the predominantly black schools. If Munford and Fox had white-kid stuff that rubbed off on black kids, or if “diversity” had some magical positive effect on everyone, we would expect to see higher pass rates for disadvantaged and not-disadvantaged black kids. We see just the opposite.

    These numbers demolish the idea that the rezoning of the four Richmond schools to “spread the cream” will have any beneficial impact on black kids, at least as judged by SOL pass rates.

  6. To answer your other question, Dick, yes, Barack Obama and John B. Cary are two of the top-performing elementary schools in the City of Richmond for black kids. Based on a quick eyeball of the data, it appears that black pass rates at most of the other elementary schools are roughly in line with Munford and Fox. There are a couple of real laggards, however, that dramatically under-perform everyone else.

    If Richmond school board officials are looking for the magic sauce, they’d be well advised to focus on Barack Obama and John B. Cary to see what they’re doing right.

  7. If you have a small number of ED (regardless of race) in a school where the teaching is keyed to non-ED kids – then the ED kids will not do as well. If you have a school with a lot of ED – it totally depends on what kinds of resources are made available. IN some schools with the right resources that are keyed to the ED needs – they can do well but if that school does not have the proper resources – the entire school will perform badly.

    The point here is that it’s not a binary thing. It’s more complex than that and those that are looking for simplistic answers are going to get those answers but they are wrong.

    If you want to understand -you have to do more than play with the data – and that goes back to whether you really are intersted in solutions or just who to blame.

  8. I just don’t think Butcher nor Jim are particularly interested in focusing on the real issues and what it will take to deal with them as much as they are interested in affixing blame….

    I’m not in favor of coming up with excuses for failure but at the same time we do have generations of failure for kids whose ancestors lacked good educations and as a result pretty much lived in poverty – acknowledge the few who managed to escape – most did not and their kids have not.

    This is not about “black”despite the focus. It’s about any family, any kids who grow up lacking a decent education and therefore the means to get a good job and provide for their familes.

    If the kid – from 2-3 generations ago did not get a good education then their kids and their grandkids are going to be hobbled also until or unless something happens to those kids that results in them getting a decent education.

    Yes, there is LOTS of blame to go around – no questioin – but that will never get us to a better place for these kids.

    And my question is why – we have those who want to focus on blame and failure while we have others who know the problem is not easy and will take more than what we do now.

    Why spend your time affixing blame? what good does that do?

  9. My grandfather had an 8th grade education. His wife was valedictorian of her high school class and stopped. Their daughter, my Mom, got 1 year of college. I did 2 degrees in college.
    Difference was the family all supported me in terms of education and common sense.
    Its not the education itself, its what you and your family make the best of what you have.

    Same for next door. They don’t have college degrees, but they married before they had kids. Both kids have masters’ degrees.

    If you look at Larry Elder, Dr. Sowell, Dr. Williams, culture and family have a huge part, and when we’re not getting anywhere with what we’ve been doing we need to figure out what the problems are. Bottom line, culture and family.

  10. Larry’s solution is to blame the taxpayer. People are free to make any bad choices they want for themselves and their children and taxpayers will pay the cost for those decisions. Human free will has been abolished.

  11. This discussion is Bacon’s Rebellion at its best. It’s punching holes in stereotypes, accepted platitudes, myths, and political agendas, so as to better understand realities, and fix things.

    I’d like to re-emphasize that disadvantaged kids are not a black kid problem alone, it is a problem that goes after all kids no matter their color, economic status, neighborhood, sex or culture, although each and all of these factors can play a roll with all kids, indeed too often a strong roll in the hobbling and putting at grave disadvantage any and all kids no matter their background.

    This is because many kids, indeed most, are fragile flowers growing up. There are many ways a kid can be harmed, and held back, often irrevocably. In addition, the remedies for helping these kids are nearly endless, coming in all shapes and forms, though broad outlines of broadly effective solutions are plain to see in real experience.

    That is why it has been conclusively shown many times since the late 19th century that for disadvantaged girl’s (and even advantaged one’s) an all girl’s school is often best. Similarly its been shown that often times an all boys school is best for many boys. Same for boarding schools. Same for putting kids in schools with a culture where those kids feel safe, wanted, understood and a part of. Many kids, like a fish out of water, will fail simply by being immersed and told to succeed in an alien culture, particularly disadvantaged kids, who are extremely fragile, with very thin margins for success if put in environments that are threatening to them, or overly challenging for them at that particular time and place in their lives. In such case, failure, alienation, rebellion, anti-social behavior easily and often become default results with everlasting harm done. There is a great deal to discuss here. But if we fix the problem those same kids will bloom.

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