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.)
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.”
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?There are currently no comments highlighted.