Should We Avoid Race When Discussing Education Reform?

via Editor B; CC 2.0.

Over on her blog, Dana Goldstein makes the important point that in so many discussions about education reform — a topic that seems to be inescapable right now — the issue of race is avoided.

It’s important to note that the major problem with American education is the problem of class and race inequality. As Linda Darling Hammond writes in The Flat World and Education, “students in the highest-achieving states and districts in the United States do as well as those in high-achieving nations elsewhere.” Indeed, American white, Asian, and multiracial children perform better than the OECD average in reading, science, math, and problem solving. It is black and Hispanic kids that are falling behind.

[Bold hers.] You can see this at play in the documentary Waiting for Superman, in which the achievement gap is mentioned, but only as it pertains to class. But there are racial disparities in student achievement, even when controlling for parental income class. In fact, when the movie talks about the halcyon days of American education in the 1950’s and 1960’s, there’s no mention at all of school segregation or desegregation and how they’ve impacted how American schools function.

At TAPPED, Jamelle suggests that making the education reform conversation about race could dampen concern for reform efforts, since Americans tend not to like policy ventures that they see are aimed at people of color.

That said, and at the risk of sounding a little cynical, it might be good that attention is focused on the school system as a whole, and not just those schools serving disadvantaged populations; Americans tend to be a lot less enthusiastic about reform efforts when the beneficiaries are black and brown.

I’d also add that bringing up race  means inviting one of those predictable conversations in which the problems facing youth of color are chalked up to dysfunctional pathology. Still, it seems hard to ignore the role race plays in the achievement gap, as the disparities in performance often persist even when when the black and brown kids are middle class with college-educated parents.




Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • R.A.B.

    I really, reeeeeally think that race- and class-neutral attention to public education dysfunction is, if anything, the quickest way to pathology scapegoating; if you allow people who aren’t directly affected by the class components and structural inequalities pressing against students/teachers/parents/families/schools/school districts in the worse-off corners of the country to overlook those components and inequalities, all for the sake of a more encompassing conversation about education quality, you get a lot of people who end up figuring that the real, overriding differences between their Sidwell brat and the kids at Ballou must be vague matters of personal — and cultural — ambition.

    • young_

      Wouldn’t focusing on the racial disparities be the quickest way to pathology scapegoating? The American public is far more inclined to attribute black underperformance to oppositional culture or inadequate motivation, than to blame racism and structural inequality. It’s why Fryer and Ogbu have had public influence (re: the “acting white” hypothesis) way beyond the merits of their scholarship.

      • R.A.B.

        I’m saying that this is a problem of differentiating means from ends.

        If you see the point of talking about public education as getting more people to talk about public education then, sure, deluding America into thinking that all of our kids are in the same boat for two weeks’ worth of news cycles is a winning strategy. If you see the point of talking about education as actually getting people to evaluate themselves, and to evaluate their own positions and roles in representing/producing real inequalities, and to reevaluate their relation to other Americans and other American families, then no, I don’t think the approach is much of a a meaningful success for anyone or any kind of “debate.”

      • R.A.B.

        About the pathology bit, though, I think that a lot of lazy minds will resort to alleging pathologies as explanations for everything no matter how we frame these discussions. I just think it’s a lot easier to make sort of derailment if you spark interest based on the premise that this crisis threatens all of us equally.

  • R.A.B.

    And as I did on my personal blog in re: Jamelle’s post, I think it’s a leap to suppose that all-encompassing attention of the broad, vague variety to education *issues* equals sustained & productive attention to education *inequalities*, where, at the end of the day, these gulfs among groups are what we’re actually talking about when we refer to a “crisis” in American education.

  • corones

    Kids in the American Indian/Alaska Native demographic significantly under-perform as well.

  • Val

    “…Americans tend to be a lot less enthusiastic about reform efforts when the beneficiaries are black and brown.”

    That says it all.

    I saw the Oprah Winfrey show episode last Friday when Facebook founder Zuckerberg gave 100 million dollars to Newark Public Schools and was amazed that race never came up. It seems to me that if there is a discussion about Newark Public Schools and no one mentions race it must be intentional.

    Also NBC has been doing pieces on education this week and I haven’t seen anything on race and education either.

    So is this some sort of strategy to keep Whites interested in the conversation? Seems like it is.

  • Naima

    Actually Education Nation did mention race several times throughout the progrmamming. There was a panel on the acheivement gap>>>>>>

    Whether it was decent is another question entirely, and this scant article doesn’t do much to inform meon what the hell it was about….sure to watch it later.

    They even talked about the lack of AA male teachers and what that translates to for kids of color. Like as if having a role model will fix all the inequities we face, smh

    As for discussing race… talking about public schools it would be helpful to see the breakdown of student population:

  • Devona

    Is race avoided when discussing education reform? It seems to me that is all I hear when education reform is mentioned. At every opportunity, people are pontificating on how blacks and hispanic students underperform. I take these so-called studies on students’ performance with a grain of salt. My niece who is from a middle-class background with college-educated parents manage to perform just as well and sometimes better than her white counterparts. She took the SAT in the 8th grade to qualify for the Duke University program and outscored 80% of the seniors who took the test.
    Who conducts these studies, who are they testing, and how are they testing the students (in what environment). I’m not keen on the idea of testing a small sample of students and making generalizations about the population as a whole.

    • corones

      Domestically, trusted numbers come from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), part of the National Center for Education Statistics, which is in turn part of the U.S. Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences.

      NAEP’s Data explorer should be able to help you find more information.

    • In addition to the resources mentioned from the Dept. of Education, every parent is sent their school’s annual “Report Card”, which is collection of information on the performance of the school (as a whole) and subgroups of students (per grade). This data is collected from the exams that schools are required to administer to students annually. These are not samples of students, but the entire student body within one school, and are the basis of the analysis showing disparities in performance across race, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups.

      • Darth Paul

        The problem with these exams, going back to R.A.B.’s point, is that they are largely engineered by ‘ivory tower’ minds and ultimately demonstrate who tests or cheats best; not who is most creative, gifted, or even intelligent.

        At the root of it all is the fact that the gov’t wants a quick fix so the politicians can claim some sort of victory. The fact is that something like an massive education system like ours requires a few generations to overhaul, and no one in power is concerned witht that length of an attention span.

        • young_

          Huh? Are you disputing that there are disparities in educational performance across race, ethnic and SES lines?

    • -k-

      “I’m not keen on the idea of testing a small sample of students and making generalizations about the population as a whole.”

      But aren’t you doing the same thing by using your niece, however well she’s doing, to refute the idea that the larger population of black and Latino kids underperform? I say this not to call you out, but to notice how easy it is to go that route in interpreting and responding to research, especially without having read it closely. (I couldn’t tell from your comment exactly what you were responding to, but the Noguera and Akom piece that the last sentence links to is worth a serious read; beyond what this post pulls out of it, there’s a nuanced and relatively comprehensive look at the different angles from which researchers approach these issues.)

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  • -k-

    I see Jamelle’s point, but there are ways to address the role that race plays at a more systemic level as well. Second-generation segregation–segregation within supposedly desegregated schools–is a major issue affecting educational opportunities. And if we’re going to talk about the overrepresentation of the black and brown kids he mentions in lower tracks and SpEd classrooms, overrepresentation meaning not just ‘more of these kids are in low tracks’, but ‘more of these kids, all other things being equal, are in low tracks’, denial has to be pretty strong to find a way to make that about something other than race (which is not to say it can’t be done; we’re great at denial).

    Even if we detrack as part of what we do in the name of the almighty Reform–which you’ll have a hard time getting parents of high-performing students to swallow (PB covered the mess with parents at that Philly magnet school a while back, for example)– there will be fallout to deal with. But you’re right; it’s difficult to get people to see this as being due not to racial pathology, but to the destructive effect being branded and treated as if you’re not expected to amount to anything, and afforded the resources that correspond to such an expectation, for most of your life.

    So this is just one issue of many. I have a hard time believing that we’re going to make any serious progress on this whether we mention race or not, because Haves are just not trying to give up what it is that they have, and the silly ass ‘reform’ efforts that people are willing to tolerate do, in my estimation, as much or more harm than they do good.

  • Valerie

    I would push readers to really begin to think about the fact that the “achievement” and/or “opportunity” gaps that we encounter in this country are predicated on race–not class, not pathologies, not any of those things, but race and institutionalized racism. It’s due to the history/foundation of this country and how different races of people have been systemically disenfranchised (and let us remember that hundreds of years of inequity cannot be undone in even 50 years of half-hearted attempts to “right the wrongs”).

    Until this country gets to the point where we’re willing to honestly admit that racism has perpetuated all of the so-called pathologies that we see (dilapidated communities, inability to see how quality education can change circumstances, generational poverty, lack of self/family efficacy, crime, high illiteracy and drop-out rates, etc.), we won’t be able to truly create equity for ALL young people.

  • The continued racial and economic segregation of our schools should make us think of race; instead we are becoming more “colorblind” in our solutions to school failure. With such stark racial disparities in experience, it would be a disservice to our children to ignore race. Schools have the unique responsibility of educating all students that walk through their doors. This means that students from varying races and cultures sit side by side and educators must educate all equally.