Monday, November 19, 2007

Race and Academic Performance

John at Discriminations (see blogroll) opened my eyes to the mistake made by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell, who, after standing up for California's standardized testing system against those who want to water it down, has opted to water it down a different way with the soft bigotry of low expectations for students with black or brown skin.

I've stated before (see the comments in the link above) that I don't think California's teachers are racist, whether overt, subliminal, or institutional. This crutch of racism dishonors those who struggled under true, legalized racism--when, as a group, blacks performed much better, in underfunded schools, than they do today. Culture, not racism, accounts for the lack of performance of so many today.

A majority of black Americans blame individual failings -- not racial prejudice -- for the lack of economic progress by lower-income African Americans, according to a survey released Tuesday -- a significant change in attitudes from the early 1990s.

At the same time, black college graduates say the values of middle-class African Americans are more closely aligned with those of middle-class whites than those of lower-income blacks, the poll by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found.

Slate, not known for its conservative leanings, had an interesting take.

Yesterday we looked at evidence for a genetic theory of racial differences in IQ. Today let's look at some of the arguments against it. Again, I'm drawing heavily on a recent exchange of papers published by the American Psychological Association...

The current favorite alternative to a genetic explanation is that black kids grow up in a less intellectually supportive culture. This is a testament to how far the race discussion has shifted to the right. Twenty years ago, conservatives were blaming culture, while liberals blamed racism and poverty. Now liberals are blaming culture because the emerging alternative, genetics, is even more repellent...

When I look at all the data, studies, and arguments, I see a prima facie case for partial genetic influence. I don't see conclusive evidence either way in the adoption studies. I don't see closure of the racial IQ gap to single digits. And I see too much data that can't be reconciled with the surge (partial closing of the US black-white IQ gap in the last century) or explained by current environmental theories. I hope the surge surprises me. But in case it doesn't, I want to start thinking about how to be an egalitarian in an age of genetic difference, even between races. More on that tomorrow.

The Los Angeles Times, yet another not-quite-conservative bastion, had an opinion piece on last week's conference at which O'Connell was present.

Hardly had the figurative strains of "Kumbaya" faded when racial fault lines erupted. Before the end of the first day, numerous white educators had stormed out. At workshop after workshop, they had been asked to examine their attitudes toward and expectations for black and Latino students. Only once that was done, they were told, could they initiate change in their schools. Hurt, resentful and angry, the white educators heard this message: Stop being racist.

That's right, folks--if you're going to judge me by the color of my skin, that's racist. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that's the very definition of racism.

In turn, some black educators were nearly or literally in tears after Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute stated that even the best schools cannot close the gap. Rather, he said, the cultural and socioeconomic divides between the races -- differences in wealth, health, child-rearing -- must be addressed. Deflated, demoralized and anguished, the black educators heard this: It's not white institutions that require scrutiny, it's black and Latino homes.
So everyone got ticked off. I guess that's what we call equality.

Then there's the closing.

Unfortunately, misunderstanding, fear and hurt are inevitable consequences of talking about race. But we hope O'Connell doesn't back down now. If we are committed to educating all of our children, this conversation must continue. It's probably going to become a lot more uncomfortable -- certainly for him, but also for the rest of us.
Personally, I'm tired of talking about race. In education it seems that half of what we talk about is race. The racial achievement gap is real--that's not even debatable. The question is how best to address it, and if the problem is even one the schools can address. It doesn't make sense to me, though, to have the starting point be that all of California's teachers are racist. Not only is it not constructive, it's not even close to accurate.

I wonder how Mrs. Barton would react to this foolishness.

Update: Joanne Jacobs has addressed this topic on her blog as well. The comments afterward are especially enlightening.


Chanman said...

If O'Connell is going to bring out the same old tired bromides about white racist teachers and misunderstood minority cultures, I hope that he does "back down" as the LA Times columnist urges him not to do.

Ellen K said...

When this story ran on our local news, they interviewed people from a variety of backgrounds about the findings. Two of the most adamant deniers of the status quo for minority students were two African American, female college professors. While people of color from other walks talked of experiencing racism, they didn't use that as an excuse for crime, for poverty or for lack of education. I don't like to believe that any parent of any persuasion would want less than success for their child, yet within the entertainment industry segment that is marketed to minority youth, the concept of "acting white" is synonymous with getting good grades and doing what you are supposed to do in school. Never mind that many anglo kids choose to ignore these concepts, that is the prejudice of minorities against their own. And it can only be something that comes from envy.

Lillian said...

I feel the achievement gaps result from Language deficiencies. It's not 'acting white' that is synonymous with positive achievement, as much as it is 'talking white'. I teach so-called lower socio-economic students, and the culture of the school is challenging overall. But even among equally poor white, black and hispanic students...the white students consistently achieve higher. Why? They speak better English. I believe that ethnic-language styles have held back black students even more so than second language learners because they have been exposed to the language of the majority culture longer, and yet they speak as though they still live in the
1860's. Even some of our sports heroes, and a few of our elected officials-of-color 'split verbs' as my dad used to describe it. Not much has changed as far as ebonics, but it seems that it is spoken more - rather than less. When I ask my white collegues why they don't correct students when they hear them speak in ethnic-English, they say that they don't want to be considered racist. Of course, I find this ridiculous and condescending. But then you speak to the parents who also refuse to speak the Kings English, which is what our tests are (and should be) written in.
Blacks have preserved this poor English style as some sort of tribute to the ancestors, and both white and black rappers have made money on it. I 've been through the fires of criticism for 'talking white', but I speak and write well, and I demand that my students do the same, in Standard English, and that, more than anything else (including skin color), is really how people will judge you. At least learn how to switch from one setting to another and in different situations. If that makes this lady a racist, then so be it.