Out, Out, Damn Fact! The “Will To Ignorance” in Public Policy Discourse on the Achievement Gaps
There are a number of significant achievement gaps in American education, situated first along axes of race and ethnicity and of socio-economic class, and then within this larger gap, along the lines of gender. These gaps are distinct, but intersect and interact in important ways.
And then there are the gaps in our public understanding of those achievement gaps. Public policy discussions around the achievement gaps seem to gravitate to postures [and to posturing] predicated on a “will to ignorance” regarding a number of essential facts on the challenges we face.
Two quality pieces on this subject that appeared in the New York Times last week — Sam Dillon’s Monday article “Schools Slow In Closing Gaps Between The Races” and Paul Tough’s Sunday magazine essay on “What It Takes To Make A Student” — show how far we have yet to go in our discussions of the achievement gaps. Tough’s piece in particular possesses a greater thoughtfulness, a deeper analysis and more nuance than most commentary on the subject. Yet it still overlooks key aspects of the question: the lacunæ in its analysis are quite telling.
Like almost all of the contemporary literature, Tough writes as if the issue of the achievement gaps arose recently, and were written on an historical tabula rasa. However, long before a George W. Bush speechwriter coined the phrase “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” and well before the shadow of NCLB fall across American public schools, there was a history to the achievement gaps. Significantly, there was a period of relatively recent American educational history when the racial achievement gap diminished. In an essay “Still Separate, Still Unequal” published in Dissent, I described that history this way:
The most important pattern in the achievement gap lies in the way that it steadily diminished in size from the mid-1970s through the late 1980s and then began to increase again in the 1990s. The reasons for this trend reversal are complex, as there are multiple variables in play, yet they are also central to any effort to abate and eliminate the gap. One factor that seems to have been crucial to the size of the gap was school desegregation. From the period when substantive desegregation began in the South up until the period when American education began to resegregate, the racial achievement gap diminished; moreover, the gap declined the greatest in the South, which was undergoing meaningful racial integration, and least in the Northeast, which saw little desegregation. Other central factors were improvements in the educational achievement and the socioeconomic status of African American parents. In the wake of the civil rights movement, affirmative action opened up post-secondary education and higher status employment to people of color, while civil rights legislation reduced job discrimination, and many Great Society programs improved job opportunities for poorer people of color. Additionally, educational programs introduced during the Great Society, such as Head Start, had a positive impact on the performance of poor students. By contrast, the effects of the rollback of the Great Society programs and opportunities for people of color that began under the Reagan administration came into full force in the 1990s. And although the 1990s were a decade of unprecedented economic growth and expansion, they were also a period of increased income inequality. During the 1990s, the achievement gap followed the same pattern as the wage gap.
This history remains largely unnoticed. The leading conservative text on the achievement gap, Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom’s No Excuses, is emblematic of the “will to ignorance” here: its total commentary on this question is the five word phrase that the narrowing of the achievement gap from the mid-1970s through the 1980s took place for “reasons we do not know” — an incredulous claim in a book dedicated to understanding that very subject. But the political logic of their argument allows them no other option: the Thernstroms are adamant that racial desegegration of schools and progressive policies which promote greater economic security and equality are irrelevant to closing the achievement gap, so they must ignore the contrary historical evidence that those policies had a positive effect. They don’t know what led to a diminishment of the achievement gap for fifteen years of recent American history because they simply don’t want to know.
Tough is more politically open-minded than the Thernstroms, but like them, he picks and chooses evidence to meet his preconceived solutions for the achievement gaps, and ignores its history. His analysis of the causes of achievement gaps rests solely on what might be called a “cultural capital” argument: he contends that the advantages of social class which middle class and upper class parents provide to their children lies not so much in material wealth and a richer formal education, as it does in the intellectual skills and dispositions that come with the predominant ‘middle class’ style of child rearing.
In this regard, Tough has touched upon an important and central facet of the achievement gaps. Perhaps this facet is most clearly evident in the important work of Betty Hart and Todd Risley on language acquisition which Tough cites; they have found that by age three, a child of professional parents has a vocabulary more than twice as large as that of a child living poverty — 1100 to 525 words. This difference is illustrative of the extraordinary class-based gaps which have opened among children of different socio-economic standing before they have even begun their formal education. [An excellent summary of the Hart and Risley research was published in the AFT’s American Educator under the title, “The Early Catastrophe.”]
Tough writes as if the differences in acquired ‘cultural capital’ were the totality of the causes of the achievement gaps. In his analysis, there is no discussion of how other aspects of the conditions of poverty, other cultural differences such as the intersection of gender and race, the racial and class segregation of American schooling, and the vast inequalities in resources among schools all contribute mightily to the achievement gaps. In one respect, this ahistorical narrative makes perfect sense. Let us accept, for purposes of argument, the accuracy of Tough’s evaluation of KIPP, Amistad and North Star, the charter schools he profiled. If one is going to argue, as he does, that good schools with incredibly intensive educational programs can singlehandedly overcome the achievement gap, it makes sense to have an explanation of its causes that is entirely cultural and intellectual, emanating forth from patterns of child rearing. Child rearing is, after all, the primary medium of education, so what one is left with is a model of later, more intensive education compensating for the inadequacies of the earlier, formative education. The only question that would remain is whether it would be possible to scale up a handful of successful individual schools into a wholesale approach for all students facing an achievement gap — a rather significant issue, as Tough himself notes.
But if the causes of the achievement gaps are much more varied, there are real limits to what good schooling can do entirely on its own, without the support of a range of complementary economic and social policies. One telling example will demonstrate why this is so. Any educator who has taught in a school serving a high poverty community will tell you that one of the most vexing challenges facing such a school is the high rates of transience and absence among its students. While middle and upper class children live in a state of economic security that minimizes the movement of their families and maximizes school attendance, children in poverty live in a state of economic insecurity which results in frequent, disruptive moves and greater school absences. Poor people, we pointed out in one recent Edwize post, live from day to day and week to week, from pay cheque to pay cheque, and are therefore constantly on the move. Increased rent they can no longer afford, lost jobs, evictions, condemnations of the building in which they lived, family break-ups, deportation and a whole host of other reasons connected to their economic conditions: all of these occurrences lead to transience. Add to this the increased absence rate among students living in poverty, a rate mostly attributable to increased rates of childhood illnesses — and, in a chain of causality, traceable back to poor and inadequate nutrition, clothing and housing, as well as inferior health care.
We could provide many more illustrations of how the conditions of poverty induce and sustain achievement gaps, and discuss the role of racial and socio-economic class segregation and inequities in school funding and resources, but this example makes the central, irrefutable point. The impact of transience and increased student absence is as simple and as powerful as the fact that even the best school will not be able to make significant educational progress with struggling students who are not in their classrooms on a regular basis. In the most fundamental ways, middle class and upper class children have access to schooling that children living in poverty do not possess.
Yet the conditions of poverty are not immutable, the dogmas of laissez-faire market ideologues notwithstanding. Government and not for profit programs that provide affordable and quality low income housing reduce the rate of transience experienced by children living in poverty. Programs that provide quality health care for low income families improve the health of children living in poverty. Institute and expand such programs, as was done during the Great Society, and one can have a significant impact upon the achievement gaps — and on a mass scale, not in isolated pockets. That is the lesson of the history that is studiously ignored by much contemporary discussion of the achievement gaps, not the least by Tough. A serious campaign to diminish the achievement gaps must combine such anti-poverty programs, equity in school funding and racial desegregation of schools with measures designed to improve the schools children living in poverty attend. To fight on one front without taking on the other fronts is to guarantee defeat.
But fighting on one front is precisely what one hears from all too many public policy voices addressing the issue of the achievement gaps. One looks in vain for a substantive recognition of the ways in which the conditions of poverty are implicated in the achievement gaps, much less a programmatic thrust which addresses these questions, from organizations such as the Education Trust. Marian Wright Edelman’s Children Defense Fund stands out as the exception to the prevailing rule with its forthright stance on the totality of the causes of the achievement gap.
Let’s speak plainly here. The “will to ignorance” about the causes of the achievement gaps is directly related to a failure of political will, an abject surrender to those forces on the hard conservative right for whom anti-poverty programs, funding equity for schools serving poor communities and racial desegregation of schools are anathema. A singular focus on individual schools, with the programmatic thrust directed at privatization and market based schemes, fits comfortably with the political agenda of that hard right. Quality low income housing for the families of children living in poverty, universal quality health care for children living in poverty and other associated anti-poverty measures do not. Yet today 37 million Americans live in poverty, over one-third of whom are children, and since 2000, poverty has been growing and becoming more prevalent in America — to the point that it is now approaching pre-Great Society levels. To ignore this reality, to discuss the achievement gaps as if the conditions of poverty were some external, unrelated phenomenon, is to fight the battle in a way that guarantees defeat.
In a second, subsequent post we will take up the question of the intersection of race and gender in the achievement gap, a tell tale sign of the cultural complexity of the phenomenon — which Tough and most commentators fail to address.
Leo Casey, NYC.