Politics & Policy

Segregate This

Leaving race-based data behind.

Those who divvy up by race strain to justify it. The newest wrinkle comes from Fairfax County, Va., where the school board is struggling to rationalize a report that it commissioned to evaluate the “Essential Life Skills” of its students. (That the school board is evaluating such skills is itself goofy.) The results were categorized by race and elicited predictable protest.

Fairfax County reported that the “moral character and ethical judgment” of its white and Asian pupils is more developed than that of its black and Hispanic pupils. These conclusions, drawn from hosts of disparate data about attendance, disciplinary infractions, and teacher observations, have the unfortunate characteristic of being both offensive and useless. Fairfax finds that its black students have more character flaws than its white students — now what?

The No Child Left Behind Act is pilloried from various quarters: teachers’ unions who cringe at the suggestion that their members be held accountable for anything, conservatives who dislike the federal government’s increased role in local schools, and parents who fear their children will be subjected to endless months of rote instruction in the math and reading skills that NCLB tests.

But perhaps the most worrisome aspect of NCLB is the part that is roundly praised: its emphasis on “disaggregating” exam data by reporting test scores separately for black kids, white kids, Asian kids, etc. Consensus holds that this approach has illuminated achievement gaps that exist even in supposedly sterling public schools, and that it has turned the nation’s attention toward the plight of poor and minority students.

Perhaps true. Unremarked, though, is whether the authority that NCLB has given to racial culling will have in the long-term more positive consequences or negative ones. Fairfax County’s situation is the latest to suggest the latter. Consider that school board member Tina Hone told the Washington Post’s Marc Fisher about the Fairfax report, “The superintendent told me that the reason they broke it down by race was that two years ago, the board decided to report all data by race.”

This is shocking. Whereas classifying exam scores by race at least has an ostensible function (to combat the “soft bigotry of low expectations” by forcing teachers to focus on struggling minority students) the willy-nilly classification of all school-related data by race has none. What emerges from this purposeless strategy is a purposeless result, such as Fairfax County’s report on moral character, which neatly sorts numbers into racial categories and then gropes blindly to justify and interpret them. NCLB seems to have conferred widespread legitimacy on such practices.

So the country’s racial conversation grows ever more bipolar and contradictory. On one hand, commentators tell us that race doesn’t matter, that an increasingly diverse America should move past anachronistic notions of black, white, Hispanic, whatever. Heads nod. But they nod even more vigorously when the same commentators then allege, for example, that our schools specifically fail black children, and that we must continue to monitor black pupils en masse until their test scores equal those of their white peers.

Of this inclination Barack Obama provided a perfect example last month, when in his Philadelphia speech he began by saying that Americans desire a “message of unity” and then devoted the remainder of his talk to disaggregating the nation’s grievances by race. Unity does not arise from such litanies.

What arises, in fact, is more segregation. Some have gleaned from Fairfax County’s report on life-skills, for instance, that different races require different types of education. School board member Ilryong Moon said teachers should “have a full understanding of whom they teach, and their different learning styles and family backgrounds.” The county’s superintendent, according to the Post, “applauded the board for starting a conversation that might deepen its understanding of the social and cultural complexity of the 165,700 students in the county schools. ‘That is probably one of the most important discussions for any school board’ to have, he said in an interview.”

NCLB’s fixation on disaggregating educational data encourages these discussions, which are not important but are, in fact, profoundly distracting and ineffective. They do nothing to improve the academic achievement of youngsters. Fairfax County shouldn’t be worrying about its students’ backgrounds. Such worrying inevitably evolves into treating and teaching students of different races differently and into making race-based assumptions about their abilities — i.e., doing exactly that which NCLB’s disaggregated-data system is meant to prevent.

A better approach for schools is to concentrate on the academic performance of individual students of all races, to monitor their achievement from one year to the next, and to energetically intervene when problems begin. That of course means leaving the race-based data behind.

– Liam Julian is a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and writes frequently on race and education.

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