Stephanie McKellop, a graduate teaching assistant in history at the University of Pennsylvania, drew notice last week for her promotion of a little-known progressive pedagogy. As McKellop explained in a tweet, “I will always call on my Black women students first. Other [people of color] get second tier priority. [White women] come next. And, if I have to, white men.” While McKellop had apparently been doing this all along, her public boast yielded a firestorm.
McKellop later claimed that UPenn was preparing to condemn her teaching practices, writing that “Penn thinks I’m racist and discriminatory towards my students for using a very well worn pedagogical tactic which includes calling on [people of color].” UPenn Arts and Sciences Dean Steven Fluharty acknowledged that “we are looking into the current matter,” but no condemnation has so far been issued. In any event, McKellop went on to explain that this “well worn” technique is called “progressive stacking.”
In a later missive, McKellop helpfully linked to the relevant Wikipedia entry, which explains that progressive stacking “is a technique used to give marginalized groups a greater chance to speak. . . . In practice, ‘majority culture’ is interpreted by progressive stack practitioners to mean White people, men and young adults.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, progressive stacking was popular with the Occupy Wall Street movement.
More than a few academics have spoken up to defend the use of progressive stacking. Nolan Cabrera, an associate professor of educational-policy studies and practice at the University of Arizona, explained to The Chronicle of Higher Education that “in college classrooms . . . it’s very common for people of privileged social identities to dominate conversations,” and that progressive stacking is “an acknowledgment that traditional pedagogical techniques have silenced marginal voices.” Jessie Daniels, a professor of sociology at Hunter College and the City University of New York, told Inside Higher Ed that (as the site paraphrased it) “progressive stacking has been around at least since she was in graduate school in the 1990s.”
It takes little imagination to see the practical problems with all of this. For one, as Reason’s Robby Soave notes, “Even if you think social inequalities make it impossible to be racist against white people, McKellop’s contention that ‘other POC get second tier priority’ is absurdly offensive on its own.” Just how ought a teacher calibrate for all the relevant disparities? Among Asian-Americans, for example, educational attainment varies enormously between different subgroups, with Korean- and Taiwanese-American students vastly outperforming Vietnamese and Laotian Americans. Should students within the latter ethnicities be given classroom-speaking preference over those of the former?
More to the point, it represents a profound parody of the American creed when “anti-bias” educators start employing race-based distinctions as an instructional tactic. After all, there was a time when schools unabashedly treated students differently based on race and ethnicity: This was called discrimination. People of goodwill have spent long decades struggling to address and atone for this vicious legacy. We may not be there yet, but undeniable progress has been made — guided by the ardent conviction that race-based discrimination has no place in American education. Today, though, a small but growing slice of college and K–12 educators are suggesting it is okay, even admirable, to treat students differently based on the color of their skin.
The reality is that progressive stacking and its ilk ultimately rest on dubious applications of junk science. While claims of “implicit bias” serve as the justification for “anti-racist” pedagogy, the credibility of the entire body of work has been called into doubt. Indeed, a recent meta-analysis examined nearly 500 studies on the “Implicit Association Test” — arguably the foundational measure in the study of implicit bias — and found fundamental problems with the test itself. Researchers, including one of the test’s co-creators, found that “the correlation between implicit bias and discriminatory behavior appears weaker than previously thought.” They cautioned that “there’s not necessarily strong evidence for the conclusions people have drawn” about implicit bias.
Similarly, a seminal 2004 study analyzed the impact of membership in an ethnic-identity-based organization on undergraduate student attitudes. It found that, for black, Asian, and Latino students, such membership “actually increased the perception that ethnic groups are locked into zero-sum competition with one another and the feeling of victimization by virtue of one’s ethnicity.”
What we do know about promoting racial comity flies in the face of progressive-stack theory.
In truth, what we know about promoting racial comity flies in the face of progressive-stack theory. As social psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Lee Jussim explain, the positive benefits of interracial contact “depend in large measure on certain conditions, like having common goals, a sense of cooperation and equal status. The benefits disappear when there is anxiety about cross-group interactions. On a campus, this means that increasing the number of black students and professors could, in theory, improve race relations, but such benefits are unlikely when accompanied by microaggression training and other measures that magnify racial consciousness and conflict.”
For whatever reason, some educators seem intent on finding more and more ways to bastardize pedagogy in pursuit of their ideological agendas. It is easy to laugh at this nonsense and allow commentators to downplay incidents like McKellop’s as outliers or curiosities. But we fear they are better understood as warning signs that crusading educators have made it their mission to upend some of America’s most cherished principles.
The great crusade of 20th-century education was the battle to extinguish racial discrimination in schooling. While we may not have yet delivered on that promise, we should call on educators left and right to resoundingly reject those “anti-racist” crusaders who have decided it’s time to abandon it. State legislators, school boards, and university trustees should make it clear that discrimination — whatever the purported motivation — will not be tolerated in America’s classrooms. Period.