Magazine | November 12, 2018, Issue

Education as Reeducation

(Caiaimage/Sam Edwards/Getty Images)
School reformers embrace junk science and performative wokeness

This July, in sunny San Diego, Calif., a thousand educators from 27 states gathered for an immersive five-day meeting. The Standards Institute, hosted twice annually by New York–based UnboundEd, provides “standards-aligned” training in English-language arts, mathematics, and leadership. What differentiates UnboundEd is how it slathers its Common Core workshops with race-based rancor and junk science — and the snapshot it provides into the ongoing transformation of “school reform.”

UnboundEd CEO Kate Gerson opened the institute, telling the assembled: “If you are under the impression that there are good white people and bad white people, you’re wrong.” Gerson informed her charges that racial biases are pervasive, universal, and something “you cannot be cured from.”

For this reason, UnboundEd’s training in reading and math instruction is “grounded in conversations about the roles that race, bias and prejudice play in our schools and classrooms.” Its Standards Institute prepares educators to be “Equity Change-Agents.” To become one, participants are told, they must first acknowledge that “we are part of a systematically racist system of education” and recognize that “we have participated in this paradigm through instruction and pedagogy.” As its “Bias Toolkit” explains, UnboundEd sees its mission as “disrupting patterns of implicit bias, privilege, and racism in ourselves, our organization, and in the education field.”

UnboundEd is not the brainchild of some education school. Rather, it boasts an impressive list of reform-minded “partners,” including the likes of Achieve­ment Network, The New Teacher Project, Leading Educators, New Leaders, and Student Achievement Partners — not counting the charter-school networks that ship teachers to its institutes. As of 2017, UnboundEd had pocketed more than $20 million in philanthropy — including millions from New Profit, the Carnegie Corporation, and the Hewlett Foundation, and more than $11 million from the Gates Foundation.

Ironically, UnboundEd helps validate some of the most far-out conspiracy theories that have been spun about the Common Core. UnboundEd was born of EngageNY — an entity, supported by millions of dollars in Obama-era Race to the Top funds, created to provide Common Core curricula for New York’s classrooms. In 2015, Gerson and several colleagues left EngageNY to start UnboundEd, seeking to train educators how to teach Common Core reading and math. Once upon a time, Common Core critics were roundly mocked for fearing that the reading and math standards would somehow serve to promote sweeping ideological agendas; today, Gerson and her team are doing their best to vindicate those concerns.

Because progressives fancy themselves empiricists, UnboundEd’s exertions come complete with data points crafted to illuminate America’s inescapable, repressive biases. Thus, Gerson’s Institute-opening presentation recounted a laundry list of sectors that “exhibit bias” — from health care to Hollywood.

Yet much of what Gerson presents as evidence of “bias” is nothing of the sort; instead, it simply documents various racial disparities, without context or evidence of causality. In a slide titled “The Film Industry Exhibits Bias,” for example, Gerson cites a 2016 newspaper article detailing the limited racial diversity among film directors and executives. What Gerson ignores is that the data in the article did show disparities but proffered no evidence of bias. Indeed, as Gil Robertson, a co-founder of the African-American Film Critics Association, observes in the story, “racism is a big problem in this country, but a lot of this can not be attributed to simply race: That’s a very lazy analysis.”

In other words, what Gerson has found is a disparity, one that may reflect bias. This distinction is crucial. Identifying disparities is healthy: It highlights problems and invites a good-faith effort to determine root causes. Averring “bias,” on the other hand, signals that the cause is known — and is due to the thoughts or actions of a particular swathe of people. The answer is always for the “biased” to be fixed by the “unbiased.” It’s hard to think of anything more innately polarizing or more likely to poison bipartisan relations. Yet the feckless rush to treat disparity and bias as interchangeable is transforming school reform from a unifying pursuit into another adrenalized, divisive piece of street theater.

UnboundEd has plenty of company. This summer, New York City committed $23 million to mandatory “anti-bias training” for Department of Education employees. Every employee will be taught “intervention strategies” for recognizing and reducing implicit bias — such as taking the Implicit Association Test (IAT) to measure their “unconscious” racial bias. “For me, it’s a no-brainer,” explained Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, calling anti-bias training a “cornerstone” of school improvement. This fall, the National Science Foundation awarded $1 million to Drexel University to recruit undergraduates to teach high-school math and science and train them in “social justice teaching.” The University of Pennsylvania hosts an annual three-week summer “social justice research academy” for high-schoolers, where participants are taught “the contemporary relevance of struggles to overcome inequality and injustice,” including “LGBT, Arab Spring, Occupy, Ferguson, environmentalism, education reform, affordable housing, elder rights, disability rights, immigration,” and so on.

Frustrated by the disappointments of ambitious reforms such as No Child Left Behind and the Common Core, progressive school reformers have switched horses and decided that America’s real educational challenge is its deep-dyed racism and inveterate culture of white supremacy. This tack conveniently allows them to embrace the charms of the Resistance while quietly walking away from the failures and unpopular legacy of Bush- and Obama-style school reform.

Consider Promise54, a new “talent solution provider” with the laudable goal of helping educational organizations place more minority individuals in executive roles and become more diverse and inclusive. Like UnboundEd, Promise54’s list of “client-partners” is a who’s who of school reform circa 2018, including KIPP, Teach For America (TFA), the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, Teach Plus, Democracy Prep, the Data Quality Campaign, UnboundEd, and so on.

Promise54 was launched in conjunction with the release of Unrealized Impact, a 2017 report heralded by its sponsor, NewSchools Venture Fund, as the “most comprehensive study ever done on diversity, equity and inclusion in the education sector.” This “comprehensive” study is more notable, however, for how narrowly it conceives diversity. Even while citing Merriam-Webster to define “diversity” — as “the presence of different types of people (from a wide range of identities and with different perspectives, experiences, etc.)” — the report discards every consideration other than race in its analysis.

It ultimately found that senior staff at educational organizations weren’t “racially representative of the students they serve.” Yet better recruiting or affirmative action weren’t deemed adequate responses. Rather, as report co-author Xiomara Padamsee, the co-founder and CEO of Promise54, argues, the problem is “white dominant culture” and its “systems, structures, stories, rituals, and behaviors.” The answer, she says, is to disrupt such sources of oppression as “data-based decision-making,” hiring practices that “prioritiz[e] speed and efficiency,” and performance-management systems that “habitually recognize and reward staff performance based on ‘merit.’” Only by “interrupting” such practices, Padamsee ex­plains, can education “make good on the promise of equity.”

While UnboundEd and Promise54 were born “woke,” the pillars of a less ideological reform tradition are also embracing the zeitgeist. As Sohrab Ahmari recounted last year in Commentary, Teach For America, once regarded as perhaps the most bipartisan organization in school reform, has become “a platform for radical identity politics and the anti-Trump ‘resistance.’” As envisioned by founder Wendy Kopp nearly 30 years ago, he noted, “TFA concentrated on the things that educators and school leaders could control,” “emphasize[d] self-help and uplift,” and “accept[ed] friends and allies across political divides.” But on issues ranging from immigration policy to affirmative action to ideological debates, “TFA’s leaders have now fully enlisted the organization in the culture war.”

The iconic KIPP charter schools, featured onstage at the 2000 Republican National Convention and long celebrated by Left and Right, are seemingly bent on leaving that history behind as well. KIPP’s annual leadership-development institute offers an array of sessions “exploring the psychology of implicit bias” and “others’ experiences of oppression.” In 2016, CEO Richard Barth told KIPP’s annual summit that KIPP must “make sure our schools are absolutely imbued with culturally re­sponsive pedagogy and content” and “commit to show up on issues of social justice.” Barth proceeded to list the values KIPP shares with Black Lives Matter before lighting a candle in support of BLM:

Black Lives Matter believes in restorative justice. We at KIPP believe in restorative justice. Black Lives Matter believes in the power and importance of identity. Of personal identity and the celebration of it. We believe in the power and importance of identity. 

While schools absolutely should value students’ cultural backgrounds and fight to advance equality, wary observers are right to be dubious about what it means when educators pledge to “show up” for ideological agendas and left-wing activism. After all, school reformers have developed a habit of taking notions that enjoy broad appeal — such as seeking ways to empower disadvantaged communities or make everyone feel welcome and valued — only to transform them into parodies of progressive politics. Worse still, this advocacy comes wrapped in the garb of self-impressed, specious junk science.

To demonstrate implicit racial bias in school discipline, for instance, UnboundEd’s Gerson cites a much-discussed Yale study finding that preschool teachers (particularly black teachers) “show a tendency to more closely observe black students, and especially boys.” Yet teachers were still no more likely to recommend suspending or expelling black students than white students, nor boys than girls — a fact Gerson failed to point out. She’s not alone: Bizarrely, this finding was omitted from the study’s “Conclusions and Implica­tions” section, as well as Yale’s accompanying press release. Instead, any “evidence” of racial bias affecting discipline arises wholly from researchers’ speculation. As lead researcher Walter Gilliam said, when asked about the lack of evidence of implicit bias, “If you don’t find it, it’s not necessarily proof it isn’t there.” Convenient, that.

Nowhere is the dubious nature of woke “science” more clearly displayed than in the continued reliance upon the aforementioned Implicit Association Test. Like KIPP and the New York City Education Department, UnboundEd also embraces this Harvard University–hosted assessment. The most popular measure of implicit bias since its 1998 creation, the IAT has been cited in thousands of peer-reviewed papers and taken online over 17 million times as of 2015. Even so, it’s bunk, failing to meet even basic scientific standards of replicability. Last year, scholars from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of Vir­ginia, and Harvard — including one of the IAT’s three creators — examined 499 studies conducted over 20 years and found “little evidence that changes in implicit bias mediate changes in explicit bias or behavior.” One of the researchers told the Chronicle of Higher Education, “There’s not necessarily strong evidence for the conclusions people have drawn.”

Two decades ago, on his path to the White House, President George W. Bush famously decried the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” embracing school reform as a bipartisan cause in which Republicans and Democrats would to­gether tackle the individual and systemic failings that left too many children be­hind. He sought to take a racially tinged problem and approach it in an aspirational way that would unify those of good faith on the right and the left. Today, school reform’s new Jacobins have given up on anything so bourgeois — opting instead for a hard left turn into identity politics.

Given school reform’s uneven legacy, and the continuing imperfections of American education and society writ large, progressive education reformers have seemingly decided that the answer is to racialize it, all of it — to view every educational failing and unequal outcome as a manifestation of an amorphous, all-consuming racial animus. Indeed, this bias is so pervasive, you see, that the only way to expunge our guilt is to admit complicity; fund the conferences, buy the curricula, or hire the consultants; and agree to be reeducated.

The conservative policymakers, philanthropists, and pundits who have supported and fought for school reform over the past quarter-century need to appreciate how far all this has strayed from what they signed up for. Many names and programs from a decade ago may still seem familiar, but what they represent is not. It’s past time to insist that school reformers choose between old alliances and their new hobbyhorse — and make clear that conservatives will no longer champion or countenance a vision of “reform” that pits Americans against one another in the service of junk science and performative wokeness.

— Mr. Hess is the director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of Letters to a Young Education Reformer. Mr. Addison is the program manager for education policy studies at AEI.

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