The Education Muddle

Perhaps you’ve heard of Asian American controversialist Arthur Hu, a staunch critic of racial preferences and many other aspects of American life. He’s an odd duck, but he does have a nose for striking facts. Consider the following, from a column on the 2006 results of the OECD’s PISA report.

The United States was way below the international average in science and below the average for industrialized nations.

That sounds familiar enough.

What didn’t make news were figures broken down by race for the United States. While blacks and Hispanics lagged, whites actually led Asian Americans 523 to 499, with the best Asian nations scoring from 522 for Korea to 542 for Hong Kong. Hispanic Americans at 439 outscored Thailand at 421, which wasn’t much higher than 409 for African Americans.

This is a pretty extraordinary gap. My guess is that differences in family structure across groups would account for a significant share of the gap. After reading the Hu column, I thought of Orlando Patterson’s principle of infrangibility.

Some problems, of course, are characteristic of certain groups, the result of their peculiar history, socioeconomic environment and cultural adaptation to life in this country. This is as true of urban Afro-Americans as it is of rural Anglo-Americans in Appalachia or Asians. Thus we might ask why mass murders seem exclusively the doing of young white men who often come from the middle class.

What is at issue here is the principle of infrangibility: our conception of normalcy and of what groups constitute our social body — those from whom we cannot be separated without losing our identity, so that their achievements become our own and their pathologies our failures.

We should speak not simply of black poverty but of the nation’s poverty; not the Italian-American Mafia problem but the nation’s organized crime problem; not the pathologies of privileged white teen-age boys but, yes, Mr. Bennett, of all our unloved, alienated young men.

It’s an interesting and powerful notion, but of course it runs counter to Afro-American exceptionalism: the idea that the experience of enslavement and segregation was so uniquely destructive as to leave a deleterious impact. We either believe this or we don’t. Racial preferences have a powerful moral weight if we do believe this. If we don’t, the uneven outcomes are best seen through an individualist lens: embrace the bourgeois virtues, monitor your children and their peers, etc. I actually don’t think this one is a no-brainer. I do think the individualist lens, an imperfect way to describe it, is fundamental a more respectful, egalitarian way of looking at the world.

But I’d like to highlight a slightly different issue. When the US PISA results are announced, there’s usually a lot of fretting over the state of American K-12 education. A 2007 Gallup Poll found that 51 percent of Americans are at least somewhat dissatisfied with the quality of US public schools. Another poll, conducted by Gallup and Phi Beta Kappa in 2003, asked a different question of public school parents: how would you grade the schools in your community. A significant majority gave their schools As and Bs.

Bear with me.

Given that K-12 schools are delivering very impressive outcomes for a large slice of the population, does it make sense to pursue centralized “solutions” that might undermine the quality of the many schools that are performing pretty well?

The idea of an education crisis rests, it seems, on the views of people who (a) aren’t public school parents or (b) are public school parents who are pleased with their public schools but are worried in the abstract about the quality other public schools. Then, of course, there is the not insignificant number of people who © are dissatisfied with their public schools.

My own sense is that are public schools aren’t doing as well as they should, even for middle-class suburbanites, and that parents should expect more. At the same time, we ought to be realistic about what schools can achieve. One of my favorite articles on the subject was written by James Traub in 2000, “What No School Can Do.”

An alternative explanation, of course, is that educational inequality is rooted in economic problems and social pathologies too deep to be overcome by school alone. And if that’s true, of course, then there’s every reason to think about the limits of school, and to think about the other institutions we might have to mobilize to solve the problem. We might even ask ourselves whether there isn’t something disingenuous and self-serving in our professed faith in the omnipotence of school.

But here’s the tragic irony. Most of the people smart enough to recognize that there is no silver bullet for reforming the schools, who recognize that we have poured billions of dollars into raising educational outcomes for at-risk children with distressingly little to show for it, also believe that we could use the same approach — more money, more social work, anything but self-help — to solve the far more vexing “economic problems and social pathologies” Traub describes. So the naiveté is simply displaced.

The reform I like most is the one proposed by the Hamilton Project, Summer Opportunity Scholarships. I know, it’s a bit ridiculous that I’d peddle my pet reform at this point. But the proposal is admirably pragmatic.

Children from disadvantaged families experience greater losses in skills during summer vacations than do their more advantaged counterparts. Several studies provide evidence that summer school or summer enrichment programs are effective interventions for stanching this summer learning loss.

Summer learning loss, after all, is cumulative. Gaps grow wider over time. This is an opportunity to arrest that gap by isolating children, to some very limited extent, from environments that aren’t as nurturing as they could be. I fear that sounds heartless, but also sound. And of course I favor some form of school choice, particularly public school choice approaches built around the weighted student formula. Let’s take it one step at a time.