April 16, 2008
Those who divvy up by race strain to justify it. The newest wrinkle comes from Fairfax County, Virginia, 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 are more developed than those of its black and Hispanic pupils. These conclusions, drawn from disparate data about attendance, disciplinary infractions, and teacher observations, manage to be 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 that cringe at the suggestion that their members might 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 nonstop rote instruction in the math and reading skills that NCLB tests.
Yet maybe NCLB's most worrisome feature is the part that usually elicits hosannas: its emphasis on "disaggregating" exam data by reporting separately on black kids, white kids, Asian kids, etc. Consensus holds that this approach has usefully illumined noisome achievement gaps in supposedly sterling public schools and has turned the nation's attention toward the plight of poor and minority students.
Perhaps so. Unremarked, though, is whether the authority that NCLB has given to racial culling will yield more positive or negative consequences over time. The Fairfax project suggests the latter. School board member Tina Hone told the Washington Post's Marc Fisher that "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."
Is that really a good thing to do in 21st Century America? Whereas reporting exam scores by race 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 lent legitimacy, even encouragement, to such neo-segregationist practices.
So the country's racial conversation grows ever more polarized 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. The same commentators then say our schools are still too segregated by race and steps should be taken to ameliorate that. More head-nodding. Unity does not arise from such inscrutable conversations.
What arises, generally, is more segregation. In Fairfax County, some have concluded from the report on "life-skills" that different races require different types of education, although they've couched the connection in euphemism. School board member Ilryong Moon said teachers should "have a full understanding of whom they teach, and their different learning styles and family backgrounds."
NCLB's well-intended focus on disaggregating education outcomes data encourages these statements, which are not important but are, in fact, profoundly distracting and ineffective--especially so when, as in Fairfax, "different learning styles" becomes another way of saying that different races should be taught differently. Such concerns evolve into making race-based assumptions about students' 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 intervene energetically when problems begin. That of course means leaving the race-based data behind.
This article originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on April 15th on National Review Online.