Anti-excellence dog whistles in the education media

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Jonathan Plucker, Ph.D.

A disappointingly flawed Education Week story on San Francisco initiatives to reduce advanced learning opportunities in middle school math has garnered lots of attention. It’s called “A Bold Effort to End Algebra Tracking Shows Promise,” and was written by Stephen Sawchuk, who has a well-deserved reputation for being an excellent reporter. I was out of the country when it appeared, and I assumed it would burn itself out by now. But alas, Ed Week continues to circulate the article, and people continue to talk about it.

Advocates for advanced learning can learn a lot from the piece, both about how the media tends to cover topics related to advanced learning and how educators often justify anti-excellence policies. In rereading the article, my attention was drawn to Sawchuk’s many anti-intellectual dog whistles more than underlying problems with the district’s policies. Others have noted those problems—perhaps none better than Kurt Vonnegut in his short story “Harrison Bergeron”—so I’ll focus on the dog whistles.

1. The headline

Journalists usually don’t write the headlines that accompany their piece, but there’s nothing “bold” about the policy change described in the story. As I discuss below, the city’s “effort to end algebra tracking” is a knee-jerk attempt in the name of equity that avoids any actual, bold interventions likely to produce long-term change. And the article provides zero convincing evidence of the policy “showing promise.” An equally biased title, albeit in the opposite direction, could be “A Misguided Effort to End Excellence in Middle School Math.”

2. The “parents are the problem” trope

This cliché is so tired that it amazes me editors continue to let it go unquestioned. Consider how parents are discussed in this story:

“…San Francisco has done away with one of the key avenues that the well-connected use to give their children an academic advantage.”

“Parents…barraged everyone from the district superintendent's office to City Hall with complaints and petitions.”

“…those disparities partly reflect parents' relative socioeconomic capital.”

“Students bring vast achievement differences to class, a situation that's not helped by ambitious parents who, now, shell out thousands of dollars for students to take non-district algebra classes over the summer in the hopes of getting their children into geometry early.”

Well-connected, pushy, complaining parents who have the gall to seek out private options for their children when the public options aren’t getting the job done. What a bunch of jerks!

Think about all the assumptions that underlie this cliché: That students only deserve a rigorous, differentiated education due to parental pressure; that removing “socioeconomic capital” somehow solves the problem of lower-income students being (from the district’s perspective) over-challenged in school; that the policy in question is correct and these parents have no legitimate concerns. Those assumptions are arguable at best and damaging at worst, and they distract from the real issue: how to get all students, regardless of skin color, family status, or zip code, performing at the highest levels possible.

Look, I get that parents can be pushy. But as a former K–12 teacher, I found that parents were often overly enthusiastic about advocating for their children across the ability spectrum. Would a reporter describe parents of children with special needs this way?

Parents should do what they believe to be in the best interest of their children. I’ve argued elsewhere that advocating for all students’ right to be challenged to the limits of their ability is part of that “best interest,” and I wish more parents with access to services were just as adamant about having their communities’ underserved students get similar access. But if the district’s solution to disproportionality is to scale back and eliminate advanced options, parents can’t be faulted for looking elsewhere. This is why having public programs for advanced learning is so important: Eliminating them only hurts high-ability, low-income students because families with resources, knowledge, and privilege find the opportunities elsewhere.

3. The “let’s call it tracking” trope

The use of the term “tracking” is always problematic. It reflects a long, ugly history of segregating students in tracks they can’t ever escape, and it’s a major dog whistle that raises people’s hackles. I don’t know of a single advocate for flexible ability grouping that calls the practice “tracking,” and using the term is offensive. That said, lots of people—including lots of journalists and even some advanced-learning advocates—do it. Why not just call it “educational segregation” and get people really angry?

Flexible ability grouping largely has the research on its side, despite the conventional wisdom that it doesn’t. And any grouping expert interviewed for the story would have pointed that out. In Sawchuk’s defense, he tweeted that he reached out to one grouping advocate but didn’t get a response. Sigh.

4. The “avoid important context” trope

The antipathy of the U.S. math education and middle school communities toward advanced learning is well known and longstanding. For example, a video by Stanford’s YouCubed and Citizen Film tries to make a case that labeling students as “gifted” is damaging to them, including testimonials from Stanford students about how they were disadvantaged by the label (ahem). Math educators often rail against ability grouping, acceleration, and other advanced learning interventions, and they aren’t shy about it. A case in point from the story:

“‘Tracking is an evil. But fear of tracking is a problem, because you do have to talk about differences in students' backgrounds,’ said Phil Daro, a common-core-math writer who helped San Francisco design the new course sequence.”

Tell us how you really feel! The numerous assumptions in that quote reflect a long-held bias in the mathematics education community against differentiation and instructional strategies that could facilitate it. That’s important context in a piece such as this, but it’s completely absent from the narrative. That absence gives these critics a free pass on having to defend their antipathy to advanced learning options.

5. The “participation equals performance” trope

As long as the intervention is working, all the other stuff doesn’t matter, right? Well, here’s how the article describes the evaluation evidence:

“This year, San Francisco got something of an ace in its back pocket to show skeptics of the plan: Data shows better math outcomes for students who took the de-tracked courses compared with the cohort before them.”

The data referenced in the article include the number of STEM credits earned in high school, Algebra I repeat rates, advanced math enrollment, and fewer poor grades in eighth grade math. Student achievement is not included, other than fewer D’s and F’s in grade eight, which could be a function of a less-rigorous curriculum. I noted that the decreased repeat rates are fantastic—in the literal sense of being hard to believe: Repeat rates for students with a low socioeconomic status dropped from 45 percent to 10 percent! Even if accurate, those data are almost certainly more complex than how they are represented by the district.

If these data constitute “an ace in [the district’s] back pocket,” it’s hard to imagine the card game the district is playing.

6. The “feel-good equity” trope

The story acknowledges that test score evidence remains lacking, which made me think, “another example of feel-good equity.” By this I mean that having demographics in a particular program (in this case, Algebra I) match the demographics of the district is a superficial form of equity that has marginal benefits for students and communities. This simplified, equity-can’t-coexist-with-excellence perspective is exemplified in another quote from the story by the district STEM director (again dissing parents):

“They think the earlier students distinguish themselves from their peers, the better off they'll be, rather than seeing math as a platform for equity.”

Huh, I thought math education was a platform for learning math. Far better, as Scott Peters and I have argued, is to “frontload” rigorous learning so students can capitalize on opportunities when provided. In other words, rather than remove advanced learning opportunities, raise the rigor of elementary school math so that low-income students are ready for Algebra I in eighth grade. That’s not impossible; it’s just a lot harder than removing advanced options.

I’ve spent the better part of my career arguing that equity and excellence are not competing concepts. But “feel-good equity” and excellence are diametrically opposed, competing concepts. Perversely, pursuing equity by removing differentiated learning opportunities reflects a lack of belief in underserved students’ ability to do advanced work—even though this educational philosophy masquerades as believing the exact opposite. That bias is present throughout the story.

A recent Atlantic article about the admissions process at New York City’s selective high schools is illustrative. The authors note that the city’s well-publicized problems with disproportionality in those schools may be self-inflicted. In a well-intended but misguided attempt to mandate equity, New York leaders made structural changes that drastically reduced low-income, Black, and Latinx access to rigorous learning opportunities:

New York’s elementary and middle schools are highly segregated, and until roughly three decades ago, nearly every middle school in New York City had an honors program. Kids in these programs got a great education. While black and Latino students in segregated schools may have missed out on certain educational and cultural benefits of learning alongside more white and Asian peers, these honors classes had the benefit of putting all the smart kids together so they could push each other. Many of them tested well and then ended up at a specialized high school.

In the early 90’s, city leaders did away with these honors programs. This, combined with the city’s expansion of school choice options, magnified the human tendency toward self-segregation. In other words, removing frontloading was a disaster and structural solutions to create “feel-good equity” didn’t work; if anything, they made the situation less equitable.

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My broader concern with Sawchuk’s Education Week article is that it and similar stories are appearing with increasing frequency. Historically, periods in which educators and policymakers paid heightened attention to advanced learning have been followed by backlashes that led to the criticism and elimination of many relevant programs. My fear is that we’re coming out of a period in which people have devoted significant energy to improving the education of advanced low-income and minority students, and into a time of increasing pushback against those programs. When we see anti-excellence biases reflected in the media, we need to call them out and do some pushing back of our own.

Jonathan Plucker is the Julian C. Stanley Endowed Professor of Talent Development at Johns Hopkins University.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.