White kids can't read, either (and other unacknowledged truths)

“Son. As a boy growing up in Jamaica, I learnt to be a mon. I was a mon, full-stop. It wasn’t until I came to this country that I realized I was a black man.”

Speaking in the patois of his beloved Caribbean nation, my now deceased father Vincent would often share with me some of the struggles he experienced emigrating to America. He described what it was like to grow up in an island country where success or failure was seen as a result of your individual effort rather than racial group identity, given that virtually everyone in Jamaica was black. He contrasted that to his life in the United States, where he was constantly reminded of what he could not or should not do because of his race.

Indeed, he marveled at how Americans, black or white, obsessed over skin color. There was a certain way to “talk black and act black,” or “talk white and act white.” (Other races didn’t seem to matter.)

My father found it maddening how frequently certain negative behaviors—like committing crime or living in poverty—were equated with being black, even though the raw numbers of non-Hispanic whites in prison or on welfare far exceeded any other racial category.

Even today, whites are the racial group with, by far, the most arrests for violent crimes, and the most number of births to unmarried women. Particularly vexing is the stereotyping of black women as “welfare queens,” when, as Table 1 indicates, whites comprise the largest group collecting SNAP/food stamps at nearly 18 million, more than five million more than the next closest racial group.

Table 1. Participation in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program by race and ethnicity of the household head, 2013

Race

Total participants

Percentage of all participants

White*

17,807,000

37.8%

African American*

12,172,000

25.8%

Hispanic, any race

7,571,000

16.1%

Asian*

1,148,000

2.4%

Native American*

657,000

1.6%

Multiple races*

360,000

0.8%

Race unknown

7,382,000

15.7%

*Not Hispanic
Source: “Characteristics of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Households: Fiscal Year 2013” United States Department of Agriculture, Report No. SNAP-14-CHAR (December 2014) (Table A.23, page 59).

Conversely, my dad was shocked at how frequently positive behaviors—like studying hard, being smart, or being a good father—were associated with being white and specifically being not black. As if aspiring to obtain these traits would be a betrayal to the race.

This tendency to primarily see the world through a prism of race, and to associate bad outcomes with being black and good outcomes as exceptions to one’s blackness, is a phenomenon I see regularly repeated by leaders, funders, and researchers in the education reform community.

Like baseball fans who religiously track homeruns and RBIs, education reformers slavishly evaluate academic progress by disaggregating student performance into narrow groupings of race and income level. For example, NAEP results are provided for “groups of students defined by shared characteristics—gender, race/ethnicity, eligibility for free/reduced-price lunch, students with disabilities, English language learners, type of school and location, and highest level of parental education.”

Fair enough. It is important to track student performance by certain groupings, especially for those that have experienced discrimination. Thus the often reported and debilitating mantra of the black-white student achievement gap.

But data that shows differences in black-white achievement doesn't explain why those differences exist. The mere existence of a racial achievement gap between blacks and whites doesn't prove that the gap is caused by structural racism against black students, nor does it support the repulsive notion that black students are inherently inferior to whites.

Yet leaders in education reform consistently make the error of mistaking correlation (differences by race) for causation (differences due to race or racism), completely ignoring other demographic factors—like the explosion in unplanned, out-of-wedlock pregnancies and births—that are too taboo to discuss.

As a result, education reformers and entire networks of public charter schools fixate on closing the “racial achievement gap,” even though the white student standard of accomplishment is itself mediocre at best. To understand the implications of an overemphasis on racial gaps, consider these data from the 2013 and 2015 NAEP reading exams:

  • On the 2013 NAEP exam in West Virginia, the Schott Foundation Black Boys Report shows that the percentage of black male eighth graders reading at proficiency was 18.7 percent, while the white male eighth grader proficiency rate was 19.7 percent. It would be a Pyrrhic victory if that whopping 1-percentage-point racial achievement gap were closed, but the tragedy still remained that less than one in five black and white eighth grade boys were reading at proficiency.
  • On the 2015 NAEP exam nationally, fewer than half of all white fourth grade students read at proficiency, meaning that the gap between white student performance of 46 percent and 100 percent proficiency was almost twice the so-called black-white achievement gap. To estimate the raw numbers of fourth grade students by race not reading at proficiency, in Table 2, I pulled final birth data from the CDC’s 2007 National Vital Statistics Reports and paired them with the percentage of fourth grade students who performed at or above the Proficient achievement level in reading on the 2015 NAEP exam.

Table 2. 2015 NAEP 4th grade reading data by race

Race

Estimated Number of 4th Graders in 2015
(A)

Percent of 4th graders at or above the NAEP Proficient level in reading, 2015
(B)

Number of 4th graders NOT reading at grade level by race
(A*(100%-B))

White

2,310,333

46%

1,247,580

African American

627,191

18%

514,297

Hispanic

1,062,779

21%

839,595

Sources: Joyce A. Martin, M.P.H, et al., “Births: Final Data for 2007,” United States Department of Health and Human Services (August 2010) (estimated number of babies born in 2007, used to compute the estimated number of fourth graders in 2015); “The Nation’s Report Card: 2015 Math and Reading Assessments,” United States Department of Education (accessed March 21, 2017).

My father would no doubt scratch his head to see that more than 1.2 million white fourth graders are not reading at proficiency, far surpassing any other racial group. Yes, whites have higher absolute numbers because they represent a larger percent of the population, but why is the dominant narrative almost exclusively focused on institutional racism when children of all races are not succeeding at reading?

Meanwhile, this obsession with closing the racial achievement gap masks the needs of high-achieving black students who must endure the low expectations of teachers whose growth mindsets have undoubtedly been pummeled by this unrelenting message of black student failure.

These staggering numbers of failed reading proficiency underscore our nation’s massive collective failure to effectively teach literacy and build verbal proficiency across all races. It also shatters the accepted truth that racism is the sole or even primary cause of low proficiency rates among all Americans.

According to the 2015 NAEP, only 34 percent of all American fourth grade students of all races performed at or above the Proficient achievement level in reading. This is as much a crisis now as when A Nation at Risk was published more than three decades ago, warning that “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.”

What else could be a plausible causal factor to explain why so many American students of all races cannot read at grade level? Notice in the litany of NAEP tracking demographics a glaring omission: the preoccupation with measurement of student performance by race and income level essentially crowds out any other key demographic measure—most notably family structure, despite its overwhelming correlation to a wide range of positive or negative child outcomes, including the number of words heard, vocabulary acquisition, and literacy.

Consider a 2016 MIT research study that assessed the family characteristics and academic, disciplinary, and high school graduation records for more than one million children born in Florida between 1992 and 2002. One of the report’s key conclusions was that “a sizable portion of the documented minority-white difference in educational and behavioral gender gaps is attributable to higher degrees of family disadvantage among minority families.”

Imagine if the National Center for Education Statistics and other researchers were bold enough to begin disaggregating academic outcomes by family structure as loyally as they do by race.

If they did, we would see revealing results like those in Figure 1, which come from a powerful longitudinal study that used data from a nationally representative sample of families and their children, engaging 6,072 individuals, spanning thirty-one cohorts of children born between 1954 and 1985.

Figure 1. The growing schooling gap

Source: Ariel Kalil, Greg J. Duncan and Kathleen M. Ziol-Guest, “One-Parent Students Leave School Earlier,” Education Next (Spring 2015) (author’s calculated “based on smoothed time-series data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics).

In this case, a picture is worth a thousand words. As the authors of the study state, “the negative relationship between living with a single parent and educational attainment has increased markedly since [1965]. In other words, American children raised in single-parent homes appear to be at a greater disadvantage educationally than ever before.”

Moreover, we would start to see that the underlying conditions undermining academic success and mobility in the black community are now doing the same in the white community. As the New York Times just reported, the recent increase in dysfunctional behavior among non-college white men correlates with the substantial increase in the rate of white nonmarital births, up from 22.2 percent in 1993 to 35.7 percent in 2014. In 1965, the white nonmarital birth rate was 3.4 percent.

***

I hope my father would be proud of the job my wife and I are now doing to raise a beautiful five-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter. We are neither naive nor delusional enough to not prepare them for a world in which they will likely face some form of racial discrimination. But whatever racial discrimination any child may face pales in comparison to the likely consequences for their life if they were to have an unplanned child out of wedlock before the age of twenty-four, or were to leave a child fatherless.

There are well-meaning political and cultural analysts who make weak arguments that family structure matters not so much, and that money and power are most important to ensure positive outcomes for kids. Moreover, there are serious researchers who make the case that there is nothing immoral about having kids young and not graduating from high school. But after reviewing reams of data and invoking common sense, I side with those that rightfully claim the family-structure “deniers” are wrong.

Yet, while researchers bicker and the rest of the education reform community remains pathetically mute on the explosion in out-of-wedlock birth rates, an estimated 1.2 million unmarried women under the age of twenty-four will have unplanned pregnancies in 2017, with near certain negative consequences for themselves, their babies, and their babies’ babies, catalyzing another multi-generational cohort of despair.

It does not have to be this way.

While many of us fight to dismantle the structural barriers of institutional racism, the lives of our children cannot wait. In a world with no guarantees, the greatest power to control their own destiny lies within the personal choices they make every day. The empowering message we must instill in our children is that no one of any race holds dominion over them.

To do our jobs as educators and parents, we must have the courage to turn away from our existing pattern of willful blindness. We must teach our students of all races that there is a sequence of life choices—college, job, marriage, children (in that order)—that will give them and their future children the greatest likelihood of life success. 

Ian Rowe
Ian Rowe is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute