America has equality under the law and larger employers are actively trying to end discrimination in hiring and promotions- so why the persistent failure to close racial attainment gaps in the American economic system? In a phrase, a significant portion of the disparity can be put down to the educational ‘pipeline’ of American style of K-12. First, it's not about money (although there may well be a case for such at the extremes). States which use redistributive policies to focus resources in areas where gaps in attainment are most persistent achieve very little for their money. Second, much as we should value teachers for their commitment to public service, they are not worth their weight in gold. Studies show that the gap between an adequate and an excellent teacher can lead to educational outcomes which are 10% higher. More important is the gap between an adequate teacher and an inadequate one- with outcomes dropping by a precipitous 35%.
Roland Fryer is perhaps better known for his research on policing, both in terms of correcting inaccurate narratives involving police shootings, as well as proving that viral incidents involving police shootings are directly responsible for what has been termed the Ferguson effect. But just as important is previous research he performed on education in Texas. Don't let the argument between charter and regular public schools fool you. What his research really proves is that the absence of inadequate or grossly inadequate teachers, paired with an aspirational environment and structured low-level discipline policies which set the standards high for behaviour can significantly raise academic performance. In these circumstances gaps in performance with standardised tests effectively halved between underperforming minority groups and whites.
But this isn't the only way in which the progressive model of education fails- not to be confused with progressive politics. Child-centred education in which the child 'discovers' knowledge rather than being taught it by a teacher in teacher-led more traditional education, may have some efficacy- but it hugely inefficient by comparison to the spoon-feeding of knowledge. The main reason why progressive teachers complain about teaching for tests in because their inefficient methodology automatically means that there class will fall behind with their curriculum, meaning they need to rush to complete the curriculum content as the semester for tests looms large. Critically, most higher performing non-selective private schools are forced to operate a more traditional approach to education because there ‘brand’ is built upon academic results.
‘Whole word’ has had a disastrous impact on education for the less well advantaged, when not taught alongside the simple innovation of phonics, or 'sounding out' words. To be sure, there is some utility in teaching whole word, for the simple reason that a child may have never encountered a word that appears in a text. But phonics is far better for everyone who is not dyslexic and for 90% to 95% of words a child will encounter when reading. The absence of phonics in many American schools leads to massive advantage to parents with better educational backgrounds, for the simple reason that when they listen to their children read, and begin to lay the foundations of literacy by taking teaching upon themselves, they naturally default to phonics they learned in their own childhood. If we consider that a child receives knowledge from three main sources- their school, their parents and their peer group, then the absence of phonics in a school setting, like so many other aspects of a quality education, only amplifies the advantage of having an upper middle class family (more likely to be white) and highly educated parents.
But ‘progressive’ education is also at fault- it promotes terrible ideas, whilst ignoring scientifically proven ones which could have a huge positive impact. One of the most recent educational myths I've looked into is VARK- the idea that one can separate people by the way they prefer to learn- do you prefer to learn by visual, auditory, reading or kinetic (psychical) means. No doubt there was some hope that these differences in learning preferences might be a potential source of disparity. Not so- although people do possess definable differences in the style of learning which they most prefer, a number of high quality studies have shown that learning-style preference has absolutely no impact of educational attainment or outcomes. You may prefer looking at diagrams and reading text to understand the workings of the internal combustion engine, but if forced to get your hands dirty and take an engine apart (and provided you are learning the same information), you will get exactly the same marks on your course.
We've known exactly how the human brain learns for decades. It's called Cognitive Load Theory, and it explains many of the reasons why two people of equivalent mental ability might perform drastically differently if asked to perform slightly more complex mental maths. Simply put, working memory is puny and we rely upon long-term memory to perform any task beyond the most basic. If you are trying to multiply a two digit number by a two digit number in your head, it is not enough to be able to work out 6 x 9- you have to have the number 54 committed to memory, ingrained in your knowledge store. Otherwise you won't be able to conveniently store this number to one side, whilst working out the rest of the mental maths problem.
This one simple observation has profound implication for the way we learn and the disparities we see. It effects your vocabulary, your ability to construct grammatically correct sentences. Crucially, it has a huge impact on the potential to enjoy reading for pleasure, because if you are constantly struggling with the basics of literacy it makes for a less enjoyable experience, and one in which the larger meaning of the text sails right over your head. But if the question is how much influence does such a profoundly clear understanding of how we learn have on the educational theories proposed by academics in the education field have- the answer is very little.
Here in the UK we have long since instituted Offsted, the inspectorate for schools- which despite its occasional infatuation with progressive educational fads has been extremely effective at remedying or removing inadequate or grossly inadequate teaching within the profession, In recent years, the championing of traditional and academy style education under the auspices of the then Education Secretary Michael Gove has seen PISA scores rise in England and Wales, whilst Scotland- pursuing a more progressive model has continued to see its once proud educational attainment fall. Perhaps the most significant benefit has been a closing of gap in terms of racial disparities in educational attainment, as well as a more specifically defined closing of the gap in terms of IQ- with an entire national school years’ worth of psychometric IQ tests administered to 12 year olds in 2011/2012 showing that the gap had shrunk to 5 or 6 points- more than the 10 point gap reflected in the relative poverty-related Free School Meals data.
But it's not just schools. One of the most persistent and easily definable elements of true systemic racism, relates to the ability of white parents to exclude bad or disruptive influences in the school year and peer group of their children, both within education and socially. Disruptive influences are quickly expelled in a private school environment and this also holds true in pastoral public schools. Often the decision is crouched in the hand-wringing terms of considering that the horrible little monster is finally receiving the specialist help that they need, but ultimately the results are the same- disruptive kids who could potentially be bad influences are systemically removed from the peer groups and schools of middle class and above white children.
Meanwhile, Black kids in the worst parts of the public education system are routinely forced to go to school with other kids who have physically attacked teachers or sexually assaulted students. Under the Obama Administration, evidence of disparity between Blacks and whites in terms of discipline and expulsion rates was seen as evidence of racism- when all the socio-economic and social evidence (as well as subsequent rates of criminal offending) suggested that African Americans would indeed possess higher rates of discipline, suspension and expulsion requirements. This deliberate effort to cut rates of discipline and suspensions has meant an unfolding disaster for Black kids in predominantly African American schools. It only takes modest and continuing disruption in schools to deprive a child of two full years worth of education by the time they leave K-12- and thanks to the perception that disparate discipline is a sign of racism, this disruption will fall most heavily on Black kids.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos ends a policy that subordinated safety to political correctness. (Article Text)
Here in the UK, we take a different tack. We have pupil referral units which at their best involve one-to-one sports coaching with a boxing instructor. It isn't always successful. Kids referred to pupil referral units in London are 200 times more likely to involved in a knife crime incident, either as a victim or offender. But it's far more preferable in terms of life outcomes than the American system and really does work in a lot of individual cases, because the American system is likely to produce more young men incarcerated in prisons for violent crimes, not fewer- broadening the school-to-prison pipeline to an industrial scale- for the simple reason that mixing prosocial boys with antisocial boys creates more antisocial boys amongst the prosocial group- not the reverse.
So to recap- here in the UK we've eliminated bad teachers. We've removed the worst aspects of the progressive teaching model, or at least partially mitigated them with more traditional elements of education. We have found a more humane way of dealing with disruptive boys, which makes them far less likely to go on to commit crime. As a result most of the differences in educational outcomes and performance have largely evaporated. The Afro Caribbean British cohort lags behind somewhat, but this is because like Bangladeshi British and White Working Class demographics they were exposed to incredibly harmful post-WWII government policies in housing and welfare, so similar to their African American counterparts. More recent African British schoolchildren outperform White British schoolchildren overall, and as a group account for the fact that average pay is equal between Blacks and Whites in the UK, for the 18 to 30 age group. What else? Well it's worth mentioning the experience of Northern Irish Catholics relative to their Protestant counterparts.
If one were to travel back in time, one would find Catholics to be subject to all manner of discriminatory practices in employment. These were removed. But how does a people who generally enjoyed a poorer level of living standard by virtually every socio-economic measure overtake their once wealthier Protestant counterparts in terms of education, wealth and income? With stronger communities, a higher rate of enduring stable family formation and two parent families who have the options provided by the division of labour to heavily invest time in their child's early childhood development.
It is worth noting that fathers have all manner of positive impacts, in terms of their children's development. Crucially cognitive development is improved as are motor skills. Even genetic longevity is improved- caused by greater telomere length through epigenetic nurture. Fathers also have a huge benefit at a community level, reducing juvenile violence and increasing social mobility- in Dr Raj Chetty's research on social mobility the rate of fathers in the community in which a child grows up is even more important than quality of education for upward social mobility. In this respect, substantially different rates of fatherhood by ethnicity have a huge impact on both upward social mobility and cognitive development.
In a recent podcast with Coleman Hughes, controversial academic Charles Murray was adamant in his belief in persistent racial IQ gaps (contrary to the views of many, myself included)- but he did caveat by stating that if we were able to the change the culture of underperforming groups then racial IQ gaps would shrink substantially. I don't think it’s culture in the way he means. It's simply that poverty in the West quickly becomes two problems. One is the pure socio-economics of adversity and growing up in less advantageous conditions. The other is the corrosive effect that an intergenerational lack of economic opportunity has, paired with the poorly calibrated efforts of government to help. If the often astounding economic performance of desperately poor incoming migrants is anything to go by, then the latter is far more harmful than the former.
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