"Critical Race Theory" and actual education policy, part one

A dangerous attack on efforts to measure learning

The last few years have seen a demagogic conservative push against the use of “critical race theory” in schools. This effort has featured some obvious villains, including policy entrepreneurs exploiting the issue for gain and racist parents getting mad about children learning the story of Ruby Bridges.

If you are so inclined (and many progressives are), you can point to the bigots and the opportunists and dismiss the whole thing as fake or a “moral panic.”

But I think we’ve seen that this is electorally unconvincing. Beyond that, though, I’d say that it’s substantively unconvincing. The country was roiled by a huge racial reckoning last year, and the truth is that there have been changes. Some of those changes have been positive, some have been negative, and some are things adults love to fight about but that aren’t actually very important for children. And it’s worth trying to understand and evaluate those changes.

This is an enormous issue that warrants (at least) a two-part post. Today’s is about three related and widespread trends in progressive education circles:

  1. Extended closures of schools that hurt students’ measured learning outcomes and widened the racial gap in measured learning outcomes

  2. The adoption of racial equity initiatives with little demonstrated efficacy in improving outcomes

  3. The stigmatization of the kinds of tests that are our main tool for assessing whether or not children are learning

Democrats at the national level largely have not endorsed these ideas, but they have been pushed by a number of state and local governments, and elected Democratic leaders have generally not spoken out vocally against them. That trend is, I think, both politically damaging and substantively bad. If we stigmatize tests because they tell us bad news about racial gaps in academic achievement and then flood the zone with questionable initiatives whose efficacy we refuse to even try to measure, bad things are going to happen to the country.

School closures were an educational disaster

Virginia’s public schools (like many across the country) suffered a catastrophic collapse in measured student learning due to schools being largely closed in 2020-21.

These closures have been widely criticized, even in the liberal media, which is to their credit but also goes to show what an egregious policy error this was. This is not something that impacted most people, and some of the people who were impacted believe (wrongly) that school officials did the right thing. But I think that non-impacted liberals tend to underrate the real anger this unleashed on the part of the people who were impacted and disagreed. Having schools closed turned life upside down for parents of young kids. It appears to have had a devastating impact on children’s learning. And while some Covid countermeasures (promoting vaccination most of all) are demonstrably successful at saving lives, there’s very little evidence that school closures were a useful public health intervention — especially relative to a scenario where schools are open with countermeasures in place.

I also think progressive non-parents underrate the extent to which schools are still burdened with fairly draconian quarantine rules. Close contacts of positive Covid cases can’t simply wait a day, take a rapid test, and return if clear — they need to miss multiple days of school.

And although school closures were harmful to everyone, they were especially damaging to marginalized students, and they appreciably increased racial gaps.

The underlying situation here was a bit nuanced. All available evidence is that in blue areas, the (mostly white) educated professional parents were more annoyed by school closures than the (disproportionately Black) working-class parents. At the same time, educated professional parents were objectively better-equipped (in terms of schedule flexibility, human capital, and literal equipment) to supervise remote learning. But if you think it’s important for kids to learn to read and write and do math (and one of my contrarian takes is that it is), then these closures were bad for everyone and catastrophic for Black kids.

Questionable DEI initiatives

At the same time that this was happening, education bureaucracies were rolling out ambitious equity strategies that involved creating new layers of administration. Virginia’s Road Map to Equity says that every school or district should have a dedicated full-time equity lead, who in turn needs to form a larger Equity Action Team.

I live in D.C. and am thankful that DCPS did a much better job than the surrounding suburbs of moving to reopen the schools. Unfortunately, the practical result of this in local politics is that the teachers’ union and union-aligned members of the D.C. Council are now pushing to curb mayoral control of the school system and adopt the kind of system they use in San Francisco and other West Coast cities where union allies were able to keep schools closed all year.

And this, rather than the creation of Equity Action Teams, is the key education equity issue: do the schools serve the interests of the children who most need them?

In D.C., I don’t see anything particularly nutty happening in the classrooms. And as I say, our mayor has made mostly smart choices — or at least smarter than those I’ve seen in neighboring states. But the main office does have an Equity Strategy and Programming Team that churns out mostly low-quality recommendations. For example, a document giving teachers advice on how to discuss the George Floyd protests in a classroom setting sensibly suggests teachers should “point students to sources with contrasting political slant” and offers as an example that “they might contrast reporting on the same topic in The Progressive versus The Weekly Standard.”

The Weekly Standard, unfortunately, ceased publication in 2018. The author of the document seems to have copied and pasted some ideas from a pre-Floyd document into a different temporal context where the advice no longer makes sense. They also recommend that people read a bunch of Robin DiAngelo books and brag that “more than 2,000 DCPS staff have participated in Courageous Conversation training.” But is Courageous Conversation training a good idea? This NYT Magazine profile of the company and its founder made it sound pretty bad:

Singleton, who holds degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford, and who did stints in advertising and college admissions before founding what’s now known as Courageous Conversation in 1992, talks about white culture in similar ways. There is the myth of meritocracy. And valuing “written communication over other forms,” he told me, is “a hallmark of whiteness,” which leads to the denigration of Black children in school. Another “hallmark” is “scientific, linear thinking. Cause and effect.” He said, “There’s this whole group of people who are named the scientists. That’s where you get into this whole idea that if it’s not codified in scientific thought that it can’t be valid.” He spoke about how the ancient Egyptians had “ideas about how humanity works that never had that scientific-hypothesis construction” and so aren’t recognized. “This is a good way of dismissing people. And this,” he continued, shifting forward thousands of years, “is one of the challenges in the diversity-equity-inclusion space; folks keep asking for data. How do you quantify, in a way that is scientific — numbers and that kind of thing — what people feel when they’re feeling marginalized?” For Singleton, society’s primary intellectual values are bound up with this marginalization.

I don’t think Frankfurt School Marxists are going to take over society by injecting these ideas into K-12 schools or anything like that. What I so think is that time and money is being wasted on initiatives that are run by people who are somewhere between stupid and fraudulent.

And it’s important to take that seriously, not just because someone somewhere may take these goofy ideas seriously (see prior commentary about Tema Okun), but because fiscal tradeoffs are real. Dollars spent on DEI trainings that come with zero proof of efficacy are dollars that can’t be invested in things like D.C.’s successful teacher bonus pay program, updating school air conditioning, improving school lunches, reducing kids’ exposure to air pollution and lead poisoning, or any of the other various interventions that have decent evidence behind them.

A move against measurement

Of course when I say that investing in higher quality school lunches is good for kids’ learning, what I mean is that it’s good as measured on standardized tests.

Standardized testing has become a weird discourse flashpoint, but I think everyone agrees that you can, in principle, assess someone’s competence in a given subject area with a test. And if you want to compare different people, you need to give them the same test. It’s only by making comparisons across classrooms and across time that we are able to persuasively demonstrate that particulates are bad for school performance, healthy meals are good for school performance, and air conditioning improves school performance in the summer.

All this would be uncontroversial, I think, except teachers’ unions don’t like the idea of assessing teachers based on their job performance. Even a system like D.C.’s that has resulted in very large increases in teacher pay is met with tons of union resistance because strict seniority-based pay structures tend to serve the interests of the unions’ core constituency. But nobody seriously thinks all teachers are equally skilled or that every teacher with 17 years on the job is strictly superior to a teacher with four years on the job. So to make a case against performance measurement, you end up making arguments against the quality of the measurement tool — tests.

This line of thought was not gaining a ton of practical political traction, however, until it linked up with an antiracism argument.

Ibram X. Kendi argued that “standardized tests have become the most effective racist weapon ever devised to objectively degrade Black and Brown minds” in an interview highly touted by the National Education Association. He believes in this strongly and has said it repeatedly. He also espouses the related notion that “the academic achievement gap is a racist idea.” This completely inverts the logic of the Clinton-Bush-Obama era of education policy which took African American students’ relatively weak academic performance to be a problem to be solved by improving school performance. Kendi’s argument is that if a metric shows Black kids doing worse than white ones, that means the metric is racist by definition.

This line of thinking has gotten a lot of play over the past year, especially in controversies about who should get into various magnet schools.

I am not persuaded that this magnet school argument is actually important. But I am absolutely persuaded that the crusade against measuring learning outcomes and the inversion of the achievement gap concept are important. It’s actually very important to try to measure how people are doing in school.

Now to be clear, very few Democrats have gone full Kendi on this, even as they play footsie with the idea. But as Jonathan Chait wrote at the beginning of the year, the party has walked away from Obama-era ideas like promoting high-quality charter schools. I think to most practical politicians, that’s a basic political calculus — they decided the juice isn’t worth the squeeze if it antagonizes elements of the base. And it’s not just narrow interest group politics. A referendum to allow Massachusetts’ small-but-successful charter sector to expand failed at the ballot box.

But again, if you take the test scores seriously, it’s hard to see the case against letting KIPP and the other top-performing networks expand. But if you don’t want to reach that conclusion, it’s convenient to just decide that taking tests seriously is racist.

What everyone really wants to do is yell about history classes

One of several reasons why I think that the anti-test push is misguided is that, as we’ll discuss tomorrow, it’s not the case that every DEI initiative is questionable.

There are curriculum interventions that have demonstrated efficacy in improving Black and Hispanic student engagement and are worth fighting for, even if they annoy culturally conservative parents. There’s also a lot of yelling about the content of history curricula where there’s very little evidence to think that it actually matters. And there are a whole bunch of banal but proven ways to help kids, especially disadvantaged ones, do better in school that don’t touch on culture war flashpoints but do involve crossing critical GOP red lines like “wanting to help poor people” or “caring about pollution.”

If Democrats are willing and able to make a strategic retreat from the dead-end of Kendi-ism, they can mount a strong defense for some school DEI initiatives and also for old-fashioned progressive ideas like feeding hungry children. But you’d also have to be open, in the way that Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were, to some education policy ideas that teachers’ unions dislike — differentiating teacher pay based on ability and allowing effective charter school networks to expand.

All that and more tomorrow.