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

The core problem is a dangerous attack on efforts to measure learning

In yesterday’s post I wrote about two recent trends in progressive education policy that have (rightly, I think) annoyed a lot of people: prolonged school closures and the view that standardized tests that show Black and Latino students doing worse than white and Asian ones reflect a failing of the tests rather than the school system.

School closures disproportionately hurt Black and Latino students, which many leftists in the education world responded to specifically by complaining about efforts to measure learning loss:

“The problem with the learning loss narrative is it is premised on a set of racialized assumptions and focused on test scores,” said Ann Ishimaru, an associate professor at the University of Washington College of Education who pushed back against framing the pandemic’s impact as children “falling behind.”

Even though it’s true, as Democrats say, that teachers are not “teaching Critical Race Theory in school,” it’s also true that Critical Race Theory has become influential in graduate schools of education and in left-wing thinking on education policy. Ishimaru, for example, frequently draws on CRT concepts or directly invokes them in her work. And as I learned when I read Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic’s primer “Critical Race Theory: An Introduction,” CRT scholars are very critical of test-best measurements of student learning, questioning the validity of the SAT, LSAT, and other tests.

And again if you read these scholars — or more popular writers like Ibram Kendi — they are not making narrow critiques of the sort you hear all the time from normal people like “I wish they didn’t do so much testing in my daughter’s school” or “high-stakes testing narrows the curriculum.” They are making the extremely strong claim that the whole enterprise is invalid. And that to me is antithetical to the important policy goal of making schools better in general and, in particular, of making them more effective at serving marginalized students.

The right is wrong about “ethnic studies”

It’s not all bad, of course. I wrote a post last year called “Culturally relevant pedagogy is good,” and I think it holds up.

Broadly speaking, it is helpful to have students be interested in the material, and generally (if not universally), people tend to be more interested in stuff that is about people like them than in stuff that feels alien.

That post primarily considered literature class decisions about which books to read. But a similar issue comes up in debates about ethnic studies classes. And here, too, it seems to me that the available research largely shows benefits. We should keep doing more studies as these programs scale up because a lot of educational interventions turn out not to scale. But the whole enterprise seems reasonable to me, and the haters are being dogmatic and bad.

Cranky old white people need to get out of their own bubble of conservatism and acknowledge that only half (and falling) of American kids are non-Hispanic whites, so what seemed relevant to most kids one or two generations ago may not be today. And it’s genuinely important for schools to teach kids about stuff that they are interested in. You could imagine a world in which we try to program social studies curricula exclusively with factually accurate and politically uncontroversial information about Paraguay, but it would be extremely uncompelling for most kids. But of course to students in Paraguay, the history of Paraguay feels vital and interesting.

It’s important to work to understand what kinds of course designs do and don’t have benefits.

I remember talking to one dad a few months ago who was annoyed by what he saw as an exaggeration of the importance of certain African American scientists whose careers were being touted during Black History Month. That seemed pretty dense to me. I’m not sure there’s an objective fact of the matter about how Garrett Morgan ranks in the annals of American inventors, but he did invent some pretty cool stuff. If talking about him in a school that’s 50% Black makes science and engineering seem more interesting to Black kids, then that’s a good reason to do it. We know from research that role models matter for innovation. We should try our best to check what works in these spaces, but we should then actually do the things that work.

The history stuff doesn’t seem very important

At the same time, we should be realistic about how important (or rather, unimportant) the details of some of these curriculum design questions are.

It’s important to keep in mind that there are 130,000 K-12 public schools in the United States, and most of them employ multiple history teachers. So even if 99% of history classroom instruction is perfect in every way, you could write a story every day about some egregious fuck up happening somewhere in either direction.

But the basic dilemma in school history classes is this: most academic historians are suspicious of American exceptionalism, cosmopolitan in their worldview, and left-wing in their politics. The country, however, is full of patriotic people who love American exceptionalism.

I threw in with the pro-patriotism school by writing “One Billion Americans,” but I am also an educated person living in the world. The history classes I took in college were about France, but my professor for those classes wrote a book called “Attendant Cruelties: Nation and Nationalism in American History.” You can guess from the title what he thinks of exceptionalist narratives.

It’s a good book. I would also absolutely recommend that people interested in history read Alan Taylor’s trilogy “American Colonies, American Revolutions, American Republics.” It’s very readable history, but also very real academic history, not founder propaganda. He delights in skewering the hypocrisy of American leaders and revels in the extent to which the prosperity of this great land was founded on barbaric and violent acts. Serious people should know these things. Taylor’s more narrowly focused book, “The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia 1772-1832,” is a great treatment of a topic that got sort of famously botched in one 1619 Project essay, which in turn launched a thousand rounds of tedious, oversimplified takes. People should read Du Bois on Reconstruction. They should read Barbara Fields on Racecraft. Serious people should read serious books and grapple with serious ideas.

That said, my view on this as a K-12 education issue has always had two parts:

  • Public schools are public, and to some extent, they inevitably have to reflect mass opinion. You can try to buck that trend and lose the school board election, handing all control over to right-wingers who don’t even think public schools should exist, or you can acknowledge that in a patriotic country you basically have to come up with a way to craft a patriotic narrative that’s also inclusive.

  • This is not actually very significant. The kids who are good at school will go on to attend selective colleges where they will absolutely be exposed to left-wing intellectuals’ thoughts on patriotism and American exceptionalism. The kids who are not good at school, meanwhile, are not paying close attention to the content of history classes.

It would be better to talk about things that really matter.

We should make education better

One silver lining in the school closures debacle is it showed that schooling actually matters quite a lot. I think it’s fair to say that we have a history in this country of overpromising how much the playing field can be leveled via education, but over the past 10 years, that’s led to an overcorrection in the direction of edu-pessimism. It’s become fashionable to say that nothing works in education and everything is futile or pointless.

But what we saw is that the difference between school being in session and school not being in session is actually very large, and if most educational interventions fail to deliver clear results, it’s because we are operating within a limited set of parameters.

I think another story here is that it’s hard to find successful education reforms that work at scale, which is why some of the most promising interventions are only slightly educational in nature. I mentioned some of these things yesterday, but students learn less on hot days, and this heat effect can be fully mitigated by installing air conditioning. Research also shows that investing in better school lunches leads to more learning. So does the installation of better air filters. I think Raj Chetty’s research on past changes to the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit gives us strong reason to believe that Biden’s proposed enhancements of these programs will help poor children learn more.

Those are fairly “easy” issues — they just take money.

A tougher issue is segregation, where we have an interesting debate between David Card and Jesse Rothstein, who question whether neighborhood segregation has a negative impact on learning separate from school segregation, and Jacob Vigdor and Jens Ludwig, who say that neighborhood segregation matters because it leads to school segregation. Either way, this is an issue that you tackle by changing zoning and other land-use rules, not by accepting segregation as an immutable fact of life and then establishing “racial affinity group” programs that aren’t backed by any evidence.

Last but by no means least, there is actual school stuff. Washington, D.C. started paying teachers higher salaries while making it easier to fire the very worst performers and delivering especially large pay increases in the best performers. As previously seen on Slow Boring, this appears to be working well, even though the Washington Teachers’ Union continues to perversely oppose it. Less perversely, teachers’ unions hate charter schools for the very sane and comprehensible reason that they employ non-union teachers. From a social standpoint, though, the important thing about charter schools is that they are, on average, just about average. But some charter school networks consistently deliver above-average results. The sensible policy approach is to close the worst-performing charter schools while allowing the best-performing networks to expand.

Fundamentally, I think a big tell about the “woke” turn in American education is that despite some large shifts in rhetoric and a big influx of DEI programming, the agendas of unions and their allies in graduate schools of education remain dominant. Racial equity is a focus, but not when it comes to charter schools or pandemic closures or teacher assignments or compensation schemes.

And that’s a shame, because I think the old-fashioned view that school quality is important to racial justice captures some important truths.

The enduring relevance of the pipeline

Over the past few years, we’ve seen growing impatience in progressive circles with institutional leaders who flag a “pipeline problem” as a reason for their institution’s lack of racial diversity.

And I understand where this impatience is coming from. When I started out in political journalism, the whole world of small D.C. magazines was overwhelmingly white, and while the white people who worked at the magazines were mostly very good journalists, the overall quality of the journalism was badly compromised by the lack of diversity in the room. Eventually some of the relevant leaders stopped crying “pipeline problem” and started trying harder, identifying great journalists as a result and improving the product.

In some circles, though, “don’t make lame excuses for inaction” has hardened into the idea that the pipeline problem is a “myth.”

But on a society-wide level, there is an adding-up constraint. Right now, Black people are underrepresented in the ranks of college graduates and especially in the ranks of graduates from selective institutions. That means that if you look across the whole set of institutions that employ college graduates to do certain kinds of high-status professional work, they are almost certainly underrepresenting Black people. I remember reading an article about the paucity of Black people working in marine science, and like many superficial treatments of diversity issues in a particular field, it didn’t address the basic adding-up issue. There could absolutely be more Black engineers at Google or more Black marine scientists, but they’d have to be coming from some other institution or field that employs people with technical skills. Either that or you need to increase the population of people who obtain those technical skills.

This means that on a social level, the pipeline problem is very real, and the only way to address some of these disparities we see in society is to actually make the schools better. And people coming from the edu-left universe, despite the lip service to equity, have come up with a lot of ideas that are somewhere between useless and harmful to that cause.

Back to basics in education

When I had John McWhorter on The Weeds, he said that his two big ideas to advance racial equity were to legalize drugs and make all schools teach phonics as their primary mode of reading instruction.

I truly cannot emphasize enough how much more correct early-reading instruction matters than whether or not kids read the 1619 Project. A very substantial share of the adult population in this country ends up not really knowing how to read, and one major culprit is that too many schools aren’t teaching kids systematic phonics.

A particular problem here, as explained in this great story by Emily Hanford, is that after a pedagogical controversy known as “the reading wars” in the 1990s, a lot of schools adopted a method called “balanced literacy” where they have convinced themselves that they are teaching phonics. Obviously, the idea of being balanced has an intuitive appeal to most people since it just sounds better to be balanced than to be extreme. And in this particular case, it balances something that’s extremely tedious and annoying (phonics instruction) with something that’s more fun (reading picture books and sort of guessing at word meaning).

The problem is that precisely because phonics is tedious, you really need to make kids do it in order for it to work. If you balance it with something else, they get distracted and lose the thread. I’m not an expert in the details of pedagogy, but this Dana Goldstein article covers the latest on the policy front well and features my local elementary school (Go Wildcats!) as a success story.

While this has now been many thousands of words across two articles, the basic message is really simple. Narrowing the racial gap in educational attainment is both possible and achievable, but you achieve it by making neighborhoods more integrated, investing more in poor kids’ health and nutrition, and making the schools they attend better. You make schools better by paying teachers more and holding them to higher standards, and by using curriculum design programs that are backed by evidence. You don’t achieve it by waving a magic anti-racism wand and mouthing the right anti-racism incantations while deriding the use of tests to figure out who’s learning and what’s working.