I’m making this comment before I read the article, just because I’ve been waiting for an education related post.

Many years ago My step daughter was struggling in math and she was around maybe middle school or high school age and she was an algebra. She was basically failing after the first couple of weeks.

Coincidentally, there was an article that came out in the LA times I think, talking about how the main reason the kids were failing algebra was because they had never learned the multiplication tables to mastery.

So I had my stepdaughter, and I quizzed her, and I found out that she had never really learned the multiplication tables. She had learned a bunch of these little finger tricks and count by fives, but she just didn’t have them committed to memory.

Coincidentally, at the same time, she had two younger siblings that were in third grade, who were doing the multiplication tables. So I ended up buying this flashcards set off Amazon. It had every single multiplication fact cards separately.

I started drilling both my third graders and my older child on the multiplication tables. We made it like a game. We would play war with it. If they got it right immediately, they would take the card. We were drill at the dinner table just all day I mean it was just a thing they would quiz each other.

Within a couple of weeks, all of my kids knew their multiplication tables by rote memory. I then started quizzing them backwards. I would give them a number and then tell them to give me all the factors that can go into that number like for instance 24 would be two, 12, three, four, eight.

Wouldn’t you know it, within two months my older, daughters, algebra grade went up to an A.

In fact, since then, every single one of my kids has been an absolute mathematics whiz.

This whole incident actually got me into educational blogging for a couple of years. In fact, my blog is still out there on the inter-webs.

Anyway, I just wanted to share that story. I’m gonna go read Matt’s article now.

I almost forgot… The point of the story is parents you cannot trust the education system.

Hopefully there’s not too many errors in this post, I dictated the whole thing while waiting for a plane at the gate in Raleigh Durham.


Expand full comment

Kendi’s views on this matter are completely unfalsifiable and therefore support perfectly the interests of basically everyone in the current post-liberal, leftist, and labor wings of the democratic coalition.

They cannot be proven wrong as any data or evidence which might do so is just as easily read as emphasis of the thesis that all children have a kind of intelligence but only some are measured well and rewarded for it.

And therefore expecting performance out of anyone sssociated with the education system is a pointless mirage in service of continued inequality.

That notion is actually spreading like cancer well beyond the initial racially-tinged version Kendi proposed; every parent wants to believe their kid is brilliant, and now they have a new lever to use.

Of course, like the entire menagerie of post-liberal ideas on individual achievement and merit, they’re completely bankrupt and unworkable.

But they’re a nice, perfect even, excuse for failure that works best among precisely the people who would once have wanted to hold urban governments and school systems to account.


Expand full comment

So I want to go a little inside baseball as a charter school teacher. A couple of things that seem to me to have been really bad for measuring outcomes which I think is important.

1) The choice of proficiency and not growth as a metric is just insane. If a student comes to me in 3rd grade and they don't know their letter sounds and I get them to read on a late first grade early 2nd level according to NCLB this is a failure. I've never met a teacher who objects to a Did they learn anything while in your room in absolute terms evaluation. But gaps are just an insane metric because to fix them we'd have to not only get them proficient we'd have to not advance the excellent students as much. That I got evaluated for years based on things like percentile rank as if I can excise the possibility of a student being low relative to their peers is insane.

2) Only downward accountability, this is a big one. There are a lot of really bad charter school principals. On two occasions my school has seen enormous losses in staff followed by a letter grade decline (a B to a C) and it takes years to repair this damage. That they don't suffer a real repetitional damage for this and just get another Principal or assistant principal job making several times what a teacher makes without needing to go back into the classroom and start the ladder over really makes it hard to take accountability seriously.

3) Super teachers, I debated including this one in the list. The kind of teachers that the charter school movement wants, especially that you see in Waiting For Superman almost universally aren't sustainable. Teaching can't be based on people who are looking for an exit to an administrative position or some other career. There's not enough of these people coming into the system who want to work 75 hours a week and spend 20 percent of their salary on their classroom but that's who the charter movement wants. They do exist, but normalizing these type of expectations isn't something you can have if you want stable very good results over the long haul.

Expand full comment

Somebody on the article about Biden's bad industrial policy made the good point that Democrats seem uninterested in first order policy outcomes. For example, spending money on public transport isn't primarily to improve public transport, it is to create jobs and train more staff.

Education seems to be in the same spirit. Spending more money on education should result in improvements on various metrics. When there are no improvements, there should be radical changes, or at least an admission of defeat and a curtailment of extra resources. Rather, education seems to be, once again, about make work. DEI consultants could be argued to be worse than useless in terms of their output - but then someone gets a job out of it, and isn't that what matters?

I am struck by the difference in attitude people have when it comes to sport. A team management that squanders resources in poor players and has poor tactics would be kicked out in short order. There is a constant drive away from incompetence and towards excellence. It is interesting that NFL teams did not need DEI consultants to tell them to hire a disproportionate number of black players.

Expand full comment

Kendi's stance seems like a cry of despair based on a loss of faith in progress. In any other area where one believes that progress is possible and worth the fight, even if slow and difficult, one does not abandon metrics or try to discount them.

Nobody trying to make progress on maternal/infant mortality, or decarbonizing energy, or raising the GDP, says "let's just stop measuring this."

I think Kendi is wrong to despair. But many people with beliefs about racial differences in ability agree with the despairing assessment for their own racist reasons.

The current silence about achievement gaps is the result of an accidental alliance between progressives feeling despair and racists feeling vindicated. This is not an alliance that any genuine anti-racist should want to make.

Instead, we should return to the slow boring, even if the depth of the hole advances by millimeters.

Expand full comment

The structure of the economy writ large is far more important than the structure of school systems. Roughly half of workers will end up working in retail, food service, warehouse work, residential construction or as drivers. Education reform will not change this. It will never create a world where everyone becomes a doctor or a lawyer because someone has to harvest the produce and stock the shelves and drive the trucks. Indeed, some educators seem to think that the working class can basically be eradicated through education. I wonder why many working stiffs are leery of teachers, but I digress.

Education reform won’t make working at Wendy’s or WalMart any better. Helping working stiffs means helping blue collar employees live secure and satisfying lives, not trying to transform them into something else.

Expand full comment

The obvious (and correct!) answer is we should try and educate everyone better, without expecting achievement gaps to close. Focus on test scores, not on differences in test scores, and don’t group scores by race.

Education seems to have an issue where proposed improvements don’t really pan out; not sure why. It makes me less optimistic about “change the curriculum” type interventions, and more about physical-environment interventions like free lunch and improved air quality where the benefits seem more robust.

I really hate the left-wing trend of trying to shut down gifted and talented programs, selective high schools, etc. To the extent that there is a trade off between focusing on the highest-achieving kids and the lowest-achieving ones - which mostly I don’t think there is, we should just do things that are good for everyone - but to the extent that there is, I want to focus on the highest-achieving kids, because I think the marginal returns are higher there. Whereas current progressive education policy seems to just want to erase the high-achievers.

For me, education is Democrats’ weakest issue. They seem opposed to the idea of even measuring achievement, much less celebrating it (colleges going SAT-optional is another example of this). This seems like a really destructive approach.

Expand full comment
Mar 16·edited Mar 16

I think it’s worth thinking harder about what it is we actually want. “Closing the gap” shouldn’t be an end in its own right, strictly speaking. E.g. there is little point in having equality in illiteracy and full ignorance.

Tentatively the ideal goal I would think of is to allow each child to maximize his or her educational outcomes based on individual abilities and inclinations, acknowledging that these actually differ and that not all are gifted in the same ways. By doing so we allow them to find the best version of themselves and maximize their opportunities. On a different level we have to change our economy so that not only peole with one set of skills (which naturally some people possesses disproportionately) or going only to a handful of schools (always a tiny minority however you select them) can make a comfortable living. Eg we can’t all be software engineers or Ivy League grads but to the extent that the free market allows only them to have lucrative jobs (an extreme case scenario) we can still balance that out with progressive taxation and aggressive redistribution.

All this back to basics is really important to untangle some dangerously confounded issues. For example, the absolute quality of schools matters too. Destroying higher level math options in the name of equity squanders kids potentials. Hurts them and ultimately society as a whole. Moreover, to unleash *individual* equality of opportunities as laid out above we will *not* expect equality of outcomes, as people have naturally different talents. We might not even necessarily expect every randomly drawn group to perform exactly the same. However, in specific cases, eg the achievement of kids from poor black communities mainly descended from slaves, it’s pretty obvious that a history of outrages created terrible complex conditions hindering their ability to reach full potential in many cases, and that must be addressed. The goal however must remain to allow the present-day individuals their equality of opportunities, and thus the measures should be calibrated accordingly. I don’t have the perfect solution but it’s obvious to me that the neither the blunt statistical measures used previously nor the current dei insanity fit the bill.

What is particularly toxic is this idea that we can outsource Justice and live vicariously through “representation” eg that somehow having upper middle class Nigerian immigrant “black” kids at Yale (probably with zero family history of racist victimization) meaningfully helps a poor black kid in nyc who never got good educational or job opportunities, or that allowing that Nigerian kid an easier time getting into Yale somehow delivers “Justice” to the country.

Expand full comment

The best example of this change is that in many circles you no longer talk about the attainment or achievement gap but the *awarding gap* with the implication being the difference is caused by discrimination in marking practices

Expand full comment

Roland Fryer’s work on achievement gaps is the most rigorous I’ve seen anywhere, and everyone interested in this topic would benefit from reading it (https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/fryer/files/racial_inequality_in_the_21st_century_the_declining_significance_of_discrimination.pdf).

Importantly, he finds that the achievement gaps observed at later stages of education emerge in the first few years of life and that these gaps measured pre-kindergarten predict subsequent life outcomes while all other observable factors fail to do so.

Expand full comment

One thing that I think could have a very significant impact in the coming decades is the increasing number of immigrants we have coming here from African countries. They're going to do well in school, and it's going to make the discourse topsy-turvy.

Expand full comment

I always wonder if it is meant to be helpful or just impossible to avoid that the bounds in these discussions are almost always White and Black even when they don't represent the ends of the spectrum in many cases.

Also (as far as I could tell), "Hispanic" only appears in this piece 3 times, all as part of the phrase "Black and Hispanic".

I think the 5 points Matt lists at the end provide a pretty good explanation of why interest in the gap has waned a bit. It seems like in many cases we have (possible) explanations but don't like the implications or lack solutions or the solutions fall outside the purview of the people trying to solve the issue.

Expand full comment

This is a good example of how political correctness and cancel culture shuts down useful discussion. Pretty much any meaningful discussion of thencauses of the education gap is going to result in your hitting a landmine, so it doesn't happen.

Expand full comment

I think Matt gets most of the big picture correct in this summary, but one important missing piece is the parent revolt against student testing that took place in the waning days of the Obama Administration. This “Opt Out” movement — so-called because parents can actually opt their kids out of federal & state testing — both rose up and flamed out quickly, but played a kind of Occupy Wall Street sort of role in making Democratic elites realize that education reform wasn’t doing too hot politically. Frankly I think that was a much bigger driver of the rhetorical shift/slash suppression around achievement gaps than Kendi or DEI stuff, which came much later and is more reflective than directive of the shift.

Expand full comment

There is a huge problem in these debates because the most important/effective interventions occur early in childhood. By the time children reach school they might be well behind many of their peers.

Student quality matters and this is the product of household circumstances. Stability, housing, nutrition, pollution exposure, and safety all play important roles in the formation of human capital. When we focus so much on schools as a solution we lose sight of the other causes of disparities.

Expand full comment

Not today, Satan. Not today.

Aggregating data by racial classification is a fool's errand: it only leads to bad places. I'll stick to individual-level conclusions.

Expand full comment