Mercury News Craps The Bed On The Achievement Gap
And you see this thesis, and the accompanying CDE-released charts on student performance, and you can't help but think you just read something with all the value of a fart in a carpool.
Two reporters -- one of whom I spoke with for more than two hours before this thing was published -- found some Latino kids that said it wasn't cool to be smart and some Vietnamese kids who said it was. It's not cool to be smart? Fine. I'll take that on that face value. But these Merc reporters want to go further with this. They want us to believe that this cool over smart attitude arises out of an individual's cultural identity. They want us to believe that certain cultures support smart while other cultures support not-smart, vis-a-vis that inherent nature of the culture/ ethnicity itself and its place in the American experience. One reporter said as much to me when we spoke, and the structure of the article, that pairing of smart vs. cool rhetoric with achievement data, says the rest.
Thing is, the writing fails to support this implicit claim of causation, and outside of junk science and right-wing talk radio, there's little else to support it either. For what it's worth, anyone who teaches in the 408 can go track down some Vietnamese kids who don't like smart and some Latino kids who don't like cool. I'll get that done for you in about three minutes. Yet, our intrepid reporting team sees some data on achievement gaps, finds some teens who say being smart goes against their peers' cultural understandings of the self, and does some post-hoc-ergo-propter-hoc thing that gets spewed out in thousands of newspapers. None of it is valid or useful. None of it promotes a deeper or more nuanced understanding of the expression of inequity we find in these data.
What's really going on here is (yet another) confusion of causes and effects. You think those kids for whom achievement is uncool, unpopular, and bizarrely un-Latino had these a priori notions driving their under-achievement? You think these notions arise out of their DNA and the functionings of their families? Oh, please. These attitudes, to the extent they exist when reporters aren't around, are the effects of a massively under-performing school system. This is what happens when you take children who already have less, and then you give them less of everything that matters in education. This is what happens when adults have failed, for generations, to harness the human capital, technical knowledge, and simple will to make good on the promise of work-hard-get-ahead. This is the type of ideological blowback that occurs when poor kids receive fewer resources, crappier facilities, teachers unable to teach, principals unable to lead, and school districts unable to identify problems and formulate even the most basic plan to remediate them.
You think these kids don't know they got screwed, but good?
This cool over smart thing is the most basic type of defense mechanism, the thing you reach for to cover up past disappointments. It's that simple, and we don't even need to point to the massive difference in experiencing American schools as a Vietnamese kid vs. a Latino kid to underscore the silliness of passing off these attitudes as analysis.
The solution, as always, lies with educators. The solution lies with the people who work with kids everyday, whose passion and intelligence, knowledge and effort make the difference between success or failure, graduation or incarceration. Why are some schools and districts able to foster success in various student populations, and others are not? Why are Black, Brown, and poor kids graduating from district A and not district B, when they are no more or less Black, Brown, and poor? The writers makes some head-fakes in that direction, but can do no better than some vague illusions and trotting out the tired tale of a KIPP school which, yearly, looks less and less like the community in which its borrowed buildings stand. Future attempts will have to do better, no matter how enamored one may be of silly KIPP hype or this new Jack O'Connell inspired call to look at achievement data through a racial/ ethnic/ culture standpoint.
To which I say, ultimately, fine. Let's understand these data in ethnic/ culture terms, but let's really understand them that way, and not beat this thoroughly dead horse any further. Let's do some serious work and serious thinking on this thing, and not print the worst staff-lounge shit-talking in the name of quality reporting.
In researching and writing parts 2-5, let's hope the Merc chooses smart over cool.
Mr. AB, also of the east 408, is holding this one down as well.