Saturday, April 12, 2008

Mercury News Craps The Bed On The Achievement Gap

Maybe you read or saw or followed a link to last week's launch of a five-part series on the achievement gap, as viewed through the lens of culture. The article posits a destructive "cool vs. smart" dichotomy in the 408's low-income, high-Latino schools, concluding "too many Latino students are choosing cool over school."

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.


Blogger leyla said...

hi there! i hadn't read the article or heard of it, but i will now.

i generally think that there can be differences in different groups reactions and approaches to education. they're just generalizations though. the thing is that when most people say something like "group X does this" they never really mean 100% of the members of group X.

even if only 50% of group X engage in a certain activity, well that alone is interesting or notable enough.

i'm more curious about the reasons for the differences. dead prez has a really good song about this - about how, yes, in fact, there is a disinterest in education, but they elaborate on the reasons for this disinterest and they question the entire concept and convention of "education" that has been made
available to their community.

the thing is, aren't "poor asian kids" attending some of the same schools that "poor latino kids" are attending?

yes, the "poor asian kids" may be benefiting from stereotypes of model minority hoopla and expectations of competence and achievement while the "poor latino students" may be suffering from lack of expectations, but it's interesting that the lack of resources insofar as books and computers, etc. will affect both groups.

it's not as if the librarian is denying textbooks for the latinos while shelling them out for the asian kids.

it's also not as if the "poor asian kids" have the kinesthetic-tactile-passionate-revolutionary-visionary-engaging-disciplined-graduate-degreed teachers while the "poor latino kids" have all the crappy teachers.

what's my point? there HAS to be some type of individual, familial, or cultural responsibility for the success of a certain group.

you have very high expectations for yourself. this is obviously awesome. but, what about high expectations, or some sort of expectations, for families and cultures and kids?

success in our society is built upon that. perhaps it shouldn't be built upon that, but it is, isn't it?

12:25 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...

Hi Leyla,

If we want to talk about this on the school level, Poor Asians (PAs) to Poor Latinos (PLs), I'd say there's some serious pygmalian things going on. Asians are "model minorities"; Latinos are a threat to America. Asians get to demonstrate their culture in positively affirmining ways; Latinos are failing to assimilate and don't care about an America that has given them so very much. Asians are hard-working; Latinos are Speedy Gonzalez's drunk buddy. When this stuff persists over time, then your statement...

"it's also not as if the "poor asian kids" have the kinesthetic-tactile-passionate-revolutionary-visionary-engaging-disciplined-graduate-degreed teachers while the "poor latino kids" have all the crappy teachers."

...becomes true, I think. PAs end up in the high-classes, which are generally taught by experienced, effective teachers, and PLs are in the High Point ghetto, taught by inexperienced teachers, teachers on punishment detail, teachers who keep telling kids to stop speaking Spanish in class. The librarian may not be denying textbooks to PLs, because they don't have to. Our schools and communities -- in part fueled by trash reporting -- have so successfully sent the message that those textbooks aren't for you, PL, that they won't even reach for them.

I don't disagree that we all should have higher expectations for each other. I'm saying, there are causes and effects, and we do well to remember which is which. I'm saying, this comes off as blame, scapegoating, and pandering to some of the ugliest perceptions of why the achievement gap exists, no matter how much you insist it is none of those things. I'm saying, as educators, our own house isn't in order, and fixing that comes first.

12:40 PM  
Anonymous Benjamin Baxter said...

This comment has very little to do with the above post or either comment.

I've only just heard of the local KIPP school, and I was impressed by the message and presentation of its Web site.

You seem to have heard of it, before, so I thought I'd ask: What makes KIPP "silly ... hype?"

1:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

again thank you for your blog.
i am an er nurse.. but love to read your thoughts.
the mercury news comment section on the article is scary.. racist/ignorant/ yuck.
we are so polarized and that top 1% keep getting more of the pie.

1:58 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...

Anon: Thanks for those thoughts. I saw the comment section, and that's EXACTLY what this type of writing engenders.

Double-B: Look at the demographics of that school and the demographics of the surrounding neighborhood schools. The hype is the contention that a school such as is doing the same job (only better!) as the surrounding schools, and as such, represents systematic reform, a new way, or a revolution.

2:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you want to try to reform east sj schools, you will have a lifetime of frustration.

I will check back in twenty years to see how it is going.

3:48 PM  
Anonymous Benjamin Baxter said...

Didn't Bill Cosby have a rant on this topic --- except his rant was about black kids --- and didn't he make essentially the same points

Even Barack Obama acknowledged that there was a kind of existing and cultural "slander that a black kid with a book is acting white," though he was a lot more positive about the whole thing.

Ignoring race as an issue, the generic gang culture promotes the idea that being well-educated is useless.

You could make an argument that their position is based on the systemic failure of the schools in poor areas. The essential premise of the article --- school is considered uncool --- is still accurate.

Is the failure of this article purely that it's racial? If that's your sole objection, I'm going to have to defer to Leyla, here:

"aren't 'poor asian kids' attending some of the same schools that "poor latino kids" are attending?"

Oh, and as for the KIPP schools: I believe that students at the KIPP schools will, in fact, do better. It takes supportive parents to even fill out the application, and so their kids are already ahead of the curve.

5:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did anyone read the Fryer and Torelli (2005) article referenced in the article? It's posted here:
They didn't just ask a few kids for a quote, so it's worthy of more attn than the Mercury article.

I'm in no position to judge the design of this study, but in general, I see no problem with a rigorous exploration of potential ethnic and SES group differences in the relationship between achievement and popularity as long as it's accompanied by a constructive, sensitive discussion of how schools, communities, etc., might use this data to better serve all of our children. Of course, we must acknowledge the limits of correlational research, and the importance of avoiding (or examining our own) stereotypes, but there's no need to dismiss correlational or quasi-experimental research, or ethnic group difference questions, altogether.

That said, I can't stand the blame that gets leveled at parents and ethnic groups. I can't stand it when my school colleagues condemn "these kids, these parents, these families," instead of asking, "How can I better serve my students and their families?" It's disturbing that research findings that
*should* trigger the latter question will be sloppily reported in some papers and (mis)used, by some, as fuel for inappropriate rants and pernicious attitudes.

6:56 PM  
Anonymous A. Mercer said...

Thank you for this! It must be the season for this, I recently blogged about a similar piece from fellow DABA blogger, Eduwonkette ( My piece is good, BUT I'd strongly recommend checking out her piece ( required reading.

7:23 PM  
Blogger leyla said...

i teach in a school with excellent test scores and with a very large population of poor and not so poor asian students and guess what? they don't have the amazing teachers that people may think they have. they have average teachers. in fact, the teachers in Alum Rock are perhaps more prepared and/or more progressive in their approaches. their [the {PA kids] success is not reliant on happenings in the classroom. it is due to other factors.

i know this is just my small stupid anecdote, but i just mention it because teaching at this school has changed my perspective a bit.

1:05 AM  
Blogger leyla said...

incidentally, there are hundreds of homemade videos on YouTube created by asian-american teenagers that poke fun at the parental tendency (again, a generalization!) in the community to flip-out over less than perfect grades. anyone ever watched some of these? they are hilarious. essentially teens impersonating their parents..

1:08 AM  
Blogger Rebecca Bell, Ph.D. said...

The one of tens of readers who read my dissertation will agree that SES and race/culture get blurred in studies of academic achievement even in the peer reviewed journals. I am incredulous that there are still articles that look at the high drop out rates or poor achievement of Hispanic or Black students and concluded that it's because of their Hispanic or Black culture without considering environmental factors.

My study of low-income white and Mexican-American students showed that in essence, poverty trumped "culture" when it came to poor achievement. In fact, the strongest predictor of high achievement was when the teens reported a positive caring relationship with a parent, not any other cultural factor. And that predictor was still only 33% of the variance in GPAs, so there is still that 66% of "other factors" contributing to achievement outcomes. We can't boil down the complexities of underachievement to one factor or sound-bite, such as "cool or smart."

1:04 PM  
Blogger eduwonkette said...

TMAO, Great post!

Regarding the Fryer and Torelli article: that the relationship between popularity and GPA varies by race/ethnicity is hardly evidence that resistance to acting white explains the achievement gap. While Fryer did not provide these calculations for Hispanic students, he found that equalizing the popularity/GPA relationship for students with GPAs below 3.5 (a high proportion of black students) would actually increase, not decrease, the black-white achievement gap.

8:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You should send this to the Merc (sans any foul language!) as an op-ed. They need to hear from someone like you that this kind of "smart v. cool is a racial issue" reporting sucks.

2:54 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...

This is late but...

@BBaxter: Does the cool-not-school attitude come before or after all that low achievement?

@RBell & Eduwonkette: Thanks.

9:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"In fact, the strongest predictor of high achievement was when the teens reported a positive caring relationship with a parent, not any other cultural factor."

It's all about families. The main basis of students.

We, educators, just take the students - "the 'best' their parents can do" - and help them grow.

But it's THAT MUCH HARDER when the parents fail to do their jobs.

6:29 PM  
Blogger F. C. Mason Jr. said...

So, the root cause of student failure, you say, is that the schools are bad.

But why is this? Why are the schools bad? Schools are not an uncaused first cause of educational failure.

I suggest that reason why bad schools are bad - why they have such a high density of poor quality administrators and teachers, why their facilities are so poor, etc - lies outside the classroom, indeed lies in the institutions of the wider society outside them. The reason, in short, is poverty. If I'm right, then the problems of the classroom cannot be fixed in the classroom. If the society outside the classroom remains unchanged, the teacher inside the classroom can do little or nothing to turn their students around. I do marvel at your commitment to your students. But if nothing changes outside the classroom, such actions are ultimately futile.

We need societal revolution. The primary locus of action must be outside the classroom. We need to be on the streets, and our students need to be there with us. Locked up in the classroom, we'll accomplish little or nothing.

5:56 AM  

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