The racial achievement gap in the Madison school district, like most others across the country, has long been a topic of discussion, a flurry of programs and lots of public and private investment, all with a notable lack of success.
But what if we’re trying to solve the wrong problem?
It is a matter of dogma here that the one and only cause of the gap is racism. It explains 100% of the problem. To quote Ibram X. Kendi, “where I see racial disparities I see racism.” To suggest that anything else might be involved is a third rail so charged that virtually nobody ever touches it.
But let’s touch it here — it’s what we do.
The idea that all of the achievement gap is due to race has never made intuitive sense to me. Because if it were true, then all low-achieving students would be Black, but of course they’re not. If the whole system is set up to reward white kids, then why are there any low achieving white students at all? It must be because more goes into all this than just race.
That intuitive response got a boost in a recent column by the excellent New York Times writer Thomas B. Edsall. In it he explores the achievement gap not between white students and students of color, but between boys and girls. As is his practice, he consults with academic researchers and other experts, and in this case they conclude that boys of any color from single parent families perform worse in school and act out more than boys from two parent families. In short, the absence of a father in a boy’s life makes a huge difference. The research shows that the absence of a father has much less effect on girls.
Edsall quotes one study: “The absence of stable fathers from children’s lives has particularly significant adverse consequences for boys’ psychosocial development and educational achievement. On a wide variety of self-control, acting-out, and disciplinary measures (including eighth-grade suspension), the gap between boys and girls is substantially greater for children reared in single-mother-headed households than in households with two biological parents.”
And since there are more single parent Black families, it follows that more Black young men are going to be negatively effected by this than others. In other words, maybe the problem — at least among male students — is not so much their race as their gender.
In addition, a culture that rips endlessly on men and all masculine traits (“the future is female”) is only going to make things worse. This could also partially explain why, when they grow into adulthood, more men of color are joining their white counterparts in “acting out” in the voting booth by casting ballots for candidates like Donald Trump. In this regard, along with immigration, dealing with the plight of non-college educated men is key to doing nothing less than saving liberal democracy.
So, if we’re going to ever solve the racial achievement gap the solution might be to stop thinking about it that way in the first place. There is simply a gap between high and average achieving students and those who fall behind. It’s right to focus attention and resources on the kids who aren’t keeping up.
But if we’re going to put those resources to good use, then we need to correctly diagnose the problem, and the problem is complex. I have no doubt that race plays some role, but the evidence presented by Edsall suggests that gender and family structure play a much greater role, as does the personal responsibility of the kid and his parents.
You can’t solve a problem until you define it correctly. It’s pretty clear that in Madison and other communities, we are badly misreading the student achievement gap, and so we’re wasting time and resources on interventions that can’t possibly work.
Welcome to the 217th consecutive day of posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading!