Thursday, August 26, 2010

Race and Educational Performance

When addressing issues of race, one hardly expects Pat Buchanan to represent the enlightened view, but he usually provides a better gloss over his views than is offered here. I'm among the first to admit, even to emphasize, that people are not equally talented. Some aspects of ability are vested in us by nature, some by nurture, most as a combination. To Buchanan, though, it all turns on race:
Teach all kids to the limit of their ability, while recognizing that all are not equal in their ability to read, write, learn, compute or debate, any more than they are equally able to play in a band or excel on a ball field. For an indeterminate future, Mexican kids are not going to match Asian kids in math.
The first part of that statement seems reasonable, although it's offered within the context of an argument to walk away from trying to improve student performance in impoverished school districts. The latter part of the argument strips away Buchanan's facade.

It is not unreasonable to look at academic performance by ethnic group and observe that there are differences in performance, nor is it unreasonable to look at a history of initiatives to equalize performance and observe that they have largely been failures. But it's something else entirely to say that the problem is because of race, and that we must wash our hands of the notion that, using Buchanan's example, Mexicans can excel at math.

It would not be particularly difficult to find representatives from any given ethnic group that can run circles around Buchanan in math. For that matter, it would not be difficult to find a Mexican student who was outperforming Asian students in math. Moreover, you can find significant differences in academic performance between Asian immigrant communities - and for that matter, Mexico is not homogeneous.

I personally believe that the current generation of reformers are doing their cause, and the students affected by their policies, no great favor by pretending that differences in student performance can be overcome simply by demanding more from teachers, while pretending that home and community environments can be made irrelevant. I have a real problem with the "teach to the test" model that has become so popular, with standardized tests used to measure both student and teacher performance. Never mind "critical thinking". Never mind whether students who have been raised "to grade level" through rote teaching methods over lengthened school days actually learn academic skills that will translate to better performance in the real world or prepare them for post-secondary education. It takes a lot more work (and money), but efforts to build a healthy community alongside quality schools are much more likely to bring about solid improvement.

It should be no surprise that children who grow up impoverished with uneducated parents in failed, violent communities have a difficult time adapting to the standard academic environment, let alone performing at the level of students who come to school prepared and socialized for the school environment. That shouldn't be difficult to understand. To put it mildly, ignoring that in favor of arguing simplistic racial determinism, "Asians are better at math, so why even pretend Mexicans can perform at that level," reflects weak thinking.


  1. I know this is an old argument - but I'm still not sure we should be looking at this issue from the perspective of race at all. My hunch would be that the disparities in education that are refelcted in "racial" demographics are actually more socio-economic/geographic in nature. My hunch would be that "everyone" living in certain communities are doing poorly in school - not just the member of a given racial group.

    Ditto - my hunch woudl be that there is very little to no "racial disparity" in the performance of students in affluent communites.


  2. Parental attitudes toward education, expectations and support for educational achievement, play a significant role.

    It's interesting that some kids who seem to have no advantage in terms of community, school or family nonetheless manage to achieve academic success. It would likely be difficult to study, but should be worth someone's time.