Policymakers conventionally work to effect positive outcomes on the technical aspects of education – i.e., the human capital aspects: what students learn and obtain in skills. I have interacted with hundreds of high school students in the U.S. for the last few years, and my thoughts pertain mainly to the social and cultural functions of schooling. I can’t say definitely that these functions actually “cause” anything because I am first and foremost an ethnographic interviewer – searching for the meanings that students impose on the schooling experience. But these meanings matter; in fact, they might matter more than we know.
The Price of Inequality
By all indicators, U.S. society still has a long way to go to rectify the economic and educational disparities that are so highly correlated with skin color, ethnicity, and social status. While inequality has multiple origins, I believe that we must develop educational policies that demonstrate a mindfulness of the massive educational “debt”, to borrow from Gloria Ladson-Billings, that people of colour have inherited from systems of colonization, genocide, and slavery. It is a debt that compounds over the decades as inequality continues to rise, enabling the rich to get richer, the poor to get poorer, and both to be correlated with skin colour and ethnicity.
This legacy of debt is reflected in both material and educational terms. Only 50 percent of historically disadvantaged U.S. minority groups graduate from high school. The dropout rate for Latinos is more than double the national average. One in five African-American students will fail a grade in elementary or secondary school, compared to one in ten for average students. Only a third or less of African-American, Latino, and Native American students are enrolled in college preparatory classes, compared to half or more of Asian and White students. The average White 13-year-old reads at a higher level and fares better in math than the average Black or Latino 17-year-old.
Aside from the obvious personal tragedies behind these figures, demographic forecasts predict that Blacks and Latinos will comprise a majority of the U.S. population by the middle of the 21st century. If our schools do not adequately prepare them for higher educational attainment, they may not have the skills necessary to lead this country.
Unfortunately, the good intentions of reformers to address these concerns have taken us in a dangerous direction, one in which we measure the success of the overwhelming majority of U.S. teachers and students by how well students do on one-shot, fill-in-the bubble tests.
This test-and-punish trend played out in high drama in Los Angeles, where teachers fought back after being named ineffective in the Los Angeles Times because their latest students’ test results were lower than the previous year’s.
On the flip side, however, the San Francisco Chronicle featured a story on June Jordan School for Equity, whose students do not place high on achievement tests but succeed in other important ways academically. Although June Jordan students’ test scores place the school in the category of “worse performing”, more than three-quarters of graduating seniors attend college – well above the state average of 50 percent. Of course, high school graduates need to possess strong literacy and numeracy skills, but they also need strong critical and creative thinking skills. The case of a school like June Jordan raises the question: can we produce highly successful children even if they score poorly on standardized tests?
They don’t really care about us when it comes to school. They just need us to perform well on these tests so that the school can look good, and they [the educators] can keep their jobs.
I have spent hundreds of hours over the last five years in high schools across the country where I have witnessed how high-stakes testing is eroding the relationships between teachers and school officials, teachers and parents, and even teachers and students. In the words of one 15-year-old African-American student in a relatively high-performing Southern high school, “They don’t really care about us when it comes to school. They just need us to perform well on these tests so that the school can look good, and they [the educators] can keep their jobs.” Indeed, all we seem to care about in the U.S. these days are test-score results and international standings with other countries on particular educational outcomes. Darlene and several of her school mates even told me that they sometimes throw in the towel on these tests, especially when they feel disconnected from the material and when they view the test’s worth as something only to make educators “look good.” We have to go behind the scenes to investigate factors that keep youth committed to and invested in their education.
Comments like Darlene’s, and the current debates about how we improve the educational landscape of American public schooling, should compel us to think seriously about the direction educational policy is taking us. In many districts, testing strategies take precedence over teaching the content and learning skills that students will need for college and life. Even worse, students who don’t test well often become “collateral damage” in “good” schools, where the objective of maintaining high rankings is such a priority that the schools transfer low performers by “dumping” or sending kids to other, lower performing schools.
Ironically, the impetus for our current testing fixation is the academic achievement gap between students of different race and class backgrounds. This fixation does not serve them well. We expect poor kids to perform as well as middle-class and affluent kids – but without the same family and neighbourhood supports that we know improve test scores, and without the in-school supports such as current text books, high quality teachers, safe schools, one-on-one tutors, and expensive test-prep programs.
Emphasizing testing over teaching has put the cart before the horse.
Policymakers are looking for quick fixes to the racial achievement gap, but for the real fix we need to delve beneath the test scores and deal with the social and cultural functions of schooling. How does a student come to respect his “different” neighbours in the face of fear and apprehension about their culture? And how does a social context of “separateness” affect academic performance?
In 2007 my research assistants and I conducted a study in two southern and two northeastern high schools, all of which achieved high levels of proficiency and excellence on the mandated report cards required by No Child Left Behind. For half a year we visited these “good” schools almost daily. Though all the schools were considered multiracial, two were majority-White (and wealthier) and two majority-Black and/or Latino. We found that the academic experiences of majority Black and Latino students differed greatly from the experience of their minority counterparts in the majority-White schools. In both majority-White schools, we encountered only one or two African-American and Latino students enrolled in the upper-echelon honours and advanced classes. Strikingly, when I asked teachers at the southern majority-White school to identify high-achieving African-American students among the more than three hundred enrolled, they could mention only two girls.
Our survey study of 469 students found that the self-esteem of the Black students in this school was the lowest of all of the Black students across the four schools. Along with their Black peers at the northeastern majority-White school, these students were also least likely to report that they sought friends across different social and cultural lines. Meanwhile, their peers of similar socio-economic backgrounds at the majority-Black schools showed significantly higher levels of what I term “cultural flexibility” and higher levels of self-esteem.
Ethnographically, we observed that, despite attending “desegregated” schools, Black students in the affluent White schools were segregated in terms of both academics and extracurricular activities. That is, their presence in college preparatory courses (known to expand students’ knowledge bases in significantly different ways than regular comprehensive high school courses) and their involvement in cultural activities such as band, orchestra, theatre, and Model United Nations, was much lower than that of their Black peers in majority-Black schools. In brief, we found that Black (and Latino) students in the majority-White schools had little to no engagement in specific educational classes or activities that could potentially broaden their cultural horizons. Their schools’ social organization, coupled with a particular cultural climate, conveyed both implicit and explicit messages about different racial and ethnic groups’ academic and extracurricular turfs.
“Equity entails… a habit of attention by which citizens are attuned to the balances and imbalances in what citizens are giving up for each other,” writes Danielle Allen. She outlines a conceptual diagram of overlapping networks in which people negotiate losses, gains, and reciprocity without feeling that they are losing their political agency when institutions step in to equilibrate resources and opportunity.
Realizing this kind of equity will be difficult in U.S. society. Achieving deep understanding of what it takes to recalibrate the system fairly for all citizens is not easy in a society where liberal national values espouse individualism and competition while denying the ways in which historic, exclusionary practices and policies have placed members of particular racial groups in their current economic and academic predicaments. To paraphrase a rhetorical question proffered by Allen: “Can we devise an education that, rather than teaching citizens not to cross social boundaries or to talk to strangers or out-group members, that, instead, teaches them how to interact with them self-confidently and equitably?” I think so. But not easily.
Achieving deep understanding of what it takes to recalibrate the system fairly for all citizens is not easy in a society where liberal national values espouse individualism and competition while denying the ways in which historic, exclusionary practices and policies have placed members of particular racial groups in their current economic and academic predicaments.
In addition to a cadre of well-trained teachers bolstered by access to ample learning tools and aids, equity requires a heightened consciousness among educators to “do diversity” with depth: by increasing their own knowledge base to help narrow the divides among and between students and teachers who differ by race, ethnicity, culture, and socio-economic status; by working to ensure that all students have equal opportunities to learn within the school; by maintaining a culture of high expectations for all students; by developing critically conscious and historically accurate pedagogy and curricula; and by preventing new forms of segregation within schools with due vigilance. Regrettably, although some of our nations’ schools have achieved desegregation, few have ever attained social integration.
Ideologically, thinkers may disagree about the purposes of education. I, for one, continue to believe it is about much more than maintaining society’s economic health. As a social institution, it is a conduit for the transformation of society; for the promotion of vital democratic ideals and practices; for the maintenance of social harmony and balance; and for the building of civic community and capacity. Today, core values embedded in U.S. social and educational policies confirm these are, indeed, shared goals of education. Only focused attention on these areas in discourse, policy, and practice will lead us to the fulfillment of equal opportunity, equity, and the integration of a nation’s peoples.
EN BREF – Les responsables de politiques cherchent des solutions simples pour combler l’écart de réussite entre les races, mais pour trouver une vraie solution, il faut expliquer cet écart et tenir compte des fonctions sociales et culturelles de l’école. Comment un élève arrive-t-il à respecter les différences devant la peur et l’appréhension face à d’autres cultures? Comment un contexte social de « séparation » se répercute-t-il sur le rendement scolaire? Les éducateurs doivent mieux saisir l’équité pour traiter la diversité en profondeur. Ils doivent enrichir leurs connaissances en vue d’atténuer ce qui divise les élèves ainsi que le personnel enseignant qui diffèrent par leur race, leur ethnicité, leur culture et leur situation socioéconomique; veiller à l’égalité des chances d’apprentissage de tous les élèves à l’école; maintenir des attentes élevées pour tous les élèves; élaborer une pédagogie et des curriculums caractérisés par un esprit critique et une historicité exacte; prévenir diligemment les nouvelles formes de ségrégation à l’école.
 Gloria Ladson-Billings, “From the Achievement Gap to the Education Debt: Understanding Achievement in U.S. Schools,” Educational Researcher 35 (2006): 3-12.
 Christopher Swanson, Graduation Rates: Real Kids, Real Numbers (Washington, D.C.: Education Policy Center, The Urban Institute: 2004).
 Angelina Kewal Ramani, Lauren Gilbertson, Mary Ann Fox, and Stephen Provasnik, “Status and Trends in the Education of Racial and Ethnic Minorities (NCES 2007-039),” (Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, 2007).
 Prudence Carter, “Race and Cultural Flexibility among Students in Different Multiracial Schools,” Teachers College Record 112, no. 6 (2010): 1529-1574.
 Karolyn Tyson, William Darity, and Domini Castellino, “It’s Not a Black Thing: Understanding the Burden of Acting White and Other Dilemmas of High Achievement,” American Sociological Review 70 (2005):582-605.
 Danielle S. Allen, Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 134.
 Ibid., 165