Tag Archives: black academic achievement

Making Rob Long Uncomfortable

(Note: This is in the context of my multi-chaptered review of The Case Against Education, particularly the last, but I think it stands alone.)

I’m a big Rob Long fan; I listen to both his Ricochet  and GLoP podcasts. I’ve even subscribed to Richochet, and you should, too. I am not a Heather MacDonald fan, for reasons that puzzle others. But I like Long/Lileks/Robinson more than I don’t like her, so I was listening to their conversation a while back.

The three hosts were completely on board as Heather excoriated the college campus craziness documented in her new book. You can practically hear them nodding with approval as she outlines the various issues: the outraged feminist wars, the soft and whiny college students, the transgender insanities.

And then Heather turned the same withering sarcasm to race, talking about the delusional fools who think that African American disparities in college are due to racism as opposed to their low academic achievement….



I laughed and laughed.

You could practically hear Rob’s toenails shrieking against the tiles as he braked to a stop.  This was not the conversation he’d signed up for. He was there to lightly mock feminists and social justice nuts, not crack witty, on-the-nose jokes with Heather about the racial skills deficit.

Cognitive dissonance, anyone?

It runs all through the political and intellectual class, particularly on the right. So, for example, Charles Murray is a great social scientist and The Bell Curve an important work  (I agree!)–but  let’s blame crap teachers and low standards for black academic underperformance.

Recently, Megan McArdle added her voice to John McWhorter in calling for an end to research on race and IQ. This appears to be the new “informed right” position: if you’ve spent any time actually reading about race and IQ, it’s clear that only bad news awaits further research. So ban it.

Meanwhile, on the subject of recent campus craziness, Megan thinks that Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s formulation is one of “humanity’s noblest inventions” and John McWhorter routinely denounces the safe-space rhetoric on college campuses as absurd and “unhelpful”. Both of them are appalled at the idea that college students would want to shut down conversations they don’t like.

They’re reactionary fascists, you’re unreasonably censorious, I’m judicious in setting limits.

Ever notice how the same people who praise Caplan’s idea of restricting college are also those singing songs of praise about KIPP and “no excuses” charters in general–for sending more poor urban kids of color to college?

KIPP schools put their kids through hours and hours more school every week, all to get just 45% of them to graduate college “ten or more years” after 8th grade–that is, 6 or more years of college.

They’re the education blob who ignore reality to keep spending taxpayer dollars, you’re unduly optimistic about college readiness, I’m all for unqualified black kids going to college if it’s not unionized teachers sending them there.

I read many reviewers of The Case Against Education on the right or the intellectually honest left who discussed the book without ever observing the obvious implications of Caplan’s plan to cut back on college attendance. This perplexes me. I actually know a reviewer who gave a great analysis without mentioning race. I asked him why the omission. He replied the idea was  “far-fetched enough that the racial implications are a ‘cross that bridge when we come to it’ side issue.”

That sounds amazingly on point. Yeah, sure, Caplan’s proposal is pie in the sky, but it’s a great idea, you know? Interesting. Challenging. Controversial. Let’s engage it. Play with it. Not get into the nitty gritty details.

Of course, everyone’s totally into the nitty gritty when castigating the here and now.

“Failing schools” is an expression with bipartisan support–and the schools are always failing on the count of race. KIPP’s “Success for All” or Eva’s “Success” Academies are clearly talking about success by race. All the praise for Wendy Kopp giving Teach for America a chance to “expand opportunity” for kids is, again, talking about opportunities for black and Hispanic kids–and, by the way, pretty sure those opportunities include college. No Child Left Behind demanded that test scores be disaggregated by race, and only if all students of all racial and income populations achieved at the same rate could schools get out of academic probation. States dumped their test score standards and still couldn’t avoid putting all their schools in probation status, thus creating the need for waivers that allowed everyone to ignore the racial gaps while they Raced to the Top.

I don’t doubt the sincerity of my reviewer buddy. But come on. All the pro-charter, pro-voucher, anti-union policy wonks on the right are all about race when they can use it to beat teachers over the head. The nation itself defines its success in education almost entirely on how well it educates kids by race. But a guy writes a book proposing to restrict access to college and most public schools by choking off funding in ways that would be catastrophic to African Americans but hey, it’s just spitballing. No need to mention race.

Policy analysis a la Wimpy: I’ll gladly talk about race in today’s education if you let me ignore race in the education of tomorrow.

But despite my dismay, that is definitely how it goes. Everyone suffers from educational romanticism, as Charles Murray puts it:

Educational romantics of the Left focus on race, class, and gender. It is children of color, children of poor parents, and girls whose performance is artificially depressed, and their academic achievement will blossom as soon as they are liberated from the racism, classism, and sexism embedded in American education. Those of the Right see public education as an ineffectual monopoly, and think that educational achievement will blossom when school choice liberates children from politically correct curricula and obdurate teachers’ unions.

In public discourse, the leading symptom of educational romanticism is silence on the role of intellectual limits even when the topic screams for their discussion.

This silence from those who know better leaves the rest of the talking class, particularly those on the right, the ones who aren’t into policy, utterly unprepared for a serious discussion. They get very, er, uncomfortable with any mention of black underperformance that isn’t a de rigeur nod to shit teachers and corrupt schools. They haven’t really thought about it much or read the literature, but they quite like the basic GOP talking points (bad unions, bad! Charters! Choice!) and would much rather no one take away their comfort chew toys.

Fair to say I’d make Rob Long uncomfortable.

Notice that I did not (and do not) hold black culture  at fault for these academic results. As I mentioned once long ago when looking at the black/white gap in Praxis scores (teacher credential tests):

  • The white Millennial bonghitter with a 1.2 GPA who teaches sixth grade science after his parents booted him out of the basement ties the freshly-pressed hardworking black track star with a 3.8 GPA teaching special ed.*
  • The goofball wannabe [white] manicurist who loafed through Podunk U and went into teaching kindergarten after the tenth of her problematic boyfriends dumped her outscores the idealistic black welfare daughter success story on a full scholarship to Harvard who went into teaching sixth grade English to “give back” to her community.

Pace JD Vance, it ain’t culture. Your Middletown classmates who ended up dead or in dead-end jobs almost certainly outscored the rich black kids in, I don’t know, Delaware County, or wherever the wealthy black families live in Ohio.

As I’ve written before, all those placing great hope in KIPP are missing the big picture: the kids who need the hours of extra education and the forced discipline of No Excuses to get anywhere near 8th grade ability by 8th grade is simply not the same as the intellect that can eat Crispy Cocoa Puffs every day while watching TV or playing video games and bet at the 8th grade level by 4th grade.

MacDonald herself blames culture. In the podcast, she responded to Long’s plea with the offer of a thought experiment. If black kids have the same level of school attendance, same level of homework completion, and in ten years they still have lower achievement, she says, then and only then she’ll consider racism. Apparently MacDonald isn’t aware of the thought experiment known as Cambodians, Laotians, and Hmong who have the same dedication to education but wildly different academic results and graduation rates.

And given the frequency with which poor white kids outperform wealthier black kids, often at the same schools, it’s hard to reasonably argue that schools themselves are the result of black underperformance. Which doesn’t stop many people from unreasonably arguing it, of course.

What do I blame?


Look, it’s not a matter of “blame”.

But that’s an answer that gets one into hot water. People who talk about the test score gap without fingering responsibility–worse, who argue against the usual culprits–are giving the impression that there’s nothing to fix. Which isn’t true, but it’s closer to true than any hope of closing the racial achievement gap.

The discomfort has wasted billions to no real avail. Despite the demands to increase college readiness, we are sending far more students to college who are less prepared than ever. Colleges have responded not by tightening standards, but by ending them, giving college credit for classes teaching middle school skills. Employers routinely call for more unskilled immigrants to take on the tasks  “Americans won’t do” when in fact they mean jobs that won’t pay enough for Americans to do, and thus create more low-skilled populations we can let down in future generations–populations that are beginning to outnumber American blacks of slave ancestry, the people to whom America owes a great debt.

And yet. I can think of so many ways that accepting performance gaps and modifying education policy could create more problems–like, say, Bryan Caplan’s notion to end public education.

So it goes.  Bryan Caplan gets a book deal and fame for seriously arguing in favor of a policy that would block most blacks and many Hispanics from all advanced education. I’m anonymous, unpaid, and unbook-dealed, writing in favor of continuing public education for all. But Caplan ignores race, and I’m blunt about black academic results while refusing to blame acceptable scapegoats.

Despite his pose as a controversial intellectual, Caplan will never make Rob Long uncomfortable.

I wish I knew how to distill all this into something pithy. But I’m bottom up, not top down. Or is it the other way round?

NAEP TUDA Scores—Detroit isn’t Boston

So everyone is a-twitter over NAEP TUDA (Trial Urban District Assessment) scores. For those who aren’t familiar with The Nation’s Report Card, the “gold standard” of academic achievement metrics, it samples performance rather than test every student. For most of its history, NAEP only provided data at the state level. But some number of years ago, NAEP began sampling at the district level, first by invitation and then accepting some volunteers.

I don’t know that anyone has ever stated this directly, but the cities selected suggest that NAEP and its owners are awfully interested in better tracking “urban” achievement, and by “urban” I mean black or Hispanic.

I’m not a big fan of NAEP but everyone else is, so I try to read up, which is how I came across Andy Smarick‘s condemnation of Detroit, Milwaukee, and Cleveland: “we should all hang our heads in shame if we don’t dramatically intervene in these districts.”

Yeah, yeah. But I was pleased that Smarick presented total black proficiency, rather than overall proficiency levels. Alas, my takeaway was all wrong: where Smarick saw grounds for a federal takeover, I was largely encouraged. Once you control for race, Detroit looks a lot better. Bad, sure, but only a seventh as bad as Boston.

So I tweeted this to Andy Smarick, but told him that he couldn’t really wring his hands until he sorted for race AND poverty.

He responded “you’re wrong. I sorted by race and Detroit still looks appalling.”

He just scooted right by the second attribute, didn’t he?

Once I’d pointed this out, I got curious about the impact that poverty had on black test scores. Ironic, really, given my never-ending emphasis on low ability, as opposed to low income. But hey, I never said low income doesn’t matter, particularly when evaluating an economically diverse group.

But I began to wonder: how much does poverty matter, once you control for race? For that matter, how do you find the poverty levels for a school district?

Well, it’s been a while since I did data. I like other people to do it and then pick holes. But I was curious, and so went off and did data.

Seventeen days later, I emerged, blinking, with an answer to the second question, at least.

It’s hard to know how to describe what I did during those days, much less put it into an essay. I don’t want to attempt any sophisticated analysis—I’m not a social scientist, and I’m not trying to establish anything certain about the impact of poverty on test scores, an area that’s been studied by people with far better grades than I ever managed. But at the same time, I don’t think most of the educational policy folk dig down into poverty or race statistics at the district level. So it seemed like it might be worthwhile to describe what I did, and what the data looks like. If nothing else, the layperson might not know what’s involved.

If my experience is any guide, it’s hard finding poverty rates for children by race. You can get children in poverty, race in poverty, but not children by race in poverty. And then it appears to be impossible to find enrolled children in a school district—not just who live in it, which is tough enough—by poverty. And then, of course, poverty by enrollment by race.

First, I looked up the poverty data here (can’t provide direct links to each city).

But this is overall poverty by race, not child poverty by race, and it’s not at the district level, which is particularly important for some of the county data. However, I’m grateful to that site because it led me to American Community Survey Factfinder, which organizes data by all kinds of geographic entities—including school districts—and all kinds of topics–including poverty—on all sorts of groups and individuals—including race. Not that this is news to data geeks, which I am not, so I had to wander around for a while before I stumbled on it.

Anyway. I ran report 1701 for the districts in question. If I understand googledocs, you can save yourself the trouble of running it yourself. But since the report is hard to read, I’ll translate. Here are the overall district black poverty rates for the NAEP testing regions:


Again, these are for the districts, not the cities.

(Am I the only one who’s surprised at how relatively low the poverty rates are for New York and DC? Call me naïve for not realizing that the Post and the Times are provincial papers. Here I thought they focused on their local schools because of their inordinately high poverty rates, not their convenient locations. Kidding. Kind of.)

But these rates are for all blacks in the district, not black children. Happily, the ACS also provides data on poverty by age and race, although you have to add and divide in order to get a rate. But I did that so you don’t have to–although lord knows, my attention to detail isn’t great so it should probably be double or triple checked. So here, for each district, are the poverty rates for black children from 5-17:


In both cases, Boston and New York have poverty rates a little over half those of the cities with the highest poverty rates—and isn’t it coincidental that the four cities with the lowest black NAEP scores have the highest black poverty rates? Weird how that works.

But the NAEP scores and the district data don’t include charter or private schools in the zone, and this impacts enrollment rates differently. So back to ACS to find data on age and gender, and more combining and calculating, with the same caveats about my lamentable attention to detail. This gave me the total number of school age kids in the district. Then I had to find the actual district enrollment data, most of which is in another census report (relevant page here) for the largest school districts. The smaller districts, I just went to the website.



Another caveat–some of these data points are from different years so again, some fuzziness. All within the last three or four years, though.

So this leads into another interesting question: the districts don’t report poverty anywhere I can find (although I think some of them have the data as part of their Title I metrics) and in any event, they never report it by race. I have the number and percent of poor black children in the region, but how many of them attend district schools?

So to take Cleveland, for example, the total 5-17 district population was 67,284. But the enrolled population was 40871, or 60.7% of the district population.

According to ACS, 22,445 poor black children age 5-17 live in the district, and I want an approximation of the black and overall poverty rates for the district schools. How do I apportion poverty? I do not know the actual poverty rate for the district’s black kids. I saw three possibilities:

  1. I could use the black child poverty rate for the residents of the Cleveland district (ACS ratio of poor black children to ACS total black children). That would assume (I think) that the poor black children were evenly distributed over district and non-district schools.
  2. I could have take the enrollment rate and multiplied that by the poor black children in ACS—and then use that to calculate the percentage of poor kids from blacks enrolled.
  3. I could assign all the black children in poverty (according to ACS) to the black children enrolled in the district (using district given percentage of black children enrolled).

Well, the middle method is way too complicated and hurts my head. Plus, it didn’t really seem all that different from the first method; both assume poor black kids would be just as likely to attend a charter or private school than they would their local district school. The third method assumes the opposite—that kids in poverty would never attend private or charter schools. This method would probably overstate the poverty rates.

So here are poverty levels calculated by methods 1 and 3–ACS vs assigning all the poor black students to the district. In most cases, the differences were minor. I highlight the districts that have greater than 10 percentage points difference.


Again, is it just a coincidence that the schools with the lowest enrollment rates and the widest range of potential poverty rates have some of the lowest NAEP scores?

Finally, after all this massaging, I had some data to run regression analysis on. But I want to do that in a later post. Here, I want to focus on the fact that gathering this data was ridiculously complicated and required a fair amount of manual entry and calculations.

If I didn’t take the long way round, I suspect this effort is why researchers use the National Student Lunch Program (“free and reduced lunch”) as a poverty proxy.

The problem is that the poverty proxy sucks, and we need to stop using it.

Schools and districts have noticed that researchers use National School Lunch enrollment numbers as a proxy for poverty, and it’s also a primary criterion for Title I allocations. So it’s hard not to wonder about Boston’s motives when the district decides to give all kids free lunches regardless of income level, and whether it’s really about “awkward socio-economic divides” and “invasive questions”. The higher the average income of a district’s “poor” kids, the easier it is to game the NCLB requirements, for example.

Others use the poverty proxy to compare academic outcomes and argue for their preferred policy, particularly on the reform side of things. For example, charter school research uses the proxy when “proving” they do a “great job educating poor kids” when in fact they might just be skimming the not-quite-as-poor kids and patting themselves on the back. We can’t really tell. And of course, the NAEP uses the poverty proxy as well, and then everyone uses it to compare the performance of “poor” kids. See for example, this analysis by Jill Barshlay, highlighted by Alexander Russo (with Paul Bruno chiming in to object to FRL as poverty proxy). Bruce Baker does a lot of work with this.

To see exactly how untrustworthy the “poverty proxy is”, consider the NAEP TUDA results broken down by participation in the NSLP.


Look at all the cities that have no scores for blacks who aren’t eligible for free or reduced lunch: Boston, Cleveland, Dallas, Fresno, Hillsborough County, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and San Diego. These cities apparently have no blacks with income levels higher than 180% of poverty. Detroit can drum up non-poor blacks, but Hillsborough County, Boston, Dallas, and Philadelphia can’t? That seems highly unlikely, given the poverty levels outlined above. Far more likely that the near-universal poverty proxy includes a whole bunch of kids who aren’t actually poor.

In any event, the feds, after giving free lunches to everyone, decided that NSLP participation levels are pretty meaningless for deciding income levels “…because many schools now automatically enroll everyone”.

I find this news slightly cheering, as it suggests that I’m not the only one having a hard time identifying the actually poor. Surely this article would have mentioned any easier source?

So. If someone can come back and say “Ed, you moron. This is all in a table, which I will now conveniently link in to show you how thoroughly you wasted seventeen days”, I will feel silly, but less cynical about education policy wonks hyping their notions. Maybe they do know more than I do. But it’s at least pretty likely that no one is looking at actual district poverty rates by race when fulminating about academic achievement, because what I did wasn’t easy.

Andy Smarick, at any rate, wasn’t paying any attention to poverty rates. And he should be. Because Detroit isn’t Boston.

This post is long enough, so I’ll save my actual analysis data for a later post. Not too much later, I hope, since I put a whole bunch of work into it.