OPINION | How racial justice gets distorted in education “reform”


A couple of weeks ago, several of my friends on Facebook posted links to an article on Huffington Post, either directly or via a blog post on the African American Leadership Forum website, with the headline “Achievement Gap Study Suggests Legislators Only Take Action When White Students Fail.” Naturally, I clicked on the link, and what I found was a case study in how racial justice gets distorted by so-called “reformers.”

The article cites a deeply flawed recent study by Michael T. Hartney and Patrick Flavin called “The Political Foundations of the Black-White Education Gap” published in American Politics Research. My colleague, Michael Diedrich has already pointed out the bias in conflating adherence to controversial National Center or Teacher Quality (NCTQ) policy recommendations with taking action on the achievement gap.

I want to focus more on how the article circulated amongst well-meaning people.

After Hartney and Flavin released their report, they doubled down on their overly reductive assumption that the interests of African Americans and NCTQ policy are one and the same, and the assumption throughout the article that teacher’s unions operate with a kind of pathological self-interest. To promote his study to the Huffington Post, Professor Flavin speculated:

“We have no empirical evidence for this, but it’s possible that that black legislators are caught between two natural constituencies — support from teachers unions and African Americans.”

Let’s be clear: research that assumes there is one African American perspective on education or unions, or that reduces unions to financial patronage machines is unlikely to provide much useful analysis. American history provides no shortage of examples of attempts to pit African Americans against unions, sometimes successfully, rarely to the benefit of either African Americans or labor unions. In fact, African American workers are more likely than white, Hispanic, or Asian workers to be members of a union, and the public sector remains the most significant employer of African Americans.

There will continue to be pro- and anti-union voices in the African American community, just as there are among whites, but there is clearly no consensus in opposition to public sector unions. Yet, Flavin and Hartney confidently base their analysis on their certainty that African Americans as a constituency want NCTQ-recommended reforms, in opposition to unions. So confident are Flavin and Hartney, in fact, that they are unphased when they note in the footnotes that states with a higher percentage of African American legislators are less likely to pass NCTQ’s problematic reforms, rather than more likely, as they would have predicted.

Their own data fails to support their assumptions, but they stubbornly soldier on.

Huffington Post uncritically reported their findings, adding (as is their stylistic tendency) a flashy headline that further compounded the problem in Flavin and Hartney’s analysis. As a result, irresponsible scholarship fueled by reckless online journalism put bad ideas into circulation. Locally, anti-racist activists spread the article, reasonably assuming doing so would draw needed attention to racial inequity in our schools. Since the journal article itself exists behind a paywall, we can assume many did not read the research, but only the Huffington Post article.

In communicating the urgency of the achievement gap, my friends (in some cases, inadvertently) reinforced a narrative not supported by the referenced research that African Americans’ interests and teachers’ interests are oppositional, further polarizing a debate that is already too polarized.

The frustrating thing is that the article also had some important findings to offer from survey data about people’s attitudes toward the schools. They provide useful data to demonstrate a frustrating fact that most education activists already know: that many people, particularly white people, are not especially concerned about the racial achievement gap in our schools. We need to work to create urgency around this problem if there will ever be the political will to close the gap. By combining that very valid, urgent research with a bogus false conflation of racial justice and the “reform” agenda, they limit their audience, and reduce the potential impact of the valid and urgent part of their report.

We need to have a vibrant, public debate about what solutions Minnesota should actually pursue. We need to start that debate assuming that it hasn’t already been settled by NCTQ and its underwriters, which include the big three national corporate reform funders (Gates, Walton, and Broad) along with local contributor MinnCAN. By framing NCTQ solutions as the “anti-racist” side in the debate, the authors imply that anyone who disagrees with NCTQ and their sponsors supports a racist status quo.

For those of us who are working to transform an inequitable system but don’t think standardized testing is the best way to evaluate teachers, or that flooding low-income schools with underprepared teachers is a viable solution, the article is offensive, and further drives a wedge between people with good intentions and differing viewpoints.

The people who forwarded the article without really understanding it are not to blame. Their intentions were good, and frankly, they should be able to trust their social network’s good intentions as well. The people who work to advance their agenda with rhetorical bullying, disingenuously presenting their agenda as “racial justice” do a disservice to the education reform debate, and to the kids who would benefit from grownups behaving better toward each other to find real solutions.