Just as toddlers ask “Where do babies come from,” adults often ask, “Where do expensive, doomed-to-fail government policies come from?” In both instances the answer is simple: they start out little, barely noticed “embryonic cells” and, if all goes well, grow and grow and grow. In the case of public policies, this expansion is often almost unstoppable even as the costly failures mount. That said, it is crucial that that these policy “cells” be carefully scrutinized and, if necessary, destroyed prior to their second trimester.
With this task in mind, let us consider the latest toxic idea from the US Department of Education that still remains embryonic–eliminating the gap in race-related academic achievement by showering largely black schools with the top-of-the line resources typically found at high performing schools with white and Asian students. Though predictably endorsed by the New York Times, this is a terrible, quixotic idea but more important is that it suggests a deeper disconnect among the Mandarins and these inadequacies are far more troubling than garden variety incompetence and fiscal prolificacy.
This nonsense is all laid out in an October 1, 2014 “Dear Colleague” letter from Catherine E. Lhamon, the Department of Education’s Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights. The missive reminds school districts about their obligation to achieve racial equality in education. It begins: “today, I write to call your attention to disparities that persist in access to educational resources, and to help you address those disparities and comply with the legal obligation to provide students with equal access to these resources without regard to race, color, or national origin.” A bit further on: “Chronic and widespread racial disparities in access to rigorous courses, academic programs, and extracurricular activities; stable workforces of effective teachers, leaders, and support staff; safe and appropriate school buildings and facilities; and modern technology and high-quality instructional materials further hinder the education of students of color today.”
Put concretely, the hundreds of largely African American schools in Detroit, East St. Louis, Camden, NJ, Garry, IN among many others where few students can even read at adequate levels and do basic arithmetic will now, thanks to Washington coercion, be taught by highly skilled experienced teachers, have up-to-date in science labs and other cutting edge technology. Further add multiple Advanced Placement Courses, academically themed extracurricular activities (e.g., debate clubs), classes for the gifted and all the rest that characterize high-performing largely white and Asian schools. This is social engineering on steroids, far beyond what was attempted in the Soviet Union.
Expensive failure is inevitable. Most plainly, and contrary to millennia of obvious experience and decades of scientific evidence, Ms. Lhamon assumes that there are zero group-related differences in academic ability and motivation. All children are just blank slates so differences in outcomes merely reflect unequal resources (sort of like empty bottles at the bottling plant—some are filled with Coke, others with Sprite). So, Asian children academically out-perform African Americans simply due to more resources being invested in schools attended by Asians. Keep schools the same and exchange student bodies and, voilà, the test scores of black students would sky-rocket while those of whites and Asians will plummet.
That this exchange of students did occur thousands of times with scant academic benefits thanks to coerced racial integration naturally goes unmentioned. Similarly, myriad illustrations exist of schools whose student bodies shifted as neighborhood demography changed, and academic outcomes similarly altered despite unchanging resources.
And what about all the billions lavished on the failed No Child Left Behind (and the more recent Race to the Top) that explicitly targeted race-related differences in academic achievement? Surely, if under-the-gun teachers and administrators knew that giving every struggling student of color a laptop, adding AP course and the like would have equalized scores and thereby helped them keep their jobs, even receive performance bonuses, the gap would have vanished decades ago. Hard to imagine public officials denying these resources if they performed as advertised, but experienced educators (and those who allocate funds) know full well though they dare not express it in public: cutting edge pedagogical software is worthless when students disdain learning.
Then there are all the hundred million dollar plus “Taj Mahal” high schools that target struggling largely minority students with every imaginable resource. The Robert Kennedy Community Schools in Los Angeles cost tax-payers $578 million to build while two other LA schools came in at $377 and $232 million each. New York City now has one costing $235 million. And let’s not forget the famous Kansas City high school experiment where a judge ordered the construction of a high school that provided Olympic size swimming pools, an underwater viewing room, state-of-art language labs, television and animation studios, a robotics lab, small teacher-to-student ratios, a 25-acre wildlife sanctuary, a zoo, a model United Nations with simultaneous translation capability, and field trips to Mexico and Senegal plus academic amenities galore but test scores actually declined. All and all, nothing worked in this extravagant experiment and I suspect that the academic component of this court-ordered largess was under-utilized.
What about the idealistic but ineffective effort to transform mediocre black and Hispanic students into gifted ones by simply inserting them in classes for the gifted? The Assistant Secretary also ignores numerous schools with sizeable black enrollments that enjoy every imaginable academic resource. In Shaker Heights, OH, for example, blacks, many of whom have affluent parents, attend a high school famous for its academics and stellar facilities—an educational paradise, so to speak. Only the most qualified well-credentialed teachers are hired and the school goes out of its way to help blacks, including encouraging them to take AP courses. Yet in the 1990s black students perform poorly on the SAT and resemble blacks in other Ohio towns that lack schools with top-of-the-line facilities and teachers. And the Shaker Heights “you can take a horse to water…” phenomena is commonplace.
It is equally futile to move star teachers from high-performing schools to horrific inner-city schools. I can envision these stellar teachers now facing academically lagging students in possibly life-threatening settings. Meanwhile, former inner-city teachers will now have smart students eager to learn. The upshot, almost guaranteed, will be that former stars become failures and former failures become stars and every few months, the newly minted “star” teachers as per the Assistant Secretary’s mandate are returned to their previous job at Thomas Hobbes HS. Meanwhile, the failing former stars likewise return to their old jobs since they have failed to perform the required miracle. This is a perfect scheme to push experienced, skilled teachers into private schools to escape the likes of Thomas Hobbes HS.
This unwelcome reality acknowledged, how does this Washington bureaucrat justify this scheme? The Secretary misrepresents the evidence and instead finesses the a weak empirical case by admitting that the supporting studies cited in the “Dear Colleague” letter are intended to illustrate the problems we face rather than exhaustively review the relevant research literature. To be sure, the missive does cite a few studies showing the relevance of resources to student outcomes but such cherry-picked bits and pieces of evidence hardly contravenes the repeated failure of billion dollar government interventions to eliminate racial disparities (and keep in mind that few will actually read these supposedly supportive studies, let alone be professionally competent to judge their scientific merit). Actually, most of the citations simply document the obvious—black and Hispanic students attend schools with fewer AP courses, science labs and the rest, a reality undoubtedly best explained by the lack of student abilities, not racial or ethnic discrimination.
Now for the depressing political bottom line: What justified the call for centralized power to socially engineer thousands of local schools so as to, supposedly, eliminates racial differences? Her answer goes far beyond the usual feel-good “we must do something” about racial gaps rhetoric. The Assistant Secretary sets the stage for this massive and hugely expensive expansion of state power by distorting federal law and key court cases beyond all recognition to advance a costly, doomed scheme.
Here’s how this duplicitous enterprise unfolds. The legal justification, according to Ms. Lhamon includes the “Equal Protection” cause of the Fourteenth Amendment as well as Title VI of the 1964 Civil Right Act that forbids discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origins where federal funding is involved. Now comes The Great Leap Forward: discrimination occurs when schools allocate resources (e.g., science labs) that disproportionately benefit some racial groups but not others. So, if New York City offers advanced Calculus at the elite Bronx High School of Science where the student body is overwhelmingly Asian, Indian and White but not to high schools with a largely black enrollment, this allocation is not only discriminatory but also unconstitutional as per Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment. That these Calculus classes are pointless given that many black students lag years behind in basic math is irrelevant since allocation and only allocation of resources is all that counts. Moreover, it makes no difference that every black and Hispanic youngster in New York City has a shot at attending admitted to these resource rich schools thanks to objective tests.
The legal twisting hardly ends with this surrealistic interpretation of the Constitution or the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The missive also cites several landmark court-ordered racial integration cases (e.g.,Green v. County School Bd. of New Kent County, Va.(1968) ) to establish an alleged long-standing federal commitment to equalize educational resources thereby eliminating racial gaps.
This exegesis is bizarre–these cases focused on school enrollment demography in specific school districts, not equality of resources nationally. Nothing in these decisions concerned eliminating national gaps race-related academic achievement let alone providing dicta for upgrading schools with large black enrollments. Indeed, the landmark Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision, the lynch pin of this missive, explicitly outlawed racial segregation even if resources were identical (the separate but equal doctrine)—only laws requiring racial segregation were the issue. Our Department of Education functionary has her legal history backwards.
If this missive were to become law, every public school (plus all private ones that receive any federal money) will be obligated to offer the same curriculum and level of facilities or risk some Washington lawyer arriving with a consent decree. Hard to envisage a greater expansion of centralized authority. This is also a guaranteed recipe to eviscerate public education since education-minded parents who want “discriminatory” courses (e.g., AP physics) must now seek them in private schools that absolutely refuse any federal money, even for subsidized school meals or programs for the handicapped. Tuition for such “discriminatory” school would be at least $30,000 per year and would thus make a quality education impossible for all but the top 1%, Chalk up yet one more unexpected perverse outcome for egalitarian ideologues.
Ironically, under this novel interpretation of “discrimination” New York City and most other schools in America might be advised to ban all advanced courses, all scientific laboratories, all after school academic organizations and on and on rather than go bankrupt so as to bring all of the city’s non-elite high schools up to speed. What a wonderful plan to dumb down American education or, conceivably, spend every nickel of public money on schools that do not require or want stellar academic facilities.
Our central point is not that Washington is about to impose yet one more stupid, exceedingly expensive doomed-to-fail policy on an oblivious public. Yes, there are now some 40 on-going investigations into this resource inequality, but I’d guess that the project is DOA if only for reasons of affordability. More noteworthy is what the “Dear Colleague” letter reveals over and above an appetite for expensive foolishness.
First, the missive demonstrates a willful and complete denial of a half century of failed social engineering and thus constitutes a learning disorder of the first order. Do the apparatchiki honestlybelieve that AP courses and advanced math classes are the ticket to turning around the dismal performances of schools in Detroit or Trenton, NJ? (Detroit students have long had school-supplied computers.) Or that teaching ability exists independent of the students one must teach? It exaggerates only slightly to suggest that such an “education expert” asserting such contrary-to-reality claims might be put on medical leave and advised to seek psychological counseling.
Second, while some misrepresentation of research and legal outcomes is de rigueur in political debate, Ms. Lhamon’s twisting is mendacious and obviously so. There is almost a post-modern element here—a court case becomes a “text” whose meaning is socially constructed so a decision that rejects equality of resources as certifying racial equality now becomes an established legal principle in which equality of courses and facilities becomes the standard for racial equality. Or that a tiny number of academic studies can contravene decades of obdurate experience.
Third, these arguments betrays an obliviousness to costs and trade-offs that one might associate with thinking among young children or the dim witted. Has any Department of Education expert put a price tag on this enterprise or is raising the funding issue tantamount to being “mean spirited”? Has anybody told the Assistant Secretary that perhaps these funds could be better allocated elsewhere so as to help academically struggling African Americans? For example, what about intensive one-on-one tutoring to boost reading skills instead of expensive microscopes? And what about the burdens imposed on education-minded parents who will be forced to enroll junior in a private school since public schools will drop advanced courses?
To repeat, the missive is far more than just yet one more call for an ineffective policy. It is certainly is that but what makes it scary is that the missive suggests serious cognitive deficiencies-the inability to see the obvious, a proclivity to misinterpret well-known laws and court cases and a failure to make the most elementary cost/benefit calculations. Government by incompetence, even rule by thieves is bad enough; quite another is to be rule by those who disdain the most obvious reality.