Not quite post-racial at the Chicago public schools

Has Chicago, the city that gave us Obama, arrived at a post-racial era in its public school system?  Last week, the New York Times reported that the city’s public schools have decided to use student socio-economic profiles rather than race to assign students to schools.

Those who believe that race is merely a clumsy and inaccurate proxy for socio-economic status will surely welcome the change as long overdue.  For them, removing race as a factor would allow Chicago schools to deal directly with the true underlying concerns of school integration — combating the devastating effect poverty has on the education of our children.  It would be a welcomed first step toward moving beyond our fixation on race.  The result would be more equitable and accurate, as well.

The reality in Chicago, however, is far more complicated.  For one thing, the Times article makes it clear that the Chicago officials are implementing the reform reluctantly.  They are doing so only in response to the Supreme Court decision in 2007 that prohibited Seattle and Kentucky school districts from using race as a factor in school assignments.

More importantly, the objective of using these types of criteria to sort and assign students remain peculiarly fixated on race.  The goal that the school officials say they hope to achieve, and the standard by which they evaluate their success, is racial integration, not socio-economic parity.  As a result, socio-economic profiling is perceived and spoken of as a second-best solution, a crude proxy for race.

Unfortunately, if racial integration is the objective, then the Chicago policy is likely to fail.  San Francisco, which has been using socio-economic factors instead of race in school assignment for the past few years, has seen less racial integration in its schools since adopting the new policy.  Denver and Charlotte had reported similar trends.

Part of the problem may be technical.  Defining and measuring socio-economic status turns out to be a bit more elusive than defining race.  According to the New York Times, Chicago will be using a variety of factors that evaluates the student’s neighborhood — “income, education levels, single-parent households, owner-occupied homes and the use of language other than English as the primary tongue” — in placing students in selective-enrollment schools.

Using neighborhood characteristics as a proxy for socio-economic status may be just as inaccurate as using race as a proxy.  The system is also more easily gamed, since the calculus depends on assumptions about people’s living preferences and the fact that they are reporting their actual addresses.  San Francisco, which uses a similar system, is reevaluating the effectiveness of using those factors and considering using additional factors such as whether the student has attended pre-school.

In short, if Chicago’s true objective is more racial integration, it is likely to be sorely disappointed.  None of these criticisms, however, address the largest problems that both of these methods for school integration fails to address: a paucity of middle- or upper-middle class white students.  Students who attend urban, inner-city schools are overwhelmingly minorities and poor.  In Chicago, only 9% of students are white, while 45% are African-American and 41% Latino.  According to the school district website, 85% of the public school students are from a “low-income family.”

And Chicago is not unique.  70% of Denver’s students are Latino or African-American, and roughly the same percentage are low-income students eligible for the federal free lunch program.  In San Francisco’s school district, nearly 1/3 of the students are immigrant “English language learners”, and white students only make up 10% of the student population.  More than half of the students are eligible for the free lunch program.

Integration is only meaningful and sensible when there are diverse groups to integrate.  The Chicago officials themselves acknowledge the absurdities of trying to “integrate” a district where the vast majority of students are quite uniformly low-income and non-white.  Short of busing these students to wealthy suburbs, who are Chicago integrating these children with?

Rather than achieving the ideal of running schools where race does not matter, Chicago’s new policy shows us that race is still an issue that is very much front and center in people’s minds — and at the same time, it is an issue that is beside the point.

Too focused on the racial achievement gap?

thegapIt seems that our society has an obsession for anything related to race. Last Wednesday, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) released disappointing results for math exams that the nation’s fourth and eighth graders took earlier this year. The results were worrisome, to say the least: only 39% of fourth graders and 34% of eighth graders performed above the proficiency level. In addition to the predictable stories about low scores and the lack of improvements, many media outlets also reported on the achievement gaps among the nation’s various ethnic and racial groups.

The gaps are huge, and they have widened slightly from two years ago. The New York Times reports that on the 500-points exam where the average score for eighth graders was 282, the average white students scored 293 points, black students averaged only 261 points while hispanics scored 266 points. The 32-point gap between white and black students represents about 3 years worth of learning.

According to National Center for Education Statistics, while 82% of white students have “basic” math skills and 43% have “proficient” skills, only 49% of black students have basic skills, and a dismal 12% are proficient. Hispanic students once again fare slightly better than black students (56%, 17%) but are still leagues behind white students.

These numbers are certainly cause for concern, and there is no doubt that our schools are failing a large portion of our nation’s children, but why do we focus on race? A short foray into the nifty and slightly addictive NAEP website (where you can build your own charts and compare the performance of different groups based on hundreds of different criteria) reveal a host of even more dramatic achievement gaps.

One such gap is the rich-poor gap.  While direct economic data for the students are not available from the NAEP exams, a useful proxy is whether the student is eligible for the federal free lunch program. Here, the gap is 27 points, almost as much as the black-white achievement gap and exactly the same as the white-hispanic achievement gap. Only 17% of those eligible for free school lunches have reached a proficient level, compared to 45% of those not eligible.

And what about the rich-school-district-poor-school-district gap? Here, the difference is even more dramatic.  The nation’s richest districts — those with 0% of their students eligible for free lunches — have an average score of 302 — 20 points above the national average. The poorest districts — those with 100% of eligible students, averaged a score of 258. The 44 points gap represents about four years of education.

And what about the state achievement gaps? Massachusetts eighth graders had the highest average scores in the nation with 299 points. Minnesota came in second at 294, and a slew of other states, all of them northern, follow them at 293. At the bottom, DC schools are the worst in the nation, clocking in at 254 points, 45 points behind Massachusetts. Mississippi and Alabama are at 265 and 269 points each.

I can come up with a host of other interesting achievement gaps: students whose parents graduated from college vs. students whose parents did not finish high school (30 points), students with fewer than 10 books in the home and students with 100 books or more (41 points), and a public-private school gap (14 points).

All of these achievement gaps have something to do with the socio-economic status of the students. It won’t surprise anyone to learn that students from more affluent backgrounds, whose parents are better educated and whose neighborhoods are safer, learn more in school and perform better at standardized exams. It also won’t surprise anyone that the schools in richer neighborhoods have more resources and are better run, thereby making teaching and learning more effective. The differences that these scores have shown are dramatic and infuriating.

Which is why I find it even harder to understand our fixation on race. Is it really so surprising, given that a larger percentage of this nation’s black and hispanic citizens live in poverty and have a lower average income, that their children would perform worse in school? It seems that our concern with the racial achievement gap is, in large part, a concern with the underlying socioeconomic ills that plague a disproportionate percentage of minorities in our nation. Rather than clarifying the problems that these youngsters and our schools face, our fixation on race obfuscates it.