"Bad Students"—Unmentionable Cause Of The Great Achievement Gap

The new book by sometime VDARE.com contributor Robert Weissberg, Bad Students, Not Bad Schools, has become even timelier following the recent popping of the test score bubble in New York City public schools.

Weissberg, a professor of political science emeritus at the U. of Illinois, wittily surveys in his conversational prose style a half century of educational research. He debunks the fluff that comprises most of this fad-driven field, while highlighting the replicable social science whose lessons go ignored.

Weissberg's conclusion: the quality of students—intelligence and motivation—is by far the most important factor in whether a school is "bad" or "good".

This won't come as any surprise to anyone with children. And everyone worries about this factor when house-hunting. As I wrote in VDARE.com on September 28, 2003:

"What do homebuyers mean when they say 'bad schools?' Occasionally, they do have highly specific criticisms: the principal might be disorganized, the teachers unmotivated, the textbooks incomprehensible. Overwhelmingly, though, Americans use the term 'bad schools' to mean—'bad students.'

"That's the single most important key to the 'two-income trap.' Parents spend huge amounts of money to keep their children away from dim and dangerous fellow students."

What makes Bad Students, Not Bad Schools particularly interesting is that in early 21st Century, New York City emerged as the glamour spot of school reform. The rich, the powerful, and the influential teamed up to fight the racial "gap" in school achievement allegedly caused by bad schools. And from 2004 onward, Weissberg was there, watching the idols of the hour up close.

Years before, as it happened, Weissberg himself had grown up in New York City. After a brief (but instructive) spell in 1953 at Booker T. Washington Junior High School on the border of the Upper West Side and Harlem—an expensive new school rapidly deteriorating under the assault from its less scholarly students—Weissberg's mom yanked him out and headed for the Jersey suburbs.

That bad students can make a school bad is a lesson that tens of millions of Americans besides Weissberg have learned the hard way. Yet, when it comes to thinking about education, we're not supposed to draw any insights from our own lives. In contrast, you can win fame and, if not fortune, at least a pleasant career by loudly proclaiming that bad schools make good students bad.

Weissberg documents the almost innumerable boondoggles tried out in the public schools in the name of closing the racial gap in achievement.

Over the last decade, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg epitomized the media/governmental/philanthropic complex that has come to dominate discussion of school reform. A Democrat turned Republican turned Independent, Bloomberg struck the press as the perfect non-ideological technocrat to bring "business-like" methods to the public schools to eliminate the gap. The financial news baron, the eighth richest man in America, mobilized his Wall Street connections to pour donations into fashionable educational gambits.

Bloomberg took control of the New York City schools away from the school board and put heavyweight lawyer Joel Klein in charge. He and Klein then proceeded to put on a dazzling PR show as they used the vast financial resources generated by the Wall Street Bubble to try out the state-of-the-art conventional wisdom.

Journalists gave him worshipful coverage. Maybe it helped that Bloomberg—whose firm rents old-fashioned computer monitors to Wall Streeters for about $18,000 per year—is one of the few press lords still hiring in the Internet Age.

For example, Bloomberg had term limits lifted so he could run for a third term in 2009. I assumed from reading the laudatory headlines that, after spending $102 million on his campaign, he was going to be re-elected by near-acclamation. But instead, Bloomberg sweated out a victory with only 50.6 percent of the vote. Reporters were astonished: everybody they knew voted for him.

But while the media were agog, New York City teachers were less impressed by the Bloomberg-Klein show. Weissberg writes of how local teachers, "the grunts", were hammered from below by their students and from above by the politicians and press:

"Those I encountered might have become skeptical about imparting knowledge to their apathetic students, but I did not meet any who rejected that noble aim. … They were marking time, trying to navigate sorrowful situations while cynically watching the 'Education Mayor' and his hard-charging school chancellor build reputations by claiming to transform unruly dolts into dutiful scholars by just threatening teachers and 'closing' so-called 'bad schools.'"

Weissberg found it disillusioning when he finally got to meet the famous reformers and donors that he had only previously read about in the glowing New York press. "Most were smart, a few brilliant at making money, all serious and yet their "positions" on educations were little more than heartfelt clichés"—union busting, multiculturalism, vouchers, merit pay, social work, or whatever.

Weissberg writes:

"All of their speechmaking was well-intentioned, nothing was absolutely wrongheaded, but many of these self-appointed amateur experts … had little curiosity about rival explanations, let alone tolerance for having pet nostrums challenged. Convictions resembled religious slogans to be endlessly repeated to fellow believers. Not a single pontificator put any blame on students themselves. Rousseau's worldview had completely triumphed—'good' students had been corrupted by 'the system.'"

It was not just the Left that was talking through their hats. Weissberg watched the  Manhattan Institute  give a prize to Jeb Bush for demanding that every Floridian get a college degree (on the taxpayer's tab). He adds:

"I also listened to a [Bush Administration] Secretary of Education explain that high dropout rates among African Americans could be reversed by adding more Advanced Placement courses in schools where most students struggled with the basics. … With friends like this … who needs enemies?"

And what Weissberg rightly labels the "mendacity" of education-talk is particularly flagrant in New York City. There these same elites compete furiously with each other to get their children into exclusive kindergartens through scoring high on IQ tests. Virtually every prestigious private school in Manhattan and the upscale parts of Brooklyn demands that preschooler applicants take the $510 Wechsler IQ test through the Early Childhood Admissions Assessment service of the Educational Records Bureau.

Thus every parent in the loftier reaches of the New York media knows, from personal experience, that the IQ of the students is central in determining what makes a "good school" different from a "bad school". But how often do they clue the rest of us in on this central fact of New York life?

Bloomberg-Klein put on quite a show while it lasted. But the 2010 test scores revealed that that's mostly what it was: a show. This summer, it was revealed that the much-trumpeted narrowing of the racial gap in NYC test scores was largely a statistical artifact, the inevitable result of tests becoming easier over the years 2006 through 2009.

From Triumph Fades on Racial Gap in City Schools by Sharon Otterman and Robert Gebeloff, New York Times, August 15, 2010:

"Two years ago, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and his schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein, testified before Congress about the city's impressive progress in closing the gulf in performance between minority and white children. The gains were historic, all but unheard of in recent decades. 'Over the past six years, we've done everything possible to narrow the achievement gap — and we have,' Mr. Bloomberg testified. 'In some cases, we've reduced it by half.'

"'We are closing the shameful achievement gap faster than ever,' the mayor said again in 2009, as city reading scores — now acknowledged as the height of a test score bubble — showed nearly 70 percent of children had met state standards.

"When results from the 2010 tests, which state officials said presented a more accurate portrayal of students' abilities, were released last month, they came as a blow to the legacy of the mayor and the chancellor, as passing rates dropped by more than 25 percentage points on most tests. But the most painful part might well have been the evaporation of one of their signature accomplishments: the closing of the racial achievement gap."

What's the story behind the popping of the New York test score bubble? Allow me to digress from Bad Students, Not Bad Schools to update you on this latest (yet increasingly time-honored) test score scam.

The main explanation is that the state's tests got so easy to pass from 2006 to 2009 that whites started running out of headroom. In 2006, 77 percent of white students passed the math test. By 2009, that percentage had been inflated, by the usual hook and crook methods, to 92 percent of whites. Making tests super-easy automatically narrows the racial gap as measured by the simpleminded method of subtracting the percent of blacks passing from the percent of whites passing. (Standards were finally raised this year by the New York State Board Of Regents, which is officially above politics and actually not under Bloomberg's control. [Standards Raised, More Students Fail Tests, By Jennifer Medina, Published: July 28, 2010])

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In 2006, 77.2 percent of whites passed (blue line in the graph above) compared to 46.5 percent of blacks (black line), so the Gap (red line) was announced as 30.7 percentage points (77.2 - 46.5 = 30.7). By 2009, 92 percent of whites passed versus 75 percent of blacks, so the gap was proclaimed to have shrunk from 31 points to 17 in just four years.

Yet, is subtracting the black passing percentage from the white passing percentage the best way to track the racial gap? Would Bloomberg and Klein get a passing grade on a math test?

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If you try out different ways of quantifying the Gap using percentages, you'll get oddly different results. If you look at failing rates rather than passing rates, and use division rather than subtraction, you'll find the "racial ratio" (black failing rate / white failing rate) moves in the opposite direction as the percentage of whites failing falls toward zero. In 2006, 23 percent of white students in NYC flunked the math test compared to 53 percent of black students, for a black / white ratio of 2.4. By 2009, only eight percent of whites and 25 percent of blacks flunked, giving a black / white ratio of 3.2.

Indeed, as the percentage of whites failing approaches zero, the ratio of black to white failure rates approaches infinity.

This paradox should come as a warning to us that the apparent size of racial gaps can be manipulated by clever salesmen.

In truth, using differences in percentages passing is statistical chicanery. Statisticians have known for generations that the proper way to measure differences like this is with standard deviations, not percentages.

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As the pseudonymous statistician La Griffe du Lion pointed out in 2001 in the above graph, the white passing percentage minus black passing percentage racial gap must be zero when either nobody passes the test or when everybody passes the test. Assuming a constant one standard deviation gap (what La Griffe calls the Fundamental Constant of Sociology), the percentage point gap is largest (38 points) when 69 percent of whites pass.

So, if you start with a test on which about 69% of whites pass, you can artificially narrow the racial gap by either making the test easier or harder. It doesn't matter!

If Mayor Bloomberg, who has made himself $17,500,000,000 delivering statistics to traders, doesn't know about standard deviations, well, Bloomberg L.P. employs hundreds of people who could have explained it to him.

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If we make the simplifying assumption that the scores of both whites and blacks follow the normal probability distribution, we can easily plot the New York City math test passing rates in terms of standard deviations, giving us a more accurate picture. While the Bloomberg-Klein percentage method showed the racial gap narrowing almost in half from 2006 to 2009, the superior standard deviation difference (red line) shows only a slight decline through 2009. The white-black gap was 0.83 standard deviations in 2006, before falling to 0.74 in 2009, then bouncing back to 0.90 in 2010.

More likely, Mayor Bloomberg, a master salesman, knew that talking about gaps in percentage terms was misleading, which is why he did it.

The Fire Department of New York tried the same tactic to avoid a disparate impact suit over the notoriously innumerate Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's rule that blacks must score at least four fifths as well as whites in percentage terms. They pushed the white passing rate on the fireman's hiring test to 97 percent so that the black rate hit 85 percent.

Weissberg, who says that in researching this book, he "acquired a new-found appreciation for America's teachers… the cannon fodder," as he calls them:

"I began to fantasize that one day … Joel Klein (and dozens like him) would spend a year trying to teach unruly, intellectually uninspired students who absolutely hated being in the classroom. And then have his before/after test scores put on the front page of the New York Times."

The racial gaps are usually portrayed in terms of black children, whom white Americans find highly sympathetic. But most of the mounting frenzy in elite circles over the gaps is currently driven by the vast numbers of Hispanics our ruling class has let into the country. Weissberg subversively notes:

"Imagine that current students from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and other Third World nations suddenly all voluntarily returned home. Professional educators would be congratulating themselves on the dramatic turnaround, and nearly all of today's reform agenda would quickly vanish. Yet, this possibility can only be uttered in the most hushed conversations since it hints that human beings are not interchangeable in terms of cognitive ability. Better to pour billions into futile reforms than to broach taboo topics."

As I've suggested, trying to raise black and Hispanic test scores by roughly a standard deviation (the difference between, say, the 16th and the 50th percentiles) while keeping whites and Asians from improving is destructive. Yet that is what "closing the gap" requires. As Weissberg sums up:

"This quixotic quest subverts all education and if educational progress is the aim, we should end the bridging-the-gap enterprise."

My suggested goal: try to raise everybody's achievement by a half of a standard deviation. Or as Weissberg puts it in Bad Students, Not Bad Schools:

"The aim should be the best possible education for every student regardless …not leveling attainment across every imaginable demographic category."

[Steve Sailer (email him) is movie critic for The American Conservative. His website www.iSteve.blogspot.com features his daily blog. His new book, AMERICA'S HALF-BLOOD PRINCE: BARACK OBAMA'S "STORY OF RACE AND INHERITANCE", is available here.]