Group think

Liam Julian

In last Sunday's New York Times, Jeffrey Rosen, a well-known legal scholar, wrote a longish article related to the Supreme Court's decision to hear two cases that challenge racially influenced admissions policies in public schools.

Rosen didn't pick sides in the upcoming battles. Rather, he explained why the growing nuance of racial issues, especially for conservatives, has begun sowing political divisions where once only unity existed.

Let's examine Rosen's point from the perspective not of conservatives or liberals, but of education reformers. In the education community's debate over racial issues, there also exists much nuance and substantial division. Especially since the advent of No Child Left Behind and its goal of closing racial achievement gaps, those divisions have grown starker and exposed some seeming contradictions.

For example: How can one support racial classifications in NCLB, but eschew them as, say, part of K-12 public school admissions?

For an answer, we must start with NCLB, which derives its name from the idea that all children are capable of faring well academically. To that end, the law demands that schools, districts, and states disaggregate their student test data, breaking them down by subgroups. Racial subgroups are a key part of the system.

NCLB's system of disaggregation makes good sense. A chasm exists between the academic performance of America's racial groups, and closing that gap is essential for the social harmony and economic competitiveness of the nation. Thus, it seems foolish to not record data on the gap and closely monitor the progress of racial subgroups which are having trouble meeting academic marks.

Yet, when it comes to the school admissions policies which will soon be examined by the Supreme Court, race should play no part. In last week's Gadfly, we wrote: "Why should districts obsess over the racial make-up of their schools when they should be stressing about what's actually going on (or not) inside their classrooms? Especially when most urban systems are ‘majority minority,' isn't it time for them to focus on achievement first?"

A contradiction? Not at all.

To be sure, the disaggregation of racial group data mandated by NCLB is not unproblematic. The system lumps all individuals into a handful of broad racial groups (always a dicey proposition), and it unquestionably shows that, as a group, black and Hispanic students do significantly worse academically than their white and Asian counterparts.

That can be a hard pill to swallow. But what is the alternative? Ignoring a blatant problem simply because it seems safer or less unsettling?

No. This alternative is feckless. However, there will come a day when educators can track the achievement of individual students over time, rather than groups, allowing a laser-like focus on the needs of all children who are trailing behind-many of whom are likely to be black or Hispanic. An accountability system that ensures strong achievement gains for all such students will mitigate the need for racial classifications. For now, we rely on an imperfect system, but one that has done much good.

On the other hand, diversifying schools by race has outworn its necessity. Jonathan Kozol will disagree, but today's schools suffer far less from a lack of racial diversity than from a lack of educational competence. Minority youngsters will have their future prospects brightened far more by learning a strong, core curriculum than by eating lunch with a planned, multi-racial community of students.

When possible, racial classifications ought to be avoided, mostly because they tell us so little about individuals, and because they can so easily drift into unhealthy territory. They should be used only when necessary, and then with the utmost caution and respect.

Confronting our nation's achievement gap and creating a unified and strong academic background for all American students warrants the careful use of racial data groups. Engineering diverse schools is far less compelling.