School Dynamics

Roland Fryer is a MacArthur Grant winning behavioral economist at Harvard University where, at the age of thirty, he was the youngest person ever awarded tenure, though he is now temporarily in eclipse because of sexual harassment charges. Fryer takes on as his major field of inquiry a major policy issue that has plagued social science ever since Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954: why is it that the achievement scores of African American students continue to lag significantly far behind the achievement scores of white students and that nothing much seems to be able to close the difference? Various theories have been offered. These include the idea that African American students are anti-intellectual, or that there are no books in their households, or that African American students need teachers of their own race to motivate them and act as role models, or that the conditions of poverty make it difficult for African American students to focus on schoolwork or that the socio-economic status of a family overdetermines the likelihood of academic success, people of lower SES always getting lower scores than the children of a higher SES. Fryer pursues this issue possibly because he was a poor Black kid who somehow made it and wants to open the gates for others. He uses some very sophisticated statistical analysis to make his cases in his studies of the matter but, I am sorry to say, is somewhat rickety in his reasoning. His studies are very valuable, however, because they open a window onto the present state of social scientific thinking on this matter. 

A study that exhibits the strengths and flaws of Fryer’s work is an early one that he co-authored with Steven Levitt in 2004: “Understanding the Black-White Test Score Gap in the First Two Years of School”. The title very succinctly sums up the issue the two coauthors are addressing, which is that the gap, which is supposed to have profound implications for how Blacks make out in society once they become adults, goes back very early. The authors want to say the gap is a result of the schools that the children enter after kindergarten, though they can only speculate on why those schools have such a detrimental effect, rather than the outcomes resulting from what happened before kindergarten. They do so by comparing black and white children before kindergarten. Let’s put aside the question of whether the math and reading scores of three to five year olds are reliable and look at how else the coauthors have modified the data. They have controlled for a number of background factors such as socio-economic status, the mother’s age at birth, the child’s birth weight, and whether the family receives WIC supplements to their income and conclude that once these irrelevancies are set aside, black and white children have similar academic performances, which suggests that something later on makes the difference.

But the factors that are set aside are not irrelevancies. To the contrary, they are the explanations for the discrepancies. The child’s birth weight can indicate whether the child has received sufficient prenatal nutrition. The mother’s age at the time of the birth of her child can tell if she has been responsible about her pregnancy and taken good care of herself. Socio-economic status sums up a number of features about the ways of life of people that may have an impact on whether their newborns thrive. So if these factors are suppressed, it is not surprising that they will show up again once they are allowed back in, which is after the children have passed kindergarten. 

In a later study from 2010, “An Empirical Analysis of ‘Acting White’”, Fryer again poses a good question but his reasoning is again rickety, however complicated are his statistics. Fryer applies the old idea that athletes rather than scholars are the most popular kids in high school to the problem of whether black students regard other black students who do well at school as passing for white and so denigrate them and so lead other black students not to do as well at schooling as they might. In a very carefully set up statistical analysis, he shows that it is true that black students who do well at school have fewer friends and, what is more, fewer influential friends, than other students, but this holds true only at mixed race schools. In largely segregated schools, high achieving students are not discriminated against by their peers. This sounds plausible, which is what the sociologist Roland Wulbert has long regarded as the true test of a statistical finding. In mixed race schools, black students might care more about their solidarity with one another, and so students who fall in with the idea of academic achievement might seem to be going against the cultural solidarity that black students confer upon themselves by not doing well at school, whether that is by choice, by inclination, or simply because they are not up to doing the work, whether for emotional or other reasons. 

Now there are ways to quibble with these findings. High achieving students may be self removed from mingling with their less education oriented peers because they just feel they have little in common with them, their own sights already set higher and that is the price that has to be paid, which is not too high a one in that not everyone wants to be an athlete, and so is hardly the heavy cost it might seem if one’s orientation is already on what will happen in the adult world, where being good at sports or being popular with peers is less important than money making job skills. Moreover, the kids at segregated schools may not pay a high price for their reputation as scholars only because you don’t have to work that hard to meet the lower standards that are probably at operation in those schools so as to be considered a student of an academic frame of mind, should it enter your head to take on that reputation. What happens later is what counts. The Fryer analysis also plays into the idea that there is not much that can be done, given the state of play, so that it is time for more “benign neglect” rather than for more aggressive programs of bussing or enrichment or curricula more designed to suit the palates of black or other minority students. The best that can be said of Fryer’s results are that they are inconclusive.

This is a depressing picture. In this and other studies, Fryer shows that integration, financial incentives to parents, and charter schools (except for very expensive ones, like the Harlem Children’s Zone) are not the answer to getting black students more successful in their education. The only hopeful note of this study that black achievement may not hinge on integration, which ever since Brown v. Board of Education has been held out as the main vehicle for upward mobility rather than just the remedy for the forced segregation of the races, which is wrong on moral grounds and not just because it leads to lower school achievement. 

Fryer tries to cut through the doubts about whether you can improve the education of inner city youth in a more recent study “Not Too Late: Improving Academic Outcomes for Disadvantaged Youth” that he conducted with a number of other researchers and which is characteristically clear in its title. This experimental study from 2015 compares the results of using a model of two students to one tutor with other forms of math education and finds that this form of tutoring can significantly improve the test scores of poor math performing students. The reason offered is that black students are of such differing ability levels that normal classroom instruction leaves most of them behind from the start, while tutoring allows the tutor to reach them on the level that they are at. As usual, the methodology is painstaking and elaborate, Fryer and his associates explaining why the results are not the result of the tutors teaching to the test that will measure outcome and also showing that it is a cheap program to replicate because it uses volunteer college graduates paid a small stipend rather than fully qualified teachers who also have to have training in classroom management. But there is a major problem that the study doesn’t overcome, which is whether the gains are sustained over the time the students are in high school. Famously, Head Start programs in the Sixties showed improvements in minority scores in the first few years after kindergarten but these disappeared by the fourth and fifth grades. There was no long term impact. We cannot know if the Fryer initiative works unless we see sustained performance throughout high school, which is data that Fryer doesn’t have, but which he might develop if he ever returns to the research game. Moreover, many programs improve scores on a pilot basis, but these results cannot be replicated on a large scale basis, perhaps because the enthusiasm that accompanies a pilot program is no longer there. 

There is a significant theoretical issue at play in the discussion of how to improve Black academic achievement. As the educator Stephan Brumberg often says, education is a middle class activity in that it is dependant on middle class skills, such as verbal fluency, and middle class values, such as delayed gratification. I take that to imply that the usual idea that improving the education of poor children so as to foster better later life performance in the workforce is to put the cart before the horse. Rather, children who come from stable two parent families which have steady incomes are likely to be in an  environment that will allow children to do well academically. So, as a policy matter, provide a program of guaranteed employment so that everyone can get a job that provides a living wage even if some of the jobs are makework, as I think was the case when token sellers were introduced to the New York City subways a generation or more ago or when Soviet women were paid to sweep the streets. The children will benefit, even though that means that we have to be patient about results. But that is often true of social policy. Central Park became an urban oasis after the surrounding area was built up over the course of a generation or two. Lumber companies, after all, plant trees that the company will not harvest for a hundred years. So there is a two step process here, but that is better than knocking our heads against the wall to do something no one knows how to do, or at least that is the case until Fryer and his colleagues prove otherwise.