Together but Unequal

The IMHO thread on the “poor” mentality brought up issues of education and social mobility, which spurred me to think again about educational issues. Decades ago, we dismissed the idea of “Separate but Equal” as a reasonable standard, under the assumption that segregated schools were inherently unequal.

In my town, Montclair NJ, we have court required integration. There are no neighborhood elementary schools, the schools are “magnet themed” and students are assigned based on parent preference and neighborhood integration metrics. As a result, poor black students and richer white students share classrooms from K-12.

It seems to me this would be the model of equal opportunity in education. Rich and Poor, Black and White, Side by Side from Day #1.

But it isn’t. We have NCLB testing starting in 3rd grade, and the differences in results are nothing less than astounding. Where 8% of White students are “Partially Proficient” in Language you’ll have 40% of Black (or Economically Disadvantaged) students. Where 77% of White students are “Advanced” in Math only 20% of Black students are. These numbers don’t equalize over time, they are very similar in the High School testing.

What can be done to give the poorer segments of our society opportunity for social mobility, when their kids seem to be far behind academically by the age of 8? We can’t exactly provide the kids with a new “school focused” home environment.

Some schools are more equal than others. Does each school have the same socioeconomic and ethnic mix?

The mix varies somewhat, though any child from any socioeconomic status can select any of the elementary schools as their first choice, and there is a deliberate effort to make sure that students from the poorer sections of town get representation in each school.

Overall, about 60% of students are white and 35% are black. Out of 5 elementary schools, one has 80% white students, the rest have 50-60% white students. The “white” school does have somewhat worse outcomes on the 3rd grade level for black students, but with only 11 black students in that grade, they are not driving the district level problems. It’s also true that the white students there don’t have appreciably better outcomes than the white students in more mixed schools.

Note that the ‘white’ school is also the farthest away from the poorer sections of town, which would necessitate a longer bus ride, or long drive for the parent.

We should accept that people are different and that different people need different things. Schools should track ability and the classes that are for the intellligent kids should provide more flexibility so kids can pursue their interests and excel. Classes for less intelligent kids should provide more structured environments with lots of drilling to get kids up to proficient levels. Teachers should be paid more to teach the slower kids and be trained on how to reach those kids in particular.
High schools should accept that not every child is college material and start vocational training for those who skills are not academic.

I’ve been doing some reading which touches on the subject of socio-economic status, ethnicity and academic achievement; while I am by no means an authority, here is what I have gleaned so far…

There is an undeniable link between socioeconomic status and academic achievement - not to put too fine a point on it, but (and acknowledging there are exceptions), the poorer you are, the more likely it is that you’ll do badly at school. And, while ethnicity is a bit more complicated (and a thorny issue), the white kids generally - on the whole - do better than the black kids.


Contemporary ‘sociology of education’ theory talks quite a lot about how formal education has, in a sense, its own ‘culture’ - there is a *way *of thinking, speaking and behaving at school which is taught, expected and assessed. ‘Doing well’ at school, at any age, necessarily involves personal and social acculturation into this this educational culture. Whether or not we consciously realise it, this ‘school culture’ is the domain of the white middle-classes; ergo, the white middle-class kids invariably find it easier to adapt and blend-in to a formal school environment than those of other cultures.

Shirley Brice Heath produced a seminal research project a few decades ago illustrating how different communities (‘Maintown’, ‘Roadville’ & ‘Trackton’) raise their children in different ways, with special attention paid to how language is used. For instance, while it is common for ‘white folk’ to ask their children already-know-the-answer-type questions (such as a mother pointing to a kitten and asking her child “What’s that? Is that a kitty?”), this is less common in afro-caribbean communities (where adults are more likely to simply ask ‘real’ questions, like "Where’s your sister?). So, in ‘white’ classrooms where a teacher asks the class “What’s 2+2?”, the white kids will know the rules of the game, whereas the black kids will be wondering ("Why’s she asking that?). Okay, it’s a bit simplified, but you get the idea…

Another interesting anecdote (it was in a book somewhere - sorry, no cite) I read was about some anthropologists somewhere (oh, let’s say…Kazakhstan) who said the following to some uneducated and educated villagers:

“In the mountains to the north, all of the goats are white. Yesterday, my sister went to the mountains and saw a goat. What colour was it?”

The educated ones said “White”, while the uneducated ones said “I don’t know, there are many different colours of goat…”

While this might initially be interpreted as evidence of the uneducated people being cognitively limited or challenged, in fact it shows that they simply didn’t know the ‘rules of the game’. They didn’t *believe *the initial injunction of “all goats are white” (after all, how would an anthropologist know that?) - it could even be argued that the uneducated villagers were showing more critical faculties than the educated ones.

So, there is a strong link between educational achievement and culturally ‘fitting in’ to the epistemological and ontological ethos of the mainstream educational way-of-doing-things. This might sound, then, that there is no hope for the disadvantaged, non-white, non-middle class masses - but students from Indian and Chinese backgrounds (say…) often do quite well, which suggests that this ‘cultural distance’ issue is not insurmountable.

It appears your default assumption is that “equal opportunity” would yield equivalent outcomes for two disparate populations.

This is incorrect.

A poor black child has completely different circumstances at home than a rich white one, even in the same classroom during the day. He’s also had a different environment pre-school. You can’t put a poor black kid in a better school and wonder why his scores still lag. You have to look at the whole picture.

Beyond that, the genetics of those two broad SIRE (Self-Identified Race/Ethnicity) groups reflect different source populations. In the US, the SIRE group of “black” averages about 80% sub-saharan populations (predominately west african source populations) and about 20% European genes (post L3 M-N splits, if you are grouping by mtDNA migrations). The SIRE group of “white” has a smaller average percent of admixture from various source populations…

In short though, even at the SIRE level there are disparate gene frequencies at work here, driving disparate outcomes along with environmental factors.

For example, any number of studies show poverty-stricken whites (family income level under 10K/yr) outscore wealthy blacks (income level over 100K/yr). See other SDMB threads for expansion (and countering views) on all of this.

To date, no nurturing interventions of any kind have closed the black-white performance gap in the US or anywhere else. As a rule of thumb, better nurturing raises performance level, but this is true for all groups, so if you have “perfect” schooling, you will still see the same score ranks for the same groups everywhere you go. With better environment, all that happens is that everyone’s average baseline goes up.

The gaps remain, driven by average gene frequency difference for the skillsets involved.

No. We are not having yet another race and genetics debate in this thread.

This is the predominant theory of the educational establishment but it is obviously not true. For one thing, white and black cultures are not that different. Black people have been living in a white majority country for hundreds of years and most have become quite adept at switching between cultures. The OP mentioned test scores in third grade. That gives the kids four years to become acclimated to the culture of schools. Most children can completely learn a new language in months if they are thrown in to an environment where it is spoken.
Secondly asians typically outscore both blacks and whites on achievement tests. This is despite the fact that asians are more likely to be immigrants or children of immigrants than black students and in the case of many immigrants have parents who are poor at english. These students come from cultures which are much more dissimilar to American culture and yet they thrive.
One thing to realize is that not all cultures are equal. Cultures that have a confucian background tend to give great respect toward education and educators. Whereas other cultures can become oppositional to the mainstream culture and see success in school as cultural betrayal. This is because groups of people seem to value activities they are good at more than activities they are not good at. Americans care alot more about who wins the gold medal at basketball than who wins medals in power lifting. Eastern European nations care more about powerlifting medals than basketball medals.
Thus the message to the marginal student who is black is that school is not important and they should not try hard and the message to the marginal white student is that school is very important and they should try hard. Unfortunately, there is nothing a district can do to change the culture of its students.

My kids started public school in a northeastern city where elementary schools were roughly equal parts white, black, Latino and Asian, with all kids of subsets. Not to mention the mixes that naturally occur. The administration had an unofficial race-balance thing going on in schools that no one talked too much about. The white people living there (myself included) weren’t exactly what you would call privileged. Strictly working class and under.

And so, I cannot get past the two groups mentioned, White and Black (or Economically Disadvantaged). Montclair, NJ probably owns part of this puzzling disparity and you’d be wise not to assume the leveled playing field is all that level. I certainly won’t.

In which case he doesn’t really have equal opportunity.

Yes, you’re damn right we want equality of results. The lack of equality of results is how we know we don’t have equality of opportunity in the first place. The first is how we calibrate the second.

I think it all comes back to a child’s early childhood and their family’s emphasis on education and academic achievement. If a family takes education and educational achievement seriously, they’ll be reading to their children and teaching them things like colors, numbers, sorting, etc… from a very young age, even birth. This is generally a recipe for continued success when children start school.

That’s why the Head Start program was around; the idea was to catch a lot of kids whose parents did not prioritize this sort of basic education and teach it to them prior to actual kindergarten, so that these kids aren’t effectively starting out in remedial classes to learn stuff that (IMO) their parents should have already taught them like numbers, colors, sorting, etc…

There’s only so much you can do about parents who don’t value education for themselves or their offspring; they’re unlikely to reinforce what the schools teach, unlikely to make their kids do their homework, etc… In a sense, you really can’t fix stupid.

That’s not to say that uneducated people don’t value education for their children; far from it. I’m saying the ones that don’t seem kind of unfixable to me.

I suspect final outcomes are affected by factors other than equality of opportunity. Unless you want to define “opportunity” so broadly as to divest it of meaning.


I want to define it broadly enough to include social and economic factors in the home and in the neighborhood prior for formal schooling. I don’t think that rids it of meaning.

If one kid lives in a high-crime neighborhood, and another kid doesn’t…that isn’t equal opportunity. It will be reflected in statistics regarding educational outcomes. Same for pollution, and other factors.

Cool. Get the black kids different parents then.

Integrated schools have segregated environments.

An interesting (and no doubt, controversial) experiment done in a Connecticut school with regard to tracking.

Class disparities are not going to be vaporized in a classroom. A kid who has well-educated, comfortably salaried parents has a whole heap of advantages over poorer kids that even the best teachers can’t fully compensate for. And middle class anxiety ensures this pretty much is always going to happen. I think we can make ourselves go crazy with equalizing outcomes. But what we can do is make opportunities available to all and make sure the barriers to success are adequately mitigated.

I benefited from integrated schools. I’m arrogant enough to believe I would have had some degree of success no matter where I went to school (within reason), but I do think being plopped on a “crosstown” school bus gave me entrée into a world and a set of advantages I wouldn’t have had access to otherwise. I saw other plenty of other black kids benefit too. But I also saw how the system screwed others. Not just schoolmates, but also kids in predominately black schools whose parents didn’t have the wherewithal or the desire to put their kids on a bus. They were screwed not because they were necessarily poor, but because many of the middle class kids they would have shared resources with in a classroom were crosstown, rubbing shoulders with white kids. I think class intermingling is much more important than that of race–though this is also important.

The experience made me see the downsides of bussing, even though I enjoyed my school days for the most part.

Why? That sounds astonishingly racist. Instead, let’s get the black kids better libraries, so they can read at an earlier age. Let’s clean up crime-riddled neighborhoods, and mop up pollution. Let’s get the same parents better jobs.

Seriously, that was one of the most callow, nasty, crude, and racist things anybody has ever said on the SDMB.

This (and the rest of your post) comes across as a bit of a strained attempt to present all cultures as different but equal. I appreciate you may not be trying to say this, but I think the research at least implies it. A culture that can’t understand the use of abstract thinking is never going to be much good at anything other than listing the colours of goats or locating a sister. In a country like the US, a child getting caught up in the reasoning behind a question like “What’s 2+2?” represents a failure on the part of its culture.

That said, I think where the culture is really failing is in its lack of respect for and appreciate of education. Each cycle can be broken, hopefully permanently, by convincing just one generation that education is hugely important (principally by educating them) but that’s easier said than done.

I think the issue is not with children desperate to read, if only they had a local library. It’s with kids with no desire to read, and no understanding of why they should. That is a failure on the part of the parents. I don’t suggest they be replaced (and I doubt Terr was seriously suggesting that anyway) but on the other hand your answers to the problem are really only to provide better opportunities, when the premise of the thread is essentially that equal opportunities don’t appear to be enough alone to break a cycle of underachievement.

Kumbaya, man, kumbaya.

Eggzaktly. With the parents completely and utterly unsupportive of their children in their educational endeavors, real “equal opportunity” would involve either replacing the parents or somehow brainwashing the parents or forcing them into a different behavioral pattern. At least replacing them is theoretically possible.

Those eight-year-old slackers, being average in math.