School Climate & Safety Opinion

K-12 Schools Are Complicit in Mismatch Theory

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — December 15, 2015 5 min read
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Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s recent comments about the mismatch theory have caused justifiable uproar. Many who never previously heard of mismatch theory applied to education are now in debate about its authenticity and relevancy. The theory of mismatch, although complex, and Justice Scalia’s statements about it, raise an important issue for K-12 education. It creates one more arena for us to enter difficult conversations and to examine our social consciences.

Courageous Conversations
Justice Scalia’s remarks related to higher education but their roots lie deeply buried in K-12 education. The career choices and college success of black students may begin in families and communities but they are influenced and developed...or discouraged...in our schools for 13 years. To open up these conversations is a tough love effort; we will be confronted by truths that are hard to hear and that are deeply held polarizing perspectives. Yet, if we are to make a difference in the world, we signed up to do this. Courageous leaders walk into the arena, establish a safe environment in which these discussions can take place, and, hopefully, with great integrity, earn the trust of those who risk speaking their truth. Whether mayors or police commissioners or superintendents and principals, increasingly public officials know these conversations, avoided for decades, are coming our way. We cannot continue to allow opportunities to narrow, limits to be set, and possibilities to be diminished for these students.

More Help is Needed
Many K-12 school leaders have put forth a concerted effort to advocate for policies that give advanced level courses open admission status. With the removal of grades and teacher recommendation as requirements for entry, low numbers of minority students and student living in poverty took the opportunity (Yonezawa & Wells, 2002). But common sense tells us that simply opening the doors of possibilities to high school students is not enough; those students may lack all of the prerequisite experience and skills to prepare them to be successful. Who among us want to fail? Surely, there are individual students who possess the will to engage the challenge and succeed. But in many more cases, it is not enough. Opening the doors to all students to take any course offered and to have the preparation for success must begin in kindergarten.

There Is Still Work We Can Do
If the open admissions and affirmative action for colleges and universities is to be truly fair, then the K-12 community has a responsibility. This is not a higher-ed issue alone. In addition, although it presents as a race issue, we contend it is a socio-economic issue as well. Teachers can identify advanced placement eligible students as they enter kindergarten. The core of the problem resides in the lack of wonder....we want those early teachers, and every teacher and leader, to hold wonder about every child. Will that child be the one to excel in fields unknown and to levels unimagined? How can I help that happen is our daily work. It is not without great effort, but we haven’t met the mark yet.

The old remediation model has been reinvented as Response to Intervention helping teachers and students both. Researchers argue:

Teachers who systematically assess students’ academic progress to determine their responsiveness to supplemental interventions contribute to a school’s collective capacity to provide stronger instruction. The more frequent the progress monitoring, the more quickly students can receive appropriate instruction (Compton, Fuchs, Fuchs, & Bryant, 2006).

Even with this known and implemented, an achievement gap continues. Within that gap schools and society produce the students about whom Justice Scalia speaks. While schools continue to examine achievement and its relationship to each subgroup and struggle to figure out how to make a difference, more change is called for.

Now, a Supreme Court Justice has said out loud what some have held as a limiting belief. Black students can be successful but at a “slower track” institution. Using race as an advantage for entry into college is a higher-ed issue that will be decided judicially. Public schools do not face the issue of admissions but we do face issues of achievement and dropouts. We are color blind only because all students come to us but then we serve them by neighborhood and thus by income and race. We are not merely observers as this issue plays itself out. We are vitally important players in the system that produces the issue.

We Can Make a Difference
Take this moment to double down on student achievement with dedication to all students, no matter what subgroup a student belongs to. The efforts of ESSA to support more pre-school programs will not be enough. It is a local decision, led by local values, to attend to our youngest. If funding cannot support early intervention, then our K-3 programs must hold the most promise for robust opportunities for catch-up. The rest of the school years best be engaging and motivating in order to capture even the most disengaged students. The idea of the bell curve must be abandoned and the memory of this moment must remain paramount. Placing limits on children with beliefs that masquerade as caring and supportive contributes in part to the need for affirmative action in colleges. If we double down now, perhaps the next generation will see too many students of all races and socio-economic levels competing to get into “fast track” universities and the problem will be one of true competition. Perhaps, even, if that were to happen “slower track” institutions of higher ed would need to step up their game. That students who are less prepared leave our schools wanting to do well in “fast track” universities is evidence their lights have not gone out. We applaud those students, their schools and the laws that allow for them to go as far and as fast as they can. It is shameful for educators to say otherwise.

Compton, D. L., Fuchs, D., Fuchs, L. S., & Bryant, J. D. (2006). Selecting at-risk readers in first grade for early intervention: A two-year longitudinal study of decision rules and procedures. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98(2), 394-409.

Yonezawa S, Wells A, Serna I. Choosing tracks: “freedom of choice” in detracking schools. American Educational Research Journal [serial online]. Spring 2002 2002;39(1):37-67. Available from: Education Source, Ipswich, MA. Accessed December 14, 2015.

For more information read the Amicus Brief prepared by Richard Sander, economist and law professor at UCLA, and a leading scholar in the field of higher education. Sander has collaborated with other scholars on several peer-reviewed articles on affirmative action, and is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, Jr., of Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won’t Admit It (Basic Books, 2012).

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Photo Courtesy of Pixabay.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.