Equity & Diversity Opinion

On Not Letting Facts Interfere With a Good Argument

By Deborah Meier — September 16, 2010 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

It would be interesting to know what influenced the change of heart among those civil rights organizations, Diane. I’ve been exploring in my head—while I do my daily laps in the pond—what kind of data might persuade me to reverse my current educational convictions. What could convince me that I’m wrong?

Suppose someone could demonstrate to me that test scores would rise fastest if all schools served only a single “racial/ethnic/gender/economic” group? Suppose test scores suggested that the more segregated our lives were, the better our children’s test scores?

I doubt this would be the case (see Anthony Bryk’s Chicago study), but this is a thought experiment. Closing the test-score gap was not, actually, the central Supreme Court argument in the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954. But suppose one reheard the case—would we still reach the same conclusions? Supposing, horrors, that we could “prove” that racial segregation lessened the gap? Or that the most-advantaged-students’ scores declined in integrated schools?

Is this something we dare talk about?

Or, imagine that the reduction of jobs that pay middle-class salaries and benefits continues to decline in both percentage and absolute terms, at least for the next generation. Supposing we had evidence that, if 100 percent of our youngsters were college graduates, it would have a deleterious effect on both the nation’s civic and economic competitiveness. Supposing that the optimum number of graduates was 33 percent—with half in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields? Would that change my education recommendations? Yours? Would the ideal policy tend toward insuring that each group had a similar percentage headed to college? And, how much support would the “haves” provide for policy reforms aimed at increasing the odds that only about a third of their children had a chance at getting the schooling needed for the limited number of well-paid jobs?

Ditto for a long-term study of civic participation? Or support for democracy, or generosity toward others, or ...? What if it proved ...?

How level do we really want the playing field to be? And what data do we most highly value?

As I think about this, am I thinking about the good of the nation or my family? If the two are in conflict, how do I respond? Oddly enough, I once read a survey that demonstrated (and since I can’t remember enough to cite it, let’s “just pretend”) that lower- and middle-class people were more, not less, aware that their own “self-interest” might conflict with the nation’s. The rich saw the two interests as being, inevitably, closely allied. What was Good for General Motors was Good for America. So, what do we do when there’s a conflict between our family’s interests and our patriotism?

There was a recent study that showed that charity was in reverse order to one’s affluence—which probably means in reverse order to years of schooling, too!

I was always disturbed by the idea, implicit in the Brown ruling, that people of color needed to sit next to whites if they were to become better educated (and not vice-versa). As a kindergarten teacher in an almost all-black school in Chicago, and again in central and East Harlem, it didn’t seem inevitable at all. (Besides, I suspected that soon enough “we’d” find other ways to separate children within integrated school buildings.)

One of the “respondents” to the blog last week suggested it was all about safety. White and middle-class parents wouldn’t tolerate unsafe schools—and could afford to find alternatives. Implicit: low-income schools are less safe. Yet, I noticed that even in the schools I was part of in East Harlem (which were unusually safe and had about a one-third white, one-third Latino, and one-third black population), the white families were far less likely to remain at Central Park East for the secondary school, despite its safety and the good record the school had in getting kids into colleges. There are other kinds of “safety” that may explain why most white families flee from schools that are less than half white. It’s true also for many parents of color.

Once again, it’s definitely not test scores that “suffer” from integration. Studies show that if race and class are held constant, whether kids go to the lowest-scoring and least-safe neighborhood school or the best has little effect on their SAT scores. Further, middle-class kids who go to “bad” schools increased their odds of getting into selective colleges—just as moving from New York City to Wyoming for one’s senior year helps. It’s akin to the fact that, all else being equal, more teens get killed in the suburbs than in the city. Which doesn’t convince many whites to move in or keep blacks from moving out. (Cars are the No. 1 killer of teenagers.)

We apparently prefer being with others who are more like ourselves? It’s more comfortable and in some cases a clear-cut advantage re. school resources (playing fields, labs, big libraries, social networks, etc.). Are there other values at stake? What evidence would convince us to choose one set over another?

Readers, try asking yourselves what long-term evidence would be sufficiently convincing to shake your views about what constitutes the best education—for your own child and/or society. Over the years, we asked our CPE graduates these questions, too—as part of their graduation exercises.

“Playing” around with ideas in this manner is not so very different from the “playing around” described in Playing for Keeps—about young children.


P.S. Note that I’m assuming the proper skepticism about “the facts.”

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