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School & District Management Opinion

Why Do Journalists Love Shaky Science on Race?

By Eduwonkette — April 08, 2008 3 min read

Let me preface this post by saying that I am predisposed to believe that peer effects influence students’ success. But I am consistently frustrated that journalists pick up, run with, and extrapolate from poorly executed studies on the topic of “acting white” or “acting Black.” Let’s walk through two examples from the last month:

1) I’ve now seen two articles on this mess of a study published in Professional School Counseling. The articles feature headlines like, “Having a best friend of a different race can make a big difference in the academic achievement of black and Hispanic high school students, according to a University of Arkansas study.” The study compared the achievement of students with same-race and different race best friends, and found that kids with different race best friends do better in school.

Never mind the well-known finding in the friendship selection literature that birds of a feather flock together - that is, kids self-select into friendships. Is it any wonder that kids choose friends of similar achievement levels, and that given current distributions of achievement and patterns of tracking and school segregation, higher achieving African-American and Hispanic kids are probabilisitcally more likely to choose a different race best friend if they are selecting friends with similar achievement levels?

Yet the authors appear totally oblivious to the causal inference problems raised by their study, and are ready to design interventions around these findings: “The researchers suggested that school counselors ‘could create opportunities for students to interact with other students from different racial backgrounds in the hopes that they might develop friendships over time.’ Peer mentoring programs could be one way to introduce struggling students from various racial groups to academically successful students of other racial groups.” I’m all for creating spaces to nurture interracial friendships (though this is hard to do when kids attend racially isolated schools?!), but I wouldn’t hold my breath on their achievement effects.

2) Consider the Ed Week article, Gifted Black Pupils Found Pressured to Underperform, which leads with, “Gifted black students who underperform in school may do so because of peer pressure to ‘act black,’ according to new research published this month in the journal Urban Education.” (HT: Robert Pondiscio) The study, based on surveys of 166 gifted black students, asked students whether “they have ever heard the phrases ‘acting white’ or ‘acting Black,’” among other questions.

Given how widespread pop conversations about these terms have been for the last 25 years, the authors unsurprisingly found that students associate the phrase “acting White” with school achievement, intelligence, and positive school behaviors and attitudes; most attribute acting Black to negative school achievement, low intelligence, and poor behaviors and attitudes. Furthermore, based on questions about being teased, the authors contend that gifted black students face peer pressure to perform poorly. The study did not link students’ attitudes to student achievement, and did not compare these gifted students’ experiences with high-achieving white students’ experiences (who also report high rates of teasing - see here and here). Furthermore, the authors did not ask these students about their own racial identities, which are more likely to be associated with their own achievement. Yet the authors conclude with confidence, “this can and does contribute to the achievement gap.” But the authors conducted no analyses linking achievment to students’ attitudes about acting white or black!

We could invoke the standard explanation that journalists don’t understand research, but there is plenty of research (bad and good) on structural causes of achievement gaps (i.e. boring stuff like prenatal care) that receives much less coverage. Journalists need a story that gels with the commonly accepted narrative about inequality, which focuses on individual responsibility for success and failure (see Americans’ Attitudes on Inequality). Culture is much easier to write about than structure - the reasons why black kids show up to kindergarten .4-.6 standard deviations behind white kids don’t translate into a chatty crowd-pleasing story about why school isn’t cool (HT: Joanne Jacobs).

What do you think? Are “acting white/acting black” stories over-reported?

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