The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

The Arithmetic of ‘Equality’

Posted on | March 14, 2022 | Comments Off on The Arithmetic of ‘Equality’

John Sexton reports on a failed educational experiment:

Last summer the Washington Post published a report about California’s consideration of a plan to do away with tracking in the state’s math classes. As the report was quick to point out, the argument for de-tracking was one connected to race and to a desire to reduce the achievement gap. . . .

Advocates for the new California math guidelines say “de-tracking,” or mixing together students of varying academic performance, can help all students, particularly those who would have languished in lower-level classes. It can also unravel racial segregation inside schools. Almost everywhere, White and Asian American students are more likely to be placed in higher tracks, with Black and Latino students more likely to be placed in lower tracks.

Anyone who knows anything about education could have predicted that this would fail. The purpose of “tracking” — grouping students in classrooms based on ability — is so that each student can be taught material suited to their level of skill. The simplest way to do this, of course, is a “test-in”/”test-out” approach to advancement by grades, so that no student is admitted to, say, an algebra class unless he can demonstrate a certain level of mathematical proficiency (i.e., to “test in” to the class), nor is any student moved on to the next grade without demonstrating proficiency in the course work (“testing out”). For example, at age 7, I was required to memorize the multiplication table up to 12×12 before I could be promoted to third grade.

The possibility of failure — being “left back,” as they used to say — was very real back in the day, before education professionals yielded to the political pressure for “equality.” Insofar as outcomes are not statistically equal between racial groups, this is an injustice, according to radical egalitarians, and so the possibility of failure was eliminated, and under the new regime of “progressive” educational, nobody flunks second grade — or third grade, or fourth grade, or any other grade.

That’s how you get results like Patterson High School in Baltimore, where 97% of students are below grade-level proficiency in math, and 79% are doing math at an elementary-school level.

Having decreed that everyone must go to high school — even if they have the math skills of a fourth-grader — the problem becomes what to do with all these kids who have been promoted without regard to scholastic performance, which is where “tracking” comes in. If you have 300 ninth-graders in a large high school, only a third of whom are actually capable of doing ninth-grade math, then you put those kids in “advanced” classes, put the middle third in “intermediate” classes, and put the lower third into “Let’s Try to Learn Counting to Ten” classes.

To eliminate tracking is to remove from the system every remaining vestige of academic standards, in the name of “social justice.” The idea that this will somehow magically produce “equality” can only be premised on the likelihood that if nobody is learning anything, everybody’s equal. If half the kids in a ninth-grade classroom are incapable of doing the work, the effort to remediate these dummies will distract the teacher so that there will be less time to instruct the more advanced students, who will in effect be punished for the sake of “equality.” Nor is it likely that the lower-achieving students will benefit much from such experiment, for the simple reason that you can’t make chicken salad out of chicken manure.

If you promote a child to the ninth grade who is barely capable of doing fifth-grade math, there is only so much that can be gained by extraordinary efforts to bring him up to speed. He would probably not be so far behind if he did not suffer a general deficiency of intelligence. Smart kids will manage to learn something even in the worst schools, but dumb kids aren’t going to learn much even if you gave them one-on-one tutoring from MIT professors. The “social justice” advocates don’t want to admit this, however, so the fact that Asian-American brainiacs are crowded into the advanced math classes must be construed as some sort of newfangled “segregation,” an injustice that requires elimination.

Because my readers are generally common-sense people, rather than intellectuals or bureaucrats, I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that the claims of success for “de-tracking” turn out to be bogus:

[Education policy analyst Tom Loveless] compared test scores on a test taken by students in grades 3-8 and once again in grade 11. Since the [San Francisco] de-tracking reform happened in 2014, it’s now possible to compare students who were in grade 11 before the change to those who reached grade 11 after the change. What Loveless found was that de-tracking has changed the achievement gap but not in the direction reformers were hoping.

As displayed in Table 1, [San Francisco United School District]’s scores for 11th grade mathematics remained flat from 2015 (scale score of 2611) to 2019 (scale score of 2610), moving only a single point. Table 1 shows the breakdown by racial and ethnic groups. Black students made a small gain (+2), Hispanic scores declined (-14), white students gained (+17), and Asian students registered the largest gains (+22).

The raw numbers don’t really convey what the gap means but 2474 is the mean score for 4th grade math. So, on average, black students in 11th grade were performing just above that at 2479. Hispanic students, on average, were scoring 2498 in 11th grade which was the mean score for 5th graders. Meanwhile, white students and Asian students were both testing at a high school level.

“Social justice” is simply a formula for destruction. It is helpful to note that, in the San Francisco school district, 35% of students are Asian, 31% are Hispanic, 14% are white, and 9% are black, so that using the term “racial segregation” to describe the situation there is absurd, invoking as it does comparison to Jim Crow, when less than a quarter of the students are either black or white. The “achievement gap” that affects San Francisco is largely between two racial minorities — Asians and Hispanics — who are mostly the children and grandchildren of immigrants who didn’t arrive in American until after the civil-rights era.

Of course, the Washington Post doesn’t explain the details of the demographics in California public schools while carelessly slinging around the word “segregation,” as if grouping students by their scholastic ability was self-evidently an unfair policy of racial discrimination.



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