"Race Gap" in Education

My letter to the Seattle Times:

'In your September 20 editorial, you say "The gap between white and minority students remains." In doing so, you confuse the issue. The primary educational disparity is between the haves and the have-nots. Yes, minority kids score lower on the WASL than white kids, but almost all of that difference results from minority kids being more likely to come from poor families. If we try to reduce educational disparity as if it were caused by prejudice against minority students, we'll fail. If we try to reduce the educational disparity knowing that it's caused by disparate family resources, we can succeed.'

I could have said more, but I wanted to stick to one point (that the "race gap" in education is no such thing). I could have added:

To think of the education gap as "between white and minority students" is to treat statistically convenient categories ("white" and "minority") as if they were real. Which kids are "white"? Kids whose genetic heritage is more than 50% European? At least 75%? Who's a minority? A Russian immigrant kid whose parents have trouble with English? Or is that kid white? Among minorities, is it meaningful to put Asian, Hispanics, and blacks together? Among blacks, do teenage immigrants from Africa who can't read go meaningfully into the same group as black kids born in the US? If family resources are important to a kid's educational achievement, should an adopted black kid raised by white parents count as "minority" or "white"?

Family status, unlike "race," is real and measurable, with a direct effect on how children perform in school. Contrasting the performance of "white and minority" students is just confusing the issue.

And, to make a third point, I could have gone on:

Furthermore, are we sure that we even can remove the disparity between how well privileged kids learn and how well underprivileged kids do? In a free society, shouldn't privileged parents have the freedom to use their resources to improve their kids' education? If they have that freedom, won't their kids always do better (on average). What sort of policies or programs could we ever put in place that would prevent parents who have more wealth and education from getting their children better educations?

For that matter, even if parents were prevented from using their money from benefiting their kids' educations, better educated and better employed parents are inevitably going to set an example for their kids that will help those kids succeed.

And I don't even have to go to the next step: that parents with genetic gifts for intelligence and industry will pass some of those gifts along to their children.

Are there needless disparities between the schooling we provide to poor kids and the schooling we provide to rich kids? Yes. Should we undo those disparities? Yes. Should public schools help kids from poor families get the education they need to do better than their parents? Of course. Should we imagine that the disparity in education between haves and have-nots will go away? We'd be fooling ourselves to do so.

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WASL: Washington Assessment of Student Learning, a statewide test given to 4th-, 7th-, and 10th-grade students. back


September 2001

Eliminating the "Race Gap" in Seattle Public Schools: a modest proposal