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It's Not a Race (Thing)

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Lead from the Start: It's Not a Race (Thing)

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

It's Not a Race (Thing)

nm"We know that, historically, African American and Hispanic students do not score as well on the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) as their white and Asian peers."

What do preschool teachers know about race and poverty that educational researchers don't? How many times have we heard a statement like this as educators? For some reason - even though it may be true statistically - it doesn't seem to make sense because the statement itself obscures the real issues. It doesn't necessarily matter that many African American students score lower on these types of tests because not all of them do.
These types of statements contribute to bias against African American students because they connect the problem -poor achievement- to the descriptor instead of the cause. If a researcher said, "We know that, historically African American and Hispanic students do not score as well on the ______ test as their white and Asian peers because of the inherent racial bias of the _____ test," only then should a child's race be an important part of the discussion.

Often We have these types of discussions in my doctoral classes. This semester, I am taking a measurement in educational research course. It is meant to prepare us, the budding researchers, for our dissertation and future life as an educational "expert" ie Ph.D. This week the issue of race came up. Specifically, the professor mentioned the "achievement gap" in order to push the conversation into uncomfortable territory. I put "achievement gap" in quotes intentionally because it doesn't seem worth talking about outside of the context of test validity and reliability. Usually after a statement about testing and race someone will say, "That is is because tests are biased." Then another researcher might say, "But, there is more of a correlation between socio-economic status and test scores." Even though the statement is true, it doesn't contribute to a deeper understanding of the issue. It uses descriptors in an almost causal relationship to data. The "achievement gap" assumes that the tests are valid and the scores are reliable indicators of student achievement. In actuality, they may only be valid for students from the dominate white culture. By switching the argument to money you just change the context of the discrimination. By saying, "Well actually its about money not race." researchers are able to wash their hands of the issue because there is no way that schools can impact how rich or poor a kid is, when they know there is no reason a child's race should affect a test score either.

Many preschool teachers know that the only thing that matters in a child's educational trajectory is the frequency and types of language interactions and experiences children have in their early years. Hart & Risley pointed this out in Meaningful Differences. They found the strongest influence on a student's vocabulary was the types of talk children engaged in as an infant, toddler, and preschooler. The number of words that children knew at age 3 was found to be predictive of achievement at age 9. However, some children of professional parents, who didn't spend much time talking with their kids had similar average minutes of interaction as some welfare and working class families. Across the board the researchers found race was not found to influence the vocabulary of children at all. Hart & Risley "saw quality added to interactions when we saw parents talking to their children beyond what was necessary to manage or provide care." So yes, poverty is a factor in the development of children's vocabulary because the essence of poverty is a struggle to survive. Poverty requires parents to focus on the day-to-day survival of their family.

If we were to reframe the achievement as a "language development" gap we we might get closer to the "truth" about why some kids score higher and lower on standards based tests. Yesterday I heard a woman in a supermarket tell her 9 month old that her cookie looked "scrumptious". Does it matter what race the woman was? Of course not, I know that her child will likely hear many words like "scrumptious" in her early life. A more correct way of describing the achievement gap might be to discriminate between students with few language experiences (FLE), substantial language experiences (SLE), and many language experiences (MLE). Is this practical? No, but at least it would be true. By continuing to attach race and class to achievement we support the assertion that they are predictive when they aren't, they are just an easy way to sort data.



At 8:25 PM, Blogger A Virile Nagalingam said...

interesting theory but, as usual, it seems contradicted by an entirely anecdotal and autobiographical observation. I was raised by a woman with somewhat less than a 10th-grade education (in 70s-era Sri Lanka) Half of our conversations (in the US, where I was reared), however, were in Tamil--and those in English began with "you need to study" and ended with "yes, mom." Doesn't that place me in the "few language experiences" category? How then did I escape grinding poverty (as in my childhood home is no longer in it's original location--a condemned trailer, or aluminum tube held together by rat scat and formaldehyde) in the poorest Virginian county, an ultra-rural primary education and pre-k through 6th grade teachers who thought math and english were relatively unimportant when set against composting and learning how to use a hand-loom?

the debate you're wading into is dominated by IQ--another measure that scholars of a certain ideology routinely deride as racist--and the exchanges between James Flynn and Charles Murray (who has now been overtaken by the dimwitted Steve Sailer.) what traction do you hope to achieve with your characterization of that particular test? What sort of racial cues did I benefit from in the many forms of standardized testing which made possible my emancipation from poverty?

At 8:48 PM, Blogger j m holland said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 8:51 PM, Blogger j m holland said...

"Doesn't that place me in the "few language experiences" category?"
The answer from my perspective is no because, as you said, your conversations were half in Tamil and half in English. You were learning two languages at the same time, possibly being exposed to twice as many words because you could learn the same word in two languages. My limited study of second language learning has pointed out the benefits of bilingual education to the later vocabulary and academic achievement of multilingual students.
I actually proposed to the VA board of Ed two years ago that VA adopt a bilingual requirement for all students. Meaning students, no matter their race or ethnicity should learn two languages as you did.
Actually Hart & Risley found that across all socioeconomic classes the richness of responses of parents to children were at the same level. It was the frequency and number of interactions that varied. And, as i said, some of the professional parents talked at the same level as some of the working class and welfare parents.
Granted, this was a small study, (42 families, 1 hour a week over about 3 years).

Your question, "What sort of racial cues did I benefit from in the many forms of standardized testing which made possible my emancipation from poverty?"
Confuses me a little though and I am confused about which test your are talking about. I used the NAEP as an example of a standards based assessment where race is often quoted as a descriptor. I think we need to stop using race as a descriptor when we are talking about test scores unless we are talking about testing validity. Otherwise it distracts from the real issue of achievement.
Of course, it doesn't surprise me that you had a particular experience that contradicts a theory. In addressing issues in education we need to look more to the exceptions and outliers for our answers rather than to the mean.
What do you think?

At 9:29 AM, Blogger Jonathan said...

John, what are the policy implications of the Hart & Risley study? How do we legislate more and better conversations between kids and parents?

At 11:00 AM, Blogger j m holland said...

Disrupting Class argues that Hart & Risley compel us to put money into parenting classes instead of pre-k. I disagree. I think it compels us to address how we train teachers and more investment in early interventions for the most at-risk populations.


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