Crevasses in the Classroom

May 04, 2016

Multiple Pages
Crevasses in the Classroom

Where are racial gaps in school test scores worst? Ironically, where liberals are most dominant.

The new national database of school-district test scores created by education researchers at Stanford and Harvard reveals that the single widest white-black racial gap in American public school districts is in the city most synonymous with leftism since 1964: Berkeley, California.

How badly do blacks lag whites in Berkeley public schools? Berkeley’s white-black gap is 1.60 standard deviations. In other words, the median black student would score at only the 5th percentile if he were white.

Yet, Berkeley is ferociously antiracist. It was the first to have a Black Studies Department at the high school level. In the 2012 election, Berkeley voted for Obama over Romney 90 to 5. Berkeley Unified school-district administrators obsess over any data showing that black students get punished more than other races.

Still, the racial gap is bigger in Berkeley than anywhere else.

Nationally, the median gap between white and black test-takers within school districts is 0.61 standard deviations. Assuming a normal distribution of test scores, the average black student scores at what would be the 27th percentile among the white students in his district. That’s a noticeable gap, but not a gigantic one.

This 0.61 figure is smaller than the overall national white-black racial gap (which is around one standard deviation) because families tend to sort themselves into different school districts by housing costs. So for most public school students and their parents, the racial gap they experience in their daily lives isn’t as large as it is nationally, which probably helps Americans get along a little better.

Thus, in a run-of-the-mill school district, the racial equality glass is part empty and part full.

But in elite Berkeley, after a half century of hyper-liberalism, the racial equality glass is almost bone-dry. It’s as if liberalism isn’t really concerned with white-black equality as much as it’s preoccupied with proving white-over-white superiority.

This raises the question of whether Berkeley is so unequal because whites are doing well or because blacks are doing poorly. The answer in the case of Berkeley appears to be some of both.

The Stanford Education Data Archive, led by education professor Sean Reardon, has released data tables on the relative sizes of racial gaps in state test scores across thousands of school districts for grades 3 to 8 from 2009 through 2013. But they have not yet made available for download the absolute scores of racial groups.

“It’s as if liberalism isn’t really concerned with white-black equality as much as it’s preoccupied with proving white-over-white superiority.”

Fortunately, they leaked some of that score data to The New York Times, however, which put together three spiffy interactive graphs. White kids in Berkeley averaged an impressive 2.7 grade levels higher than the national average across all races. But Berkeley’s Hispanics were 1.1 grade levels below the national average (all races) and Berkeley’s blacks scored 1.9 grade levels below the national average.

So, much of the reason for Berkeley’s immense racial gap (4.6 grade levels between whites and blacks) is because its white students, who tend to be the children of professors, Pixar employees, or the idle rich, score well. But Berkeley’s blacks do poorly, even by the standards of blacks in general, averaging below African-Americans in Chicago and Philadelphia.

One exacerbating factor might be that Berkeley’s schools have traditionally been run according to progressive education fads insisted upon by white leftists. For example, the Gates Foundation gave a million dollars to Bill Ayers’ brother Rick Ayers, another ’60s radical ex-fugitive, to work his “small learning communities” voodoo upon Berkeley High School, with an unsurprisingly disastrous impact on math test scores.

Frustrated black parents in Berkeley have at times organized protests in favor of “back to basics” education for their children.

(By the way, the Stanford database hasn’t published any Asian test scores. Ambitious Asian parents tend to avoid the Berkeley school district, presumably viewing Berkeley as being into a lot of white hippie head trips that won’t help their tiger cubs ace the SAT.)

Out of 2121 school districts with enough blacks and whites to generate fairly reliable results, the second-worst race disparity is in Chapel Hill-Carrboro, the home of the University of North Carolina. I don’t have the 2012 vote total for just Chapel Hill, but Orange County, N.C., voted for Obama 70 to 28 over Romney.

The third-biggest white-black gap is in Shaker Heights, the famously liberal suburb of Cleveland.

In the late 1990s, Shaker Heights formed a consortium with 14 other wealthy liberal school districts, such as Berkeley, Chapel Hill, Evanston, White Plains, and Amherst, to study why even privileged black students were lagging so far behind. Black parents in Shaker Heights brought in Berkeley anthropologist John Ogbu (1939–2003) to do fieldwork. A hardworking Nigerian, Ogbu discovered that Shaker Heights’ black students goof off instead of doing their homework out of fear of being accused of “acting white”:

“What amazed me is that these kids who come from homes of doctors and lawyers are not thinking like their parents; they don’t know how their parents made it,” Professor Ogbu said in an interview. “They are looking at rappers in ghettos as their role models, they are looking at entertainers.”

Fourth worst for racial inequality is liberal Asheville, N.C., the arts and crafts capital of America, which attracts gays and polite white-flight types.

The fifth-most severe race gap is in Evanston, Ill. (home of Northwestern U.), which voted 86.5% for Obama in 2012. Evanston’s chasm is 1.49 standard deviations, putting its average black student at the 7th percentile among its white students.

Evanston whites averaged an impressive 3.9 grade levels higher than the national average across all races, while Evanston’s Hispanics were 0.1 grade levels below the national average and Evanston’s blacks scored 0.6 levels below the national average.

Back in the 1990s, I knew a lot of people in Evanston, including a terrific black teacher who taught my son in kindergarten. She said that the problem with Northwestern public schools is that Evanston (at least back then) had a mini-hood of underclass blacks who screw up the public schools. (I’ve driven through the Evanston micro-ghetto and it’s a memorable few blocks of severe dysfunction in what’s otherwise an extremely genteel suburb.) So, many middle-class blacks in Evanston send their kids to Catholic schools to keep them away from the bad black role models.

Other liberal college towns with massive white-black gaps include Madison (U. of Wisconsin), Iowa City (U. of Iowa), Charlottesville (U. of Virginia), Austin (U. of Texas), Bernie Sanders’ Burlington (U. of Vermont), Durham (Duke U.), and Ann Arbor (U. of Michigan). Palo Alto, next door to Stanford U., the sponsor of this research project, also has an intense white-black gap, but not enough blacks can afford to live in Palo Alto for it to make my sample-size cutoff for reliability.

Besides college towns, the largest race gaps tend to be found in liberal big cities.

The sixth-worst racial inequality out of 2,121 districts is in the black-ruled District of Columbia, which voted 91 to 7 for Obama. Eighth worst is in black-ruled Atlanta (middle-class blacks prefer Atlanta’s suburbs). Other big cities with extreme white-black gaps include Oakland, Seattle, Minneapolis, and San Francisco.

In contrast, the smallest white-black gap (only 0.04 standard deviations) is found in McDowell County, West Virginia.

This is a good example of why I find this Stanford database plausible. I’ve skimmed the scholars’ article explaining the complex methodology by which they have tried to render scores on differing state-school achievement tests comparable across state lines. I can’t say whether they’ve done it perfectly or not, but their results seem pretty credible to me.

For instance, just as their choice for most unequal, Berkeley, was already notorious for its huge white-black gap, the Stanford researchers’ most equal district, McDowell County, which JFK made into a symbol of Appalachian poverty, is notorious for having just about the worst whites in America. Male life expectancy in this coal county is only 63.3 years.

So one solution to racial inequality, evidently, is to have most of the whites with something on the ball, such as rocket scientist Horace Hickam, the McDowell County hero of the movie October Sky, move away. (The population of this coal-mining county has fallen by 80 percent since 1950.)

Something similar has happened in the city with the second-smallest white-black gap, Detroit, where the public schools are now only 3 percent white, and five out of every eight white children left in Detroit live in poverty.

Other districts with small white-black gaps include similar Rust Belt blue-collar towns such as Hamtramck, a Detroit suburb recently in the news for having a majority Muslim city council.

Eventually we get to more encouraging examples, such as Glendale (only a 0.24 standard deviation gap between white and black students), Palos Verdes Peninsula (0.27), and Burbank (0.33). These are all pleasant, relatively conservative suburbs of Los Angeles. None have many blacks, but those who can afford to live there do relatively well in school.

In recent decades, blacks with college degrees have been flocking to Atlanta’s suburbs. Some Atlanta-area counties, such as Paulding and Henry Counties (both with only 0.32 SD gaps), combine small racial disparities with middle-of-the-road overall performance.

The New York Times identified in an interactive graph about three dozen school districts in which the parents of white students and parents of a minority group were about equal in socioeconomic status. But in every single one, the white students outperformed the black or Hispanic students. The NYT flailed:

Mr. Reardon said that educators in these schools may subliminally—or consciously in some cases—track white students into gifted courses while assigning black and Hispanic students to less rigorous courses.

I’d say these results are more likely evidence of regression toward racial means.

While Professor Reardon’s explanations of his results aren’t terribly convincing, his data pass simple reality checks reassuringly.

For example, according to the Stanford database, the overall highest-scoring public school district in the country is one of the oldest, Lexington, Mass., where many Harvard and MIT professors live. Recent residents of Lexington have included linguist Noam Chomsky, biologist Edward O. Wilson, the late philosopher John Rawls, and eight Nobel laureates. So, the finding that egghead Lexingtonians might have the best-educated kids in the country seems fairly reasonable.

The lowest-performing school district in the country is Crazy Horse in South Dakota. Indeed, the 14 worst school districts in the country are on Indian reservations in South Dakota. (Nobody seems to care much anymore about American Indians relative to more fashionable minorities such as the transgendered, but let me point out that life is not good on the bigger reservations.)

The worst-performing school district not on a reservation is the Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind, which, once again, sounds reasonable.

The Stanford white-Hispanic gap numbers are about 75 percent as large as the white-black gaps. The median within-district white-Hispanic gap is 0.46 standard deviations compared to 0.61 for the median white-black gap.

The biggest white-Hispanic crevasse is 1.53 standard deviations in Silicon Valley’s Menlo Park.

Large white-Hispanic gaps tend to correlate with large white-black gaps. But they are more often found in economically dynamic places (such as Silicon Valley) and in tourist attractions (such as Santa Barbara and various ski resorts), which have lots of unskilled service jobs to attract immigrant workers.

In contrast, the worst white-black gaps tend to be found in old-money towns like Berkeley, Chapel Hill, Shaker Heights, Asheville, and Evanston that can afford a lot of liberal white guilt, which attracts black welfare moms.

The only large towns where Hispanics outscore whites are Detroit and Cicero, Ill. Cicero is the anti-Evanston: A working-class suburb of Chicago just south of Oak Park, it was taken over during Prohibition by the Outfit. The late neoconservative intellectual Irving Kristol was disillusioned out of his Trotskyism by having to go through Army basic training with Cicero hoodlums:

About half of my original group seems to have come from Cicero, Illinois, which was Al Capone’s hometown, or at least his criminal base…. I looked at them and thought, “You know, I don’t think we can create socialism with these people.”

Is there any good news in the Stanford data?

Actually, there is, although liberals won’t want to acknowledge it. What seems to work best for blacks and Hispanics is the unfashionable exurban model. The kind of sprawl that white liberals hate is good for the upward mobility of non-Asian minorities.

The large town with the highest test scores in the country for both blacks (+0.7 grade levels above the national average) and Hispanics (+1.1 grade levels) is Frisco, Tex., a rapidly expanding exurb 28 miles north of Dallas. Frisco’s population has grown from 34,000 in 2000 to 152,000 in 2015. The median income is in the low six figures. The Frisco school district “looks like America” more than just about any other: It’s 11% black, 14% Hispanic, 11% Asian, and 59% white. That’s diversity.

Frisco’s white-black gap is 0.57 standard deviations and its white-Hispanic gap is 0.43, both a little below national averages and well below most other high-scoring districts.

Politically, Frisco sprawls into Collin and Denton Counties, both of which gave 65% of their vote to Romney. “America’s Team,” the NFL Dallas Cowboys, who might be culturally the most red-state institution in the country, are moving their weekday operations to Frisco this year.

Now, I’m not sure I totally believe in the Frisco Miracle. Texas schools seem to do better on low-stakes tests like the NAEP and state achievement exams than on high-stakes tests like the SAT and ACT.

Still, Frisco’s impressive scores suggest that increasing diversity can’t lead to Bernie Sanders’ Vermont Utopia. Instead, the ruthless capitalism of the Texas Model might be the only one that a more diverse America can afford.

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