Hiding Behind Rhetoric in the Absence of Evidence

Having been extensively cited in recent news articles on education, I have received the typical responses, both by email and an Op-Ed (High expectations lead to achievement).

What is notable about these disgruntled responses can be seen directly in the headline above—a dependence on soaring and idealistic rhetoric to mask a complete failure to either discount my evidence or to provide any credible evidence for the counter arguments.

A recent email argued that I was causing more harm than good for emphasizing the impact of racism on literacy education and achievement by students; the rebuttal, however, was peppered with “I believe” and not a single effort to rebut the dozens of research studies I provided on both grade retention and racism/sexism.

While I pressed that point in a few replies, the offended person only ever produced as some sort of evidence a TED Talk, an unintended confession that his world-view depends on whiz-bang showmanship and seeing in any outlier example a confirmation of his biases—what Maia Szalavitz identifies as “’fundamental attribution error’. This is a natural tendency to see the behavior of others as being determined by their character – while excusing our own behavior based on circumstances.”

The emails were almost entirely rhetorical, like a TED Talk, and then divorced from any sort of empirical evidence.

The Op-Ed reflects in a more public way this same disturbing pattern. William W. Brown, founder and chairman of the board of Legacy Early College, holds forth in defense of the charter school’s “no excuses” approach to educating poor and mostly black/brown students, an ideology and set of policies that I have rejected for many years as inherently racist and classist.

While Brown quotes a few of my comments from a news article and then suggests he aims to rebut them, he merely slips each time into restating the ideology of the charter school, the rhetoric of high expectations.

Early in the commentary, Brown notes: “However, Thomas does not acknowledge that a college education is the single most reliable way to lessen the effect of systemic racism and end poverty.”

Here is the exact strategy employed by Arne Duncan throughout his tenure as Secretary of Education: make a grand rhetorical claim that most people in the U.S. believe (education is the “great equalizer”), and then offer no evidence it is true while hoping no one calls you on it.

The truth is hard to swallow, however, because education can be shown through ample evidence to have very little impact on erasing inequity driven by racism and sexism. For just a few of many examples, please consider the following:

Whites with only high school completion earn more than Blacks/Hispanics having completed 2 years of college. (Bruenig, 24 October 2014)

White men with no high school diploma have the same employment opportunities as black men with some college completion. (Closing the Race Gap)

Race and gender remain powerful sources of inequity despite educational attainment. (Access to good jobs)

Brown also cites this: “He goes on to say, ‘Successful people in the United States tend to be white and come from privilege and they’re not necessarily working harder than anybody else but they have incredible advantages.'”

And then makes no effort to address why he believes my comment is “problematic.” Perhaps he could consider the following:

Abstract

Racial discrimination in labor markets is a critical process through which organizations produce economic inequality in society. Though scholars have extensively examined the discriminatory decisions and practices of employers, the question of how job seekers try to adapt to anticipated discrimination is often overlooked. Using interviews, a laboratory experiment, and a résumé audit study, we examine racial minorities’ attempts to avoid discrimination by concealing or downplaying racial cues in job applications, a practice known as “résumé whitening.” While some minority job seekers reject this practice, others view it as essential and use a variety of whitening techniques. When targeting an employer that presents itself as valuing diversity, however, minority job applicants engage in relatively little résumé whitening and thus submit more racially transparent résumés. Yet, our audit study shows that organizational diversity statements are not actually associated with reduced discrimination against unwhitened résumés. Taken together, these findings suggest a paradox: Minorities may be particularly likely to experience disadvantage when they apply to ostensibly pro-diversity employers. These findings illuminate the role of racial concealment and transparency in modern labor markets and point to an important interplay between the self-presentation of employers and the self-presentation of job seekers in shaping economic inequality. (Whitened Résumés: Race and Self-Presentation in the Labor Market, Sonia Kang, Katy DeCelles, András Tilcsik, and Sora Jun)

One other tactic I experience is the subtle and not-so-subtle effort by the “no excuses” crowd to turn charges of racism toward those of us calling out the racism of “no excuses” practices: “If you believe the zip code where you were born should determine your educational outcome, you basically believe that some people aren’t built for success, which is — to put it bluntly — racist.”

Two aspects of this strategy are important to highlight. First, Brown here and others must misrepresent my claims (I have never and would never embrace or suggest that we ask less of any child or that some group of people have less ability than others because of inherent deficiencies; in fact, my scholarship and public work directly reject deficit ideologies).

Second, this rhetorical slight of hand is designed to point anywhere other than the person making the claim.

This second part of the move is important for charter advocates and the “no excuses” crowd because evidence is not on their side.

The Legacy Charter school endorsed by Brown has three consecutive years of “below average” state report cards (2012-2014, the most recent since report card assessments have been suspended in SC until this coming fall).

And my analysis of two years of data on SC charter schools has shown:

  • Using 2011 SC state repost cards and the metric “Schools with Students Like Ours,” charter schools performed as follows: 3/53 ABOVE Typical, 17/53 Typical, and 33/53 BELOW Typical.
  • Using 2013 SC state repost cards and the metric “Schools with Students Like Ours,” charter schools performed as follows: 2/52 ABOVE Typical, 20/52 Typical, 22/52 BELOW Typical.

The “high expectations” movement, again mostly aimed at black/brown and poor children, has some serious flaws because the rhetoric is discredited by the evidence.

In short, education is not the “great equalizer” in the U.S. And committing to “high expectations” for children living inequitable and overburdened lives suggests their struggles are mostly their fault because they simply are not working hard enough.

That is a calloused and racist/classist lie.

As I detailed above, success in the U.S. is mostly about advantages, not working hard.

Brown concludes with a flurry of rhetoric: “You could burn the world down as it is because it’s too hard to fix systemic injustices, or you could build it up to the sky because you know in your heart that’s where we belong. Keep your matches. I’m grabbing a hammer and a ladder.”

What should disturb us is how easily the winners (even those claiming good intentions) in the U.S. are willing to throw up their hands when challenged to address systemic racism, classism, and sexism.

In fact, this admission is awash in excuses and absent the exact resilience needed to address inequity that these adults demand of children, who must somehow set aside their lives each day they walk through the doors of school and behave in ways the adults refuse to do.

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