Are Racially Inequitable Outcomes Racist?

Among what may seem to be marginally related policies and conditions, these all have one startling thing in common—grade retention, school discipline, NCAA athletics, incarceration, “grit,” “no excuses,” zero-tolerance, high-stakes testing (such as the SAT and ACT), charter schools and school choice—and that commonality is observable racially inequitable outcomes that are significantly negative for blacks.

My own experiences with exploring and confronting race and racism through my public writing has shown that many people vigorously resist acknowledging racism and will contort themselves in unbelievable ways to avoid accepting facts and data that show racism exists.

Common responses include “I am not a racist,” “I am sure the people who started X didn’t intend to be racist,” “White people experience racism too,” and “Everyone has the same opportunities in this country.”

And while I continue to compile a stunning list of ways in which racial inequity and racism profoundly impact negatively black people, resistance to terms such as “white privilege” and “racism” remain robust.

In the wake of the NCAA Final Four, Patrick Hruby has attempted a similar tactic I have used in order to unmask the racial inequity in college athletics by carefully working readers through the evidence in order to come to an uncomfortable conclusion about the financial exploitation of college athletes (money-making sports being disproportionately black) by the NCAA and colleges/universities (leadership and those profiting being overwhelmingly white) along racial lines:

Understand this: there’s nothing inherently racist about amateurism itself. And there’s no reason to believe that its defenders and proponents—including current NCAA president Mark Emmert—are motivated by racial animus….

And yet, while the NCAA’s intent is color-blind, the impact of amateurism is anything but. In American law, there is a concept called adverse impact, in which, essentially, some facially neutral rules that have an unjustified adverse impact on a particular group can be challenged as discriminatory….Similarly, sociologists speak of structural racism when analyzing public policies that have a disproportionately negative impact on minority individuals, families, and communities. State lottery systems that essentially move money from predominantly lower-class African-American ticket buyers to predominantly middle-and-upper-class white school districts fit the bill; so does a War on Drugs that disproportionately incarcerates young black men; so does a recent decision by officials in Maricopa County, Arizona, to drastically cut the number of presidential primary polling stations in and around Phoenix, which unnecessarily made voting far more difficult for the residents of a non-white majority city.

Big-time college sports fall under the same conceptual umbrella. Amateurism rules restrain campus athletes—and only campus athletes, not campus musicians or campus writers—from earning a free-market income, accepting whatever money, goods, or services someone else wants to give them. And guess what? In the revenue sports of Division I football and men’s basketball, where most of the fan interest and television dollars are, the athletes are disproportionately black.

And herein lies the problem with refusing to equate racially inequitable outcomes with racism.

Hruby’s detailed unmasking of the NCAA comes also during the troubling rise of Trump in presidential politics—another marker for how many scramble to find any cause other than racism.

Trump’s rise is not exclusively the result of overt and unexamined racism, but a significant amount of his success is easily traced to a wide spectrum of racism.

However, from the rise of Trump to the so-called popularity of charter schools to the school-to-prison pipeline and to the spread of third-grade retention policies, all of these and more are fueled by racism because racism, we must acknowledge, is most insidious when it isn’t overt, when the racist person or the racist act is unconscious, unacknowledged.

The impact of racism in NCAA sports, as Hruby details, is the elegant racism Ta-Nahisi Coates unpacked when Donald Sterling became the NBA’s face for oafish racism (along with Clive Bundy in popular culture).

What has occurred in the U.S. since the mid-1960s is an end to placard racism, the end of “White Only” signs on bathroom and restaurant doors.

What has not occurred in the U.S. yet is an end to seeing black boys as significantly older than their biological ages, an end to tracking black children into segregated schools and reductive courses, an end to incarcerating black men—and this is a list that could go on for several pages.

Racial (and class) equity will never occur in the U.S. until the white power structure admits that racially inequitable outcomes are in fact racist.

White privilege is a powerful narcotic that numbs white elites to the harm that privilege causes black and brown people, but it is also a powerful narcotic that pits poor whites against black and brown people because poor whites believe their whiteness gives them the chance at great wealth held by only a few.

That the NCAA maintains a structure within which black athletes produce wealth enjoyed almost exclusively by white elites is an undeniable fact and a startling example of the elegant racism eroding the soul of a free people—an elegant racism eating at the roots of public education, the judicial system, the economic system, and nearly ever aspect of the country.

Racially inequitable outcomes are racist, and this must be admitted in order to be confronted and then to be eliminated.

What’s Really Wrong with Advanced Placement Courses and College Board?

“Fraudulent schemes come in all shapes and sizes,” asserts John Tierney, adding, ” To work, they typically wear a patina of respectability. That’s the case with Advanced Placement [A.P.] courses, one of the great frauds currently perpetrated on American high-school students.”

Tierney calling the A.P. program from the College Board a scam may seem at first to be at best hyperbole and at worst, baseless screed.

But I find Tierney’s arguments are important as one more door opening into what is wrong with the College Board broadly, as well as what is wrong with A.P. more specifically.

Let me offer some context for my assertions to follow.

First, I am no fan of the College Board’s SAT, having addressed the class-, race-, and gender-based flaws with the SAT for at least two decades now—along with confronting the more recent flaws with the 2005 addition of writing on the SAT, the David Coleman planned reboot, and the proposed relationship with the Khan Academy.

However, from 1984 until 2002, while teaching high school English in a rural South Carolina public school, I always taught either advanced feeder courses, A.P. Literature courses, or both.

My experience with A.P. in a small impoverished high school that often ranked first in the state for highest percentage of students enrolled in A.P. courses was not typical because our district policy was to push as many students up into the advanced track as possible (occasionally with those students and their parents kicking and screaming). As well, my A.P. students hovered around scoring 3 or above at about only a 50% rate—whereas at nearby high schools, A.P. was a strictly gated program and those teachers were expected to have 3 or above rates at 100% [1].

The commitment of my district also included that my classes were very small and I had nearly complete autonomy for the content of the courses and how I taught the courses.

As a result of the unusual context of my A.P. experience as a public school teacher, my background is mostly positive in terms of how well we prepared students for college within our unique implementation of the A.P. program (notably disregarding—or at least greatly expanding—the College Board’s guidelines for gatekeeping that existed in those years).

Like the SAT, the College Board’s A.P. program experienced changes in who took the exams throughout the 1980s and 1990s, during my public teaching career. Since the early 2000s, A.P. programs have increasingly lost value at the university level (as Tierney points out and Schneider details, and as I have witnessed, colleges are often likely to give less or different credit than parents and students expect, and for much higher scores).

The A.P. program has also received criticism (again like the SAT) for inherent inequity problems, mostly about the lack of diversity in who has access to the courses or the score gaps among race and class groups.

But, this still leaves us with an important question regarding Tierney’s provocative claim: Are A.P. courses a scam?

My short answer is that we must come to terms with this: The A.P. program (as well as the SAT and ACT college-entrance exams, Common Core, and all test-based practices and policies in education) is a deeply flawed distraction, as Jack Schneider concludes:

Without a doubt, programs like AP have their place. And in many schools AP remains a valuable addition to the curriculum. But when we pretend that all our schools need is the right reform, we erode our collective will to do the harder work required of us. We distract ourselves from our greater purposes. (see HERE and HERE for additional criticism of A.P. by Schneider)

While not unique to the program, A.P. ultimately fails the broader promise of universal public education in the following ways:

  • The A.P. program is grounded in gatekeeping (historically hard gatekeeping metrics as well as lingering soft gatekeeping dynamics) and tracking [2], both of which are counter to goals of equity in public schooling. As a result, A.P. scores share with SAT (and ACT) scores the power to perpetuate privilege and establish inequitable schools-within-schools.
  • The A.P. program is one example of the popular and political fetish for “top students”—a fabricated crisis that speaks to and perpetuates privilege [3].
  • A.P. tests further reinforce the reduction of learning and merit to single test scores generated from one testing session. As well, the importance of the A.P. score as a potential ticket to earning college credit (and the claim that this process can save students and their parents money) can and often reduces A.P. courses to teaching-to-the-tests.
  • Through the aura of being an “elite” program and by their selective nature, A.P. courses erode efforts to create educational settings that are equitable for all students. [The A.P. program was built on the allure of being elite, and regardless of the College Board’s claims for seeking equity and diversity, the A.P. program benefits from elitism and selectivity.]
  • The concept of “earning college credit while in high school” distorts and marginalizes the value of both student intellectual development and instructional time spent in courses. While I disagree in some respects with Tierney’s claim that A.P. course are rarely comparable to college-level courses (some A.P. Literature and A.P. Language courses are far more demanding than freshman composition courses), I would pose that it is essentially impossible to capture a college experience in a high school classroom—and there is no reason to seek that goal as well.
  • Thus, A.P. courses draw too much focus on attaining certain content and away form valuing the entire learning experience that is greater than content acquisition.
  • A.P. courses and programs are a secondary and additional financial drain on families (often indirectly) and public funding, yet another source of expenses (time and funding) for materials, tests, and training that would be better spent elsewhere.
  • Another part of the allure of the A.P. program is similar to the promise embedded in the Common Core—establishing a standard curriculum across the U.S. However, if the A.P. program shows us anything, it is that the goal of standardization is both misguided and impossible to attain. In this respect, the A.P. program may not be quite a scam, but it is a mirage.
  • And as Schneider emphasizes, A.P. courses suggest that all we need to do it get what is taught, how it is taught, and how it is tested right and then all will be well. Among almost all the current calls for in-school-only education reform, A.P. courses are distractions from needed social reform and in-school reform seeking equity.

My final point about the College Board’s A.P. program is the same as my argument about school choice: We need to create the sort of equitable public school curriculum for all students that would make A.P. courses unnecessary.

The best parts of my and my students’ experiences when I taught A.P.—small class sizes, teacher autonomy, rich content (mostly immune from censorship), administrative support—can and should be what all teachers and students experience as the norm of schooling—not the rare air of selective programs that cost parents and schools additional funds and time to create.

[1] At surrounding high schools (and common across the U.S.) in the 1980s and 1990s, students were often blocked from taking A.P. courses unless they had scored well on the PSAT or met other quantitative requirements set by schools. At one nearby high school, for example, that had a student body 3 to 4 times larger than where I taught, the A.P. Literature class was about the same number of students as the one I taught.

[2] See Moving Beyond Tracking, Mathis (2013)

[3] Satire Warning: See a post from 2011 below about the “top student” crisis:

Top Student Crisis!: A Call for Trickle-Down Education Reform

The elite minds at The Thomas B. Fordham Institute have unmasked a serious but neglected crisis in education:

[M]any high-achieving students struggle to maintain their elite performance over the years and often fail to improve their reading ability at the same rate as their average and below-average classmates. The study raises troubling questions: Is our obsession with closing achievement gaps and ‘leaving no child behind’ coming at the expense of our ‘talented tenth’—and America’s future international competitiveness?

This study has prompted Room for Debate at The New York Times to ask: “Are Top Students Getting Short Shrift?”

The answer? According to Rick Hess, “We are shortchanging America’s brightest students, and we’re doing it reflexively and furtively.”

The top students in U.S. schools are in crisis, and the economic competitiveness of our country hangs in the balance. With this now exposed, I am calling for a move to trickle-down education reform, modeled on the trickle-down economic theories driving our commitment to avoid overtaxing the wealthy in the U.S. since they are our job creators and the backbone of our thriving economy.

Trickle-Down Education Reform

Trickle-down education reform requires our current education reform movement—spearheaded by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, philanthropist Bill Gates, and student-first advocate Michelle Rhee—to shift its focus on the bottom 10% of student performance and apply their same reform to the top 10%. This transformation must include the following:

  • Initiate funding of Teach for America (TfA) to send their core of teachers to teach in high-needs schools serving the top 10% achieving students. This core must replace the current experienced and certified teachers now teaching the top students.
  • Initiate funding to support Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools to serve schools consisting only of the the top 10% of students. These top students must be held to “no excuses” and taught to form lines, make eye contact, shake hands, say “yes, sir” and “no, sir,” and chant daily words of inspiration that will serve them well in corporate America.
  • Place the top students in classes with 40-to-1 student/teacher ratios.
  • Eliminate all band, music, art, and PE courses at the schools serving the top students and insure that these students focus exclusively on math, ELA, and science in order to perform well on state and national tests.
  • Increase dramatically the number of tests top students take and provide these top students the intense test-prep they deserve.

Once these reforms have been implemented, of course, we must hold the TfA teachers and KIPP schools accountable for not only the test scores of these top students but also the trickle-down effect of these policies on the remaining 90% of students who are currently being served to the detriment of our top students.

As Michael J. Petrilli implores us:

But if we want to do right by our highest-achieving students — and maintain America’s international competitiveness — we should rethink the move to eradicate tracking. Future generations will thank us.

Looking at Wrong Outcomes, Missing the Lesson

The College Board has a recent history of recreating itself, notably the cyclical revision of the SAT and now a move to resurrect the Advanced Placement (AP) program.

While I am no fan of the College Board, specifically the problems related to the SAT, I taught most of my nearly two decades as a high school English teacher in a rural South Carolina public school either preparing my students for AP English courses (“advanced” feeder courses leading to Literature and Composition or Language and Composition) or teaching AP Literature and Composition.

Setting aside for a moment the conflicts of interest and disturbing self-promotion behind the College Board revamping AP courses on the heels of David Coleman turning his Common Core State Standards (CCSS) gig into being named president of College Board, consider Jack Schneider’s challenge to the new AP plan, which builds to this central criticism:

Evidence to the contrary, however, is all around us.  Look, for instance, at Mississippi, which has the lowest average household income in the U.S. and the highest percentage of African-American residents.  Given the way that educational resources are distributed, it should come as no surprise that nearly half of students taking AP exams in the state scored a 1 out of 5.  Only four percent of students scored a 5.  These are not the kinds of problems that the AP Program can solve.

In order to consider both the credibility of the College Board’s plan to reform their AP programs and Scheider’s critique, I want to focus first on a teacher story of mine, building on a key point made by Brian Jones about the inherent failure of CCSS and those who advocate for yet another standards and testing cycle:

I heard a woman who’s been involved with high-level education policy discussions defend the Common Core’s de-emphasis of personal narratives because, she argued, that’s not the kind of writing people need to do in college. At the end of her presentation, a teacher who opposed the Common Core standards asked her if she, as a teacher, could really do anything to influence policy. This same woman told her that the most powerful thing a teacher could do to influence policy would be to speak to lawmakers directly and tell a story — tell a specific story about how these policies affect her classroom. Without realizing it, she argued that personal narratives were not important for “college and career readiness”, but if you are setting out to change the world, personal narratives are the most powerful thing you’ve got [emphasis added].

If we let the corporations organize education, it will be an education that’s about fitting our children into their workplaces — into the narrow vision of working life that they have in store for the next generation.

As I noted above, I taught throughout the 1980s and 1990s in the same rural Upstate SC high school that I had attended in the 1970s. During my years as a student in that school, no AP courses were offered, but during my college years, my former high school English teacher and mentor, Lynn Harrill, brought AP to the school.

In 1984, I assumed not only Lynn’s position in the English department but also his room. While it would take several years for me to earn the role of teaching in the AP program Lynn built, I eventually taught the feeder sophomore course into the program before later teaching AP Literature and Composition; I also as department chair added AP Language and Composition (taught by a colleague).

This high school included only about 750-900 students while I taught there and served a relatively high-poverty population of students. If anyone had chosen to judge the success of our AP program as Schneider has—focusing on AP test scores, outcomes—that most students over the years scored 2s and 1s would likely paint a picture of failure.

Charts of the data over the years ignore some genuinely important facts about whether of not AP was successful at my high school, including whether or not that failure or success was directly caused by the AP program itself.

First, what the data do not tell you is that we did not gate-keep students as the College Board recommended; we didn’t use PSAT scores in order to weed out only the best and the brightest. In fact, a neighboring high school with  triple our student body size routinely had about the same total number of AP students as I taught.

The policy of our AP program was providing access to high-quality courses for as many students as possible, not test-score outcomes.

Next, since the administration was committed to increasing student access to AP, they were also committed to supporting me as a teacher, manifesting itself in low class sizes (I usually taught two sections of 15 students, or less, per class) and nearly complete teacher autonomy.

Again, if student test scores are all that matter, that my students overwhelmingly scored 2s and 1s (throughout my years teaching AP, a score of 3 was considered “passing” because most colleges awarded college credit for 3s and above) suggested that my students, our program, and I were all failures.

The story, however, is something quite different. Over the years, we received countless messages from our students once they were in college: Our graduates eagerly and without prompting praised the opportunities they were given in high school, recognizing the tremendous base they carried into college because of their experiences in their AP courses.

Again, most of these students scored 2s on the AP exam. Not unusual was a former student contacting me to intervene with their freshman English college professor, who believed the student’s freshman essays were too good to be original.

To this day, my Facebook account is punctuated with the voices of former students echoing that somehow we had been successful in our classes. Let me emphasize that many of these students would have been excluded from AP if our school had used the gate-keeping mechanisms the College Board recommended.

Why were we successful, despite the evidence of the test scores?

• Access to a rich curriculum, student-centered classrooms, workshop environments, low student/teacher ratios.

• Teacher autonomy along with administrative, parent, and student support.

What are the real lessons?

• AP didn’t cause any of our success. [In fact, we took the framework of the AP template, but made it far more effective by meeting the needs of our students without regard for the simplistic outcomes associated with the test scores.]

• Test scores hide genuine academic success.

Ultimately, the College Board and Schneider are making the wrong arguments, in fact, a problem we are also facing with adoption of the CCSS (wrestling over if the standards are “rigorous” or how to implement them or what the tests should look like versus confronting the folly of standards- and test-based schooling).

Instead of reforming any specific program or policy, and instead of focusing on outcomes to judge if a program works or if a reform works, we must begin to seek and value an equitable access to rich educational experiences for all children, as Jones notes:

Interestingly, the very things that we’ve been arguing for decades that our schools desperately need, are the very things that the rich insist on in their schools: more resources, rich curriculum (not just reading and math), experienced teachers (not just grinding through newbies), and small class sizes!…

When it comes to meeting our students’ basic needs, they claim there’s no money. But when it comes to data gathering there’s a blank check. New York City is going to spend $32 million to pay Pearson to develop more tests over the next five years.

Teachers and schools, regardless of the quality of those teachers or the courses students are offered, will never alone overcome the inequity of children’s lives, particularly if we look at the numbers instead of the people involved and especially if we are not patient, expecting some instant evidence of success.

Most of the success I do recognize (along with the many mistakes weaved in among that eventual success) has come into view only many years later. And for  my students who trace something positive to  my classroom, I would caution that they should also look in the mirror and recognize the dozens of other related experiences that create the momentum that leads to success.

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “One is not born into the world to do everything but to do something.”

This is one of many Thoreau quotes that grew yellow on my classroom walls. While I believed it was a powerful message for my students, often frozen as they were by their own society-imposed rush to be perfect immediately (or prove themselves the failures they feared they were), I am more convinced than ever that Thoreau is speaking to the world of education reform.

It is not ours to do everything, but the something is pretty clear, and that something must include a commitment to creating equitable opportunities for all children, and that equity must be wrapped in kindness and patience.

In time, these students will become adults who remember those opportunities as well as that kindness and patience but not their AP scores or their college GPA.