Race, Education and the Law of Intended Consequences

Since the publication in 1983 of A Nation At Risk, state and national governments and private interests have routinely put out plans to address performance, equity and access in K-12 and post-secondary education. On the federal level, the minds behind No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top imagined that setting up higher and higher standards in mathematics and verbal skills would result in higher performance.

State governments frequently embraced policies that were designed by corporate interests, funding for-profit, union free charter schools and supporting the Common Core’s test of success, Pearson’s Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). Though there were some benefits to some, particularly to those who achieved PARCC testing standards or charter school acceptance, this movement abandoned those who did not. Newark’s North Star Academy, for instance, lauded as a shining model of charter school success, graduated only one in four black males who entered the school and serves few of the lowest income students or students with disabilities.

Guidance counselors were vilified for a history, much of it deserved, of recommending only community college or vocational training for students of color. What began as a reasonable response to a system where students of color were consistently being sold short morphed into a practice which severely harmed those students it purported to help. The rejection of less expensive community college is a major factor in crushing student debt for students of color. Scott-Clayton and Li found that “four years after earning a bachelor’s degree, black graduates have nearly $25,000 more student loan debt than their white peers: $52,726 on average, compared to $28,006 for the typical white BA graduate.”

Despite studies that demonstrate that students earn about 2 percent more annually for each advanced or upper-level vocational class they take, federal support for vocational education has dropped 32% since 1985, which has coincided with a 14% decrease in participation in vocational education. Recently, though there has been a rhetorical shift from “college for all” to “college and career readiness,” most public high schools have actually reduced or eliminated vocational programs. This cut off a major avenue of access to the middle class.

Of course, there remains a need for skilled trades. Access, though, does not come through high school training, but rather almost exclusively through trade union apprenticeships, historically the domain of white males. Blacks make up 2% of unionized skilled trade members and women under 15%.

Much of educational policy in the recent past, including the emphasis on 4-year college enrollment and the standards movement, was posited as necessary to close the achievement gap between white students and students of color, but the gap has actually persisted or increased over time.

Late in the 19th century, white Northerners coined the term “talented tenth,” which refers to the one in ten Black men that have cultivated the ability to become leaders of the Black community. Author and scholar W.E.B Du Bois embraced the term and its mission (though he modified his views over time). There is certainly importance to identifying and supporting those with the greatest potential. This philosophy has guided the creation and growth of the charter school movement as well as college admissions recruiting at highly selective colleges.

Yet, as with any policy or philosophy, one must not only observe what the beneficiaries of them receive but, even more importantly, the effect on those who do not benefit from it. Though Black students have increased their numbers in college, their graduation rate is almost 25% lower than their white peers. The same gap persists between white and Black students in high school graduation rates.

In an awe-inspiring sleight of hand, educational policy makers have endorsed policies that, on their surface, appear to provide the most disadvantaged a gateway out of poverty. In actuality, they have been disastrous for those who have been systematically disenfranchised.

There are policies, though, that can benefit all students:

*Free community college

*Sliding scale tuition and fees at all public colleges based on family income 

*Investment in training in the skilled trades in high school

*Certification programs in the health sciences in high schools

*Briefer, less expensive, publicly funded licensure post-secondary opportunities

*Greater support for Historically Black, Native American or Hispanic colleges and those colleges that have large populations of economically disadvantaged students of color.

*Vastly increasing the maximum Pell grant

*Eliminating student college debt after 10 years of income-based payments

*Funding universal pre-school with an emphasis on increasing literacy and reading skills.

*Increasing teacher pay

Our policies since A Nation at Risk have been the educational equivalent of trickle down economics, with the fallacy that supporting the students with the highest “promise” would raise the achievement of all. It has never been successful when we have tried to educate students by how we want them to be. We need to educate students where they are and provide resources so that every student, no matter their measured ability or resources, is able to find success.

Author: Scott White

I am a nationally recognized expert on college admissions, having worked in schools and colleges for 35 years. I have been regularly quoted in major publications including the NY Times, the LA Times, The Boston Globe, the Washington Post, Atlantic Monthly, Time Magazine and others. I am widely published on various aspects of the college admissions process and present at state and national conferences on a variety of college admissions related topics. I have worked in college admissions as well as independent day and boarding schools. The last 25 years I have worked in public schools, 14 as a school counselor and then as a Director of Guidance at elite, suburban public schools including Montclair High School, Westfield High School and Morristown High School. I am now an independent college counselor for SW College Consulting in Montclair. I can be contacted as swcollegeconsulting@gmail.com or 973-919-6798.

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