Liberalism Causes Achievement Gaps

This report by Chris Stewart of Brightbeam is a blockbuster. It is titled: “The Secret Shame: How America’s Most Progressive Cities Betray Their Commitment to Educational Opportunity For All.” Stewart is a liberal activist from Minnesota who undertook to find out why the Twin Cities’ left-wing public schools have some of the country’s worst achievement gaps between white and minority (black and Indian) students.

Stewart compared achievement by race in a number of cities that he classified as progressive or conservative. The results didn’t surprise me, but they shocked Stewart. Conservative cities (as ranked by political scientists used as a reference for the study) consistently did a better job of closing student achievement gaps–sometimes, to zero–than progressive cities. This chart sums up the findings:

Stewart’s group looked at a number of variables that they thought might help to explain these findings. The result:

Of all the factors we looked at, progressivism is the greatest predictor.

The Brightbeam study does not attempt to explain the causation that its numbers clearly reveal, but calls on those who run progressive school districts to rethink their assumptions. Bacon’s Rebellion offers some obvious possibilities:

* Agency. By blaming racism and discrimination for the woes afflicting minority communities, progressives deprive minority students of agency — the sense that they control their own destinies and that their efforts will make a difference. If minority students see themselves as victims of systemic racism, why bother working hard and “acting white”?

* Discipline. Progressives have implemented “social justice” approaches to school and classroom discipline on the grounds that suspensions and other punishments disproportionately affect minorities. The resulting breakdown in classroom discipline has the perverse effect of disproportionately harming the minority students whose classes are being disrupted.

* Lower standards. As an offshoot of the “self esteem” movement, progressive educators don’t want to damage the self-esteem of minority students. Accordingly, they have lower expectations and set lower standards for minorities to offset the advantages that white students have from “white privilege.”

The most positive outcome of the Brightbeam study, so far, is this op-ed in the Minneapolis Star Tribune by local liberal activist Nekima Levy Armstrong, titled “Research shows progressive places, like Minneapolis, have the worst achievement gaps.” Armstrong describes the findings of the Brightbeam study:

The brightbeam report shows that progressive cities like Minneapolis do worse — and, surprisingly, conservative cities do better — when it comes to educating students of color. According to the report, conservative cities have gaps in math and reading that are on average 15 and 13 percentage points smaller than those in progressive cities.
Researchers also controlled for other factors that could potentially explain different educational outcomes, including poverty rates, population size, per-pupil spending and private school attendance rates. Surprisingly, none of these other variables made a difference in predicting the size of the opportunity gap.

What mattered most was whether the city was conservative or progressive.

In three of the most conservative cities — Anaheim, Fort Worth and Virginia Beach, researchers found that leaders have either closed or eliminated opportunity gaps in either reading, math or high school graduation rates.

Meanwhile, in our own “progressive” city of Minneapolis, the report showed that the shameful gap in math achievement between black and white students in K-12 is 53 percentage points, while the gap in math between brown and white students is 45 points.

Similarly, in reading, the gap between black and white Minneapolis students is 53, while the gap between brown and white students is 47.

Liberals are notorious for caring about good intentions–especially when those supposedly good intentions fatten their own bank accounts–rather than results. But Armstrong’s conclusion seems sincere:

The data should cause us to wonder how it is possible that cities like Minneapolis, known for prosperity and progressive values, could continue to fail our most vulnerable children so miserably within the public-school system.

When progressive leaders fail to act with a sense of urgency in addressing these highly disturbing gaps, it sends the signal that the system and its leaders are comfortable with the status quo.

Parents and concerned citizens must become empowered to place demands on our public education system to make the changes that are necessary to produce positive learning outcomes. We must use our outrage and frustration as fuel to be persistent in challenging the status quo and holding our elected officials accountable for addressing these disgraceful gaps within our public education system.

The most obvious way to shake up the failing progressive establishment is meaningful school choice, i.e., choice that includes religious (usually Catholic) schools. I understand there is a case now pending the U.S. Supreme Court, arising out of Montana, where the Court may rule that the free exercise clause of the First Amendment and the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment invalidate state constitutional provisions or laws that prohibit government funds from going to students in religious institutions (the anti-Catholic “Blaine amendments”). If liberals are serious about wanting to improve prospects for African-American and Hispanic children, the first thing they should do is get behind school choice.