Carts and Horses

I know, I know, it’s dangerous to conclude too much from one research study. Especially if that study seems to confirm our pre-existing ideas. But the news from Tennessee seems to confirm what school-reform mavens know: Just fixing classrooms isn’t enough. If we want to make a more equitable society, we have to include everything.cart before horse

Here’s what we know: A new study suggests that African American students can experience measurable benefits from having African American teachers. The authors say it is more than just about teaching methods; it is more to do with a “role-model effect.” As they put it,

black teachers provide a crucial signal that leads black students to update their beliefs about the returns to effort and what educational outcomes are possible.

We don’t want to exaggerate its importance, but this seems like yet more evidence for our vision of real school reform. SAGLRROILYBYGTH are tired of hearing it, but historically there have been competing visions of how schools can and should help make America a better place. Some well-meaning reformers have hoped to tweak classroom practices to help students from low-income families do better in school. If they can just succeed in school, the thinking goes, then they can go to college, get a good job, make more money, and escape the cycle of poverty.

If we can just scale up that sort of reform—the thinking goes (and we can’t, but that’s another story)—then schools can fix the woes of social inequality.

As I’m arguing in my new book, this vision of school and social reform is as old as public education itself. And it’s not bad, but it is wrong. Don’t believe it? Check out the archive of studies and evidence that all seems to point in the same direction: here or here or here.

And the current study from Tennessee seems to add more fuel to the fire. The real problems of education, poverty, and social inequality are bigger than any single, isolated curricular reform can fix. The problem is that American society includes a bunch of unfair hierarchies: racial, religious, ethnic, and economic. If we try to tweak classroom practices in isolation, we won’t be able to do much.

But, as this study suggests, if students can see a possibility of achievement, they will be more likely to achieve. If students can see glimmers of a society that rewards people like them for talent and hard work, they’ll be more likely to work hard to move ahead.

Is it a good thing to improve classroom practice? Sure. But fixing the insides of classrooms alone isn’t enough. Students need to live in a society that is less biased against people like them. Students need some reason to think that school achievement will pay off.

When it comes to the old chicken-and-egg problems of schools and social reform, we need to remember the refrain: Schools don’t change society; schools ARE society.

Leave a comment


  1. Agellius

     /  November 29, 2018

    “Students need some reason to think that school achievement will pay off.”

    Yes, this was exactly my problem and the main reason I dropped out of community college. I didn’t have sufficient reason to believe the hard work was going to pay off. Somehow being white didn’t make me immune to it.

  2. Agellius

     /  November 29, 2018

    It occurs to me also, that if it’s important that black kids believe their hard work will pay off in order for them to be successful, maybe it would be a good idea to stop pounding into their heads that society is rigged against them. I wonder if there have been any studies showing the difference in achievement between black kids who have that pounded into their heads, and black kids who don’t, and who therefore believe that achievement is possible and worthwhile.

    • I don’t know if you’re already familiar with it, but that’s (sort of) one of Theresa Perry’s arguments in Young, Gifted, and Black. She reviews research and concludes–among other things–that many African American students do best in schools like Department of Defense schools and diocesan Catholic schools in which the rules are clear and apply to everyone equally.

  3. Rob H

     /  November 29, 2018

    I did not read the research article, but does the conclusion “African American students can experience measurable benefits from having African American teachers” seem to indicate that segregation is a good thing? I don’t believe it is, but that was how the statement struck me.

    • A great question. Historically speaking, the “integration or separation” question has been terrifically controversial. I think in general, in this country, segregation has always been affiliated with vastly unequal resources. And it’s impossible to escape that legacy.
      To my mind, this research points most strongly to the need to recruit and retain African American teachers. We don’t need–and don’t want–to segregate schools. But we do need and want to have teaching (and administrative) personnel that students can connect with in lots of different ways.

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