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Sunday
Apr032011

Bad Arguments

WCPSS recently responded to the United States Office of Civil Rights in connection with an ongoing investigation of reassignment decisions from Spring 2010. Some shoddy arguments were made in that response. Because the reassignment process has slowed, I decided to postpone my final post on the Wake School Choice Plan to address this topic.

I will not address every misstatement and bad argument recounted in the response. Because of the way the law works, the response recounts some misstatements and bad arguments by individual board members to show through their public statements that they did not intend to discriminate against black and hispanic students. For this purpose, it is legitimate to recount misstatements and bad arguments. So while I have discussed some of these before, I will not focus on them here. Further, most of the arguments in the response, like the argument that the challenged actions have not disproportionately impacted black and hispanic students, are micro-level arguments against something called “disparate impact” that take advantage of the fact that the complaint has not been amended to include the latest round of 2011 reassignments, which almost certainly had a disparate impact on black and hispanic students. These arguments, right or wrong, fall into an “overtaken by events” category that makes them not so interesting outside the legal arena. 

Beginning on page twenty-four of the response, however, are a series of arguments designed to show that “a majority of the Board has reasonably concluded that the district’s use of SES as a student achievement factor has not resulted in marked educational benefits but has imposed unfair burdens on poor and minority students.” Whatever the Board majority may have concluded, and however reasonable it may or may not have been, the arguments themselves are not very good. It is these arguments that I address below.

1. No studies show that SES diversity has improved academic achievement for poor and minority students in WCPSS.

“No studies show that the absence of a meltdown at Shearon Harris Nuclear Plant has markedly improved public health in Wake County.” I’m not a big fan of sensationalist argument, but sometimes it gets the point across. The case against high poverty schools is not as strong as the case against nuclear meltdowns, but the fallacy of relying on the absence of a local study is the same in each case: there is no good reason to believe that things will turn out differently in Wake County than they have elsewhere. The diversity policy retards the growth of high poverty schools. High poverty schools have been studied extensively, throughout the nation, from a variety of angles and approaches, at different levels of rigor, and the answer is clear: avoiding them is a good idea. Individual high poverty schools succeed, but as a group, they are systematically less likely to produce good results for all demographic groups than their low poverty counterparts. Further, most successful high poverty schools require greater resources than their low poverty counterparts and/or rely on peculiarities of situation that cannot readily be replicated or scaled. 

2. Comparison to other North Carolina School Districts shows that the SES diversity policy has failed.

Some fairly comparable school districts, like Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools and Guilford County, are now outperforming WCPSS in important ways. (NB: The WCPSS response overstates the case by highlighting only systems and metrics for which this is true.)

This does not mean the diversity policy has failed. While the comparison districts achieve better results in certain areas despite the absence of a diversity policy, you can’t use this to demonstrate that the diversity policy has failed. It may just show that whatever benefits the diversity policy has provided have, in the last few years and in certain respects, been eclipsed by some combination of things these other districts are doing right combined with things WCPSS is doing wrong.

To make a decent argument that the diversity policy has failed, you would have to show that some aspect of the diversity policy (or, conversely, the neighborhood schools policies of these other districts) actually caused WCPSS’s results to decline or the other districts’ results to improve. The paper does not do that, and it would be difficult to come up with an argument of this kind that is supported by data.

3. WCPSS student achievement data show that the diversity policy has failed.

WCPSS makes two arguments here. First, it points out that the proficiency of students receiving a free or reduced lunch on standardized tests is not “clearly” and “inexorably” correlated with the poverty level of the school. Second, it notes that minority students who attend magnet schools fare worse than minority students who attend nonmagnets.

The first argument means you cannot prove the diversity policy is working via the correlation between school poverty and the educational results for poor children. The correlations are too low, because many things, not just the poverty level of a school, determine how well it educates poor children. But it does not prove the opposite proposition, that the diversity policy provides no benefit. On that score, there is some suggestive evidence to the contrary. If you plot the reading proficiency of white, black, hispanic, and poor children against the increasing poverty levels of their schools, for example, you will see a consistent downward trend for all groups and a notable drop in the results achieved by the best schools at any given level of poverty.

The second argument, comparing the performance of minority students at magnets to minority students elsewhere, reflects the fact that the minority students in our magnet schools are more likely to be poor students—indeed, particularly poor students—than minority students elsewhere. This arises because most magnet schools are located in neighborhoods that are both poor and majority-minority, while most other schools are not. There could be something here, but unless you extract the Asian students from the “minority” category (because they perform as well as white students in WCPSS), then control for levels of poverty in the minority populations, the argument is worthless.

4. The SES diversity policy unfairly burdens poor and minority students.

Two distinct claims are made here. First, WCPSS points out that poor and minority students are more likely to endure long bus rides than their nonpoor, white counterparts and were more likely to have their magnet applications rejected. Second, it argues that longer bus rides show a “troubling correlation” with weaker academic performance.

The first claim is true. Certain poor and minority students pay a price in lost time and choice so that those same students and others can attend lower poverty, less racially isolated schools than they otherwise would. It is always legitimate to ask whether this is fair. It is hard to find an objectively right answer, but I would weigh most heavily the opinions of the communities most affected.

As for the second claim, there is a “correlation” between distance to base assignment and achievement, but it is not as “troubling” as the WCPSS response hopes you will think. Students who travel farther to their base assignments tend to perform less well because they tend to be poorer, and our poor students—like the poor students in every public school system—tend to perform worse, as a group, than the nonpoor.

There is a misperception here, often shared by both sides, that a long bus ride, by itself, could or should improve academic performance. Busing a child away from a neighborhood magnet school maintained at 40% FRL to another, more distant school at 40% FRL will not do this, because the child’s performance should be similar in both schools. What the bus ride does is permit the existence of a system of schools where poor and minority children do not have to attend a poor, racially isolated school.

5. Eliminating the SES diversity policy is unlikely to harm students because the Board majority has established new programs that will close the achievement gap “in other, more effective, ways.”

The Board—the whole Board, but led in some of its efforts by the “majority” identified in the response—has proposed changes in policies and programs that may help close the achievement gap. Some of them, like using objective and documented criteria for math and other program placements and using effectiveness data to place leadership teams and teachers, are likely to reduce the achievement gap. Others, like merit pay for individual teachers, are likely to be a waste of money (see here and here). Still others may be the right thing to do (e.g. reducing suspensions), but their likely effect on the achievement gap is unclear.

None of them has been shown to be more likely to reduce the “achievement gap” than a policy retarding the growth of high poverty schools. More importantly, however, these ideas are in no way inconsistent with the diversity policy. It is entirely possible to implement them without promoting the growth of high poverty schools, so they are not a valid argument against the policy.

Conclusion

In the WCPSS response to the Office of Civil Rights, crafted by lawyers, the above-mentioned arguments are carefully hedged. They are presented not to show their correctness, but to show that they were plausible enough for Board members to reasonably believe them. As you might expect, this subtlety has been lost on or ignored by some members of the Board and the press, who have presented these suspect arguments as conclusive proof of something they do not show.

I have attacked these arguments because they are bad arguments in support of a worse idea: the elimination of a policy that has retarded the growth of high poverty schools. Those who purport to be data-driven have a duty to use data to inform, not deceive. The response fails to do this, and we should condemn the use of these particular arguments by anyone who claims to be data-driven.

At the same time, WCPSS has lost ground in recent years when compared to fairly comparable systems. If the diversity policy did not fail us, other policies necessarily did. It is no answer to blame “growth” for this failing. Growth is a good thing for schools. Just ask Detroit. More importantly, growth is something that will one day return, whether it is good or not. When it does, we must have have a solid understanding of what we did wrong and how to do it better—despite growth—or we will be left in the dust. Some efforts of the ED Task Force are solid steps in that direction.