Your editor didn’t want to spend any time focusing on the controversy surrounding the cover of Education Next‘s latest issue or the related panel being held by Hoover Institution and Harvard University tomorrow on education, poverty, and family structure. For one, the provocative cover — a play on Grant Wood’s American Gothic featuring a black woman with child and a disappearing black man — was further evidence of the school reform magazine’s ever-present myopia bordering on insensitive when it comes to issues affecting children from poor and minority households.
The fact that the conference doesn’t feature any women or even other thinkers on the intersection of education, poverty, and family outside of the narrow circles EdNext‘s editors engage is also nothing new. Dropout Nation called out one of EdNext‘s editors, Thomas B. Fordham Institute President Mike Petrilli a few years ago over a retrospective on the 30th anniversary of the publication of A Nation at Risk that featured no one from minority backgrounds other than now-former StudentsFirst President Michelle Rhee. [Petrilli apologized for that misstep back then.] Simply put: I’ve been through all these battles before, will be through them again, and will continue this crusade against faulty thinking among reformers (and traditionalists) until it stops.
But since Petrilli, who stirred up more attention than he bargained for with a series of provocative tweets (including one hinting that Chris Stewart of Education Post would be dismayed with the cover), has offered an apology for his insensitivity (without moving to scotch the offending cover), your editor can offer a few thoughts.
The first? That Education Next, and Petrilli in particular, missed an important opportunity to discuss how the nation’s education crisis fosters chronic poverty in which unwed motherhood is a feature. As Dropout Nation explained in a series of pieces last August, data shows that poverty is the consequence of the interplay between resources, knowledge, and decision-making. Any single mother can tell you that raising children without a spouse is hard work — this includes my mother — and few would even want anyone to go through it. There are also other reasons why single motherhood isn’t best. At the same time, the data is clear that unwed motherhood is not the underlying cause of chronic poverty — and in fact, doesn’t even have to result in children and families being mired in economic despair.
EdNext bore out this point in an analysis of data from the PISA tests of international student achievement published last month by Ludger Woessmann of the University of Munich, In it, Woessmann noted that achievement gaps between married households and single-parent homes declined by 60 percent (from 27 points to 10 points) when adjusted for educational attainment and number of books in a home. That gap, one can surmise, results from the failures of American public education in providing high-quality teaching, curricula, and school cultures. The inability of public education to work well for anyone other than two-parent households (a questionable assumption at best) is already evident when it comes to children in foster care as well as those who are homeless.
Put simply, the struggles of children from single-parent homes have less to do with some natural deficit resulting from lack of personal responsibility, but from the reality that many single mothers have been poorly educated by failing schools, and given that they are dropouts or merely earned a high school diploma, see no point in delaying pregnancy since they are already out of school and in the adult world, the natural stage that comes before starting families.
If Education Next simply stuck with Woessmann’s study, along with Petrilli’s thoughtful-though-partly-misguided commentary on the role reform can play in stemming poverty (which I will analyze and criticize at a latter time), it could have played a role in an important conversation about how systemic reform is critical to helping all families provide children with high-quality education. This could have been a discussion that broke away from the arcane sociological views on black families that were perpetuated by legendary U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s controversial report, one of the original reasons why EdNext developed the special package.
[Update: EdNext Editor Paul Peterson offers a weak defense of the cover and the package of stories, dismissing the arguments raised as just racial controversy. At least he didn’t use the word grievance, that favorite term used by movement conservatives to dismiss any concern from black people. In light of other research, among other things, Peterson’s defense are all words without meaning.]
The conversation could have included evidence from the success of charter school operators such as KIPP and Green Dot in helping kids from single-parent homes (especially those black and brown) gain the knowledge they need for success in college and career. The discussion could have also included a thorough debunking of the stereotype of single-parent households — including those that insist that they are less interested in helping their kids succeed that married families do. The conversation could have even included understanding how the legacy of racialism that is America’s Original Sin — including slavery that essentially exploited single motherhood for the financial and ideological sustenance of slave-masters — contributes to the persistent condition of black children in single-parent homes at higher levels than kids from white homes. There could even have been a serious discussion about whether the value of the Moynihan Report today (as that of the landmark report on educational attainment pulled together by James Coleman) has greatly diminished given all the data culled in the past five decades.
But because EdNext went for rather racialist provocation, that opportunity is lost. Which isn’t shocking. Especially when it involves the otherwise-likeable Petrilli, who orchestrated a Fordham Institute conference two months ago that featured American Enterprise Institute education czar Rick Hess (an EdNext editor) arguing against expanding school choice because it promoted irresponsible parenting and Brookings Institution scholar Tom promoting that wretched legacy of racialism that is ability-tracking.
Which leads to my second point: None of this — from the racially-insensitive cover art, to a panel bereft of all but two black thought-leaders (and no women), to Petrilli’s provocative tweeting — is shocking. As I opined last year after EdNext ran Columbia University legal scholar Richard A. Epstein’s misguided critique of the Obama Administration’s effort to clamp down on overuse of harsh school discipline, these missteps are a natural result from a lack of diversity in thought, especially on the role of race in policymaking.
This starts with the fact that the magazine hardly has any black reformers — not even an Howard Fuller or a Heather Harding — on the masthead; nor does it run pieces from researchers on issues that aren’t otherwise considered by reformers in serious ways such as school discipline and the school-to-prison pipeline. That some of Ed Next‘s editors — notably Hess —argue that addressing matters such as achievement gaps are a mania (and that pointing out such issues are a form of race-baiting) all but ensures that the publication will not deal seriously with the impact of education and social policies on poor and minority children. Add in the tolerance of IQ determinism among at least some conservative reformers (including support for the likes of Charles Murray and now-former think tanker Jason Richwine) and it is easy to see how EdNext (and, by extension, Fordham) end up engaging in the kind of thinking that run counter to both good policymaking and the movement’s goal of building brighter futures for all children.
But let’s not think that this lack of diversity — from racial to ideological — is a problem just for Education Next or Fordham alone. As anyone in and out of the Beltway knows by now, it isn’t unusual for think tanks to hold discussions on issues such as stemming achievement gaps that don’t feature anyone from the very communities affected by them. It also isn’t unusual to visit organizations not named Teach For America where the only black people or Latinos are the ones working at the front desk. [Education Pioneers hit upon this issue in December with a report on the dearth of diversity in reform outfits.] And these days, the movement has a terrible problem with welcoming voices who aren’t TFA alumni or Harvard graduates, you know, the men and women former National Urban League President Hugh Price calls impromptu leaders who become reformers because they want the best for all children (especially their own).
[There’s also the lack of ideological diversity, especially among centrist Democrat and progressive reform groups as well as among conservative counterparts. This is a matter about which Andy Smarick of Bellwether Education Partners thoughtfully opined in a series he wrote for Fordham’s Flypaper last year. But we will take that up at a later time.]
As I told Stewart and others yesterday, the solution to this problem lies with those of us who are black and brown (along with those who are women) constantly using our voices and influence to take the lead within the movement. Dropout Nation does this daily, often at the annoyance of reformers who would rather not broach any discussion contrary to their groupthink; same is true for folks such as Dr. Steve Perry who eschew the traditional reform game. Doing this means holding established players to account, demanding diversity at every turn, and building new avenues for influence within the movement. It also means engaging in productive conflict that crystallizes, clarifies, reveals, humbles, and creates in order to build better worlds for our children.
What has happened over the past couple of days with EdNext is an important step in ensuring that the school reform movement does well by every child. Yet it is a shame to have to do any of this at all.
Because the movement cannot succeed in transforming American public education for all children if it doesn’t constantly welcome those from the poor and minority communities whose children are in most need of systemic reform. Because the movement cannot sustain its efforts through false gestures of diversity that those who are black and brown see through every time an event is held featuring not one of them. Because school reform cannot help all kids succeed without considering the perspectives of the men and women who come from those very same neighborhoods and know their stories. Because the movement loses credibility any time it engages in the kind of deficit thinking that pervades those on the traditionalist side. And because diversity is what a moral movement does, how a moral movement lives, and how it succeeds for our children.
The EdNext episode should be a wake-up call to every reformer about the importance of including all voices, including those black and brown, in the movement. We shouldn’t even be having this discussion.