Identify Causes of Poor Performance Before Blaming Racism


A version of this article will appear in the May 12 print edition of The Gainesville Sun.

Racial inequality is all the rage in Alachua County because it’s the latest excuse for government to increase spending with no accountability. Last month’s town hall meeting highlighted some statistics from the Racial Inequity Report, which included differences in income, unemployment, and home ownership. Since educational attainment is highly correlated with all of these, education seems the best place to start looking for a solution to racial inequity.

Sadly, the people pushing the agenda seem to confuse correlation with causation. If we did the same simplistic analysis that claims racism causes a difference in scores between blacks and whites, we’d have to conclude that the school lunch program causes lower performance. 

The disparity between white and black students who score “satisfactory” or above (L3+) on the Florida Standards Assessment (FSA) is about 16 percentage points larger in Alachua County than state-wide in science, English language arts (ELA), and math. The good news is that half of the gap is the result of white students in Alachua County outperforming whites across the state (e.g. 72% vs 64% score L3+ in ELA). Also, for all three subjects, the gap between white and mixed-race students is much smaller than between whites and blacks, and the gap between white and economically-disadvantaged students is closer to the white-black gap. This suggests that being economically disadvantaged has a greater impact on poor performance than race. If the white-black gap is caused by racism, it’s highly unlikely that mixed-race students would fare better than black students. (These relationships also hold for graduation rates.)

The performance gap is not caused by minority status. At Eastside High School, 51% of students are black, and black performance on the FSAs is worse than the county level: an abysmal 18% score L3 or better in math and ELA.

Racial inequity in out-of-school suspensions is another big issue because this punishment is given to nearly four times as many black students as white students. To say this is caused by racism would be equivalent to saying that sexism is to blame for the fact that out-of-school suspensions are given to twice as many boys as girls. (A bigger issue for anyone looking at the data is why Alachua County Public Schools (ACPS) only reports one type of disciplinary action when the state lists 12 categories.)

ACPS bragged that it reduced inequity by reducing the number of out-of-school suspensions. When The Independent Alligator asked whether this was caused by an improvement in student behavior or by a policy of not enforcing punishment, ACPS officials were silent. (I warned of the temptation to cook the books on equity metrics when ACPS released its equity plan last year.)

Throwing money at the problem isn’t the solution. The Heritage Foundation reported that D.C. public schools spend roughly double the national average per student, yet their 8th graders score 16 points below the national average in math and 19 points below in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Allowing the system to define success using its own metrics is also dangerous: D.C. schools were initially praised for a dramatic decline in suspensions and a sharp increase in graduation rates, but both claims were reported to be fraudulent by The Washington Post and NPR. 

Competition and choice are perhaps the best ways to improve outcomes for black students. Unfortunately, this only helps those students and families who choose to take advantage of it. The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program is a school voucher program for low-income families. The graduation rate for students who used it was 21 percentage points higher than for students who were awarded a voucher but didn’t use it. Since many of these students were of the same race and economic background, understanding the reasons for the families’ choices may point to factors other than race that affect student outcomes.

Similarly, ACPS should look at performance disparities within groups before blaming differences between groups on easily observable (and immutable) factors like race. What’s different between the 18% of black students who score L3+ at Eastside and the 82% who are “below satisfactory?” Why is the achievement gap smaller for mixed-race students than for black students? Answering these questions may lead to improving education for all low-performing students, regardless of race, and is a better approach than simply spending more money or focusing on school-controlled metrics.

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