Inside Higher Ed has an article today by Prof. Thomas Espenshade of Princeton and Alexandra Radford, a research associate in postsecondary education with MPR Associates Inc. in Washington, calling for “a new Marshall Plan” to study and address the persistence of large racial achievement gaps.
They note, for starters, that
[c]ompared to white applicants at selective private colleges and universities, black applicants receive an admission boost that is equivalent to 310 SAT points, measured on an all-other-things-equal basis. The boost for Hispanic candidates is equal on average to 130 SAT points. Asian applicants face a 140 point SAT disadvantage.
And thus, not surprisingly, that
[d]oing away with racial preferences for underrepresented minority students would substantially reduce the number of such students at selective colleges.
They emphasize, however, that
debating the relative merits of affirmative action deflects attention away from something much more fundamental — America’s racial gap in academic achievement. Fixing the achievement gap would obviate the need for affirmative action to create racially diverse campuses.
“The challenge facing all Americans,” they conclude, “is to identify the factors responsible for the racial academic achievement gap and close this gap as soon as possible.”
the equivalent of a Manhattan Project for the social and behavioral sciences — a project with the same scale, urgency, and sense of importance as the original Manhattan Project. Its aims should be twofold: (1) to identify the causes and cumulative consequences of racial gaps in academic achievement and (2) to develop concrete steps that can be taken by parents, schools, neighborhoods, and the public sector all working together to close these gaps on a nationwide scale.
Their analysis of the problem is both familiar and largely persuasive; their solution, however, strikes me as little more than a full employment policy for social scientists. Our problem is not a lack of knowledge about the problem. It is that we lack either the ability or the will to devise policies based on what we already know. We already know, for example, that being born into a single parent home starts kids off behind the eight ball, but we have no idea how to prevent the high percentage of black children born to unwed mothers (over 80% in Indiana, to pick an example).
You don’t need a new Manhattan Project to see that children who grow up without the benefit of two parents are at an enormous disadvantage. As Roger Clegg has commented on the Espenshade argument,
Earlier this year, the National Center for Health Statistics came out with its latest numbers on illegitimacy (final data for 2006). By population subgroup, the percentage of children born out of wedlock is 70.7 percent for non-Hispanic blacks, 64.6 percent for American Indians/Alaska Natives, 49.9 percent for Hispanics, 26.6 percent for non-Hispanic whites, and 16.5 percent for Asians/Pacific Islanders. Notice any connection between those numbers and how academically competitive the members of the group are likely to be come college admissions time?
The fact is that kids who grow up in two-parent homes are much more likely to get the support and help they need to perform well academically. Conversely, illegitimacy correlates with just about any social problem you can name (poverty, crime, dropping out of school, substance abuse, etc.), and it — not discrimination — is the principal cause of racial disparities in all these areas. See my National Review Online column here.
George Leef made essentially the same point.
[Espenshade’s and Walton’s] eagerness to associate academic success or failure with ancestry (Asian kids do very well while black and Hispanic kids do poorly) was striking. That kind of thinking is not useful. Students from families of Asian ancestry don’t do well because of their Asian-ness; they do well because of values imparted in the home. (Similarly, Jewish students didn’t do exceptionally well because of ancestry or religion, but because of their values.) Nor does ancestry explain the relatively poor educational fortunes of black and Hispanic students….
I don’t see how the proposed “Manhattan Project” would tell us much that isn’t already obvious: Early family influence is overwhelmingly important to a child’s educational path. Nor can I see that there is any solution to the problem of broken homes and bad parenting….
In my view Leef may discount culture (“Asian-ness,” etc.) too much. Consider, for example, the far-reaching implications of these findings of a study of why Asian-American students do better on math tests than white students:
It is widely noted that Asian Americans outperform students from other race- ethnic backgrounds in mathematics and sciences. Asian American students consistently achieve higher scores on standardized tests of mathematics ability, have higher grade point averages, and attend colleges at higher rates than do students of other races…. Even those Asian American students with disadvantaged backgrounds, such as new immigrant students with limited English proficiency and a low socioeconomic status, frequently contradict expectations and have high academic achievement….
Asian American parents are more actively involved in their children’s academic studies. They are also more likely to communicate with teachers and invest more aggressively in their children’s education….
Research has consistently shown that Asian American students spend considerably more time in academic related activities than white American students….
Previous studies (Mau 1997) indicated that Asian American students spent significantly more time on homework than white American students….
Or this one:
Using the base year data of parent interviews (n=15,376) conducted by the U. S. Department of Education for the national Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS-K), this study examined patterns of parenting style of Asian-American parents (n=536) in six domains. Descriptive and ANOVA analyses revealed significant differences between Asian-American parents and parents in European-American, African-American, and Hispanic groups in their expectations of child’s education attainment and expression of affection to children. More similarities than differences among the four ethnic groups were found in parental attitudes towards child’s areas of development in kindergarten, parental school involvement, parental involvement with child at home, and parent disciplinary style. The Asian-American parents were further divided into three subgroups to examine possible with-in group differences. The three groups were: (1) Two parents, both parents are Asian-American (n=343), (2) Asian-American single parents (n=45), and (3) two parents with one parent being Asian-American (n=31). Results showed that although the three subgroups of parents differ in social economical status and education level, there were very few significant differences in all six domains of parenting across these three subgroups. This finding suggests that Asian parenting style is prominent in families as long as one parent is Asian-American.
It seems to me, in short, that Leef discounts the educational effects of “Asian-ness,” whatever it is, too much.