I recently suggested that our secretary of education, Arne Duncan, had his brain hacked by enemies of the United States. As proof I offered his bizarre reaction to a report recounting racial discrepancies in school discipline. I argued, for example, that forcibly equalizing discipline across racial lines would devastate racially mixed schools, with the biggest losers being decent African-American students, who typically lack a safer school option.
The capturing of brains may be worse than I initially suspected. A PBS Newshour show also took up how blacks were being disproportionally punished. The host (Jeffrey Brown) interviewed two distinguished educators. Christopher Edley is dean of Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law and co-chair of the U.S. Department of Education’s Equity and Excellence Commission, and Chester Finn is the president of the Fordham Institute, a well-regarded conservative think-tank that covers K-12 education (Finn also served in the Reagan administration).
Let me summarize how these experts, including a bona-fide conservative, view racial discrepancies in school discipline.
Taking a “civil rights perspective,” Dean Edley implied that where there is smoke, there’s fire — these statistics reflect racial discrimination. More important, these gaps suggest that “we are not providing equal educational opportunity.” After all, if schools cannot eliminate disorder, how can they impart knowledge to all students? And, Dean Edley continues, by kicking out students, we are pushing them away from academic commitment. We need alternatives to discipline — for example, training teachers in classroom management and interventions, plus upgraded skills to understand the lives of unruly students. Civil rights means developing school interventions to eliminate both violence and academic inadequacy.
Perhaps only in today’s PC-dominated academy does a dean of a Law School reflexively equate plain-to-see divergence in behavior with difficult-to-prove accusations of discrimination. Dean Edley surely knows that blacks are more likely than whites to be convicted of criminal offenses and that this gap cannot be blamed on “discrimination.” And why should frequent expulsions signify a school’s academic insufficiency? This is a mind-boggling non sequitur, given that there is nothing in these data about academic performance. Tough discipline can just as easily be taken as proof of academic commitment. If schools let up on blacks to equalize suspensions, would students suddenly become smarter or more industrious? Kicking out troublemakers would improve overall academic achievement. To be impolite, the stupidity of Edley’s “logic” is breathtaking — and from a distinguished Berkeley professor, no less.
Chester Finn begins on a reasonable note — racism is not necessarily the cause of this gap, and it would be a mistake to keep a disruptive student in class. Moreover, he adds, some of this discrepancy may reflect excessive enforcement of a zero-tolerance policy. But, this reasonableness soon ends, and what began as school discipline problem quickly becomes a “let’s fix society” enterprise (unequal punishment reflects “larger societal issues”). So to eradicate school misbehavior, we must fix troubled families, even troubled neighborhoods — and, for good measure, repair America’s criminal justice system. In other words, Finn is a self-defined conservative happy to launch a new Great Society so as to eliminate statistical discrepancies whose meaning is uncertain.
Neither expert even raises the possibility that unequal outcomes might be justified and therefore not a problem requiring budget-busting attention. Both unconsciously embrace the radical egalitarian agenda. Nor do Edley and Finn broach the possibility that keeping kids in school who don’t want to be there explains their disruptive behavior, and allowing legal, peaceable exits would instantly reduce suspensions and expulsions. Nor do they acknowledge that a few troublemakers can “infect” scores of other students, so better to get rid of the ringleaders before matters deteriorate.
Unfortunately, this nonsensical thinking is hardly the worst example. Deborah J. Vagins, senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington legislative office, interpreted these same unequal disciplinary data to show that troublesome black and disabled students are being “pushed out of school,” often into a life of crime. It never occurs to the ACLU expert that retention at all costs “teaches” the miscreant that bad behavior goes unpunished and may thereby promote future criminality. Students don’t deserve punishment; school administrators just “push them out” into a life of crime. No wonder such students are often called “at risk” — they are “at risk” from being pushed out the school door.
The existence of radical egalitarianism is hardly surprising. What does one expect from NPR or the ACLU? What draws our ire is, scant exceptions aside, the smothering nature of this ideology. Even a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed by an editorial board member on this subject left the underlying “gaps-are-bad” framework unchallenged. The existence of unequal punishment was instead used to justify the need for “more school choice,” as if school choice has anything to do with racial differences in punishment (actually, school choice would permit miscreants to travel from school to school, systematically destroying the entire system).
Today’s civil rights agenda would obviously be unrecognizable to those who fought the earlier battles for equal resources and then, beginning in the 1960s, school integration. Both goals have generally been achieved to the extent practically possible. But today’s civil rights champions just refuse to stop pursuing “civil rights,” even if this pursuit harms blacks (and equalizing discipline is injurious). Something is deeply wrong when supposed friends of African-Americans sacrifice them to an egalitarian fantasy, but I’ll leave that foible for another occasion.
To be fair, I cannot statistically document the extent to which pernicious radical egalitarianism has penetrated the brains of our nation’s leaders (including self-described conservatives). Though this particular “gap” study was done by the Civil Rights division of the Department of Education, the Obama Department of Justice has waged a similar campaign (see here). And the gaps-are-bad mentality is undoubtedly the sacred orthodoxy in schools of education and elsewhere in today’s education establishment. That barely anyone, including “conservatives,” seems alarmed by the attack is perhaps its most distressing feature. We have made ourselves defenseless.