The Folly of Measuring Character by Race

Marc Fisher, Washington Post, April 10, 2008

What would drive one of the nation’s most successful and respected school systems to report which racial and ethnic groups demonstrate the soundest moral character and ethical judgment? How did the Fairfax County schools come to put out statistics claiming that black and Hispanic students are less likely than their white and Asian peers to “possess the skills to manage and resolve conflict”?

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Two years ago, Fairfax, like a growing number of school systems across the country, decided to make “essential life skills” as much a goal as academics. The school board decreed that by the end of high school, “All students will demonstrate the aptitude, attitude and skills to lead responsible, fulfilling and respectful lives.”

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Administrators, principals and teachers calculated how to determine which students “demonstrate sound moral character” and “courageously identify and pursue their personal goals,” and which don’t.

Then, as if that weren’t difficult and subjective enough, the educators decided to collect data, chop it up by racial and ethnic groups, and digest it into a nifty little scorecard with explosive nuggets like this: Third-grade students who scored “good” or better on work habits “ranged from a low near 80 percent for Black and Special Education students to about 95 percent for Asian and white students.”

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Fairfax School Board member Tina Hone walked off the dais after the data were reported two weeks ago. Today, she hopes to persuade a majority of her colleagues to reject the report and tell the system to go back to the drawing board.

“I agree that our role, especially for kids caught on the wrong side of the tracks, is to fill in gaps left in the home,” Hone says. “What I don’t think is wise is reporting data by race on having good character. If there’s ever a place where teaching to everybody will raise all ships, it’s in teaching character. We should be teaching fair play and a moral compass to every child.”

Fairfax’s measurements of moral character look crisply quantitative on paper, but read behind the numbers and you see scores built on a foundation of nonsense: Number of F’s based on attendance; number of discipline referrals issued; teacher observations; surveys students fill out about their life skills—a load of data, signifying . . . what?

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But in Fairfax, and in schools across the land, the instinct—no, the compulsion—is to amass data points and “disaggregate,” ed-lingo for looking at children not as individuals but as members of a group. The move to quantify grows from a religious devotion to test scores, a faith that the shaping of a mind can be mapped like a cancer cell and expressed as a number. And the resort to race stems from the balkanization of society, the self-destructive notion that we are a collection of groups rather than a nation of individuals who believe what it says on the coins in your pocket: e pluribus unum—out of many, one.

“The superintendent told me that the reason they broke it down by race was that two years ago, the board decided to report all data by race,” Hone says. “That was part of the No Child Left Behind frenzy. This is a classic case of a pendulum overswing.”

Hone believes that as long as the achievement gap that divides the races persists, it’s important to break out test scores by race. Otherwise, the failure to push underachieving students up to par might be hidden beneath overall strong numbers in a system such as Fairfax’s.

But discerning right from wrong goes to the intimate core of the relationship between student and teacher, Hone says. It’s just not something that you can reduce to a number. “This is on the teachers,” she says. “It’s not a problem of one group of kids. If I as a teacher saw a kid being left out because they were a nerd or fat, it was my job to figure out how to get that child together with the others.”

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[Editor’s Note: Previous stories on the Fairfax County “moral charater” study can be read here and here.]

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