Posted on June 24, 2016

We Wouldn’t Need Affirmative Action If K-12 Schools Actually Worked

Shepard Barbash, Federalist, June 24, 2016

The Supreme Court’s four-to-three decision in Fisher v. University of Texas to uphold the school’s affirmative action policies is not likely to help African Americans much. That’s because the fight over whether racial preferences in university admissions are constitutional is more about how to treat all students fairly than how to help the millions most hurt by bad schools, bad luck, and prejudice. The Constitution is silent on this graver question.

If the noblest goal of affirmative action is to reduce the disparity of fortune between the races, that effort has clearly fallen short. The gap in college completion rates between whites and blacks aged 25 to 29 grew nearly six-fold between 1930 and 2013, data from the federal Digest of Education Statistics show. Indeed it has widened even during the affirmative-action era. From 1996 to 2007, the percentage of white students completing degrees within six years of graduating high school grew 4.8 percent (to 43 percent); for blacks the rate grew just 1.9 percent (to 20.8 percent).

This growing disparity correlates with growing differences in academic achievement. The percentage of whites aged 17 who scored 300 or higher on the National Assessment of Educational Progress grew from 45 percent in 1988 to 47 percent in 2012. It declined during that period for blacks, from 25 to 22 percent. Students scoring 300 or higher on NAEP are able to find, understand, and explain complex informational material–skills essential to succeed in college.

The black-white achievement and graduation gaps relate in turn to differences in poverty rates. One in four blacks lives in poverty, versus one in ten whites, according to the U.S. Census.

If the surest road to prosperity leads through college, and if decades of affirmative action policies have failed to make the traffic on that road any less white, do we not owe slavery’s heirs something more–something beyond the wishful thinking of universities and the fatalism of late Justice Antonin Scalia’s truism that black students should go where they are best qualified to go? Do we not owe them a searching analysis of the roadblocks to academic achievement and how to eliminate them?

Consider three landmark studies. The first, the billion-dollar federal Follow Through project from the 1970s, tracked more than 75,000 students in kindergarten through third grade in what remains the largest, most careful experiment ever to compare the effectiveness of different approaches to teach poor children. Twenty-two model designers participated. All 22 could point to places that showed promising results with their models. Twenty-one failed to replicate their success at scale. All twenty-one suffered the same problem–the inability to provide effective teacher training. Models teachers had created fared worst.

The second study, published in 1988 by psychologist Galen Alessi, reviewed the cases of 5,000 students who were evaluated by school psychologists to determine why they were doing poorly in class. All 5,000 evaluations attributed the student’s problems to deficiencies in the child or child’s family. Not one linked the student’s problems to faulty teaching or curricula.

Follow Through showed two things: most teachers don’t know how to design instruction that works for poor kids, and most curriculum writers don’t know how to design programs that work for teachers. Alessi showed how educators respond to these failures: they blame the victim. Policymakers unaware of these problems are unlikely to figure out how to fix them.

The third study helps explain the findings of the first two. In their 1995 book, “Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children,” researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley quantified a language deficit in children from welfare families so vast that it’s hard to conceive how teachers might overcome it. By age three, the authors found, children of parents who were professionals had heard, on average, more than 8 million more words than children from welfare families. The kids themselves had spoken more than 4 million more words than the welfare children.

The oral vocabularies of the professional-family kids exceeded those not just of the children, but of the parents of the welfare families. This language gap has grim consequences: follow-up studies showed it correlates closely with large deficits in vocabulary and reading ability at age nine–which, in turn, correlate with large deficits in the reading ability and prosperity of adults.


The evidence is clear: well-designed instruction, delivered by well-managed schools, is the only proven way to narrow the achievement gap. Adversaries in the fight over university admission policies should fight harder to fix K-12 education instead, so that the policies they’re fighting over become unnecessary.