Anti-Union, Booker T. Washington, Closing the Achievement Gap, Corporatized Education Reform, Crisis in Education, Education Reform, Eugenicists, Eugenics Movement, Frederick Hoffman, High-Stakes Testing, Jewish Question, Negro Problem, Parallels, Private Foundations, Teacher Effectiveness, Teachers Unions, Technocrats, W. E. B. Du Bois
What do these three disparate phrases have in common? This came up during my recent lunch with my friend Andrew at Lebanese Taverna a little more than a week ago. Among other things, we were lamenting the dominant theme of education reform as union-busting and the supplanting of teachers with high-stakes tests and Teach for America substitutes.
As we discussed Andrew’s second book on the 1990s culture wars and their roots in the 1960s conservative movement, it occurred to me that what both of us have thought of as recent or new really wasn’t. The efforts over the past decade to “close the achievement gap,” an actual problem really, are based in the nineteen and twentieth-century eugenics movement more than it is in a real sincere effort to confront the barriers to high academic achievement for students in poverty and for students of color.
“How does it feel to be a problem?,” W. E. B. Du Bois asked numerous times and wrote in numerous ways in his The Souls of Black Folk (1903). The Negro problem for White scholars and politicians at the turn of the twentieth century varied from Frederick Hoffman’s 1896 statistical eugenics argument that predicted the “extinction of the Negro” to the much more common struggle of how to educate the Negro (but not educate them too well). Hoffman’s White supremacy argument was a bit outside the mainstream even for his Whites-are-always-right era. The more mainstream problem of Negro education became one of “practical” vocational (or, as it was called at the time, industrial) education as advocated by accommodationist Booker T. Washington versus Du Bois’ higher education and leadership preparation for the Black Talented Tenth.
We’re here again, in the early twenty-first century, with the technocrats in government and White paternalists in the private foundation world sounding the alarm that there’s an achievement gap between the affluent and the poor, as well as between Whites, Blacks and Latinos. Except that this achievement gap’s been around for a half-century. Except that the biggest single factor in raising student achievement rates is family income and occupation(s), not more testing or a theory of change to assess teacher effectiveness. Except that schools in the districts in which the achievement gap is the most obvious — segregated, mostly poor and of color — are underfunded when accounting for inflation and other factors (e.g., age of school buildings, teacher-student ratios).
So too with the “Jewish question” in comparison to this crisis in education. One of the worst kept secrets in the first half of the twentieth century was that the Jewish question wasn’t just a Nazi German one, but an American one as well. The real Jewish question for American educators was how to explain Jewish overrepresentation as high achievers in public education and as the best and brightest in higher education. That despite the work of eugenicists — the technocrats of their day — to tweak IQ tests and entrance tests in favor of affluent White Anglo-Saxon Protestants.
They couldn’t answer their Jewish question in higher education, except to limit the number of Jews accepted in elite institutions like Harvard, Yale and Princeton (in the latter case, to the point of exclusion). But we know how Nazi Germans decided to address their Jewish question — exclusion, discrimination, persecution, and the Final Solution. All to the detriment of advanced science and technology programs, not to mention the German economy. Vast resources went to a deadly and ultimately useless cause, all in the name of racial purity and betterment for “Nordic Aryans.”
In a very limited sense, the same is occurring with the education reform movement these days. Educators and politicians all pulling billions of dollars that could otherwise go to free breakfast and lunch programs, psychological services, physical education and arts programs for an eugenics-light agenda. No one from this movement has suggested a final solution as such, but they do believe that teachers unions, bad teachers and not enough STEM programs are the problem. Note that though the goal here is to “close the achievement gap,” the actual things that occur at schools in which most of the high-achieving Whites and Asian Americans (many of whom attend private and parochial schools) aren’t on the table at all.
Ultimately, the problem with the fear-mongering crowd on the “problem,” the “question” and the “gap” is that their perspective is one of the all-knowing, all-seeing White paternalist. One whose ideas about a situation or a group comes out of thin air, in some strange attempt to help said situation or group. In the case of today’s version of education reform, the only end-game is to destroy public education while exacting a profit in the process. Closing the achievement gap? Yeah, if “closing the gap” is defined by closing schools, killing unions and leaving most of America’s poor and of color students with no alternative for a better future.