What Obama Hasn't Figured Out Yet: "Better Teachers" Means "_____er Teachers"
Print Friendly and PDF

These days, everybody is in favor of having Better Teachers in our public schools: Barack Obama, Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, the whole gang. Everybody is in favor of hiring Better Teachers and easing out Worse Teachers.

Heck, I'm in favor of Better Teachers.

But guess what Obama et al haven't figured out yet about Better Teachers? It's something that James S. Coleman discovered in working on his 1966 Coleman Report.

I'm reading Race and Education: 1954-2007 by U. of Delaware historian Raymond Wolters. It's an academic study that's well-written enough to appeal to a mass audience. It's unusual in that it covers both the well-trodden ground of Supreme Court decisions about race and public schools, from Brown v. Board of Education onward, while at the same time recounting exactly the unintended consequences of what those august deliberations did to real children in the classrooms and hallways and lavatories.

A major figure in the book is quantitative sociologist James S. Coleman, who was given $1 million by the 1964 Civil Rights Act to study how much blacks were shortchanged by the public schools. But his 1966 Coleman report proved disappointing to LBJ Administration. Wolters writes:

The achievement gap troubled Coleman. As a sociologist he was inclined to ascribe the differences in black and white test scores to the influence of the social environment, and he also knew that attributing even part of the difference to racial inheritance would place him outside the pale of his profession and render him ineligible for future grants. For Coleman and for many other educators and sociologist who studied his report, the key variables were family background and neighborhood. There was no correlation between test scores and per-pupil spending, age of textbooks, and a host of other measures. But there was a correlation with family background, the education and occupations of parents, and the number of books in the home. ...

For Coleman, these findings were unwelcome. Personally, he favored more spending for education. And Coleman's dismay was compounded by another correlation that emerged from the data. Both black and white children seemed to do better on tests if their teachers had one well on a standard test of vocabulary. This was especially problematical because black teachers were "on the whole less well prepared, less qualified, with lower verbal skills, than their white counterparts." This led to "the conjecture that [students] would do less well on average under black teachers than under white teachers." If so, "a major source of inequality of educational opportunity for black students was the fact they were being taught by black teachers." Yet this possibility was so heterodox that the Coleman report did not pursue the matter. In 1991 Coleman expressed regret over the decision "not to ask the crucial question." "A dispassionate researcher," he wrote, "would have gone on to ask the question we did not ask." ...

Poring over the statistics, he noted that African American teachers, on average, had slightly more years of formal education than their white counterparts. But the black teachers lagged behind whites in vocabulary and reading comprehension.

In other words, what Obama hasn't figured out yet, although James S. Coleman figured it out back in 1966, is that Better Teachers means Whiter Teachers.

When it finally dawns on Obama that if we actually start firing worse teachers and hiring better teachers, we'll be, on net, firing blacks and hiring whites, you can expect this whole effort to get buried so far under affirmative action that nothing good comes of it.

Print Friendly and PDF