The New Alchemy of “Informational Diversity”

Diversity, Katherine W. Phillips writes in Scientific American, is both harder to achieve in science and engineering workplaces than we might hope, and a more worthwhile goal if innovation and new ideas are our aims.  At first glance that argument seems like it would bring some criticality and some urgency to the correction of racial, gender and other forms of discrimination in places of STEM employment. Alas. I think Phillips while trying to support more inclusive practices in science and engineering is actually marshaling some newly subtle means for keeping the social relations of STEM pretty much just as they are.

The basic findings she offers, based on her study of decades of others’ diversity research and some of her own, combine familiar and novel claims about diversity. First, a familiar claim: People of differing backgrounds have different ideas about what should be done in scientific and technical settings, which in turn fuels innovation.  And here, a less familiar one: When we are in dialog with people of  backgrounds that differ from our own we listen more acutely to their points, expecting those ideas to differ from our own. Thus we are more open to new concepts, more diligent in inspecting that incoming information than when in a “homogeneous” setting. We are “jolted into action” by the expectation of intellectual dissonance. The social conflict and discomfort often associated with efforts at social diversity thus have “an upside,” as Phillips puts it, because these feelings put us on our inventive mettle. Voila! Even more innovation!

This concept of “informational diversity” practically sings with meritocratic promise, converting discomfort to democracy, fear to productivity. I find it troubling in many ways.  Among the many selective denials of power and oppression operating here, let me just take on the most basic: the very perception that one is facing a person of “differing background” involves a raft of presumptions.  It involves reproducing ideas of what counts as difference, and operating from the idea that demarcations in skin tone or national origin or economic status are in all instances indicative of unique life experiences.  It also presupposes that we know what we are seeing: That a person’s meaningful identifications are visible and known to us.  I’m not just talking about so-called invisible disabilities and the immense presumptions we make every day about one another’s sexualities (both unto themselves huge factors); I’m talking about a huge range of personal circumstances, both advantaging and disadvantaging, that are not knowable through any external expression.

What’s more, while tremendous privileges and penalties inhere in different identifying characteristics there is little determinacy to life experiences associated with such characteristics.  To  presume that “difference” is there is to reify one’s own sense of what matters about the person one is encountering, ironically closing off any real consideration of how privilege and penalty might be operating in that moment, in that institution, or crucially, as residuals of one’s own ascribed identity.

And in that consoling sense of knowing “who” we are looking at and what matters about them, we generate and regenerate delineations of races, ages, physical and intellectual abilities, and other familiar taxonomies that keep our entire social system (including the hierarchies of opportunity in STEM education and work) ticking over.  Make no mistake: to deny the social instrumentalities of race, gender, sexuality or ability in 2015 would be just as bad, enacting a willfully naive worldview that terrifies whether in the hands of either right or left. Rather we need to think more about our presumptions of difference than Phillips’ analysis suggests; we need to grapple with our starting points for the project of “diversification.”

Diversity isn’t merely harder than we might presume, as Phillips writes; it is in fact much harder, with inequity and injustice supported by much more complex and self-justifying logics than her interpretation here acknowledges.  For example, as Patrick Grzanka makes beautifully clear in his book on intersectional scholarship, the inequality that characterizes so much of our culture  “is not based in identity; but rather inequalities produce social identities.” Think about the way that “racist, xenophobic, immigration laws produce ‘aliens,’ ‘illegals’ and ‘noncitizens’” as he suggests, and you can start to see how seemingly positive attributions (“here is a black person with a new idea,” “here is a successful company with a female CEO”) don’t solve the problem. Those formulations can help sustain essentialist concepts about human difference that ground discriminatory social structures, converting systems of oppression to mere methods of distinction in our minds.

The idea that we “listen differently” to those we expect to have different life experiences than our own does nothing so much as prove that we operate from stereotypes.  And while it may be a new research finding, it operates on somewhat stale ideas of the nature of identity. No surprise, perhaps, because it serves deeply uncritical ideas of what counts as innovation. These are all ideas about optimized social relations within a very particular setting: The corporate society in which ideas about science and technology seem worthwhile when they reproduce the labor, environmental, geopolitical and other societal arrangements in which corporate interests thrive. (Note the many statistics Phillips offers about companies which have done well fiscally through the hiring of women and minorities.) Avery Gordon laid out this power-conserving feature of corporate diversity efforts some time ago, and Sara Ahmed adds much to our understanding as well, as I hope does my own work linking STEM rigor and selectivity. But this criticality, unsurprisingly, does not find its way into the institutions whose larger distributions of privilege it might threaten.

Think about Phillips’ findings in that context of institutional self-preservation and the reassuring image of perceived differences serving either authentic intellectual risk or radical expansions of social opportunity dissolves. More women and minorities may be hired if more employers take up the notion that “diversity makes us smarter,” but that tells us little about the experiences of thus-labeled persons within workplaces, and I actually think ideas of biological and cultural difference are not challenged here in a way that will bring wide or sustainable change even within STEM sectors. On a more global level, too, we should ask how those marginalized persons without access to education or work will be further marked and disadvantaged by this version of democracy.

I wish I was confident that diversity programming was indeed a kind of alchemy: that the conversion of interpersonal hostility and suspicion to productive intellectual labor described by Phillips held implications for a more equitable society. But I’m not, because the problem of discrimination here is bounded in a way which makes a solution possible. It is a solution which preserves larger discriminatory functions for identity in our culture. Phillips’ vision serves the decades-old claim of American corporate diversity that innovation arises from having someone of minority background in the room.  I think, though, that not much will really change until everybody decides there is a world beyond that room.

LGBTQ Inclusion in STEM: Timidity Won’t Work

The line between “freedom of speech” on one hand, and the dissemination of hate speech on the other,  vexes everyone who thinks about diversity in a democratic society, or at least it should. How do we protect 1st Amendment rights without also empowering those who want to broadcast bigoted or demeaning messages?

We don’t usually face the problem of drawing this line in our work for STEM diversity, a notably polite and measured arena of social exchange. For one thing, moments of gender, racial, age, LGBTQ, or (dis)ability-based discrimination are today commonly enacted without the use of epithets or overt derision in STEM classrooms and workplaces, and even (especially) those who are its direct objects are taught to question their impressions of bias rather than their instructors’ or bosses’ behaviors. That tentativeness shapes the way many of us study identity in STEM disciplines, as well.

Then when we do recognize it,  our responses to discrimination don’t often rise to the level of audible anger. We’ve developed the habit of seeking “respectful dialog” as mostly, we try to  redirect the thinking of those who traffic in bias and stereotyping; a constructive impulse, perhaps, but not always a way of speaking truth to power. It’s partly a matter of self-preservation, of course: Activism, anger, noise?…not the marks of the mature student, or professional educator or engineer.

But a funny thing happened on the way to diversity in engineering this morning…and I am newly worried about the quietness of our STEM diversity efforts,  about the sheer timidity of our discussions around difference and inclusion. And mostly: about our reluctance to censure powerfully those who traffic in hateful rhetoric.

Here’s why I think that avoidance of rigorous yet vigorous confrontation is doing us harm:

Several times a year, the American Society for Engineering Education produces a publication dedicated to STEM diversity. If you haven’t seen it: Prism routinely carries pieces on inclusive efforts in engineering pedagogy, and puts engaging and often thoughtful coverage of the topic in the hands of folks who might not otherwise have convenient access to such ideas.  Sure, it sometimes “celebrates difference” with an apolitical gloss, but it also weaves inclusion into the quotidian work of technical education…helping to naturalize and normalize engineers’ attention to privilege and disadvantage. Not a small thing.

But the September 2013 issue gives space to a profoundly disturbing counter message, as Donna Riley, an LGBTQ activist and associate professor of engineering at Smith College, has brought to my attention.  A published letter to the editor from Wayne Helmer, a professor of Mechanical Engineering at Arkansas Technical University,  reads as follows. Please take a minute to read the whole thing, to absorb the full meaning of Prism’s decision to publish this letter.

Is All Diversity Good?

As a member of ASEE for a number of years, I have been rather fascinated by recent diversity articles in Prism and on the website. These commentaries seem to suggest that diversity is to be strongly promoted in education: Any and all diversity is good and the therefore should be encouraged.

But is it? Is diversity in sexual preference good if:

    • -the behavior takes 5 to 15 years off of a person’s life expectancy?
    • -the behavior proliferates sexually transmitted diseases?
    • -the behavior promotes a sexually promiscuous lifestyle?
    • -the behavior is addictive and abusive?

We would do well to teach the truth about the homosexual/lesbian/bisexual/transgender lifestyle. These dear people caught up in this destructive way of life need true help and true hope and not encouragement or approval of a detrimental, negative lifestyle. They deserve better than that. This is not God’s plan for their lives.

Beyond the physical, their emotional and spiritual needs are just like ours: Their need for abundant life (emotional) and forgiveness of sins (spiritual) is only what Jesus Christ can give them [John 10:10, 3:16].  Only he can truly change lives and give people the healing and forgiveness and self-worth and significance that they [and we] all desire and need.

 And that is the truth all of us need to hear and proclaim and submit to.

–Wayne Helmer, P.E., PhD., Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Arkansas Tech University, Russellville, Ark.; at Prism-Magazine.org, September 2013

This, to me, is very close to a kind of hate speech (persons of LGBT identity are “abusive”? “destructive”? disease-transmitting?), and I think we need Prism to know that’s how it sounds to some of us.  Riley has written a letter to Prism’s editors in response to Helmer’s that dismantles his  construction of amoral and “dangerous” sexual identities,  challenging his categories of normalcy, health,  and virtue.  She shows, too, that his tone of unassailable devotion would make little sense to a great many religiously observant engineers.  I’m not sure Prism is going to publish it, but I share it here for its probing humor and vital point that Helmer’s view carries destructive and exclusionary messages to Prism’s readers:

 

Professor Wayne Helmer asks if LGBT engineers should be welcomed in the profession, expressing concern that “the behavior” is addictive, abusive, shortens life expectancy, and promotes disease and sexual promiscuity. I am not sure exactly which behaviors he means to implicate. CAD can certainly be addictive, especially with the emergence of next generation fab labs, but is it abusive? Is it spreadsheeting that promotes disease, or is he referring more broadly to any activity involving shared keyboards? I am pretty sure he’s right that those all night problem sets and marathon code-debugging sessions probably took years off my life. And I suppose heat transfer in open channel flow might have something to do with sexual promiscuity, but I’m still experimenting with noise and vibration.

 

The relevant behavior of LGBT engineers is our engineering behavior, which should be encouraged – no matter what couplings we have or how prurient minds imagine they might fit together.

I appreciate Professor Helmer’s concern for my soul as well as my body, but as a bisexual engineer who is also a practicing, self-affirming Presbyterian, I note that not all Christians believe as Professor Helmer does, and in fact national denominations including the Episcopal Church (US), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Church of Christ, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Friends General Conference, and my own Presbyterian Church (USA) have welcomed LGBT people as professional leaders in their local and national organizations. I hope engineering catches up quickly; we risk losing not only LGBT talent, but also our allies who won’t tolerate an intolerant profession.

–Donna Riley, Associate Professor of Engineering, Picker Engineering Program, Smith College

 

I couldn’t say it better than Riley.  So I’ll just try to make sure a few more people hear her say it.  I know I said that our politeness was not doing us any favors, but, thank you for listening. Now: Get mad.

…And Repeat: “Access” ≠ “Equity”

In the pursuit of more affordable higher ed for more Americans the idea of “direct assessment” strikes many as promising, as Paul Fain reports in “Beyond the Credit Hour,” on InsideHigherEd. This is a move to use  competency tests, rather than numbers of credit hours taken by students, as the measure of degree-program efficacy.

The Dept. of Education has just now expressed support for this shift to “competency based” programming, allowing federal approval for programs that embrace the new system.  It is a system that strongly  favors on-line instruction… Some associate degree programs, Fain writes, have put aside not just credit hours but also courses and professors altogether in order to maximize  such instructional “flexibility.”

I won’t rehearse our debates regarding on-line instruction, except to say that at the very least this is a shift that is predicated on self-paced learning and by definition it will best serve those who are able to achieve mastery without a tremendous amount of guidance or who are uninterested in community and collaboration…Welcome, neo-liberal learners!

And “competency,” you say? I’ll try not to get started on the gap between “assessment” and “accountability” in American higher ed.  Instead, I’ll stress some of the rhetorical work being done here to hide deeply entrenched educational inequities.

First, we have a troubling use of the term “affordable.”  No professors or courses? Self-guided learning? Hmm….Prices for these credentials will drop, yes, but only because the value of these products to their makers has also been reduced.  We have long known that in education, when costs to consumers drop we rarely find value being added elsewhere by producers.  There are no bargains in education, only savings. So let’s not encourage “affordability” to  become the next “diversity”: A reassuring incantation that replaces systemic critique.

Then, there’s also that idea that educational “flexibility” is necessarily somehow empowering to students.  That premise proceeds in this case from  a highly selective logic about technology, a logic that once again finds democratic potential in the ostensibly dematerialized features of the Internet…that decentralized, customized, always-available-go-at-your-own-pace-technology-of-the-people.

But think about the population most desperately in need of more affordable higher education in the United States.  Even if inexpensive options for high-speed, reliable connectivity pervaded every community in America and lap-tops came free with every fill-up (equally absurd scenarios at this point),  we are still talking about millions of people trying to continue their education in the face of long work days, child- and elder-care responsibilities, worsening health care for themselves and family members, and in many cases, backgrounds in weaker public school systems…clearly an uphill battle for many.  The choice to discard credit hours in favor of some other metric of learning may loosen traditional notions of when, where, and how higher education takes place. But so what?  If this fabulous new strategy won’t even acknowledge, let alone correct those profound structural impediments to the meaningful expansion of educational participation, is it really changing anything at all?

 

Romney’s Racial Taxonomy

I have no doubt that  racist inclinations underlie Mitt Romney’s claim this week that different “cultures” explain  Israeli prosperity and Palestinian poverty.  Essentialist characterizations of this kind, which depend on strategic denials of  history, arise from bigotry, full stop.  In the taxonomic universe Romney inhabits, positive labels, as that given here to seemingly industrious Israel,  are a necessary correlate of negative characterizations, such as the identification of a supposedly backward Palestine.  Critics of the model minority concept (which ascribes say, an innate talent and superior work ethic to Asian American students) make clear that  group-based praise and criticism both devolve onto dangerous and indefensible stereotypes.  Positive and negative labels together make for a destructive and self-perpetuating logic of difference.

But if you want to understand the truly insidious nature of Romney’s “gaffe,” read Peter S. Goodman’s excellent “Romney Just Played the Race Card”  on HuffingtonPost.

Those are Goodman’s scare quotes around “gaffe”, by the way.  Goodman believes (rightly to my mind) that Romney deliberately deployed some exquisitely calculated language to signal to his supporters that he’s on the same page with them regarding the inherent value of whiteness, or Jewishness, or both.

There is plenty of interesting analysis in that column, but I especially appreciate Goodman’s reference to the way that invocations of self-reliance and ingenuity support race-based explanations of success for many Americans. Brains and gumption lead to wealth, in the minds of those who wish  to ignore the social privileges that support educational and commercial opportunity  in the United States and other stratified societies.

I’ve blogged often about the ways that such invocations work to constrain STEM diversity, locating talent in individuals rather than social systems, even as they depend on group identities as units of analysis.  Goodman nails the seductive feel of that meritocratic narrative for privileged Americans, as well as its disingenuous collective sentiments about “even playing fields.”

Goodman has a keen eye for the busy instrumentality of racism, for the opportunism like Romney’s that layers hate upon fear upon hate.  Let’s  hope he keeps writing about the language and imagery fueling this presidential campaign.

 

Sharpen Those Pen Nibs, Lad! (Or: Gene Marks Feels Their Pain)

I wasn’t going to post anything about Gene Marks’ ridiculous Forbes column of the other day,  “If I were a poor black kid,” which told disadvantaged young people that if they study a lot and use lots and lots of technology, they will transcend the immense structural inequities that shape America today (oh wait, I think “immense structural inequities” might be my wording, not his…)

This was partly because I think Baratunde Thurston did a fine job in a CNN column puncturing Marks’ naïve and pompous “advice”…advice which basically could have come from the mouth of an industrialist talking to an office boy in a bad 19th century novel: “Work hard and keep your pen nibs sharpened, lad, and you’ll go far!”

But there is something so manipulative about Marks’ subsequent response to Thurston, so mistaken in its invocations of technology,  that I want to weigh in.

In his response, Marks repeats his original bullet points, each more reductive than the last, each denying the fact that kids in weak school systems can never achieve these goals simply by sheer force of will.

Here’s Marks’ advice, each “tip” followed by my thoughts:

  • “1. Study hard and get good grades.”  […In which Marks ignores the challenges faced by kids attending underfunded schools operating with huge classes and poor instructional materials, or living with overworked parents who need the kids’ help after school to care for siblings…]
  • “2. Use technology to help you get good grades.” [Ignoring the fact that many school systems can afford neither cutting edge technology nor the staff hours to maintain it and (this is crucial) to instruct students in its effective use; access is NOT inclusion, as Virginia Eubank’s book, Digital Dead End helps us see. Undergraduates need guidance in using Google Scholar; how would a middle- or high-schooler figure it out on her own as Marks’ original column suggests she do? That column shows the depth of his ignorance about how pupils learn to think critically and vet resources.]
  • “3. Apply to the best schools you can.” [Because to Marks, just believing in yourself apparently makes up for the challenges I just listed under “1” and “2”]
  • “4. Get help from a school’s guidance counselor.” [Because, as in the corporate world Marks inhabits, it is not what you know but who you know…? Does he really think the kids are actively avoiding services that are being offered to them?]

The brevity of each point is itself insulting, a gesture that condescends by simplifying.  So it is not surprising when we then read that Marks feels the kids’ pain:

  • “5. Learn a good skill. This is what I said in my blog. I said this wasn’t easy. It’s brutally hard. “

“Brutally hard”, Mr. Marks? Maybe that’s a clue that this is not about the kids’ lack of  discipline and fortitude.

As I’ve written before  in this blog, analyses like Marks’ put tremendous faith in existing systems of education and employment, with technology privileged as a cure-all.  Alongside such conservative logic,  his compassion rings false, to the last note of the response:

“Will any of these kids read what I wrote in Forbes? Probably not. I’m hoping that educators, bloggers and most importantly parents do. Because it will be very tough for any kid to do it alone.”

“Tough,” it certainly is, for many kids of color or low socioeconomic standing striving to find equitable educational opportunities in the United States.  Too bad Marks displays no historical or political perspective on what makes it so; he could start by looking at his own thinking on the problem,  I’m afraid.

Field STEM…Observations on Diversity in Birding

Birdwatching. Rock collecting. Stargazing. These science-centered field activities have lately taken on the label of “out of school experiences” for some STEM educators, and “outreach” for the clubs and organizations that sponsor them.  Here, Jesse Smith, Philadelphia-based writer and curator,  guest blogs, on the complex issue of inclusion in one “recreational” science:

Last weekend, birders, field guide writers, state and federal government employees, and representatives of various Audubon chapters and local ornithological societies gathered at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in Philadelphia in search of a way to increase minority participation in birdwatching. Focus on Diversity: Changing the Face of American Birding was a day full of good intentions…and missed opportunities.

Biologist and author John Robinson (Birding for Everyone: Encouraging People of Color to Become Birdwatchers) laid the statistical foundation for the group’s claims. Data from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forest Service surveys demonstrates the unsurprising fact that Hispanics, African-Americans, and Asian populations are not self-identifying as “birdwatchers” in numbers that reflect the racial makeup of the general population. Birdwatching, in other words, is a disproportionately white community. Indeed, the “average” birder (Robinson’s quotation marks) is a 50-year-old Caucasian female who earns more than $50,000 a year and lives in the South. Such data is not surprising: Multiple surveys reveal similarly low minority participation rates in outdoor and nature-related activities.

The most interesting discussion explored possible barriers to birding. Susan Bonfield, who oversees International Migratory Bird Day (an initiative that provides materials and assistance to more than 520 locations that host migratory bird programming), identified awareness as the largest barrier for Latino populations. In 2000, IMBD began producing Spanish-language materials at the request of participating sites, who noticed a rise in their local Spanish-speaking populations. The materials went used, however; when IMDB subsequently conducted a survey of 1,000 Latinos, they found that more than 90% were unaware of the opportunities present at their local natural sites. Other panelists cited as barriers the lack of birding mentors in minority communities, African-Americans’ associating forests with lynching, and local natural areas’ histories as sites of Ku Klux Klan activity.

As interesting as the barriers discussed were those things not identified as barriers. Panelists discussed socio-economic factors such as leisure time, mobility, access to natural areas, and financial resources; but rather than being impediments to birding, these were presented as obstacles true birders could overcome: One panelist shared the story of a group of young people in Philadelphia who would walk miles to birding sites. Others explained that expensive binoculars are unnecessary. And of course birds are prolific — from inner city Philadelphia to Tierra del Fuego. Birdwatching, then, is as an activity open to everyone, everywhere.
Missing from all of this was any reflexivity on the part of the birdwatching community. Indeed, any discussion of “barriers to birding” diverts attention away from the activity itself; such an approach assumes that problems lies not within birding, but outside it, either among the targeted audiences or in some intermediate zone between audience and activity. Doing so allowed birdwatchers to avoid questioning the competitive nature of their activity, of an achievement system based on the size of one’s “life list” (which can only grow with time and travel). Nobody becomes a towering figure in American birding as an expert in the birds of Philadelphia.

Participants also failed to examine the contexts through which they were exposing young people to birding and the natural world. A representative from the Fish and Wildlife Service’s regional office effused over Heinz Refuge’s success in connecting young people who had “run afoul of the law” with nature. These young people — many of them young, African-American men, according to the speaker — came to the refuge to fulfill community service requirements. Here, they worked with the maintenance crew (and not the education or scientific arms of the refuge). The head of maintenance successfully connected these young people to the refuge, instilling in them a sense of ownership. When they returned post-service, they didn’t come to see the refuge manager, she pointed out, but to see the head of maintenance. Throwing the refuge another bone, she remarked that these youngsters “appreciate the fact there’s a paved trail where they can feel somewhat safe because it is scary going out in the woods.” In other words, the refuge offers moral improvement not just via nature-at-large, but also by way of maintenance work and a short paved trail that is less threatening than the refuge’s miles of “natural” trails.

But so what, right? Not everyone will be (or wants to be) a birding authority. And connecting populations (all populations, representing many forms of diversity) with their environment is a worthy pursuit. But when this connection comes via birding — via an activity in which participants’ success may be limited by factors such as leisure time, mobility, access to natural areas, and financial resources — or by way of the community service as described above, the effort risks reinforcing the marginality of those targeted audiences. The birdwatching community can work to raise the percentages of minority birding enthusiasts, but it would do well to simultaneously address the status of those enthusiasts within the field to avoid repeating the same kinds of disparities it seeks to redress.

Of course, this would require a reflexivity that is unsurprisingly absent from most realms. Birders at the conference, I’m sure, would find any critique of this event a surprise, laden as it with the good intention of making more inclusive a pursuit that they unquestioningly value for both themselves and the greater world. They’re not actively avoiding reflection. They may even be open to such criticality, should it be presented to them. Pursuits that deal with issues of diversity (and, though unexplored in this post, the environment and conservation), obviously have a place for this kind of thinking; the trick is in getting it in there.  –Jesse Smith

Our Town: “Equity” in Lower Merion

I am privileged to live in a district with superb public schools. But, despite its proximity to some of the most affluent suburbs of Philadelphia and access to significant tax revenues,  this is also a school system, like so many others in the nation,  with a documented achievement gap between African American students and those of other backgrounds.  A group of parents who find that gap unacceptable and believe it to be a product of systematic discrimination have brought a lawsuit against the district.  (A request for a class action lawsuit ended with a judge’s denial in 2009, but a suit brought by eight families now moves ahead.)  These families and their supporters joined to form the non-profit Concerned Black Parents (CBP).

Things have improved in recent years, but the gap persists, according to CBP. Troubling patterns  remain:  Some African American students in the middle- and high schools of Lower Merion School District (LMSD) are finding themselves tracked into special education classes when they don’t need those interventions,  while too few black students are being enrolled in the advanced classes that would serve them well.  Disproportionately low percentages of black students in LMSD attend college.   Among those black LMSD students who do pursue post-secondary education, disproportionately high numbers head towards community colleges rather than four-year programs.  CBP also points out in a recent statement that:

…African Americans graduate from Lower Merion (too many through social promotions and special education) and go onto college only to face the prerequisite condition that they pass remediation courses for which they do not accumulate college credit.
* African American students also have a huge SAT score gap and a Grade Point Average gap, which stunts their acceptance to the schools their peers gain admission to.
* African American girls are outperforming African American boys. Ask why!

–Concerned Black Parents, Sept. 6,2011

Folks on both sides of the debate agree that a number of tireless and inventive LMSD teachers and administrators have worked hard to redress racial and other forms of discrimination in the district. Nearly everyone acknowledges welcome results of that work. Yet, those who support the discrimination lawsuit see a public school system that nonetheless regularly consigns minority students to “substandard education.”  Meanwhile, some other people in our township detect no such pattern. That group sees the lawsuit as unfounded and as a burden on taxpayers.   The term “resegregation” has empirical value for the first contingent, but in the eyes of the second it is uncalled for and inflammatory.  I have seen defenders of LMSD policies recoil from that word at more than one neighborhood gathering on the issue.

The legal complexities of this case are many and I am in no way qualified to parse those. But as a historian of race in American education, I want to talk about the multiple meanings that “equity” has lately assumed in our township. Mapping these meanings has helped me see why CBP pursues its suit, and why lawsuits around matters of race are still needed in our country.

Clearly,  those who defend the district don’t aim to promote racial discrimination. Yet,  I’m not sure we should assume that everyone involved in the dispute really does have the same endpoint in mind. I want to suggest that for some who speak for LMSD, some basic features of the system are working just fine;  they would say those aspects of the status quo require no reform.

Here’s what I’m thinking of:

Representatives of the district, not surprisingly, routinely offer counterarguments to the charges of discrimination.  Last week, as counsel for the plaintiffs made new documents available for public viewing, Doug Young,  Lower Merion School District’s  Information  Director, spoke to media outlets about the case.  Speaking to NBC Philadelphia, as reported by David Chang, Mr. Young suggested first that there is no systemic phenomenon to discuss:

The plaintiffs’ claims relate to specific, individual special education disputes from years ago. The assertion that they are somehow connected to biased treatment on the basis of race is totally without merit.

To bolster that point, Mr. Young added that the district “utilize[s] multiple criteria and methods to eliminate any potential for cultural biases.”  But we could ask: If discrepancies still exist in African American achievement within LMSD schools (which nobody involved in the matter denies), by what measure has the district determined these “criteria and methods” to be working? [My STS colleagues will now be nodding and saying to themselves: “The experimenter’s regress!”]

Next Mr. Young says:

Additionally, the suit completely ignores and even diminishes the success of African American students in Lower Merion School District.

That claim proceeds from a deeply flawed premise: That critiques of  current racial discrimination constitute a denigration of  previous minority attainments. But in what way is a search for justice a denigration of others’ attainments? How are the purported “cause” and “effect” here even connected? One might just as easily say that the CBP parents’ lawsuit adds lustre to the attainments of successful African American students because it emphasizes the inequitable conditions those kids have overcome. (Though that too would be a facile and misleading claim.)

With that last quote, Mr. Young characterizes the motives of CBP and he does so with selective logic. In turn, he characterizes LMSD, also using selective logic. He indicates that test scores for black students in the district have risen in recent years, along with enrollment by African American students in the district’s AP and Honors classes.  Those are very welcome changes. But we learn, too, that “LMSD African American graduates are attending college at nearly twice the national rate (83% in 2011).”  I would ask: Why even measure the district’s inclusivity relative to national standards?  Why not against the goal of complete parity between minority and majority students in our district? Is our goal to end discrimination, or to deflect criticism?

Remember, too, that CBP specifies that among students who constitute that 83% we have black students attending community colleges in far higher proportions than do white college-going LMSD graduates. Perhaps Mr. Young wishes to highlight progress made by the district towards racial inclusion. But he sounds a self-congratulatory note in his assertion that, “the District should be receiving awards for these efforts, not lawsuits.”

The impression given by Mr. Young here is that the district has understood the problem, and done enough to address discriminationin fact, done MORE than enough,  to the point where awards are deserved.  I can see how such apparent self-assurance could undermine CBP’s  faith in the district’s commitment to eliminating further educational inequities.  Can the district’s leaders and spokespeople instead persuade us that  they see the lingering achievement gap as entirely unacceptable, every last vestige of it?  Then we may be more confident that lawsuits are not needed because educational equity, not merely a relative lack of inequity,  is LMSD’s goal.

Our Town: “Equity” in Lower Merion

I am privileged to live in a district with superb public schools. But, despite its proximity to some of the most affluent suburbs of Philadelphia and access to significant tax revenues,  this is also a school system, like so many others in the nation,  with a documented achievement gap between African American students and those of other backgrounds.  A group of parents who find that gap unacceptable and believe it to be a product of systematic discrimination have brought a lawsuit against the district.  (A request for a class action lawsuit ended with a judge’s denial in 2009, but a suit brought by eight families now moves ahead.)  These families and their supporters joined to form the non-profit Concerned Black Parents (CBP).

Things have improved in recent years, but the gap persists, according to CBP. Troubling patterns  remain:  Some African American students in the middle- and high schools of Lower Merion School District (LMSD) are finding themselves tracked into special education classes when they don’t need those interventions,  while too few black students are being enrolled in the advanced classes that would serve them well.  Disproportionately low percentages of black students in LMSD attend college.   Among those black LMSD students who do pursue post-secondary education, disproportionately high numbers head towards community colleges rather than four-year programs.  CBP also points out in a recent statement that:

…African Americans graduate from Lower Merion (too many through social promotions and special education) and go onto college only to face the prerequisite condition that they pass remediation courses for which they do not accumulate college credit.
* African American students also have a huge SAT score gap and a Grade Point Average gap, which stunts their acceptance to the schools their peers gain admission to.
* African American girls are outperforming African American boys. Ask why!

–Concerned Black Parents, Sept. 6,2011

Folks on both sides of the debate agree that a number of tireless and inventive LMSD teachers and administrators have worked hard to redress racial and other forms of discrimination in the district. Nearly everyone acknowledges welcome results of that work. Yet, those who support the discrimination lawsuit see a public school system that nonetheless regularly consigns minority students to “substandard education.”  Meanwhile, some other people in our township detect no such pattern. That group sees the lawsuit as unfounded and as a burden on taxpayers.   The term “resegregation” has empirical value for the first contingent, but in the eyes of the second it is uncalled for and inflammatory.  I have seen defenders of LMSD policies recoil from that word at more than one neighborhood gathering on the issue.

The legal complexities of this case are many and I am in no way qualified to parse those. But as a historian of race in American education, I want to talk about the multiple meanings that “equity” has lately assumed in our township. Mapping these meanings has helped me see why CBP pursues its suit, and why lawsuits around matters of race are still needed in our country.

Clearly,  those who defend the district don’t aim to promote racial discrimination. Yet,  I’m not sure we should assume that everyone involved in the dispute really does have the same endpoint in mind. I want to suggest that for some who speak for LMSD, some basic features of the system are working just fine;  they would say those aspects of the status quo require no reform.

Here’s what I’m thinking of:

Representatives of the district, not surprisingly, routinely offer counterarguments to the charges of discrimination.  Last week, as counsel for the plaintiffs made new documents available for public viewing, Doug Young,  Lower Merion School District’s  Information  Director, spoke to media outlets about the case.  Speaking to NBC Philadelphia, as reported by David Chang, Mr. Young suggested first that there is no systemic phenomenon to discuss:

The plaintiffs’ claims relate to specific, individual special education disputes from years ago. The assertion that they are somehow connected to biased treatment on the basis of race is totally without merit.

To bolster that point, Mr. Young added that the district “utilize[s] multiple criteria and methods to eliminate any potential for cultural biases.”  But we could ask: If discrepancies still exist in African American achievement within LMSD schools (which nobody involved in the matter denies), by what measure has the district determined these “criteria and methods” to be working? [My STS colleagues will now be nodding and saying to themselves: “The experimenter’s regress!”]

Next Mr. Young says:

Additionally, the suit completely ignores and even diminishes the success of African American students in Lower Merion School District.

That claim proceeds from a deeply flawed premise: That critiques of  current racial discrimination constitute a denigration of  previous minority attainments. But in what way is a search for justice a denigration of others’ attainments? How are the purported “cause” and “effect” here even connected? One might just as easily say that the CBP parents’ lawsuit adds lustre to the attainments of successful African American students because it emphasizes the inequitable conditions those kids have overcome. (Though that too would be a facile and misleading claim.)

With that last quote, Mr. Young characterizes the motives of CBP and he does so with selective logic. In turn, he characterizes LMSD, also using selective logic. He indicates that test scores for black students in the district have risen in recent years, along with enrollment by African American students in the district’s AP and Honors classes.  Those are very welcome changes. But we learn, too, that “LMSD African American graduates are attending college at nearly twice the national rate (83% in 2011).”  I would ask: Why even measure the district’s inclusivity relative to national standards?  Why not against the goal of complete parity between minority and majority students in our district? Is our goal to end discrimination, or to deflect criticism?

Remember, too, that CBP specifies that among students who constitute that 83% we have black students attending community colleges in far higher proportions than do white college-going LMSD graduates. Perhaps Mr. Young wishes to highlight progress made by the district towards racial inclusion. But he sounds a self-congratulatory note in his assertion that, “the District should be receiving awards for these efforts, not lawsuits.”

The impression given by Mr. Young here is that the district has understood the problem, and done enough to address discriminationin fact, done MORE than enough,  to the point where awards are deserved.  I can see how such apparent self-assurance could undermine CBP’s  faith in the district’s commitment to eliminating further educational inequities.  Can the district’s leaders and spokespeople instead persuade us that  they see the lingering achievement gap as entirely unacceptable, every last vestige of it?  Then we may be more confident that lawsuits are not needed because educational equity, not merely a relative lack of inequity,  is LMSD’s goal.

Innovate. Smile. Repeat.

Teeth pretty much gritted, I’m  collecting uses of the word “innovation” in discussions of America’s current economic malaise, convinced that the promotion of high-tech invention has become the smiley face of the new millennium:  A jolly and superficial exhortation  (“If only we innovate, things will be better!”), that has started to function as a reductive and even distracting gesture…the “Just Do It!”  of economic analysis.

To see this in action, I’d suggest looking at  this recent NPR story by Wendy Kaufman in which an entrepreneur and economist both position high-tech innovation as the answer to national unemployment.  We learn that in the clean energy sector, for example, “patent awards, and research and development spending” are growing faster in China than in the US, where a climate of fear currently discourages entrepreneurial risk-taking. The message is that if more Americans were to innovate, jobs would follow: as one of Kaufman’s  interviewees says,  “It’s something the U.S.  has to do to keep the economy growing.”  It may be true that without entrepreneurial enthusiasm job creation stalls, but it’s not necessarily true that when capital thrives, so does American labor.  (See NPR’s own interview by Guy Raz of a few days earlier, on recent  dramatic growth in American CEO salaries…in which NYTimes business editor P.J. Joshi summarizes a recent report that found widespread executive pay raises playing out while ordinary wages stay low and unemployment and layoffs persist.) Like so many others,  this invocation of innovation makes knowledge, not policy, the social problem and solution…the call is once again for brain work, not political reform, and innovative federal policies that might incentivize domestic job creation (and grapple with the unidirectional flow of corporate profits upward) go unmentioned.

I know I’ve made this exact point before, but NPR and many other media outlets have talked about innovation in this uncritical way before, too. Kaufman’s piece, here, is strangely brief, almost telegraphic…And the more pervasive, the more routine such instructions to innovate  become in American culture and media, the more I want to understand the allure of that project.

Confronting Convention, Achieving Inclusion

An article by Tamar Lewin this week in the New York Times (front page, no less),  “For Students at Risk, Early College Proves a Draw”,  deserves a close read.  The title alone signals the unusually progressive outlook of the program described in the piece; “At risk” kids and “early college” opportunities? A rare combination. 

Normally, as the article notes, small classes, long-term curricular planning, and accelerated and intensive programming in America are reserved for high school students with proven academic abilities.  I would add that this is the classic m.o. of many honors colleges, as well as of initiatives that seek out and support the talented, underreresented minority high school students said to be “missing” from undergraduate STEM programs.  And that may work for those students who have already found a way to succeed in school and display their energy and talents.  But the Early College High School Initiative, sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other prominant funders, breaks with convention: It gives more resources,  more opportunities to students with fewer conventional attainments…the ones we perhaps never even thought of as missing.  The intervention seems to work: Drop out rates plunge, the number of college degrees grows, among students in the Early College High Schools.

In the Early College High Schools, 20,000 students in 24 states undertake college-focussed classes to complete both high school and a large number of college courses in five years, at no cost.  The initiative’s website tells us that 2/3 of those students are African American and Latino.  I’m not sure how I feel about the organization’s catchy emphasis on “challenge not remediation,” since remediation can also offer a politically progressive educational approach.  But the initiative is,  at least on the surface, a welcome confrontation to the ways in which ideas  of merit usually function in our educational system…and I’ll be looking for that aim in other initiatives supported by these patrons.