Howard Wainer writes:
When we focus only on the differences between groups, we too easily lose track of the big picture. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the current public discussions of the size of the gap in test scores that is observed between racial groups. It has been noted that in New Jersey the gap between the average scores of white and black students on the well-developed scale of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has shrunk by only about 25 percent over the past two decades. The conclusion drawn was that even though the change is in the right direction, it is far too slow.
But focusing on the difference blinds us to what has been a remarkable success in education over the past 20 years. Although the direction and size of student improvements are considered across many subject areas and many age groups, I will describe just one — 4th grade mathematics. . . . there have been steep gains for both racial groups over this period (somewhat steeper gains for blacks than for whites). . . . New Jersey’s black students performed as well in 2011 as New Jersey’s white students did in 1992. Given the consequential differences in wealth between these two groups, which has always been inextricably connected with student performance, reaching this mark is an accomplishment worthy of applause, not criticism.
If we couple our concerns about American education and the remarkable success shown in this data, it seems sensible to try to understand what was going on, so that we can do more of it. . . . A little more than 20 years ago, several suits challenging the way that public schools were financed . . . The courts decided that in order for the mandated “equal educational opportunity” to be true, per-pupil expenditures in all school districts should be about equal. In order for that to happen, given the vast differences in the tax base across different communities, the state had to step in and augment the school budgets of poorer districts. The fact that substantially increased funding has accompanied these substantial improvements in student performance must be considered as a prime candidate in any search for cause.
Howard sent this to me and I passed it on to my various contacts in journalism. I didn’t hear back from anyone—I guess it was deemed not exciting enough to appear in any major newspaper or magazine, so it eventually ended up in “NJ Spotlight.” I like it, but maybe the problem was that it wasn’t topical enough. Maybe Howard should’ve sat on the piece for awhile and saved it to time with some test-scores report? These things come out at regular intervals and are usually good for a headline or too.