Fordham’s newest study finds that black students in charter schools are about 50% more likely to have a same-race teacher than their black counterparts in traditional public schools, that the impact of having a same-race teacher is twice as large in charters, and that the effect of having a same-race teacher in charters is about twice as large for nonwhite students as for white students. They're doing a better job of recruiting diverse teachers, which gives kids of color a greater chance at having a teacher of their same race.
As conservatives working in education, we find ourselves drawn to Chief Justice Roberts’s observation that “it is a sordid business, this divvying us up by race.” And along with Dr. King, we want to believe in a world where everyone is judged by the content of their character, not the color of the skin. As such, we tend to think that teachers should be hired based on the quality of their instruction and their fit with a school’s mission—not their race or ethnicity. So we’ve been skeptical, even uncomfortable, about efforts to “match” students and teachers based on their race.
As the literature on “student-teacher race match” has expanded, however, we’ve found ourselves confronted with a simple empirical truth: There’s mounting evidence that students who have one or more same-race teachers experience clear advantages—at least some of the youngsters, at least some of the time. We may favor a race-blind world, but for children of color especially, exposure to teachers of the same race over the course of their educational careers seems to make a substantial, positive difference.
Not only have math and English language arts test scores risen significantly, but the impact of having just one same-race teacher during one’s time in the lower grades also increases black students’ odds of graduating from high school and enrolling in college. These matches also show positive nearer-term impacts on student attendance and discipline. Similar benefits occur in other educational settings, too, including community colleges.
As believers in various forms of school choice, including public charter schools, we naturally wondered whether the success of urban charter schools at boosting achievement and other outcomes might be due to their greater success in recruiting a diverse teaching staff. It stands to reason that schools where the diversity of the instructional team more closely resembles that of the students are likely to have more students of color assigned a teacher of the same race. Do such matches actually occur more often in the charter sector than in traditional public schools? And if so, are the benefits similar or different between sectors? To our knowledge, nobody had yet investigated these particular questions, so we turned to one scholar we were confident would know for sure: Dr. Seth Gershenson, Associate Professor at American University.
Gershenson is one of a handful of scholars who first rigorously examined the impact of race match and helped elevate its importance in education policy circles. He has studied not only the long-run impact of same-race teachers on students, but also its effect on intermediate pupil outcomes and on teachers’ beliefs. He confirmed that we were entering uncharted territory, and he was eager to augment his existing scholarship.
So began Fordham’s newest study, Student-Teacher Race Match in Charter and Traditional Public Schools. In a nutshell, Dr. Gershenson finds that, though white students in North Carolina (where he conducted the study) are about equally likely to have a white teacher in either traditional public or charter schools, black students in charters are about 50 percent more likely to have a same-race teacher than their black counterparts in traditional public schools, even when restricting the comparison to schools in urban areas. He also finds that the impact of having a same-race teacher is twice as large in charter schools as in traditional public schools, though those differences are statistically insignificant, likely due to small sample sizes. Finally, within charter schools, the effect of having a same-race teacher is about twice as large for nonwhite students as for white students.
We don’t know for sure whether and why student-teacher race match appears to have a bigger impact in the charter sector, particularly for kids of color. Perhaps there’s a compounding effect in some charters with a “high expectations” culture and a sizable proportion of teachers of color who may also have high expectations of same-race students.
But what is clear is that charter schools—in North Carolina at least—are doing a much better job of recruiting a diverse teaching force, and are subsequently more likely to match teachers and students on the basis of race. This may explain at least some of the student achievement advantage that urban charter schools enjoy compared to traditional public schools.
Moreover, amid shameful and bizarre allegations linking charter schools to the era of Jim Crow segregation, it was not lost on us that the effects of student-teacher race match were virtually identical whether a school was mostly white or mostly nonwhite.
Let’s repeat that: Not only do urban charter schools—serving mostly children of color— outperform their traditional public school peers when it comes to test scores and other outcomes, they also do a better job recruiting teachers of color, which means that more black and brown kids get the experience of being taught by a same-race teacher.
Now, maybe we are missing something, but that sure sounds progressive to us. One might assume, then, that as the Democratic Party continues to move left, its liberal wing would embrace charter schools. Not so much.
- Writing for In the Public Interest, Jeremy Mohler claims that “Charter schools aren’t progressive. They’re a way to avoid funding the education of all students.”
- Other Dems agree that “There is no 'progressive case' for charter schools.” And they hassle their charter-supporting brethren at the Center for American Progress “to focus its advocacy on pressuring policymakers and government leaders to provide public schools with the resources they need to attend to the needs of all students rather than advocate for charter schools and other options that actually hurt public schools and the students left in them.”
- The Education Opportunity Network piles on, bemoaning “the longstanding effort by establishment Democrats to boost private operators of charter schools [that] avoid[s] inconvenient truths about these schools and hides its [sic] ideological agenda.”
The debate shows no sign of letting up, with presidential hopeful Cory Booker now caught in the crosshairs. A recent headline from New York Magazine says simply, “Cory Booker Has a School Choice Problem.” That's because his views on charter schools “have gone out of fashion with many Democrats,” which “creates a conundrum for Booker,” whose legacy as Newark’s mayor was based on the proliferation of charter schools. And all of this is having real-world ramifications, as the Democrat-led House Appropriations Committee recently voted to cut $40 million from the federal charter schools program. Likewise, presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders recently called for a moratorium on federal funding of charter schools.
Again, we don’t reside on the left, but we find ourselves scratching our heads, given that urban charter schools have been found to be so effective at boosting achievement and college success for low-income kids and kids of color. And that competition from charters seems to help public schools improve, too. Sure seems progressive.
Now here in the present study is more evidence of how progressive charter schools are. They do a better job recruiting a diverse workforce and therefore providing black students more opportunities to have a teacher of their same race. And doing so may help to explain their superior results.
One might hope, like we did, that matching students and teachers by race wouldn’t matter in terms of the benefits gleaned by kids. But that’s not what the evidence is showing. We think, then, that this latest research provides an opportunity to practice humility on both sides of the ideological spectrum in light of what’s best for students.
For those of us in conservative quarters, that means acknowledging that a focus on race is sometimes needed for all students to thrive and shine.
For those in progressive quarters, that means acknowledging that traditional public schools have something to learn from their charter school peers, at least when it comes to recruiting a diverse workforce.
May we all humbly accept the invitation afforded to us!
Try this experiment. At your next professional development session, conference, or perhaps on social media, mention the famous “30-million-word gap” study, which demonstrated that low-income children hear far less spoken language before their first day of school than their affluent peers, setting in motion dramatic differences in vocabulary attainment and academic achievement. If your experience is like mine, someone will immediately chime in (politely at PD; pointedly on Twitter) that the landmark 1995 study has been “debunked.” But there’s a big problem with such dismissals. There are observable, measurable differences in the early language environments of children that have significant impact on their education. It’s simply not true to say or suggest that’s all been debunked.
Dubbed “The Early Catastrophe” by University of Kansas researchers Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, the differences in language exposure that they observed and calculated among children of various socioeconomic groups is among the most commonly cited pieces of educational research in history, and for good reason: Hart and Risley pronounced themselves “awestruck” at how well their measures of vocabulary and verbal accomplishment at age three predicted language skill at age nine and ten.
Education research tends to get bumper-stickered. Complex and nuanced studies are boiled down to breezy takeaways that may or may not be useful to inform policy and practice. The “30-million word gap” is a good example—and a mixed blessing. The scale of the differences observed by Hart and Risley was so stunning that it propelled their work out of the sleepy world of education research and into public consciousness, launching a raft of programs, policies, and philanthropic initiatives to address the disparity the pair uncovered. But the sheer enormity of the “word gap” that gave it such attention and traction is also its Achilles’ Heel. It simply strains credulity that it could be so massive and in such a short span of time, ages zero to four. Hart and Risley arrived at their controversial figure by recording every utterance made in monthly visits of just one hour each with forty-two families—thirteen affluent, ten middle-income, thirteen low-income, and six on public assistance. From there they extrapolated, assuming the same incidents of spoken language for fourteen hours a day, every day. “In four years, an average child in a professional family would accumulate experience with almost 45 million words, an average child in a working-class family 26 million words, and an average child in a welfare family 13 million words,” they wrote. That works out to a difference of more than 30 million words heard by the children of “professional” class parents versus those of parents on public assistance.
The study has drawn fire virtually from the day it was published, but a significant new reconsideration gathered steam with a “failed replication” published last Spring in Child Development by Douglas Sperry, Linda Sperry, and Peggy Miller, which claimed that low-income children hear far more spoken language than Hart and Risley captured and accounted for, finding “substantial variation” within various socioeconomic groups and criticizing as too narrow Hart and Risley’s definitions of children’s verbal environments, which “exclude multiple caregivers and bystander talk disproportionately [and] underestimate the number of words to which low‐income children are exposed.”
“Is it 5000? Is it 10,000? 30 million? 60 million? Who cares?” Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, the Director of Temple University’s Infant Language Laboratory tells me. “The reason that [Hart and Risley] bothered giving any kind of calculation at all was just because there's a difference there. And it's a difference that needs to be attended to.”
The focus on tonnage elides the essential message: Word quantity matters less than quality. Language growth has more to do with the “conversational duet” between caregivers and children, claim Hirsh-Pasek and four colleagues in a response to the Sperry study, also published in Child Development. Their title states the matter bluntly: “Language Matters: Denying the Existence of the 30-Million-Word Gap Has Serious Consequences.”
The Sperry study suggested that when “ambient” speech is counted—speech among adults in the presence of children, for example—differences between socioeconomic classes are reduced or disappear. But there is a crucial difference between words merely overheard and child-directed speech, and their effects on vocabulary and language development. “For young children to benefit from overheard speech, they must stop what they are doing themselves and direct their attention to an interaction between other people,” Hirsh-Pasek and her colleagues wrote. Speech directed at children differs markedly from speech adults direct at one another in terms of content, complexity, and the attentional demands placed on infants and toddlers. “A child sitting in a high chair who hears, for example, ‘Juice. You like your juice?” is receiving input that is uncharacteristic of adult conversations, in which decontextualized talk is geared toward other things like movies, politics, work, and so on. Deciphering decontextualized talk is a challenge to young children, but without participating in the exchange and being privy to informative social cues, the task may become impossible,” they wrote.
If a pair of dueling reports in an academic journal were all there was to this, the heightened debate over toddler talk and language development might have remained academic. But what appears to have fed the wholesale “debunking” narrative was a news report by NPR reporter Anya Kamenetz, pegged to the Sperry study, and soliciting to the views of language researchers on the twenty-five-year old Hart and Risley study. Her piece was generally solid, but ran under an unusually blithe headline, “Let’s Stop Talking About the 30 Million Word Gap.” The piece, which continues to be shared regularly on social media, noted that many researchers take issue with the entire word gap concept as “racially and culturally loaded in a way that ultimately hurts the children whom early intervention programs ostensibly trying to help.” This framing fits the current social justice moment and mindset in education policy and practice, and has surely given the NPR story its considerable legs.
For example, Marjorie Faulstich Orellana, a professor of education at UCLA, agreed that “there's variation in how much adults speak to children,” but cautioned against placing a value judgment on it. "Should adults direct lots of questions to children in ways that prepare them to answer questions in school?" she asked. That is, she told Kamenetz, a “middle-class, mostly white practice.”
In a blog post last June, University of Virginia cognitive scientist Dan Willingham pointed out that, contrary to the emerging “failure to replicate” claim attached to the 30-million-word gap, “the conceptual idea that socioeconomic status and volume of caregiver→child speech has been replicated” numerous times. He also pointed out that the recent Sperry work didn’t include a group of “professional parents,” rendering it a non-attempt at replication. Moreover he noted, echoing Hirsh-Pasek, that a precise measurement of the word gap misses the point. “Maybe somebody thought the absolute value mattered. I doubt any psychologists did, Willingham wrote. “We would care about the predictive power of the caregiver speech. On the whole, there’s still pretty good reason to think there’s an association between SES and child-directed speech from parents.”
But here we are a year later, and the idea that Hart and Risley have been debunked is still rattling around. It appears even to be gaining traction. If the narrative holds—if it becomes accepted wisdom that children from low-income households have enough exposure to spoken language to do well in school, that “quality versus quantity” doesn’t matter, that overheard language is sufficient, or if merely talking about how language is employed by various socioeconomic groups makes us uncomfortable, then “efforts to increase children’s language exposure and enhance its quality may be treated as suspect,” noted Hirsh-Pasek and her co-authors. “This approach would mislead policymakers, practitioners, and the public. The message should not be that children hear enough language but that children need more opportunities to participate in conversations that focus on their interests during everyday interactions with caregivers.”
Recently a reader of Tim Shanahan’s excellent blog chided him for citing the 30-million-word gap “canard.” Despite its limitations, “environmental differences (as opposed to genetic ones) still seems to be the best explanation of why poverty kids are underprepared when they start to receive reading instruction,” he replied. The Hart and Risley study is far from perfect, he concluded. “Nevertheless, the results of this body of research continue to suggest that what parents do in the home with their children matters educationally…and that they (and we) ought to be doing more to support their children’s early language learning.” That’s the right answer, and a far cry from “debunked.”
We need to keep talking about it.
To borrow from the familiar quip about the weather, everybody complains about special education, but nobody does anything about it. Why such policy neglect despite the dismal outcomes for the vast majority of the nearly seven million students in special education and the suffering of their anguished parents?
The hidden explanation is the failure to recognize that special education as we know it does not sufficiently distinguish between two fairly distinct populations. One population is students with severe disabilities, usually involving severe cognitive limitations, who are not able to meet the same academic standards as their non-disabled peers. Let’s call them the “Truly Disabled.”
The second group are those I call the “Mainly Mislabeled.” They are generally struggling readers who have the cognitive ability to achieve proficiency if they receive proper instruction, which they could and should receive in general education. But they don’t receive it there. As a result, they fall far behind their classmates. Their struggles overwhelm the general education classroom, and as a last resort, they are placed (a.k.a. dumped) into special education.
Note that the widespread presence of the Mainly Mislabeled in special education is flat-out illegal. Under IDEA, struggling learners, including those with dyslexia, should not be labeled as disabled and found eligible for special education unless and until they have received adequate prior instruction in general education. Yet a dream team of the nation’s leading experts on reading estimated that some 70 percent of struggling learners wind up unnecessarily and therefore wrongfully in special education.
Worse, special education as practiced is not nearly special enough. Students who are not Truly Disabled benefit little from it, typically falling ever further behind while suffering stigma and segregation. At the same time, they divert special education resources from where they are legally intended and can do the most good: meeting the needs of the Truly Disabled.
The magnitude of this diversion is shocking. While the public and policymakers think of special education as largely the province of the Truly Disabled, severely disabled students constitute only about 15 to 20 percent of all students in special education! Most of the other students are Mainly Mislabeled.
The way out—and the way to restore integrity and achieve effectiveness in special education—is policy reform that would leave special education as the exclusive province of the Truly Disabled. Emphasis belongs on the word “restore,” for this is what Congress intended when the original version of IDEA was enacted in 1975. As Margaret J. McLaughlin, a professor of special education at the University of Maryland, has put it, we must:
alter the current construct of “disability” under the IDEA and take special education back to its roots as an educational law that pertains only to students with clear and evident disabilities.… This could focus the resources on those students most in need of specialized long-term education and related services as opposed to having special education programs provide compensatory services for students whose only ‘disability’ has been poor or insufficient general education.
Federal policymakers can force this to happen. Acknowledging that there’s a continuum among students with several cognitive limitations and struggling learners, some workable distinctions have been drawn to allow alternate standards for the Truly Disabled under IDEA and ESSA (and its predecessor NCLB).
Parents of the Truly Disabled, by far the most vocal lobby for reform of special education, should be overjoyed to have special education all to themselves. Special educators would be truly specialized. Greater accountability for outcomes would be enabled. And much of the procedural paperwork that wastes time and money and drives teachers nuts and out of special education could be reduced.
But what would happen to the Mainly Mislabeled struggling learners if they had no recourse, legal or illegal, to special education? As astonishing as it may be, they would probably be better off. It seems almost inconceivable but most of them would likely fare better academically if they remained in general education without any so-called “special” education services. Certainly that would be the case if they were properly taught to read in K–2 by teachers who know how to do that for all kinds of kids. Goodness knows early reading is the most thoroughly researched realm in education! Yet scientifically-based reading instruction is the exception at least as often as it’s the practice.
Rather than ineffective special education, the Mainly Mislabeled struggling learners should receive quality general education plus evidence-based instructional interventions when needed. Laws in most states require such interventions for struggling readers, particularly in grades K–3, within the frameworks known as Multi-tier Systems of Support or Response to Intervention. The key intervention is tutoring.
Why aren’t these interventions happening as a matter of course in American general education? The most unrecognized reason is that students who need the interventions are all too often mislabeled as disabled and buried in special education, where low expectations and lack of teacher expertise condemn them to failure.
This could be stopped if special education were truly enforced to serve only the Truly Disabled. That would rescue special education from policy oblivion and yield a win-win for the Mainly Mislabeled as well as the Truly Disabled.
Sarah Tantillo is an accomplished teacher, author, and battle-scarred veteran of the charter-school wars, particularly in New Jersey, where she taught for years at acclaimed North Star Academy and led the state charter school association. Now she has published a first-rate account of and tribute to “how the charter school idea became a national movement.” Titled Hit the Drum, it’s worth the while of everyone who wants a deeper understanding of how charters were born and grew—and prefers to read a brisk, readable, engaging account.
It’s easy reading and tells lots of compelling tales of schools, events, and individuals who helped make and lead this movement. (Great profiles of, for example, Linda Brown, John Ayers, Howard Fuller, Jim Griffin, Chris Barbic, the KIPPsters—but there’s no index so you might actually have to read it.)
Yes, it’s boosterish, but in today’s environment, as veteran charter supporters on the left signal politically-motivated misgivings and academic stocktakers suggest that this bold reform venture hasn’t amounted to much, that’s no bad thing. And—especially when you read her brief concluding chapter about “why charters have not faded,” you are reminded of a fistful of sound reasons why, despite bumps in the road, they’re almost surely here to stay.
SOURCE: Sarah Tantillo, Hit the Drum: An Insider's Account of How the Charter School Idea Became a National Movement (BookBaby 2019).
On this week’s podcast, Seth Gershenson, an associate professor at American University and author of Fordham’s latest study, Student-Teacher Race Match in Charter and Traditional Public Schools, joins Mike Petrilli and David Griffith to discuss that research. On the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines how the actions of turnaround schools affect teacher mobility.
Amber’s Research Minute
Samatha Viano et al., “Push or Pull: School-Level Factors that Influence Teacher Mobility in Turnaround Schools,” Annenberg Institute at Brown University (May 2019).