Last week, Wisconsin Superintendent of Public Instruction Jill Underly put out a press release broadly outlining her plans to address Wisconsin’s racial achievement gap. While it is perhaps a positive to finally see the superintendent addressing the failings of Wisconsin’s public schools, this release offers a disturbing window into the way the public school establishment sees the achievement gap problem, and the misguided ways in which they plan to solve it.
Underly referred to Wisconsin’s racial achievement gap as “egregious” in her release, and indeed it is. According to the results of the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), the state regularly has the largest gap in scores between white students and African American students of any state in the country. On average, African American students scored 47 points lower in math and 39 points lower in English than their white counterparts. But Underly misdiagnoses the cause of this gap, which is almost entirely poverty.
In groundbreaking research released in 2019, scholars at Stanford University endeavored to discover the causes of the racial achievement gap in the United States. They found that concentrations of poverty — not the race of students — was the main driver of achievement differences. This is highlighted in the finding from our research in 2017 that student proficiency in rural school districts which suffer from high poverty is often indistinguishable from that of our urban districts that routinely bear the brunt of scrutiny.
Misdiagnosing the problem means Underly’s proposed solutions miss the mark.
Underly’s DPI promotes the current fad of “culturally relevant teaching,” what Underly wrongly labels as “the original CRT.” Underly explains that culturally relevant instruction eschews individual treatment of students based on their individual needs, and instead “reaches every student” based on their “cultural identity.” From the training materials we’ve reviewed at WILL, the Department of Public Instruction’s view of “cultural identity” focuses primarily on a student’s race and ethnicity. While DPI will no doubt claim that “culture” extends far beyond mere race, the agency’s strong emphasis on categorizing students first as members of racial groups is exactly the type of “race essentialism” promoted by the other CRT, Critical Race Theory. As a result, focusing on a student’s “cultural identity” invariably leads to differing treatment based on race and ethnicity.
At WILL, we’ve seen the troubling, and likely illegal, results of this type of culturally relevant (or its close cousin, “culturally responsive”) instruction. It’s not just about putting books in the library with black faces. It’s about treating students differently based on race: different standards, different discipline models, and different support. As just one example, the Madison Metropolitan School District employs an invidious policy requiring teachers to “[p]rioritize your African American students meeting with you first and more often.” This is the exact type of explicit race discrimination called for by “culturally relevant instruction.”
But the achievement gap, as explained above, is not caused by a student’s “culture,” however DPI defines it (which, more times than not, seems like just a proxy for race). So why teach to the “culture”? We should teach to the individual student. A student’s personality, strengths, weaknesses, and academic needs are so much richer (and frankly more interesting) than DPI’s shorthand use of “culture.” Students are individuals with individual needs. They should be taught as individuals and teachers should aim for individual success. Lumping students into racial groups is not only morally and legally wrong, it won’t work and hasn’t worked.
As another proposed solution to the achievement gap, Underly suggests that we ought to reclassify the “achievement gap” as an “opportunity gap” to highlight that this is not the fault of students. However, this reclassification seems more likely to absolve districts of their complicity in failing generations of students, and will feed the narrative that public schools still need more money in order to provide a fair opportunity.
Indeed, if Underly is serious about reducing the achievement gap, there are already schools in Milwaukee that get the job done, while being underfunded compared to their local public schools. Milwaukee’s charter schools, along with schools participating in the Milwaukee Parental Choice program, regularly outperform MPS schools on the state exam. Students who participate in these programs are more likely to go on to, and stay in, college and less likely to become entangled in the criminal justice system. Instead of opposing the expansion of educational options, perhaps Underly should look to see what can be learned from them.
Lennington is Deputy Counsel and Flanders is research director at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.