Thirty years ago, I had a revelatory insight into the nature of the U.S. education system. As a college student, I dabbled briefly in a tutoring program, in which college students would go to Detroit very early on a Saturday morning (this is why I only dabbled in it) to tutor high-school students. The students had been selected because a statewide program offered guaranteed college admission and tuition assistance to graduates of the Detroit public-school system who achieved (I recall) a B average or higher and at least 1000 on the SAT, and they fell just below that line.
One morning, I was paired with a girl who was hoping to get her math scores up. My tutoring methods were nothing special, yet she was absorbing what I taught her at an astonishingly rapid pace. I would introduce a new concept, and she would grasp it immediately. Then we would proceed to the next one, then the next, probably racing through months and months worth of high-school math in one two-hour session. What made that morning so thrilling, and depressing, was the realization that she had simply never been introduced to any of this material in class. The problem was neither her innate abilities nor her eagerness to learn. Her schooling had failed her completely.
An injustice like this demands a remedy. But what? Give her an admissions boost on account of her race? Absolutely, yes. Her application credentials, if she did end up applying to a selective university, simply did not reflect her innate potential. But affirmative action in elite colleges is — or, we can now say, was — a woefully inadequate antidote to the neglect suffered by her and other students like her. Its demise should be used to promote urgent new thinking about other solutions. There is no single remedy that will suffice, but the one I wish to draw attention to here is education reform.
The reason elite universities resorted to admissions preferences in the first place was that there is an enormous academic achievement gap separating white and Asian American students from Black, Latino, and Native American students. Affirmative action tried to fix the problem at the end of the pipeline by giving underrepresented students a small admissions boost when they applied for college — after they had spent 18 years falling behind. A far more potent solution is to fix the pipeline earlier so that the pool of applicants reaching elite colleges is not so hopelessly skewed.
A large and growing body of evidence tells us that this is possible.
Earlier this month, Stanford University’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes released a national study on charter schools. It confirmed what many others have found before: Urban charter schools produce dramatic learning gains for Black and Latino students. CREDO’s study identified approximately 1,000 schools nationally that it called “gap-busting schools” able to eliminate learning disparities.
Charter schools are not the only tool we have for producing significant learning gains. Studies have shown that hiring more Black teachers yields significant improvements for Black students. Evidence has also shown that teaching reading through phonics, rather than “balanced literacy” or “whole language” methods that spread nationally in recent decades, yield much higher literacy rates.
The larger lesson of all these interventions is to oppose the fatalism that has set in across the political spectrum about the possibility that schools can be improved at scale. Conservatives have argued that poor families suffer from deficient culture, and progressives have insisted that only fixing endemic poverty can repair the achievement gap. They are both wrong. Developing, testing, and spreading better ways to teach kids is hard and time-consuming, but it is possible, and it should regain a place at the center of our vision for social justice.
Of course, we should also attack other sources of social inequality: abusive or absent policing, disparities of hereditary wealth, and lack of access to health care and clean air and water all deny equal opportunity to poor and minority kids. Liberals should never stop working to remedy all of these sources of oppression.
I am focusing on education because, first, it relates more directly to the problem affirmative action means to redress. And second, liberals have been abandoning the cause and leaving education reform for dead just as we have developed solid evidence of its potential. In the wake of the Court striking down affirmative action, Democrats are continuing to focus on ways to allow colleges to work around the achievement gap rather than reduce it directly.
Affirmative action is gone. But the potential to lift thousands of Black and brown students into the educational elite is sitting right in front of us.