Education Policy

When Beverly Daniel Tatum recommends a book on institutional racism while speaking at Harvard, you take note. When she puts it in her top 3 recently published books you just go buy it. (Or order it during her talk perhaps….) When it comes to understanding systems of racial oppression, Tatum knows what she’s talking about and Daria Roithmayr’s Reproducing Racism blew my mind. Once I got past my initial desire to throw it across the room, that is.

My desire to throw the book (at a slim 180 pages it would have flown well) was not due to any faults on Roithmayr’s part. Quite the opposite. The book is excellent and Roithmayr’s has a very compelling premise that most of our models of racism are wrong. She claims that instead of thinking about racism as individual actions rooted in hatred and bigotry, racism operates much more like an economic monopoly  that has been able to lock in racial inequalities by coming to the market first and then operating like a cartel in favor of white people.

I wanted to throw the book across the room because Roithmayr’s is incredibly convincing. And hundreds of years of racial economic and educational collusion is a pretty depressing thought for a country that purports to run on meritocracy. It’s easy to say that “racism is a problem that wasn’t created overnight, so we won’t fix it overnight” but when presented with a series of economic, mathematical, and legal examples about why inequalities are locked-in and the country is getting more unequal, it got hard to see a path forward.

Positive feedback loops (If You’re White)
The most poignant, and unexpected, example that Roithmayr uses to illustrate this example of lock-in is Polya’s Urns. Polya’s Urn is a mathematical model that essentially works as follows:

  • You have a single urn and inside are 1 black ball and 1 white ball. (2 total with 1B: 1W)
  • You draw a ball, then replace the ball, adding another ball of the same color.
    e.g. if your first draw is white, you replace the white ball and add another white ball. (3 total with 1B:2W)
  • You draw again, not with double the odds to draw white.
  • You keep drawing and replacing and you arrive at some sort of balance fairly quickly.
  • You can run a bunch of different tests of the model at Wolfram Alpha and you will get different results, but those results will be established within a relatively small number of draws and they become very difficult to alter.

headshotThe connection here for Roithmayr is that the first few draws establish a path and then it continues to be come easier to continue down the path that’s already been established. In terms of structural inequalities, the decisions to favor white people in job markets, schooling, housing, and the law all act like draws in Polya’s Urn because they provide preference for white people (draw) and then enrich white people (adding back another ball) thus creating a feedback loop that makes it easier to keep selecting white people. Chattel slavery in the United States can be seen as two-hundred and fifty years of draws in favor of whites that establishes an environment  that is very difficult to change. (And it’s not like we added a lot of resources back to Black people in 1863 and “forty acres and a mule” is still a relevant metaphor for broken promises. But I digress…)

How does the feedback loop work?
bookJust using the book cover (with a small adjustment in sequence)  as a diagram we can think of it this way:

  • A series of high quality schools and teachers will give you access to good colleges and schools in the United States have high levels of racial inequality.
  • This access to education gives white people access to the best jobs. This is true in terms of skills, behaviors, and social networks.
  • Better jobs make it easier to purchase a house.
  • The job and equity in the house enrich those who can access them.
  • This wealth can then be passed down to future generations.

This could be relatively race-neutral on the face. After all, a person of color would benefit from the same access and the same structures. Sure, theoretically I guess…

We don’t live in a theoretical space and neither does Roithmayr. She looks at policies and practices that excluded people of color from accessing schools (segregated schools), housing (redlining and restrictive covenants), jobs (union membership) and legal status (status as a human beingvoting rights, ability to naturalize and establish citizenship). When these historical and structural factors lay on top of one another we get locked-in systems of inequality where if we just stop discriminating on the basis of race (to paraphrase Chief Justice Roberts) we will still maintain and exacerbate levels of racial inequality.

It’s compelling. It’s also depressing as hell for someone who works on anti-racism in schools.

If racism is so locked in, do we just give up?
I was tempted. For a second. But this is why you finish books.

I’m glad I read to the end and didn’t throw it across the room in frustration because Roithmayr’s pivot to solutions argues that once we shift our thinking about racism from individual acts based on hatred into a model where white people have acted as a racial cartel we can think differently about solutions and Roithmayr has some equally compelling avenues for solutions:

  • Limit Feedback Loops – While she does explain how an institution might reduce the power of white positive feedback loops, Roithmayr quickly dismisses this one because it is politically untenable to reduce white access to power in this way. (It’s an assumption that’s worth investigating, but I tend to agree.)
  • Integrate Feedback Loops – Most obviously, this would show up as integrating classes that provide high school students with better access to college. These could be AP, IB, or honors courses as well as world language and high level math.
  • Develop Parallel Loops – These often show up as affinity groups. HBCUs and the National Pan-Hellenic Council are strong examples of positive feedback loops that provide benefit to people of color in a higher education setting.
  • Change Social Norms – This is a slow process and Roithmayr describes this mostly in terms of switching costs. My own work has focused a lot on this idea by trying to normalize conversations about race and racism in schools. We can’t change the problem if we don’t talk about it and silence on race is a strong social norm in this country.
  • Hire A Critical Mass – The key here is to hire a significant number of people of color in a short period of time. This helps people of color develop community within the organization while also acting as a significant influence.
  • Use Legal Remedies – In schools this would be changes to policy and could show up a developing more objective criteria for school discipline.

There can also be substantial interplay and overlap between these areas of influence. By hiring a critical mass of people of color in an organization, you can shift social norms in powerful ways and policies can help you do that.

I’m still digesting a lot of this, and it’s already shaping my perspective to working toward improving racial equality in schools. I’m curious to see of honing my understanding of how racism works, particularly with neutral-facing policies will make the change process more effective. For the first two-thirds of the book things felt hopeless. After reading I am more hopeful because if Roithmayr is correct in her assessment that inequalities are locked-in and getting worse, and if Martin Luther King Jr. is correct in his assessment that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice then the arc only bends toward justice because of the people who are pushing hard to bend the arc. We need to keep applying pressure and Reproducing Racism helps me target where to apply force.


I had big plans for a long post about Betsy Devos. I was going to watch the full confirmation hearing, take notes all the way through, and then write up a thorough analysis. That’s not happening.

I got about half way through the hearing before I shut it off in frustration so I’m going with what I have. And what I have is a combination of shock and anger. Shock that Devos was so unable (or unwilling) to articulate an actual position on schooling and anger that someone so unfit for this cabinet position was even shortlisted, let alone nominated. The New York Times  drew a similar conclusion to this saying: “in questioning by senators, [Devos] seemed either unaware or unsupportive of the longstanding policies and functions of the department she is in line to lead, from special education rules to the policing of for-profit universities” I am not impressed.

Note: As my personal focus is PreK-12 education and I’m sticking to that. You can read about the litany of problems with Devos’ answers regarding higher education at the Washington Post if you’d like.

Let the States Figure it Out
I was expecting to hear Devos defend charter schools and vouchers. That is, after all, her background and there was some of that, though we heard more about it from Senator Alexander’s introduction than from Devos herself.

Instead of impassioned or reasoned defense of alternatives to traditional public schools, I heard an abdication of federal responsibility for ensuring high quality education. Devos offered weak responses across the board with vague mentions of local control, and creating more opportunities for choice. She didn’t defend any particular position other than states and localities should decide things, which she didn’t actually defend. She just kept repeating that local control is the answer be it for guns in schools, universal preschools, or academic standards. At each turn Devos declined to offer a position saying that those calls are best left to localities.

When giving her opening statement, Devos commented that: “if a school is troubled or unsafe or not a good fit for a child … we should support a parent’s right to enroll their child in a high quality alternative,” and she left it there. Your school isn’t doing well? Go to another one. Absolutely zero discussion about how to support or improve the existing school so that the existing public school can become the first choice for parents.

Devos claimed parents should be able to choose their children’s schools. This seems reasonable at the individual level, and wealthy parents absolutely do this including very intentional decisions about where to purchase a house. But we have to consider scale. Over 50 million students attend U.S. public schools. If Devos actually wants to establish a system in which every family can take advantage of the opportunities that wealthy families take for their children (which she claimed during the hearing) someone would need to undertake an unprecedented level of school construction. If competition is the answer we need to flood the market with other choices that are as accessible geographically as existing public schools. Devos did not argue for massive school construction. Instead she tossed responsibility back to local control.

If choice requires creating alternatives Devos’ non-answer of Senator Murray’s question about privatization becomes critically important. Devos did not clearly reject private sources, instead saying that she is: “hopeful that we can work together to find common ground.” That’s not an answer to a question where Senator Murray wanted to know if Devos could commit to: “not privatize or cut a single penny.”

Devos couldn’t even commit to support for universal pre-kindergarten and she again pushed responsibility to local governments. That could have been an easy one.

We currently have zero evidence that President Trump is planning to grow the Department of Education. In President Trump’s massive infrastructure plans schools are noticeably absent. To my knowledge building schools has never been on the Republican Party’s national platform. Without growing the Department, the high quality alternatives Devos refers to will have to come from outside the federal government and I don’t see state or local governments covering this cost. Higher income communities are already developing their public schools and poverty impacted communities simply do not have the tax base or funds on hand to create more schools. So the funds have to come from outside those communities. This leaves only private sources be they for-profit or not-for-profit.

Either way the math is the same: Devos is positioning for reduced federal oversight of education with a rise in privately funded options at the local level. If everything is for local control, then the Department of Education (and the Secretary of Education) needs no plan for improving existing schools.

Our Students and our Country Need Better
The stakes for our 50 million children in schools are too high for this kind of nonsense. The Secretary of Education should be thought of as the highest teacher in the land the same way we think about the Surgeon General and the Attorney General acting as the first doctor and first lawyer. To even nominate Devos, who has zero educational experience beyond mentoring students, and arguing for school choice, is an insult to our entire education system. This insult was confirmed by Senator Lieberman’s statement that the fact that she doesn’t come from “the education establishment,” is “one of the most important qualifications [she] can have.”

We would never put someone without legal experience in the Attorney General seat. We would never put someone without medical experience in the Surgeon General seat. The fact that Devos is even nominated is a glaring example of how little respect the republican party has for our education system.

With education we create our future and a key feature (and challenge) of public schools is that they accept all students. The future that Devos, and by extension the Trump administration, is proposing is a future of increasing inequality.  A future of struggling public schools left to wither an die when we could offer them support instead. A future where the most challenging students get kicked out of the “high quality alternatives” and back to those struggling public schools thus ensuring continued inequality.

I simply can’t imagine putting a secretary of education in place who has no plans for actually improving the schools attended by the overwhelming majority of our country’s children. Yet that is what we have to look forward to. If Devos is confirmed and her plans move forward with Congress’ blessing, local communities will need to commit incredible sums to ensure the continued viability of their public schools. I can’t see the federal government providing much help for the next few years.