The 'Scary Black Straw Man' Award

Center of the American Experiment for Our Immense Achievement Gap

The nature of this irredeemably awful report is betrayed in the title, which seeks to alert readers to the evidently toxic combination of policy ingredients that, in the fevered imagination of the authors, amounts to a “race-based recipe for disaster.” Moreover, the imagined carnage would not be confined to the kitchen. In the apocalyptic metaphorical landscape of this report, aspects of our transportation system are also at risk: A “train wreck” resulting in massive “liabilities” of “billions of dollars” is the likely result of state policymakers colluding, in their promotion of race-based school reform policies, with advocates for busing and school funding. Our judges quickly checked the acknowledgements section to see if Chicken Little was listed as an advisor.

This exercise in hysteria was precipitated by a Minnesota Department of Education report on concentrated poverty and segregation, along with three other reports published by equity-focused organizations. These reports suggest policies such as a continuation of existing pro-diversity efforts, establishment of state standards for when equity could be considered achieved, a sharper focus on existing programs, and the encouragement of voluntary fair housing and magnet school programs.

The Center of the American Experiment’s 144-page counter-report, however, does not really address these seemingly sensible proposals. Instead it sets up straw men in the form of “busing” and mandated “de-segregation.” Neither of these policies was recommended by any of the reports being criticized.

Having created their straw men, the CAE authors then proceed with the dreary ritual of attacking them. Amusingly, they did a poor job even putting the lance into their own creations. Because school integration has been so well researched, the overall evidence base has been digested into authoritative literature reviews. The gist of these reviews is that school integration has several well-documented benefits, including improved intergroup relations for all students, and improved academic outcomes for students of color (along with no benefit or harm for white students). The authors do not seriously engage this research. Instead, while they do cite two literature reviews, they misrepresent the conclusions of those reviews.

All of this may strike readers as merely mundane, poor-quality arguments against equity and diversity. Fair enough. But what brought tears of appreciation to our judges’ eyes was the lengthy, heart-rending and compassionate soliloquy about the need to rectify the injustice of the achievement gap. The author’s stated passion for closing the achievement gap, accompanied by an equally passionate rejection of initiatives sensibly designed to close it, raises obtuseness to the level of performance art.

In the report’s grand finale, readers are told that universal salvation lies in Florida. Yes, at little or no cost, Minnesota can be the next proud owner of the Florida reform model. Of course, there is extensive literature (including several NEPC publications) explaining that the Florida reforms do not deliver on what they promise. But an excursion to Florida is invariably part of the annual itinerary of the Bunkum Award, and we thank CAE for making it possible in 2012.

As ridiculous as it is, this report is troubling on many levels: it sets up and attacks straw men; it provides a shoddy and unbalanced literature review designed to convince readers that desegregation and integration efforts have not been beneficial; and, worst of all, it reeks of hypocrisy. It self-righteously claims to be addressing the achievement gap while rejecting proposals with a positive record and embracing a set of proposals that, if they have any effect, would likely make the gap worse.

As one of our judges thoughtfully summarized, “This is just BUNK.”