Friday, November 30, 2007

Stay tuned for Part III on Acting White

After I dragged myself out of bed at an embarrasingly late afternoon hour, I received two curious emails asking, "Are you ever going to post part III on acting white?"

Unfortunately, unless Secretary Spellings performs some voodoo fever-reducing magic on me, it will not be today.

Enjoy the weekend, everyone!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Evidence: Is There an "Acting White" Phenomenon?

Since 1986, the idea of "acting white" has been won a place in the popular consciousness. It is used by the media to explain black kids' lower achievement. It is deployed by politicians like Barack Obama and celebrities like Bill Cosby to rally the black community. It is called upon in faculty lounges to account for the behavior of students.

Given all of the hoopla, it's surprising that no one has been able to find support for this theory's key predictions. To be sure, there are some ongoing points of contention, and I will discuss these below.
  • Prediction 1: Involuntary minorities like African-Americans do not believe that education will lead to social mobility.

Despite their poorer performance on average, study after study has demonstrated that African-American students do not perceive lower returns to education or less favorable occupational opportunities than whites.

Less understood is the gap between African-Americans' positive attitudes and their school-related habits and behaviors. A common explanation is the idea of a unique "cultural toolkit" shaped by African-Americans' economic experiences. As sociologists James Ainsworth-Darnell and Doug Downey explained:

African-American students tend to live in neighborhoods with material conditions (e.g. high unemployment and nontraditional family structures) that are less likely to foster the kinds of skills, habits, and styles that lead to school success. For example, contrast the life of student A, who lives in a world in which parents rise daily to prepare for work and other adults in the neighborhood also follow the structured routine of work, with student B, whose parents and many other adults in the neighborhood are unemployed. Other factors being equal, Student A will be more likely than Student B to develop the habit of being on time to school because of exposure to and emphasis on a daily schedule. Despite valuing education, therefore, African-American students are less likely to exhibit the kinds of school-related behaviors that teachers reward.

In short, there is still much work to do to understand what Roz Mickelson dubbed the "attitude-achievement paradox" - but there is little support for Fordham and Ogbu's claims about African-Americans' negative attitudes towards education.

  • Prediction 2: Black students reject education and academic achievement as a "white" enterprise.
When black and Hispanic kids use the term "acting white," are they equating doing well in school with whiteness? Most studies have concluded that black students are referring to cultural, rather than academic, practices when they use this phrase. In a recent study that's worth reading, sociologist Prudence Carter explained that black and Hispanic teenagers are referencing modes of speaking and dress, as well as the composition of one's friendship network, when they use this term - not academic achievement. Carter also points to the wide variation in attitudes about acting white within the black community, and concludes that Ogbu wrongly treated African-Americans as a monolithic mass.

In his paper, economist Roland Fryer raises an interesting point about the distinctions drawn in this literature. For example, if speaking standard English is corrrelated with academic success, does it make sense to draw distinctions between academic and cultural meanings? This is worth thinking more about.

  • Prediction 3: Black students ridicule their peers who put forth effort and achieve academically.

Watch any TV sitcom and you'll see that, regardless of race, teenagers give "geeks," "brainiacs," and "nerds" a hard time. This is the key finding from Karolyn Tyson's study of North Carolina schools. However, in a subset of schools where tracking was racially and socioeconomically polarized, she did find evidence of a "burden of acting white." (Note that this is an association, not a causal claim; the direction of causality could run in either direction.)

Tyson's finding works in tandem with Roland Fryer's paper on the relationship between student popularity and GPA. Only in racially integrated schools did he observe a different relationship between popularity and GPA for black students. (I'll say more about the Fryer paper tomorrow. ) John Ogbu's study of Shaker Heights, an affluent suburb, as well as Ron Ferguson's work on integrated suburban schools, have uncovered similar findings.

  • Prediction 4: Black students' coping with the "burden of acting white" is one major reason why a black-white achievement gap exists.
If the "burden of acting white" is largely a fiction, it cannot explain the racial achievement gap. However, there is some evidence that such a phenomenon exists in particular settings - so what proportion of the black-white test score gap could the "burden of acting white" explain?

Roland Fryer takes up this question in his paper. He finds that for the average black student, eliminating the popularity/GPA relationship would actually increase the black-white test score gap. (This is because black students with low GPAs are more popular than white students with low GPAs.) For black students with GPAs of 3.5 or greater, eliminating the popularity/GPA relationship would explain 11.3% of the black-white achievement gap.

Unfortunately, the media hasn't latched onto these studies as tightly as it did to Fordham and Ogbu's idea of acting white. Hopefully they'll set the record straight in the future.

PS - For those who are interested, there's a new edited book called Beyond Acting White that covers recent research on this issue.

Cool people you should know: Karolyn Tyson

Karolyn Tyson is a sociologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her work focuses on the developmental trajectories of African-American children and the ways that schools are organized to either support or inhibit black students' academic and social growth.

Cool findings:
  • Based on a study of eight North Carolina public high schools, Tyson found that evidence of a "burden of acting white" was limited to a small subset of schools. Arguing that Fordham and Ogbu's study was flawed because of its lack of a comparison group, she found that peer pressure against high achievement is prevalent among teenagers regardless of race. You can read about her study of "acting white" in this NY Times article.

  • How schools are organized helps to predict when this stigma becomes race-oriented, producing a burden of "acting white" for black students, and when it becomes class-based, producing a burden of "acting high and mighty" for low-income whites. In particular, racially and socioeconomically polarized tracking patterns were associated with these twin burdens.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Children's Book Gift List!

Last weekend, I finally had a chance to plant myself in the children's book section and check out some of your gift suggestions. I picked my five favorites, but take a look at the full list under comments here. In no particular order:

1) Knuffle Bunny Too: A Case of Mistaken Identity (Mo Willems)

2) Rules (Cynthia Lord)

3) Sugar Cane (Patricia Storace)

4) Probuditi (Chris Van Allsburg)

5) Trail Paper Poetry Pop-Up (David Pelham)

Thank you to everyone who suggested a book!

The "Burden of Acting White"

Go into any inner-city neighborhood, and folks will tell you that government alone can’t teach kids to learn. They know that parents have to parent, that children can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.
-Barack Obama, 2004 Democratic Convention

Most academic theories die a quiet death in the pages of a journal. Not so with Signithia Fordham and John Ogbu's notion of "acting white." Since its publication in 1986, this idea has been invoked as a central cause of the black-white achievement gap by media, politicians, and educators.

Fordham and Ogbu's theory was much more complex than the caricature that has been appropriated by the popular media. A handful of early articles, such as this 1988 article in the NYT, presented this complexity. But most articles on the topic lead with headlines like "Talented black students find that one of the most insidious obstacles to achievement comes from a surprising source: their own peers" (Time Magazine, 1992). Since then, the "acting white" hypothesis has been used to argue that African-Americans simply don't value education and that their deviant values are to blame for the black-white achievement gap.

Fordham has called these interpretations tantamount to blaming blacks for being forced to sit on the back of the bus. (See a recent interview here.) What was Fordham and Ogbu's argument, then?

In earlier work, Ogbu attempted to answer a vexing question: Why do some minority groups do much better in American schools than others? Ogbu concluded that the group's mode of incorporation into American society - whether it was voluntary or involuntary - affected the group's attitudes toward schooling and their behaviors in school. Voluntary minorities, he reasoned, came to the United States expecting upward mobility. In contrast, involuntary minorities - such as African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, and American Indians - were incorporated through slavery or conquest. In examining the constellation of economic and social forces affecting African-Americans, they argued that African-Americans had adapted to historically poor educational and job opportunities by developing attitudes and behaviors incongruent with success in school. Their argument was not that the black community was pathological or deviant. Rather, Ogbu contended that limited opportunity gave rise to an adaptive culture.

Based on an ethnographic study of an African-American DC high school, Fordham and Ogbu added two new concepts to this foundation. They held that "one major reason black students do poorly in school is that they experience inordinate ambivalence and affective dissonance in regard to academic effort and success." The first new concept was the idea of an oppositional collective social identity: a peoplehood defined in contrast to whites that was the result of years of oppression by whites. Second was the notion of an oppositional cultural frame of reference intended to protect this identity and maintain boundaries between the group and white America. This frame of reference deemed behaviors and activities characteristic of whites as inappropriate for African-Americans. If African-Americans embraced these "white" activities, Fordham and Ogbu argued, they risked sanctioning by the group.

According to Fordham and Ogbu, activities defined as white at Capital High included speaking standard English, listening to white music (including going to a Rolling Stones concert at the Capital Center), going to the opera or ballet, working hard to get good grades in school, having cocktails or a cocktail party, and being on time. They go on to profile individual students and discuss the strategies that students used to negotiate the desire to do well and the demands of their peers. The central point, though, was that some part of African-American kids' poor performance is explained by their attempts to cope with the "burden of acting white."

The conclusions Fordham and Ogbu drew, however, stand in stark contrast to those traded in the media. They concluded:
The first and critically important change must occur in the existing opportunity structure, through an elimination of the job ceiling and related barriers. Changes in the opportunity structure are a prerequisite to changes in the behaviors and expectations of black adolescents.
Fordham and Ogbu also saw a role for schools and communities to play. They wanted schools to acknowledge the effects of this burden on their students and design programs accordingly.

Tomorrow, I'll review the empirical evidence on "acting white" that has accumulated since 1986.

WWMD on NAEP Exemptions

A-Rus is perplexed over at This Week in Education, and so am I. Why isn't anyone concerned that some districts exempted 20% of the total student population on the NAEP Trial Urban District Assessment?

Elizabeth Green is. A-Rus is. I am. But where are the groups most in favor of keeping ELL/students with disabilities in the accountability system - Ed Trust, Ed Sector, ELL/students with disabilities advocates, and the Secretary of Education - on this? Or groups like Fordham or the NYT that are concerned with having one national measure that allows for comparability across states?

WWMD means "What Will Maggie Do?"

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Edu-Bells (or evidence that I have a fever)

Though I was supposed to write about "acting white" today, it will have to wait until tomorrow. In the meantime, let me remind all eduwonkette readers to get a flu shot *before* you end up with the flu.

And yes, that is George Miller to the left.


Dashing through the Hill
With a bill that cannot pass
O'er to Rayburn we go
I've never taught a class (ha, ha ha!)

Phones begin to ring
Making Ted's face bright
Oh what fun to watch and track
NCLB's plight

Oh! No Child Left
No Child Left
No Child Left Behind!

Oh what fun to it is to bide
Our time until '09

Oh! No Child Left
No Child Left
No Child Left Behind!

Oh what fun to it is to bide
Our time until '09

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Lies, Damned Lies, and NAEP Exemptions

It turns out that there are four kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, statistics, and NAEP exemptions.

The purpose of the NAEP Trial Urban District Assessment is to "make it possible to compare the performance of students in participating urban school districts to that of public school students in the nation, in large central cities, and to each other." If comparability is the goal, exemption and accommodation provisions must be roughly similar in all districts.

At present, wide variation in exemption and accommodations makes comparing districts an almost impossible task. On the 4th grade reading assessment, some urban districts exempted up to 20% of the total population, while others only exempted 3%. Comparing scores within the same district over time is also a problem - DC exempted 8% of all students from the 4th grade reading assessment in 2002 but 14% in 2007.

Some key problems:
  • Four districts - Austin (20%), Cleveland (17%), Houston (17%), and DC (14%) exempted more than 10% of all students on the 4th grade reading test. (See Table 1 below.)

  • Two of the districts that showed exceptional progress - Atlanta and DC - have exhibited large amounts of growth in their exemption rates on the 4th grade reading test. In 2002, Atlanta only exempted 25% of all students with disabilities/ELL; in 2007, it exempted 58%. In 2002, DC exempted 42% of all students with disabilities/ELL; in 2007, it exempted 64%. (See Table 2.)

  • Accommodation rates also vary widely across districts. New York City gave accommodations to 76% of all students with disabilities/ELL on the 4th grade reading test. Los Angeles only gave accommodations to 13%. (Table 3 below.)

  • These patterns persist on the math test; there is wide variation in the use of exemptions and accommodations. (See Tables 4 and 5.)
What happened to the "you must test 95% of every subgroup" philosophy? If we're going to invest in these assessments and use them to inform policy, there need to be uniform testing protocols across all districts.

Until then, make these within (i.e. over time) and between district comparisons with care. Hat tip to the New York Sun's Elizabeth Green for breaking this story.

Table 1. Percent of All Students Exempted, 4th Grade Reading: 2002-2007

Table 2. Percent of Students with Disabilities/English Language Learners Exempted,
4th Grade Reading: 2002-2007

Table 3. Percent of Students with Disabilities/English Language Learners Receiving Accommodations,
4th Grade Reading: 2002-2007

Table 4. Percent of Students with Disabilities/English Language Learners Exempted,
4th Grade Math: 2003-2007

Table 5. Percent of Students with Disabilities/English Language Learners Receiving Accommodations,
4th Grade Math: 2003-2007

This week: The "Acting White" Hypothesis

Since Signithia Fordham and John Ogbu published "Black Students' School Success: Coping with 'The Burden of 'Acting White'" in 1986, the "acting white" hypothesis has commanded a significant amount of attention. This week, I'll describe this theory and examine the empirical evidence. On Friday, I'll talk about NYC's plan to rebrand school, which has been framed, in part, in this theory's terms.

The Theory

Thursday: The Evidence

Friday: The Policy Interventions: New York City's Plan to Rebrand School