Racial disparities confound Washington Post

In separate articles, today’s Washington Post takes up two racial disparities revealed by recent studies. The first pertains to “degree selection.” Danielle Douglas-Gabriel reports:

African-American and Hispanic students disproportionately earn more bachelor’s degrees in low-paying majors, putting them at higher risk for financial instability after graduation, according to a new study from Young Invincibles, an advocacy group. . . .

The highest paying majors through mid-career were primarily in science, technology, engineering and math-related fields, while the lowest were in law enforcement, education, and professional studies.

Researchers found African-Americans are overrepresented in four of the six lowest-paying fields; the same is true for Hispanic students in three of the six majors at the bottom of the income ladder.

What explains the disparity?

There is no singular reason for the disparities within majors, but centuries of racial discrimination, uneven budgetary support for K-12 education and poor academic advising and student support contribute to the problem, said Tom Allison, deputy director of policy and research at Young Invincibles, and one of the authors of the study.

This is the kind of analysis you’d expect from a liberal advocacy group, and some of it may have merit. But there’s a much more obvious and straightforward explanation that is missing from the Post’s story — college mismatch caused by racial preferences.

If stands to reason that if a student is admitted into a college with grades and test scores well below those of most other students, he or she will be less likely than others to take courses in difficult subject areas such as science and engineering. As Gail Heriot and others have pointed out, research shows that this phenomenon does, in fact, play out. It’s the most obvious explanation for why African-American and Hispanic students tend to pursue the least rigorous course offerings and disciplines.

The second disparity highlighted today by the Post is that black teachers are disproportionately quitting jobs in inner-city public schools. In Washington, D.C., for example, the portion of the teaching force that is white more than doubled between 2003 and 2011 (from 16 percent to 39 percent), while the share of black teachers shrank from 77 percent to 49 percent. Attrition was a big driver of this shift.

The Washington experience is the most dramatic result found by the study about which the Post reports (by the left-leaning Albert Shanker Institute). But the trend was the same in the eight other school districts analyzed.

The Shanker Institute says that its study raises questions about whether those school systems are doing enough to maintain a diverse teaching corps. But what, short of discriminating against white teachers, can the school systems do to retain African-American teachers?

The answer depends on the cause of the disparity in quit rates. Post reporter Lyndsey Layton quotes professor Richard Ingersoll, who helped write the study. He says that minority teachers quit because of working conditions in their schools.

Thanks, prof. But what conditions drive them to quit in greater numbers than their white counterparts?

Ingersoll cites “standardized curriculum that’s scripted and sometimes micromanaged.” This, he says, “drives teachers nuts.” But why would it drive black teachers more nuts than white teachers? The Post doesn’t say and I can’t think of a plausible reason.

Here’s an alternative explanation: black teachers may be more frustrated by the indiscipline of their students who (this being the city) tend predominantly to be black, and more discouraged by restrictions on their ability to impose discipline.

I’m speculating here. However, the Shanker study itself argues that minority teachers have higher expectations for minority students than white teachers do. And the study cites discipline problems as a reason for high teacher quit-rates among minorities (the Post doesn’t mention this). The study concludes that minority teachers are leaving because they want more classroom discretion and autonomy. It seems likely that an important area in which they crave discretion and autonomy is student discipline.

In any event, I found it interesting, though hardly surprising, that the Post reflexively explained the two racial disparity stories of the day in terms suitable to liberals — past racial discrimination, insufficient spending, standardized curriculum — while ignoring explanations, one of them obvious, that a conservative might advance.