Blaming schools for the “achievement gap” is foolish and counterproductive

On Election Day, voters in Montgomery County, Maryland, where I live, will choose among six candidates for the school board running in three contested two-person elections. A seventh candidate is running unopposed after her challenger dropped out of the race.

Montgomery County is Maryland’s largest school district. Its operating budget exceeds $2.5 billion a year.

The Washington Post has presented profiles of the seven candidates based on their written answers to questions. One of the questions called on the candidates to identify the “greatest problem facing the school system.”

Five of the seven candidates identified “the achievement gap affecting students of color” or some variation on the same theme. Is this really the school system’s greatest problem?

There was a substantial achievement gap when I was a student in Montgomery County public schools. Some students were extraordinarily high achievers. Others achieved very little that was positive.

I don’t recall anyone saying that this gap was a problem with the school system. I think we assumed that, to the extent the gap didn’t flow from variations in abilities that help one succeed in school, the problem resided in the students and/or their parents.

In those days, the vast majority of students in the county were White. That has changed dramatically. At our 50th high school reunion, we learned that only 7 percent of the student body at our alma mater are White.

But the change in racial composition, and the fact that White students as a group are higher achievers than Blacks and Hispanics, shouldn’t change the analysis. Why assume that it’s the school system’s fault if Black students as a group achieve less than White students? Why not place the blame for poor achievement where it has always been placed — on the students and/or their parents?

Are Black students in a given class instructed differently than Whites in the same class? Do they take more difficult exams? Is student placement determined by race instead of demonstrated aptitude?

The answer to these questions surely is “no.” It’s true that Black students are disciplined more frequently than Whites, but that’s the result of behavior, not race.

The same analysis applies to Hispanic students, assuming that schools make reasonable efforts to offset any language barrier. I’m not aware of any evidence that in Montgomery County they don’t.

I suspect that blaming the school system for the collective inability of certain racial and ethnic groups to achieve depresses minority student achievement. Only to the extent that the school system mindlessly blames itself does it bear some responsibility for the problem.

So what is the biggest problem facing the Montgomery County school system? I don’t know. I’m tempted to say it’s that all students, regardless of race and ethnicity, are subjected to the victimization mindset exhibited by five of the seven school board candidates. I suspect this mindset pervades large chunks of the curriculum and makes most students dumber.

What did the other two candidates say? The candidate who’s running unopposed, Brenda Wolf a retired civil rights attorney and the only Black candidate, said: “Prioritizing use of limited resources.”

That’s a conventional, all purpose answer, and it’s encouraging to see a former civil rights lawyer not citing “the achievement gap.” However, it seems odd to talk about limited resources as the district’s biggest problem when the education budget exceeds $2.5 billion.

The other candidate, Patricia O’Neill, a liberal from my neck of the woods who has served on the school board forever, said: “Aging and overcrowded schools.” That’s a sensible answer. I might vote for her this time.