Monday, July 06, 2015

An End to Colleges’ Racial Discrimination in Admissions?

The U.S. Supreme Court has an opportunity to finally get rid of racial discrimination in college admissions.  The court agreed this week to review, for a second time, Abigail Fisher’s case against the University of Texas at Austin in its new term this fall.

This comes at a time when racial preferences in college admissions, practiced by universities across the county, are under fire.

Several new lawsuits are making their way up through the lower courts challenging the use of preferences at Harvard and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

And earlier this year, Vijay Chokal-Ingam, brother of famed actress Mindy Kaling, publically criticized the use of racial preferences when he revealed the elaborate scheme he pulled off to get into medical school: He faked being black.

After witnessing his Indian-American friend fall victim to the use of racial preferences in medical school, Chokal-Ingam, also Indian-American, did some research to avoid the same fate.

“I studied the statistics and data made public by the Association of American Medical Colleges and came to a surprising conclusion. The data suggested that an Indian-American with my grades (3.1 GPA) and test scores (31 MCAT) was unlikely to gain admission to medical school, but an African-American with the same grades and test scores had a high probability of admission,” he said.

So he changed his name, shaved his head, joined the University of Chicago’s Organization of Black Students, and pretended to be African-American on his applications. And it worked. He was admitted.

Discrimination in Texas

Abigail Fisher also saw this discrimination first hand. In Texas, all state-funded schools automatically admit students in the top 10 percent of their high schools.

They subject remaining applicants, like Fisher, to a “holistic review” that includes racial preferences for underrepresented minorities.

The university rejected Fisher, and she sued for discriminating against her based on race.

In 2003, in Grutter v. Bollinger, the Supreme Court upheld racial preferences in state school admissions to the extent that they are “narrowly tailored to further compelling governmental interests.”

The court also determined that reaching a “critical mass” of diversity on campus to aid students in “obtaining the educational benefits of diversity” is a compelling interest.

But when the high court decided the Fisher case for the first time in 2013, it held that schools must prove their use of race meets that standard.

The court found that the lower courts had given too much deference to the University of Texas in determining whether its use of race in making admissions decisions was narrowly tailored.

It sent the case back to the lower court, directing it to apply strict scrutiny (the highest level of review) to establish whether it was necessary for the university to use race to achieve a critical mass of diversity.

The justices stressed that the lower court must look at actual evidence and not “simple … assurances of good intention” from the university.

But on remand, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ignored the Supreme Court’s instructions and again upheld the school’s plan, even though, as the dissenting judge pointed out, the school provided no evidence that racial preferences were needed to further their interest in “qualitative” diversity.

Fisher appealed to the Supreme Court again, and the court will hear arguments again in its 2015-2016 term.

However, since the 5th Circuit issued its decision, a scandal at the University of Texas has revealed that university officials had another, secret admissions process that they never revealed to the courts.

They regularly overrode their so-called “holistic review” to allow politically-connected individuals, such as state legislators and members of the university’s Board of Regents, to get family members and other friends admitted.

Additional Admission Factors

An investigation by Kroll Inc. found that many of these students were admitted “despite grades and test scores substantially below the median for admitted students.”

In fact, the admission rate for applicants given this special, secret consideration was 72 percent, while the admission rate for students through the “holistic review” was only 16 percent.

In 29 percent of the cases Kroll reviewed, “the files suggest that ethnic, racial, and state geographical diversity may have been an important factor,” making race and ethnicity an even more important factor in these “secret” admissions than in the holistic administration process.

The bad faith of the University of Texas in not telling the truth about its admissions policy the first time this case was before the Supreme Court could be an unexpected factor in the court’s reconsideration of the issue.

Racial preferences are nothing less than blatant racial discrimination no matter how “holistic.”

They remain a contentious topic in academia although not in America, where polls show that the public is overwhelmingly against them because they believe admission decisions made by colleges should be based solely on merit. What a concept!

As more people such as Chokal-Ingam speak out about how “affirmative action tends to promote racial resentment and perpetuates negative stereotypes” and how these programs don’t “fully benefit the underprivileged,” the Supreme Court ought to take note.

Hopefully the court will agree with Chokal-Ingam when he tweeted “affirmative action is DISCRIMINATION; it’s a lie to call it [something] else.”


Study Finds Students at Charters and Magnets Have Made ‘Meaningful Gains’

A newly released study by the Connecticut State Department of Education finds “meaningful gains” in two groupings of inner-city students attending the state’s public charter and magnet schools.

Data collected from 2010–12 revealed magnet and charter school students in 3rd through 5th grades and 6th through 8th grades fared better academically than students in traditional public schools.

“Evaluating the Academic Performance of Choice Programs in Connecticut: A Pretest-Posttest Evaluation Using Matched Multiple Quasi-Control Comparison Groups” found students’ scores on the Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT) showed “statistically meaningful gains” at the “proficient” level for the younger grade group attending magnet schools or “Open Choice” schools. CMT revealed similar results for the older grade group attending public charter schools.

“Every teacher was pleased to see the report,” said Bruce Douglas, executive director of the Capitol Region Education Council, one of six Regional Educational Service Centers (RESC) in Connecticut. RESCs exist in 40 states and act as an intermediary between states’ education departments and local school districts.

“I believe all teachers in Connecticut are committed to eliminating the achievement gap, but not all teachers are equally led, resourced, or given high quality professional development,” Douglas said. 

Underserved ‘Benefitting Academically’

“By looking at the performance of public schools of choice in Connecticut, this study shows students in our state’s urban and traditionally underserved communities are benefitting academically from having access to high quality educational options,” said Jennifer Alexander, chief executive officer for Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now, a Hartford-based school reform advocacy organization.

“At [Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now], we maintain that every child, regardless of race, wealth, or ZIP code, deserves access to a high quality education that will set them up for a lifetime of success and opportunity,” Alexander said.

Connecticut has nation’s worst achievement gap between black and white students, and it needs choice programs to enable children to attend better schools, Alexander says.

“The results of this study demonstrate the important role high quality schools of choice play in closing Connecticut’s worst-in-the-nation achievement gap and providing a great education for our kids, particularly for our most vulnerable students,” Alexander said. “With nearly 40,000 students currently attending chronically underperforming schools, we must continue to invest in high quality public schools of choice that are delivering results for our children and provide all our students with the ... world-class education they need and deserve.”

“Teachers in Connecticut, charter, local public, or magnet schools are focused on serving the best interests of children every day,” said Douglas. “That is why we are beginning to see a remarkable decline in the achievement gap in various schools and school districts. We should be very proud of and thankful for our teachers’ dedication and diligence. Yet, we still have a long way to go.”


Trigger warnings are educational suicide

Frank Furedi

Taking Durkheim's "Suicide" out of schools is madness

One reason I and many of my friends were drawn towards the discipline of sociology is because it helped us confront and understand many of the disturbing dimensions to everyday life. At its best, sociology gives meaning to what we perceive as private troubles, and allows us to understand those troubles within a comprehensible pattern of social interaction. So I am horrified by the argument being used by AQA, the largest exam board in the UK, to justify dropping the theme of suicide from its A-level syllabus.

AQA defended its decision on the grounds that a subject as disturbing as suicide posed a serious risk to the mental health of A-level students. Rupert Sheard, AQA qualifications manager, said his organisation has a ‘duty of care to all those students taking our courses to make sure the content isn’t going to cause them undue distress’.

But any version of sociology that does not disturb or distress people has little to do with the serious study of society. According to AQA, sanitising and impoverishing the sociology curriculum is a small price to pay for insulating 17- and 18-year-olds from disturbing aspects of everyday life. How long before A-level students are handed smiley-face stickers and offered a happiness sociology curriculum? If the teaching of sociology has to be reconciled with the supposed emotional disposition of students, then the integrity of the discipline becomes a negotiable commodity.

The argument used by AQA suggests young people studying A-level sociology should be regarded as patients rather than students. Good teachers have always sought to encourage students to feel good about the subjects they were studying. But teaching the knowledge content of a subject was always seen as the main mission of educators. According to AQA, however, it seems that subject content is subordinate to the alleged health risks posed by a discussion of suicide.

AQA’s decision to infantilise A-level students is the 21st-century equivalent of the traditional moral regulation of the education of young people. The classic exhortation, ‘Not in front of the children’, has been reconfigured as an exercise in therapeutic management. Traditional moral regulation has been displaced by the imperative of medicalisation. Ironically, the discipline of sociology – which has done so much to bring to light the moralising impulse driving the medicalisation of social life – has itself been medicalised.

AQA’s decision to remove suicide from the curriculum shows the extent to which education has fallen under the influence of therapeutic culture. Since the turn of the century, the desire to put up a moral quarantine around uncomfortable and distressing themes has been gaining momentum. A decade ago, I criticised a memorandum calling on academics at Durham University to obtain approval from an ‘ethics’ committee before they gave lectures on certain ‘distressing’ subjects, including abortion and euthanasia. At the time I received numerous emails from colleagues who were astonished by this illiberal incursion on academic freedom.

That was then. Over the past decade, numerous universities have introduced codes of conduct telling academics to ‘mind your language’, or urging them to ‘try to be sensitive to the feelings of others in the use of language’. The most frightening symptom of this medicalisation of the classroom is the introduction of so-called trigger warnings in higher education. In some North American universities, course handouts include trigger warnings about reading material. Novels and poems, which university students have read for centuries, are now assigned a health warning to indicate that they contain scenes of domestic violence, sexism, racism or a variety of other pathologies.

The premise of the trigger-warning crusade is that students cannot be trusted to engage with uncomfortable subjects. Nor can they be allowed to judge for themselves how to interpret difficult and challenging experiences and practices. Unfortunately, this attempt to quarantine the uncomfortable and dark dimensions of the human experience only serves to diminish education.

The emptying out of education

It is frequently suggested that the adoption of a pedagogy oriented towards therapeutic values need not encroach on the integrity of education. However, the subordination of education to therapeutic values does not leave the integrity of subject knowledge untouched. AQA’s decision to ‘protect’ students from a difficult subject like suicide is a case in point. Suicide is not just a peripheral issue for the discipline of sociology. One of sociology’s founding texts – Suicide (1897), by Emile Durkheim – is now represented as a potential risk to students’ wellbeing.

For sociologists, Suicide is not just another book. Rather, it offers a pioneering example of what the discipline of sociology can accomplish using a rigorous methodology and statistics. For almost a century, Suicide has been the text through which sociological concepts and methods were introduced to students. Getting rid of the treatment of suicide by Durkheim is like dropping the study of the Holocaust from twentieth-century history.

If the theme of suicide can be excised from the sociology curriculum, what happens to uncomfortable issues like racism, the oppression of minorities, exploitation, rape, domestic violence? There is an endless range of sociological topics that could trigger powerful emotions among sociology students. And why just focus on sociology? Will curriculum engineers now shift their focus to religious studies and quietly drop the Bible? After all, what could be more traumatic than a text in which fathers kill their sons, people indulge in ethnic cleansing, and suicide and rape are common. The Bible is far more haunting than the dry statistics contained in Durkheim’s Suicide. When the attempt to transform the classroom into a distress-free zone becomes widely accepted, the content of education becomes subject to criteria external to education.

The pedagogic strategy of treating students as if they were patients does students no favours. It deprives young people of the opportunity to develop the moral and intellectual resources they need to engage with challenging issues. Students are prevented from working out for themselves how to deal with issues like suicide. Instead of cultivating teenagers’ moral and emotional independence, therapeutic education reinforces their passivity and sense of powerlessness. Yes, some issues are distressing. But distress is not an indicator of illness; it is an integral part of people’s existence. When feeling distressed is medicalised, young people are prevented from developing their own ways of coping with painful experiences.

Neither teachers nor therapists can second-guess the reaction of young people to difficult themes or issues. Whether the content of a particular text causes distress to a reader cannot be worked out in advance, according to a pre-existing formula. Instead of turning sociology into an exercise in sensitivity training, educators should be encouraging students to gain a sociological understanding of their predicament. Compassion and thoughtfulness, not the avoidance of difficult topics, is the way forward.

As a discipline, sociology is in the business of questioning comfortable assumptions. In doing so, it frequently draws attention to the dark and destructive passions prevalent in human society. At its best, sociology really does disturb students, and force them to engage with some very uncomfortable realities. If AQA wants to turn education into a distress-free zone, it might as well stop offering sociology A-levels altogether.


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