Conservative Pundit Gets it Wrong in Analysis of Social Science Research

Over the years, political columnist and social critic George Will has had moments where balanced thinking and rational erudition ruled the day.

But the position Will laid out in a recent column in The Washington Post was surely not one of those moments.

In the commentary, The Sobering Evidence of Social Science, Will revisited a 1966 report on public school outcomes called Equality of Educational Opportunity, and its author James Coleman. He held the report up next to another study, this one from 1965 about Black families in America, called The Moynihan Report - a dangerous diatribe about African-American "pathologies" and "inadequately socialized males."

"Coleman documented how schools are reflections of, rather than cures for, the failure of families to function as the primary transmitter of social capital," Will wrote in his July 6 column, adding that the study - which compared data from more than 3,000 schools and 600,000 primary and secondary school students - "is pertinent to today's political debates about class and social mobility."

Will wrote that Coleman "found that the best predictor of a school's outcomes is the quality of the children's families. And students' achievements are influenced by the social capital - [emphasis mine] - (habits, mores, educational ambitions) their classmates bring to school."

His bottom line assessments: Early childhood education produces only "small and evanescent" effects; school integration is not as beneficial to student outcomes as correcting the failures of families to transmit social capital; and that, essentially, better funding for public schools is throwing good money after bad.

If only those who call themselves liberals, progressives, etc., would embrace the social science that supports Will's notions, he contends, we would work harder on the "cultural" rather than the "financial" variables that affect educational outcomes.

In other words, don't waste time and energy better funding broken systems; instead fix the broken people and their bad values and social mores.

Will's column is many things. "Hooey" comes to mind. But mostly it is pure manipulation of the facts.

The axiom that data serves both sides of the proverbial political coin rings true in this case.

We know from follow-up to his report's release that Coleman, the author of Equality of Educational Opportunity, actually argued for integration in the schools. We know now for certain that he was right. Students of color, when working in desegregated schools, perform better. Expectations improve. Teaching is focused on higher levels of achievement.

Will, bright man that he is, surely knows that. He simply chooses to ignore it.

Additionally, there is a veritable avalanche of data that suggests more money does help schools improve outcomes for students.

There's no debate that poor neighborhoods have the least experienced teachers, less funding for programs and supports, and often lack the supplies, equipment and up-to-date facilities of wealthier peers. So poor students' educational outcomes are linked as much to their family background as to the quality - or lack thereof - of their schools.

One can look back at school data from the late 1960s and early 1970s - prior to backsliding brought on by President Richard Nixon's policies - and see the dramatic gains of Black children in schools. Those gains are a direct result of increased attention to, better support for and an influx of funding to schools that educated African-American students.

And Will directs his daggers at liberals and progressives - educators, mostly - while ignoring the fact that many polls indicate that the public believes schools should be better funded. All across the United States, if you ask people who are not sitting behind a desk pontificating about "family disintegration" and "chaotic neighborhoods," they believe we could and should be spending more on our kids.

In February, for example, nearly seven out of 10 Alabama residents said they don't believe education is adequately funded in that red state - and a majority of Republicans and Democrats agreed. "Most of those surveyed, transcending certain affiliations or demographics," an article in read, "say [funding] education is this state's top priority."

If we don't spend more money on struggling schools, then what? Is Will saying then that schools can do no better than take children whose outcomes are already predetermined - and herd them through a hopeless system?

The Pedagogy of Confidence - the cornerstone of the work we do here at NUA - is based on science that tells us that, while young people come to schools with many challenges, schools can do much to meet them where they are in order to support their health, emotional and academic needs.

Unfortunately, too many schools and educators still approach these students from a deficit model - they see the Black and Brown children who come to them from the "chaotic neighborhoods" Will mentions as damaged, instead of as bringing real strengths on which the educators can build.

Will's commentary seems to drive home that deficit model, emphasizing as it does Coleman's perspective that "schools bring little influence to bear on a child's achievement that is independent of his background and general social context."

Here's the thing: Contrary to Will's assertions, liberals, progressives, unions and education advocates have always argued that family support and community health is critical to improving student outcomes. Leaving aside for a moment the pernicious effects of racism and poverty in many disadvantaged communities (which should be obvious to a man with a pedigree such as Will) we also know that, as with any intervention, quality matters. That's precisely why we fight so hard for high-quality schools - from pre K through graduation - and understand that better quality often starts with better funding. In other words, it's not just social capital that matters, but actual capital.

Will's argument is a tired rehash of an old narrative steeped in conservative values of individualism: If only you (parent) would do better, then your children would do better - and there'd be no need for the privileged to offer up any help to those on "the lowest rungs on the ladder of upward mobility."

Thankfully, there are those who operate under a different set of values: We see schools as reflections of and cures for the failure of society to care for those same people. And we believe in, and will do whatever it takes to assure their success.