Failure Of Proof: The Elusive Benefits Of Diversity

January 2007

The Supreme Court will be considering two cases in the coming term that will determine whether the benefits that flow from racially diverse K-12 classrooms constitute a compelling state interest. The Supreme Court held in the 2003 University of Michigan affirmative action case, Grutter V. Bollinger, that the benefits that flow from a racially diverse elite college campus constitute a compelling state interest permitting the use of racial classifications. The alleged benefits in Grutter were: 1) breaking down racial stereotypes, 2) promoting cross-cultural understanding, 3) preparing students for a global marketplace, and 4) promoting spirited classroom discussions.

The Seattle School District, a party in one of the two cases pending before the Court, asserts that its race-based student-assignment policy serves two compelling state interests: 1) securing the educational and societal benefits that flow from racial diversity and 2) avoiding the harmsthat resultfromracially concentrated schools. (Note that the race-based assignments in the two cases weren't made to remedy segregated schools; the schools weren't segregated. Rather, the assignments were made to diversify the racial composition of the schools in order to obtain the foregoing benefits).

In support of its allegedly compelling state interests, the district cited the testimony of social scientists who claimed that racially diverse schools promote, among other things, critical-thinking skills. The district also cited research that students in racially isolated schools have lower test scores and achievement levels.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights recently held a hearing to consider whether, as the Distinct contends, racially diverse K-12 schools do, in fact, promote critical-thinking skills and whether students in racially isolated schools have lower test scores and achievement levels. Most of the testimony at the hearing showed that the evidence in support of the District's contentions is scant, and, to the extent it does exist, highly dubious.

Professor David Armor of George Mason University compared reading achievement scores of black 8th graders from predominantly black schools versus comparatives from predominantly white schools. The scores came from the National Assessment of Educational Progress ("the nation's report card"). The comparison showed that after adjusting for socioeconomic differences (i.e., parent's educational level, number of computers and books in the home, eligibility for free-lunch program, limited language proficiency, etc.) black students in predominantly white schools scored only two points higher than blacks in predominantly black schools - a mere one-percent difference. (As a frame of reference, the reading-achievement gap between black students and white students is 24 points).

Interestingly, Hispanic students in predominantly Hispanic schools scored nearly ten-points higher than Hispanic students in predominantly white schools. Prof. Armor points out that this may be because the states in which Hispanic students are more heavily concentrated (e.g., Texas, California)doa better job educating their students. But even after adjusting for such differences, Hispanics in predominantly Hispanic schools outperformed Hispanics in predominantly white schools by 3 or 4 points.

Witnesses at the hearing cited a number of studies that concluded that the median reading- and math-achievement gains for minority students due to classroom diversity were zero. Still, advocates for race-based student assignments could reasonably argue that this doesn't necessarily disprove the contention that racially diverse schools promote critical-thinking skills or that those students in racially isolated schools have lower test scores. After all, reading and math comprise only part of a well-rounded education. Proponents argue that the benefits of diversity cited by the University of Michigan in Grutter – e.g., breaking down racial stereotypes, promoting spirited classroom discussions – are components of a good education as well.

The problem is that the purported benefits cited by supporters of affirmative action elude precise measurement. Students aren't tested or graded on things such as "breaking down racial stereotypes". The alleged benefits are so nebulous that even obtaining consensus on the appropriate metrics is difficult. Whether students are "better prepared for a global marketplace" as a result of attending a racially diverse school is a proposition difficult to prove or disprove. There is, however, a very straightforward way of measuring whether racially diverse schools, as such, improve critical-thinking skills. The method is inelegant and painfully devoid of nuance. Quite simply, the experts at the hearing were asked whether there are any studies showing that racial/ethnic diversity improves student performance, as demonstrated by grades or standardized test scores, in any of the following subjects: Arithmetic, Reading, Spelling, Writing, Phonics, English, Penmanship, Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry, Calculus, Biology, Physics, Anatomy, Geology, Economics,Geography, Speech,History, Archaeology, Anthropology, Religion, Health, Physical education, Home economics, Shop.

These are subjects that may be found in a K-12 curriculum. Admittedly, the relevance of some of these categories may seem absurd; penmanship, shop, and physical education generally aren't associated with critical-thinking skills.

But they're not much more absurd than "promoting spirited classroom discussions" – a goal achievable without much critical thinking by virtually any 3rd-grade class, regardless of how diverse it may be. Nonetheless, the majority of the above categories inarguably measure critical-thinking skills. And such skills can be measured using generally accepted standards.

So, what was the response to the questions? The witnesses at the hearing, each an expert in the area and familiar with the extant literature on the subject, could cite only one study that suggests that racially diverse schools improved student performance as defined above. And that improvement pertains to just one of the 26 subjects listed above - spelling. But even that study is disputed. (There's also some evidence of improvements, however negligible, in writing and geography.) This isn't to suggest that there might not be some literature of which the witnesses were unaware or couldn't readily recall – but rather, that the existence of unequivocal data widely acknowledged to support a finding of improved student performance is, at best, underwhelming.

A contention that something is a compelling state interest – on a par with national security – must be supported by more than disputed data or utopian presumptions. As one of the circuit-court judges in the Seattle case observed, "One would think that to be 'compelling' there would be no room for doubt of the need [for race-based student assignments]."

Exactly. Mere good intentions are insufficient to make mincemeat of the 14th Amendment.