The Limits of Education Reform: A Road Paved With the “Best Intentions”?


There is one question that animates the sociology of education more than any other: how do we explain and predict the difference in outcomes among black and white students in the post Civil Rights era of greater equality of opportunity? Sure, we talk about Hispanic and Asian students but really they are often deployed as a means of clarifying the black-white racial hierarchy in the U.S. And, yes, we sometimes talk about other things like class or the more robust “social class”, which includes the social conditions of economic positions relative to one another. But, really social class is often a proxy for race for those who would rather not discuss race head-on and class is so entangled with intersecting processes of racialization that really the easiest way to critique those kinds of analyses is to point out, “but what about race and racism though”. The debate persists because, despite our best intentions, public education in the U.S. does not serve black students well.


The conundrum of persistent “racial achievement gaps” is primarily a discussion about black and white students. The discussion is enjoying a good moment in academic publishing. There are at least three notable books on the market about how these gaps are made, reproduced and articulated. Linn Posey-Maddox’s “When Middle-Class Parents Choose Urban Schools” examines race, class, urban-suburban school choices and the resources that follow them. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy’s “Inequality in the Promised Land” examines how racial differences are reproduced when external measures of class – cultural and economic capital – are roughly equal in a well-resourced integrated suburban school. And, Amanda E. Lewis and John B. Diamond’s “Despite The Best Intentions: How Racial Inequality Thrives in Good Schools” is a theoretically-driven, empirical analysis of what we would call the within-school differences that produce different outcomes for black and white students.


Like Lewis-McCoy’, Lewis and Diamond’s book situates their analysis on a well-resourced suburban school that by almost every quantitative measure we have is doing everything right. The anonymized “Riverview” is the integrated Shangri-La of liberal dreams: it is well resourced; black students out-perform black students in a neighboring urban school district; and the teachers are, on average, highly qualified. Despite these objective measures of racial equity, black and white students within Riverview are living the dreaded “racial achievement gap”. The difference is qualitative. Rather than differences in graduation rates among black and white students that plague urban and rural school districts, suburban Riverview sees disparities in where black and white graduates attend college. Those differences are linked to which track black and white students are put on (or default into) at Riverview: basic, honors or advanced placement. White students, despite being just half of the student body make-up 80 to 90 percent of the honors and advanced placement classes.

Class-based solutions to racial inequality stress resource investment and allocation to achieve equality in opportunity. The implicit assumption is that assuming any racial differences in outcome after equal opportunity is achieved can be attributed to individual abilities. This is one of Barack Obama’s most strident arguments, by the way. From the head to the tail of American discourse, the idea of class based universal reforms as redress for racism is viewed as pragmatic. Lewis and Diamond point to several measures of the idea’s pervasiveness in media and political discourse. In a slightly different but wholly related guise, the argument continues unabated with recent dialogue about Bernie Sanders’ racial street cred versus given his rejection of economic reparations. Ta-Nehisi Coates recently wrote Sanders’ refutation of economic reparations for blacks is indicative of the kind of liberal politics of a “rising tide lifting all boats”. Coates condemns this thinking as irrationally hopeful, at best, saying that, “treating a racist injury solely with class-based remedies is like treating a gun-shot wound solely with bandages.” Agree or not with Coates’ artful assessment of class-based solutions as comprehensive redress for racist harm, he is right that this kind of rhetoric is pervasive in our political discourse. Nowhere is that more true than in our discourse, politics, and national obsession with racial inequality and schooling.


The entire strategy of federal, state and local education policy since at least 1971 when the Supreme Court decided Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education has quickly devolved into strategies to substitute nominal class redress for racial redress. Scholars have noted that white districts across the U.S. immediately began challenging the landmark Brown versus the Board of Education of Topeka decision. In many critical ways, Swann gave federal district courts the tools of school desegregation that would infuriate and mobilize white families, school boards, and districts for years to come: busing, teacher reassignment, and student assignments based (at least in part) on achieving racial parity. The resulting challenge for white parents hell bent on maintaining the best for “their kids” and the political class that needs to be re-elected was to critique the tools of school resource allocation while maintaining a rhetorical allegiance to racial equality. For at least twenty years that rhetoric has stressed the kind of liberalism Coates critiques and that Lewis and Diamond show still very much animates formal school policy.


That rhetoric isn’t one-sided; it can be seen on the political left and right. On the left, there is at least some vague implicit agreement that the black poor are qualitatively different than the white poor that generally ends with some kind of hand waving about inclusion and diversity. On the right, there is no such agreement about historical and contemporary racial harm and violence in education. But, there is a general begrudging acceptance of George Bush’s version of color-blind commitment to condemning the “bigotry of low expectations” for black students. The two positions aren’t very far apart. In fact, they aren’t even different positions. They’re merely different rhetorical justifications for maintaining what Diamond and Lewis call the “racial achievement hierarchy” of within-school stratification with marginally different justifications for who should be in “basic” curriculums and who should not. Almost no one in the educational industrial complex actively argues for doing away with “levels” or hierarchical access to the best educational resources when this means changing the educational trajectory of wealthier white students. Instead, at best, progressive liberal solutions involve expanding the resources for “basic” educational tracks relative to other schools, not relative to all students in a school. What Diamond and Lewis propose is that yes, resources matter to racial inequality but resources may matter most to defining the type of inequality rather than diminishing inequality.


The book describes findings from Lewis and Diamond’s multi-year qualitative study at racially diverse and statistically integrated “Riverview”. They interview students, teachers, and administrators. They also do an admirable job of triangulating their data with survey, demographic, local and national data on racial disparities within and between schools. They do this to bolster their argument that their focus may be on the “micro-politics” of how racial disparities are created at one school but the mechanisms of the “everyday life” of racism at Riverview and it surrounding community are representative of U.S. schooling writ large. The book ‘s first chapter is a muscular but accessible treatment of the research and social theory of race, racism, education, and social indicators of well being in the U.S. They respectfully engage the popular “oppositional school culture” thesis. That’s the one that argues that black students don’t do well in school because their friends mock them for “acting white”. It is, as Lewis and Diamond point out, the theory that won’t die despite ample empirical evidence of its facile explanatory power because it gives us what we love: a narrative of individual failings to explain away systemic inequalities and the personal choices we make that reproduces those inequalities. Like other studies, they find little evidence of the acting white thesis. Evidence abounds that black students meet or exceed the educational aspirations of their white peers, that black parents value education and invest in their children’s’ education within the limits of their socio-economic means; and, that oppositional peer group narratives of “geeks and nerds” transcend race. If black students aren’t just genetically inferior to white students (still an acceptable social science hypothesis) and don’t hate school because book learnin’ is for white people, how do we understand persistent racial differences in academic achievement?


In subsequent chapters, Lewis and Diamond argue that racial differences are reproduced at Riverview through three key mechanisms. One, disparities in quantity and quality of disciplinary treatment mean that black students are more frequently punished for behaviors similar to white students and the punishments are more punitive. That’s in keeping with national data on in school and out of school suspension that shows black students is more harshly punished in schools, resulting in missed days, disrupted learning, and declining teacher investment. Two, the classic issue of academic differentiation of “high” and “low” tracks within one school raises its head in chapter four. Within school tracking is a primary tool for social control of black students. It is also a tool for managing of black parent’s socio-political agitation for greater access to “good schools”. Tracking also has a less discussed ideological value. It also allows good people in good neighborhoods with good schools to support “diversity” in principle without making meaningful changes to how schools operate most efficiently for white families. Third, Lewis and Diamond indict white parents’ “opportunity hoarding”. Opportunity hoarding is a popular concept in the study of what Charles Tilly called categorical inequalities, or the marked group identities that pattern our social world. Lewis and Diamond argue similarly to others that “well meaning” white parents use their superior cultural and economic capital to divert school resources to the high tracks where their children are disproportionally enrolled and the school rewards white parents’ cultural and economic capital as superior to black parents’.


The data are sound, the theory is solid, and the writing is clear with an acceptable level of academic complexity given the complexity of the subject matter. The text is great in conversation with the other two recent books in this conversation, mentioned above. It is perhaps also best when read as an important intervention in contemporary discussions about the limits of school reform specifically and liberal reforms more broadly to include full redress for systemic, durable racial inequality. Lewis and Diamond do not go this far in their conclusion, choosing instead the more common (and perfectly fine) sociological practice of conservative prescriptions. But, the more interesting extrapolation from their research is what it means to “reform” schools given their intractable role in defining race and racism in these critical ways: access to resources, the power to transform resources into more resources, and the cultural legitimacy to delimit that ability for others. Lewis and Diamond settle on a sort of hearts-and-mind approach, more dialogue and the like with white Americans’ at the center given their social location at the top. That is fine. It is not my particular cup of tea. A more radical public-ness is more to my liking. It would do away with tracks, within and between schools. The problem there, of course, is the problem that has always been: us. Lewis and Diamond don’t say it directly but those best intentions are a problem because of who has them.

Duncan and Blau once said that a perfect meritocracy requires no less than the destruction of the family unit. In the case of race, racism, and school racial “equality” would require no less than destroying the intergenerational transmission of white parents’ most valuable property to their children through educational resources: whiteness. As long as the best of intentions are at odds with the desire to transfer generational privilege to one’s children, racial inequality is likely to thrive and schools can be described as “good” not in spite of their role in the reproduction of racial inequality but precisely because that’s what they reproduce.




3 thoughts on “The Limits of Education Reform: A Road Paved With the “Best Intentions”?

  1. Racism is big, as is class. The neoliberal “business model” will keep the injustice going, and sadly, higher education is doing very little to remedy inequality and injustice. Maybe you should go to the Left Forum. There are people who have been working on these issues for decades.

  2. Wow. I’m on my second time through this post. I am certainly an amateur so this is as interesting as it is challenging. “In the case of race, racism, and school racial “equality” would require no less than destroying the intergenerational transmission of white parents’ most valuable property to their children through educational resources: whiteness. As long as the best of intentions are at odds with the desire to transfer generational privilege to one’s children, racial inequality is likely to thrive and schools can be described as “good” not in spite of their role in the reproduction of racial inequality but precisely because that’s what they reproduce.” I’m stumped as to what practices (other than the “no tracking” you mention) follow from this?

  3. I suspect that there is no way to isolate a school culture, or a student’s experience in that culture, from the class and race issues that dominate the larger culture outside the school. As long as ones economic success depends on acquiring certain credentials (Where did YOU go to college?) rather than skills or knowledge, anything close to meritocracy is not likely. Bummer.

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