The Resurgence of Single-Sex Education

Defenders of same-sex schools hold fast to the belief that girls and boys benefit from separate academic instruction. Proponents often point to school experiences documented in landmark reports like The American Association of University Women’s “How Schools Shortchange Girls” as evidence of widespread inequities faced by girls in mixed classrooms. Same-sex educational settings are also offered as a way to improve lagging achievement for low-income students of color—mainly boys—in urban public schools. Conversely, opponents claim single-sex education perpetuates traditional gender roles and “legitimizes institutional sexism,” while neuroscientists refute the merits of gender differences between girl and boy brains. And rather than creating more equitable schools for nonwhite students, some critics compare separating boys and girls to racially segregated schooling.

The disputes pitting ardent supporters against fervent detractors have done little to dampen popularity, however. The prevalence of single-sex public schools has risen and fallen over the years, yet the last decade has seen a major revival. According to the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, only 34 single-sex public schools were in operation in 2004. That number jumped 25-fold in 10 years: The New York Times reported in 2014 that 850 schools nationwide had single-sex programs. With participation apparently on the upswing, the Department of Education’s civil-rights division offered guidelines on single-sex classes to K-12 public schools last year.

Against this backdrop of renewed interest in single-sex schools and classes, the author Juliet A. Williams, a professor of gender studies and associate dean of the Division of Social Sciences at UCLA, takes a deep dive into the social aspects and framing of this hotly debated issue in a new book, The Separation Solution? Single-Sex Education and the New Politics of Gender Equality. She recently shared some thoughts with me on the subject. The interview that follows has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Melinda D. Anderson: A major thread running through the book is that so many people—educators, parents, activists, and politicians—strongly believe in the potential of single-sex education to unleash academic excellence, while the evidence supporting this claim is sparse and insufficient. What would you say is the primary driving force behind its well-entrenched support?

Juliet A. Williams: Some people believe in single-sex education because they had a great personal experience. To other people, single-sex education seems like plain old common sense: They see differences between boys and girls, and they like the idea of creating schools that reflect these differences. Still others look at the failure of U.S. public-school systems and think, “we’ve got to do something; let’s give it a try.” Since the 1990s, there has been a resurgence of interest in single-sex education in public schools serving students in grades K-12. My book takes a look at the arguments driving interest in single-sex public education, as well as the results. What I have found is that single-sex public-school initiatives have been created with the best of intentions, but that they are not delivering the results. At the same time, they are producing some unintended consequences in terms of reinforcing damaging gender stereotypes.

Anderson: Your freshman year at the Philadelphia High School for Girls, an all-girls public magnet for academically gifted students, is compared to “serving time in prison,” a characterization I found peculiar as a graduate of Girls’ High. With the exception of your brief stint in an all-girls school, The Separation Solution? lacks input from current students or alumni of K-12 single-sex schools. Could their perspectives have expanded your analysis of single-sex education?

Williams: I’m pretty sure I would have experienced some measure of adolescent angst no matter where I went to school, and looking back, I think it would be a real mistake to conclude that it was because I happened to attend an all-girls [high school] as opposed to a coed one. By the same token, I suspect that many people who flourished in single-sex environments would have had an equally rewarding experience at a coed school. That’s the problem with relying on personal experience to assess what works in education, and what doesn’t. Think of it this way: If I were to write a book about new treatments for cancer, [I wouldn’t] go out and ask people whether they enjoyed their treatment. I would want to know about results. Our kids deserve to grow up in a society that takes their education every bit as seriously as we take our commitment to good medicine.

Anderson: The creation of single-sex academies in the 1950s throughout the South by anti-integrationists aiming to thwart Brown v. Board of Education and keep black boys from being in classrooms with white girls is an interesting tidbit. Today, K-12 single-sex programs are still mostly concentrated in southern states. Can you talk more about this historical footnote?

Williams: Mention single-sex education to most people today, and you are likely to conjure images of elite institutions in bucolic settings, where emphasis is placed not only on rigorously training young minds, but also on building character and developing self-confidence. As I discovered, however, behind the image of single-sex education’s rosy past lies the story of its disturbingly checkered history. After the Civil War, several of the nation’s increasingly diverse, urban school districts moved to create single-sex public high schools to appease xenophobic parents worried about the prospect of students from different ethnic, religious, and class backgrounds rubbing shoulders throughout the school day. In the years following the landmark Supreme Court ruling, the prejudice driving the retreat from coeducational public schools was even more flagrant … amidst racist panic about the inevitability of young white women and young black men forming social bonds across racial lines.

This history is important [yet] I don’t think there are any easy analogies to be drawn between racially segregated schools in the past, and single-sex schools in the present. Many single-sex programs have been initiated specifically to address the unmet needs of underserved students, particularly black and Latino young men, and there is no question that some of the very best single-sex public schools today are ones created to serve low-income students of color. What is a question [though] is whether these schools are great because they are single-sex. So far, there isn’t evidence to show that they are. Instead, the research shows that successful schools, whether single-sex or coed, tend to have certain things in common, like creating strong mentoring relationships and keeping class sizes to a manageable level. When this happens, students benefit—whether or not boys and girls [are separated].

Anderson: The claim that boys and girls are “hard wired” differently, namely the neuroscience of sex-based learning differences, has been refuted by scientific researchers. Still, a belief in its efficacy persists as an education-policy approach and in teacher professional development. How can this be more effectively countered?

Williams: While researching this book I learned about a fascinating phenomenon called “the selective allure of neuroscientific information.” In a series of ingenious experiments, a team of Yale researchers found that even the citation of irrelevant neuroscience information can make certain claims seem more credible than they otherwise would be. What this means in practice is that we can be all too easily drawn into accepting even the most poorly substantiated claims about the differences between men and women, provided those claims come dressed up in the commanding rhetoric of “hard-wiring.” What I found is that many of today’s “gender-sensitive” pedagogies are sold to teachers and parents in a deceptively appealing pseudo-scientific jargon of sex difference. That’s not to say that there aren’t real differences between girls and boys. But it is to say that we should be very skeptical of anyone who claims that we can extrapolate from what currently is known. Despite the fact that much of the popular science of sex difference has been debunked, the past decade has seen a proliferation of public-school programs modeled on bogus teachings.

Anderson: The prospect of transgender students recalibrating the single-sex education debate is presented in the book, with the mission and practice of single-sex schooling upended “in new and important directions.” What do you see as the future of single-sex education as growing numbers of students no longer identify with a gender binary?

Williams: It will be interesting to see how single-sex schools address the issue of gender diversity moving forward. The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has been clear that transgender and gender nonconforming students are entitled to protection from sex-based discrimination under Title IX. [All public and private elementary and secondary schools, school districts, colleges, and universities receiving any federal financial assistance must comply with Title IX] Further, all students are entitled to participate in school programs based on their gender identity.

One place single-sex public schools may wish to look for guidance moving forward is to the nation’s private women’s colleges. In recent years, several of the most prestigious historically all-women’s colleges have revised their admissions statements to explicitly welcome applications from transgender and gender nonconforming students. In doing so, these colleges are taking important steps to ensure that their commitment to single-sex education doesn’t inadvertently perpetuate bias and intolerance.

Anderson: A provision in No Child Left Behind in 2001 helped accelerate the growth of single-sex education—you describe a “surge of single-sex experiments” in public-school classrooms across the country. A co-sponsor of the provision allowing school districts to use grants for same-sex schools and classrooms was former New York Senator Hillary Clinton, who cast single-sex education as furthering public-school choice. Now a candidate for U.S. president, how do you think same-sex education might fare in a Hillary Clinton administration?

Williams: Many officials, including then Senator Hillary Clinton, saw single-sex public education as a promising reform strategy. At the time, federal money was set aside to encourage “experimentation” with single-sex approaches. Since then, hundreds of single-sex public-schooling initiatives have been launched. What have we learned? Predictably, fans of single-sex education loudly proclaim these experiments to be a success —and they have a few carefully chosen examples to prove it. But the real story lies in the overwhelming number of single-sex initiatives that have failed to produce positive results. In 2014, an exhaustive review found no significant proven advantages of single-sex schooling over coeducation, either for boys or for girls. With so many proven approaches to education reform out there, let’s invest in those. Our kids’ lives are too precious to experiment with.

Education Gaps Don’t Fully Explain Why Black Unemployment Is So High

The economy is improving: Nationally, unemployment is about 5 percent, down from 10 percent in 2009. But for black Americans, the unemployment rate is much higher—for them, the economy is still a disaster. Unemployment among blacks was 9.5 percent during the third quarter of 2015 compared to only 4.5 percent for whites. While the discrepancy in unemployment has been volatile, the current gap is actually slightly larger than the one that existed 15 years ago or in the years directly preceding the recession.

The Next Economy

Why is this? Many people point to education as a major cause of this disparity. A higher percentage of white Americans obtain college degrees: 41 percent, compared to the black population’s 22 percent. But data from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) show that differences in education can’t explain fully the entirety of the unemployment gap. According to research from Valerie Wilson, an economist at EPI, for black Americans with the same level of education level as white Americans, the unemployment rate is consistently nearly twice as high.

Education Gaps Don’t Fully Explain Why Black Unemployment Is So High

Wilson looks at census data and finds, unsurprisingly, unemployment is highest for those who didn’t attend college at all. Among those who hadn’t completed high school, whites had an unemployment rate of 6.9 percent. But for black Americans, the situation was much more extreme: Their unemployment rate was almost two-and-a-half times higher, at 16.6 percent. And a gap persists even among those who have completed a bachelor’s degree or higher, with an unemployment rate of 4.1 percent for black Americans compared to 2.4 percent for white Americans with the same degree.

For every level of educational attainment, black Americans have unemployment rates that are similar to or higher than those of less educated white Americans. For instance, white Americans who only obtained a high-school diploma have a very similar unemployment rate to black Americans who completed at least a college education: 4.6 percent vs 4.1 percent. “This disparity suggests a race penalty whereby blacks at each level of education have unemployment rates that are the same as or higher than less educated whites,” writes Wilson.

Unemployment by Education and Race


Part of the problem starts before the job hunt. Despite rising college attendance, black students are still less likely than their white counterparts to attend prestigious schools that may give them connections or a leg up in the career world. And once at college, blacks are less likely to graduate in six years than their white peers. But the numbers show that even when blacks are successful in attending and completing college, they’re still less likely to be gainfully employed than their white peers, hinting that less education isn’t the entire problem, and that attempts to boost educational attainment figures among blacks won’t be the entire solution.

Do In-Class Exams Make Students Study Harder?

I have always been a poor and panicked test-taker. (I once cheated off the guy next to me at the DMV, only to later discover that we had been given different quizzes.) So it may seem downright baffling that I have returned to college to finish the degree I left undone some four decades ago. I am making my way through Columbia University, surrounded by students who quickly supply the verbal answer while I am still processing the question.

Since there is no way for me to avoid exams, I am currently questioning what kind are the most taxing and ultimately beneficial. I have already sweated through numerous in-class midterms and finals, and now I have a professor who issues take-home ones. I was thrilled when I learned this, figuring I had a full week to do the research, scour the texts, and write it all up. Suffice to say, I was still rewriting my midterm the morning it was due. To say I had lost the thread is putting it mildly.

While there is little recent empirical research on the subject of in-class versus take-home exams, there have been tests on testing, so to speak. Virginia Tech, in 2003, conducted a major study posing the question: “If delayed retention is the objective of instruction, does initial testing of the information aid retention learning better when in class or take home tests are given?” The experiment divided students into three groups. Final results showed that those who had taken an in-class test had performed better and retained the information longer. Students, when not knowing what to expect on exams, prepared more fully. It seems that the in-class group read and studied in a broad manner, while the take-home test group simply hunted for the required answers. Another study, conducted in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in 1987, gave different kinds of tests to five individual classes in ten universities. The results also showed that the in-class exams generated higher scores due to more thorough preparation.

Exams Around the World

As I was suffering through my week of anxiety, overthinking the material and second-guessing my grasp of it, I did some of my own polling among students and professors. David Eisenbach, who teaches a popular class on U.S. presidents at Columbia, prefers the in-class variety. He believes students ultimately learn more and encourages them to form study groups. “That way they socialize over history outside the class, which wouldn’t happen without the pressure of an in-class exam,” he explained. “Furthermore, in-class exams force students to learn how to perform under pressure, an essential work skill.”

He also says there is less chance of cheating with the in-class variety. In 2012, 125 students at Harvard were caught up in a scandal when it was discovered they had colluded on a take-home for a class entitled “Introduction To Congress.” Some colleges have what they call an “honor code,” though if you are smart enough to get into these schools, you are either smart enough to get around any codes or hopefully, too ethical to consider doing so. As I sat blocked and clueless for two solid days, I momentarily wondered if I couldn’t just call an expert on the subject matter with which I was grappling, or someone who took the class previously, to get me going.

Following the Harvard debacle, Mary Miller, the former dean of students at Yale, made an impassioned plea to her school’s professors to refrain from take-homes. “Students risk health and well being, as well as performance in other end-of- term work, when faculty offers take-home exams without clear, time-limited boundaries,” she told me. “Research now shows that regular quizzes, short essays, and other assignments over the course of a term, better enhance learning and retention.”

Most college professors agree the kind of exam they choose largely depends on the subject. A quantitative-based one, for example, is unlikely to be sent home, where one could ask the nerdy older sibling to help. Vocational-type classes, such as computer science or journalism, on the other hand, are often more research-oriented and lend themselves to take-home testing. Chris Koch, who teaches “History of Broadcast Journalism” at Montgomery Community College in Rockville, Maryland, points out that reporting is about investigation rather than the memorization of minutiae. “In my field, it’s not what you know—it’s what you know how to find out,” says Koch. “There is way too much information, and more coming all the time, for anyone to remember. I want my students to search out the answers to questions by using all the resources available to them.”

Students’ test-form preferences vary, too, often depending on the subject and course difficulty. “I prefer take-home essays because it is then really about the writing, so you have time to edit and do more research,” says Elizabeth Dresser, a junior at Barnard. Then there is the stress factor. Francesca Haass, a senior at Middlebury, says, “I find the in-class ones are more stressful in the short term, but there is immediate relief as you furiously regurgitate information, and then you get to forget it all. Take-homes require thoughtful engagement which can lead to longer term stress as there is never a moment when the time is up.” Meanwhile, Olivia Rubin, a sophomore at Emory, says she hardly even considers take-homes true exams. “If you understand the material and have the ability to articulate your thoughts, they should be a breeze.”

While I stressed over my take-home, I may have looked like I was discussing the election with friends over dinner, or watching Michael Moore’s new documentary, but the unfinished exam was cluttering my mind and forcing me to fill my head with Excedrin. This is a common challenge. Lots of students agree that take-homes are generally held to a higher standard. “You have more time to worry, and you feel more pressure to strive for perfection,” says Isabel McGrory-Klyza, a junior at Columbia.

How students ultimately handle these situations may depend on their personal test-taking abilities (or lack of them). “There are people who obsess and procrastinate, maybe wait until the last minute, and make it much harder than it needs to be,” says Roger Gould, a New York psychiatrist. “And then there are those who, not knowing what questions are coming at them, and having no resources to refer to, can freeze. “ And then there are we rare folks who fit both those descriptions.

Yes, my advanced age must factor into the equation, in part because of my inability to access the information as quickly. As another returning student at Columbia, Kate Marber, told me, “We are learning not only all this information, but essentially how to learn again. Our fellow students have just come out of high school. A lot has changed since we were last in school.”

If nothing else, the situation has given my son—a college student on the West Coast—and me something to share. When I asked his opinion on this matter, he responded, “I like in-class exams because the time is already reserved, as opposed to using my free time at home to work on a test,” he responded. It seems to me that a compromise would be receiving the exam questions a day or two in advance, but then doing the actual test in class with the ticking clock overhead.

Better yet, how about what one Hunter College professor reportedly did recently for her final exam: She encouraged the class not to stress or even study, promising that, “It is going to be a piece of cake.” When the students came in, sharpened pencils in hand, there was not a blue book in sight. Rather they saw a large chocolate cake and they each were given a slice.

What Happened to the Common Core Debate?

The Common Core was expected to be a ubiquitous subject on the campaign trail in 2016. The education standards had, over time, become a political football as conservatives condemned them as federal overreach.

It’s so far hardly been the case. Governors in the race, like Jeb Bush, have backed away from using the term because of its negative connotation among the electorate, even if he still stands by the standards. Should he gain traction moving into the presidential primary it might become more relevant as early-voting states—and other governors, like Chris Christie—grapple with the standards.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative, known as the Common Core, is a set of academic standards for mathematics and reading for all ages. State school chiefs and governors collaborated to develop the standards, but since its rollout in 2009, it’s become a point of contention. A common criticism being that the standards aim to nationalize education, although they’re applied at the state level and weren’t ever explicitly mandated by the federal government.

Forty-two states, the District of Columbia, and four territories have adopted the Common Core. Christie, the governor of New Jersey and a Republican presidential candidate, agreed to adopt the standards in 2010, but has since dropped his support. “The truth is that it’s simply not working,” he said earlier this year.

The Rise of Urban Public Boarding Schools

The critique of the Common Core in part stemmed from the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative, which encouraged states to implement high standards, among other reform strategies, in exchange for grants. The competition at the root of Race to the Top sparked frustrations, as it gave the impression that the federal government was imposing the standards on the states, said Tamara Hiler, the policy advisor for education at Third Way.

The Common Core appeared to be at the forefront of issues to be tackled by presidential candidates come 2016. A year ago, The Washington Post had a headline that read “Common Core might be the most important issue in the 2016 Republican presidential race. Here’s what you need to know about it.”

The Common Core hasn’t been absent on the trail. In August, Jeb Bush called the term “poisonous,” adding “I don’t even know what it means.” Lots of people would agree with him, but, contrary to a majority of GOP presidential candidates, he backs the standards.

In August, some of the Republican presidential candidates attended a policy forum in New Hampshire where the standards were discussed. Ohio Governor John Kasich, who supports Common Core, conceded that it was troublesome. “Look, did I back away from it?” he asked. “Did I say what I thought?” The forum laid bare the complexities behind the term—the idea that perhaps it was the sentiments tied to the rhetoric rather than the standards themselves causing trouble. This might be most evident in states like Indiana, which dumped the Common Core even though its standards might be the same, according to Hiler.

“[Some of the presidential candidates] haven’t flip-flopped on their belief of Common Core, but what they’re not saying is Common Core,” Hiler said. “It’s a language shift. They believe in high standards that they should be held to, but the government shouldn’t have a role. That’s not the case now.”

To that effect, some GOP presidential candidates may be taking on a reactionary position. Among the general public, 54 percent of Americans oppose the Common Core in comparison to the 24 percent who support it, according to a PDK/ Gallup poll. There are polls, however, that suggest differently. And a survey conducted and funded by Fairleigh Dickinson University , found that a majority of Americans—both supporters and opponents—have misconceptions about the standards. Many believed that the education standards also covered sex education, global warming, and evolution.

The mixed perceptions of the Common Core are also present in Iowa, where the standards are used and where the first caucus of the presidential primary will soon take place. A Des Moines Register Iowa poll in February found that 56 percent of Iowans ages 18 and older view the Common Core—which is defined as an “education initiative in the U.S. to define what K through 12 should know at the end of each grade”—positively. But 61 percent of likely GOP caucusgoers don’t want the Common Core implemented.

Suburban parents and teacher’s unions have also expressed frustrations with the standards. Laura McKenna described it in an Atlantic piece:

Parents take their cues about education from their children’s teachers, and unfortunately that often means important facts are lost in translation once they exit the classroom. The bottom line is that if the teachers aren’t happy, the parents aren’t happy either.

David Whitman weighed in on the degree of dissonance in a Brookings paper. The problem, he said, “is that the norm of public understanding of the Common Core bears little connection to the standards themselves.” Whitman goes on to further explain the conservative critique in his paper:

To date, the conservative critique of Common Core has been propelled primarily by ideology (the battle over federalism and the federal role in education) and politics (antipathy toward President Obama and policies he favors).

Whitman argues that the Common Core, in part, dates back to the Reagan administration when a report, A Nation at Risk, called for higher standards. “In 1983, advocating for higher standards was considered to be politically conservative because it flipped the left-leaning education establishment’s preoccupation with measuring educational inputs,” he writes

During the first GOP debate the Common Core came up briefly, leading Bush to reflect on his tenure as Florida governor. “I’m for higher standards measured in an intellectually honest way, with abundant school choice, ending social promotion,” he said. “And I know how to do this because as governor of the state of Florida I created the first statewide voucher program in the country.” Marco Rubio quipped that he would not allow the government to “force [the Common Core] down the throats of our people and our states.”

If and how the Common Core plays a role in 2016 isn’t clear, but it certainly appears that the debate will linger on.

The Evolution of Teaching Creationism in Public Schools

Some 90 years out from the Scopes Monkey Trial, and a full decade after the legal defeat of “intelligent design” in Kitzmiller v. Dover, the fight to teach creationism alongside evolution in American public schools has yet to go extinct. On the contrary, a new analysis in the journal Science suggests that such efforts have themselves evolved over time—adapting into a complex form of “stealth creationism” that’s steadily tougher to detect.


Call it survival of the fittest policy.

“It is one thing to say that two bills have some resemblances, and another thing to say that bill X was copied from bill Y with greater than 90 percent probability,” Nick Matzke, a researcher at the Australian National University and author of the new paper, tells CityLab via email. “I do think this research strengthens the case that all of these bills are of a piece—they are all ‘stealth creationism,’ and they all have either clear fundamentalist motivations, or are close copies of bills with such motivations.”

* * *

Matzke performed a close textual analysis of 67 anti-evolution education bills proposed by local government since 2004. (Three U.S. states have signed them into law during this time: Mississippi, Louisiana, and Tennessee.) The result was a phylogenic tree—in effect a developmental history—tracing these policies to two main legislative roots: so-called “academic freedom acts,” and “science education acts.”

This phylogenetic tree traces most of the 67 anti-evolution education policies proposed in U.S. states since 2004 to two main roots: one group of “academic freedom acts,” and another as “scientific education acts.” (Nicholas J. Matzke / via Science)

Matzke’s analysis shows that academic-freedom acts were popular in 2004 and 2005 but have since been “almost completely replaced” with science-education acts, which emerged as the strategy of choice after the adoption of a 2006 anti-evolution policy in Ouachita Parish, Louisiana. (That policy’s lingering impact on creationist teaching was thoroughly exposed by Zack Kopplin in Slate earlier this year.) These acts tend to call for “critical analysis” of scientific topics that are supposedly controversial among experts. They often lump evolution alongside research areas like climate change and human cloning—an effort, argues Matzke, to skirt legal precedents that connect policies solely targeting evolution with unconstitutional religious motivations.

Kitzmiller was mostly about policies that specifically mention ‘intelligent design,’” says Matzke, who uncovered an explicit link between creationism and intelligent design during that case while working for the U.S.-based National Center for Science Education. “If a policy encourages evolution bashing, and has the same sorts of sponsors and fundamentalist motivations, but doesn’t mention intelligent design or creationism, is it unconstitutional? If I were a judge, I would say ‘yes, obviously,’ but judges have all sorts of different philosophies and political biases.”

Another marker of science-education acts is that they typically go out of their way to note that only scientific information, not religious doctrine, is protected by the policy. That’s a revealingly insecure stipulation, given that U.S. public schools are secular arenas by default.

A school bus collects students at Dover Area High School in 2005; the Pennsylvania town’s school system was a focus of a 2004 court ruling that teaching “intelligent design” as a scientific concept was unconstitutional. (AP / Carolyn Kaster)

* * *

A review of six anti-evolution education bills proposed at the state level in 2015 shows many of these legislative tactics on display:

  • Missouri. This act looks for ways “to assist teachers to find more effective ways to present the science curriculum where it addresses scientific controversies”—with “biological evolution” among them.
  • Montana. This House bill pushes “critical thinking” in science class on the grounds that “truth in education about claims over scientific discoveries, including but not limited to biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, random mutation, natural selection, DNA, and fossil discoveries, can cause controversy.”
  • South Dakota. State S.B. 114 gives teachers full freedom to help students “understand, analyze, critique, or review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories,” with “biological evolution” mentioned as one such theory alongside global warming.
  • Oklahoma. This bill—creating a “Science Education Act”—urges teachers to help students develop “critical thinking skills” about unidentified “controversial issues” with the understanding that it “not be construed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine.”
  • Alabama. Much in line with the aforementioned legislative efforts, the sponsor of this bill, Representative Mack Butler, betrayed its intentions when he noted on Facebook that its aim was to “encourage debate if a student has a problem learning he came from a monkey rather than an intelligent design!”
  • Indiana. S.B. 562 only mentions “human cloning” as a controversial scientific subject, but its mission to help students “understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and weaknesses of existing conclusions,” with its caveat about protecting “only the teaching of scientific information,” tags it firmly within the science education act lineage.

That none of these bills passed in 2015 isn’t the point, says Matzke. After all, several states have adopted such policies into law in recent years, placing millions of public-school children in the hands of educators who might promote creationist alternatives to evolution, either because they have religious motivations themselves or simply weak scientific backgrounds. That Matzke’s analysis links two such laws to science education act language—those in Louisiana and Tennessee—is evidence enough that anti-evolution policies can, indeed, adapt to new times.

“Successful policies have a tendency to spread,” he says. “Every year, some states propose these policies, and often they are only barely defeated. And obviously, sometimes they pass, so hopefully this article will help raise awareness of the dangers of the ongoing situation.”

This post appears courtesy of CityLab.

The Allure of Community Colleges

A­fter spending nearly 20 years working in corporate America for companies like General Electric and Digital Equipment Corporation (Hewlett Packard), Winston Maddox wanted to make a difference—so he turned his attention to teaching.

“I was a late bloomer and many traditional educators thought I was not college worthy,” says Maddox, who is currently the dean of the Business and Technology Division at Mercer County Community College (MCCC), located in central New Jersey. “Community college provided opportunities for a student like me. So I found this environment to be an excellent place to help others in similar situations.”

At one time—not too long ago—community colleges were thought to be the place where faculty who couldn’t get a four-year teaching job landed. But that perception has rapidly changed, particularly for minorities with terminal degrees who are consciously making the choice to choose to work at a community college instead of a four-year college or university.


That growing interest aligns with the nation’s changing demographics. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, more students are enrolled in one of the nation’s 1,132 community colleges than other institutions. Maddox, who taught computer information systems and programming for 11 years and has served as dean for the last six years at MCCC, was hired as an assistant professor and eventually earned the rank of associate and full professor. A former department chair, he was appointed interim dean for two years a­fter the previous person resigned.

Now, Maddox—who oversees one of the largest divisions on campus—is interested in developing a pipeline to encourage other minorities to consider teaching and working in administration at community colleges across the country such as Mercer.

“I think we need to look for individuals who represent the populations we serve,” says Maddox. “The job of a community college administrator is a nontraditional one. You are educator, manager, the support for faculty, curriculum developer, student advocate, and tight-rope walker. One has to balance the requirements of the administration as well as the needs of the faculty.”

Diverse: Issues in Higher Education.

The Ugly Fight Over Arabic in Augusta County

If there was any doubt that Americans haven’t figured out a good way to grapple with Islam, look no further than Augusta County, Virginia. Schools there are closed today after an uproar over an assignment that including copying the Islamic profession of faith.

No one comes out of this looking great. The assignment at Riverheads High School near Staunton—to copy calligraphy reading “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the prophet of God”—seems well-intentioned but ill-considered. Parents may have been justified in questioning the assignment, but the level of fury isn’t commensurate with the offense, and it’s hard to imagine it happening with any other religion. And it seems like Superintendent Eric Bond, who made the right decision in refusing to fire Cheryl LaPorte, the teacher involved, overreacted by shuttering schools on Friday, especially as there were apparently no specific threats against the system of 10,500 students. (What better evidence for a conspiracy theorist looking for Islam’s creep than the schools closing on the Muslim day of prayer?)

The Fear of Islam in Tennessee Public Schools

It’s important not to overstate the level of backlash, a temptation that reporters and polemicists alike often indulge in stories like this. While a few parents demanded that LaPorte be fired for “violating children’s religious beliefs,” others rallied around her. “Both the Virginia Department of Education and Superintendent Eric Bond have reviewed the material and found it both in line with state standards, as well as not in violation of students’ rights,” The News Leader notes. Of course, that being true, it seems a little much to shut down the schools and cancel weekend activities, just over some attention. Students and principles said that while extra security at school this week had been a little weird, the general atmosphere was fairly normal. (There’s a lesson here about students’ resiliency  and calm in the face of, and as opposed to, adult hysteria.)

All that said, the assignment could have been better thought-out. It came as part of a geography-class unit on world religions, which also includes Hinduism and Buddhism. And as The News Leader points out, LaPorte didn’t come up with the assignment herself—it came from a teacher workbook, raising the question of how many times the task has been assigned without summoning a firestorm. The homework includes a printed calligraphic rendering of the phrase (known as the shahada) and asked students to copy it, to get a sense of the complexity of Arabic calligraphy.

Of all the phrases to choose, though, why this one? Using the profession of faith, an essential part of converting to Islam, feels strange, especially when there are so many other possibilities that could achieve the same task. (The phrase is also on the flags of Saudi Arabia and ISIS, among other places.) Why not bismillah al-rahman al-rahim (in the name of God, the most gracious the most merciful), a far less charged phrase? There’s no reason to believe that LaPorte was trying to indoctrinate her students into Islam, but the choice of phrase just feeds paranoia about it. It may be just another case of conservative political correctness run amok, but there’s also something uncomfortable about using someone’s expression of faith in this impersonal way. It’s hard to imagine a case in which students would be asked to recite the Apostle’s Creed as part of an academic lesson on Christian liturgy.

Not that the new compromise seems great either. “Although students will continue to learn about world religions as required by the state Board of Education and the Commonwealth’s Standards of Learning, a different, non-religious sample of Arabic calligraphy will be used in the future,” the district said in a statement. That’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Arabic calligraphy is of world-religion interest specifically because it is Islamic. Because Arabic is the language of the Qur’an, it has attained an exalted place in Islam throughout the world, well beyond Arabic-speaking countries. And because many forms of Islam prohibit or discourage figurative imagery, elaborate, beautiful, and highly stylized calligraphic artwork using Qur’anic phrases is a staple wherever Muslims are, around the world. Islamic art is a major chunk of world art, and while it’s inextricable from religion, it’s also a larger, civilizational thing than mere devotion. Using a secular Arabic phrase glosses over all that context.

Think about it this way: Would someone try to teach a class on Western art while excising Christian art as indoctrination? Of course not—in part because they’d have very little to work with in the centuries between Constantine’s conversion and the Renaissance. But Islam is something different, something that many Americans still view as a threat. My colleague Emma Green reported earlier this week on how schools in Tennessee and around the nation are facing intense efforts to roll back even the most academic, detached lessons on Islam. In many of these cases, too, the fight is being led by a small but vocal band of parents who find the act of educating about Islam, a religion with 1.6 billion followers around the world, itself objectionable and dangerous. It’s no coincidence that these battles almost always occur in heavily white, Christian school districts.

The Augusta County assignment was more vulnerable to outcry because of the unwise step of including the shahada. But there’s little question this is about fear of Islam, and not about objections to religion in the public schools. After all, Augusta County schools also offer students the chance to leave school once a week to attend Bible study.

‘Check Your Privilege, Kids, but Don’t Check a Race Box’

A reader writes:

Any discussion about affirmative action is incomplete without a discussion of learning mismatch. The evidence is pretty clear at this point that mismatch is real and producing negative outcomes. Here is a post that discusses it in the context of Fisher.

That post is by Richard Sander, an economist and law professor at UCLA who has spent more than a decade studying the theory of “mismatch”—when the college application of a student who benefitted from affirmative action is significantly weaker than the average student’s at the same college, and thus the AA student would be a better “match” at a less competitive school because he or she is more likely to thrive—both in college and after graduation. Sander argues that a mismatch ends up disadvantaging an AA student even more than if he or she had originally attended a less prestigious college. From his post:

A second form of mismatch—“competition” mismatch—occurs when students abandon particular fields, or college itself, because of the practical and psychological effects of competing with better-prepared students.

John McWhorter, the linguistics professor at Columbia who should contribute to The Atlantic more often, invoked Sander in a piece for CNN yesterday on the Fisher case:

Now, at this point, many object that despite the mismatch, the students excel nevertheless. Here is the rub: the data is in, and in crucial ways and too often, they do not.

At Duke University, economist Peter Arcidiacono, with Esteban Aucejo and Joseph Hotz, has shown that the “mismatch” lowers the number of black scientists. Black students at a school where teaching is faster and assumes more background than they have often leave the major in frustration, but would be less likely to have done so at a school prepared to instruct them more carefully.

UCLA law professor Richard Sander conclusively showed in 2004 that “mismatched” law students are much more likely to cluster in the bottom of their classes and, especially, to fail the bar exam. Meanwhile, Sander and Stuart Taylor’s book argues that the mismatch problem damages the performance of black and brown students in general.

There are scholars who dispute Sander and Taylor’s thesis about undergraduate school in general. However, when it comes to the more specific points about STEM subjects and law school, takedown arguments are harder to fashion because of the simple force of the facts.

The Atlantic published an excerpt from Sander and Taylor’s book when it came out three years ago. Here’s a portion that runs through some additional data:

Research on the mismatch problem was almost non-existent until the mid-1990s; it has developed rapidly in the past half-dozen years, especially among labor economists. To cite just a few examples of the findings:

  • Black college freshmen are more likely to aspire to science or engineering careers than are white freshmen, but mismatch causes blacks to abandon these fields at twice the rate of whites.
  • Blacks who start college interested in pursuing a doctorate and an academic career are twice as likely to be derailed from this path if they attend a school where they are mismatched.
  • About half of black college students rank in the bottom 20 percent of their classes (and the bottom 10 percent in law school).
  • Black law school graduates are four times as likely to fail bar exams as are whites; mismatch explains half of this gap.
  • Interracial friendships are more likely to form among students with relatively similar levels of academic preparation; thus, blacks and Hispanics are more socially integrated on campuses where they are less academically mismatched.

In response to that excerpt, The Atlantic ran two other pieces. First, Jordan Weissman looked at the mismatch issue “like an economist”:

In 2005, Harvard’s Roland Fryer and Brown University’s Glenn Loury published a paper titled “Affirmative Action and Its Mythologies,” which serves as a wonderful roadmap for considering the costs and benefits of letting schools factor race into their selection criteria. […] Loury and Fryer acknowledged that if this [mismatch] problem truly turns out to be severe, it should give everyone pause. But they wondered themselves: If some minorities fail, could an affirmative action program still be worth it?

Take, for instance, law schools. Sander’s research has suggested the black law students often underperform their white peers, and drop out at higher rates, because they tend to end at schools they’re ill-prepared to attend. But from society’s perspective, those casualties might be justified by the overall goal of producing more black lawyers. One might retort that making sure black students are in suitable schools will lead more to graduate and take the bar. In the end, it’s a very cold, cost-benefit analysis, but one that should still be made.

The other Atlantic response was from Sarah Garland, who spotlighted “the story of two students at UT-Austin showing how race-based admissions can go right.” One of those students was Jarius Sowells, who automatically got a slot at UT because he fell within the top 10 percent of his high school class:

“I don’t think my high school prepared me very well to begin learning at this institution,” Sowells says. “It was a culture shock. I was around people who didn’t look like me, didn’t talk like me.” He signed up for several tough classes his first semester — microeconomics, business foundations, introduction to psychology, and rhetoric. Within weeks he was failing. “I psychologically broke down,” he says. “I felt I couldn’t handle it.” The following semester he dropped out and returned home.

He didn’t give up completely, however. The following fall he was readmitted on probation. He began to build up his GPA, which is now a 2.7. He dropped his aspirations of majoring in business and switched to African-American studies. His plan is to become a lawyer; he’s counting on getting a high LSAT score to make up for his low grades. […] And if he struggled at UT-Austin, he says, it’s not because the school should never have let him in; it’s because it should have taken more responsibility for helping him succeed. […]

Glenn Loury, an economist at Brown University who submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in the 2003 case supporting affirmative action, believes the evidence on mismatch should be taken more seriously, but not to support an end to affirmative action. “It might mean that you do affirmative action differently, not that you don’t do it at all,” he said. At the same time, Arcidiacono said his research on minority students at Duke suggests that perhaps “colleges need to invest more to make sure they graduate.”

Today, the Facebook page for Jarius Sowells says he attended UT from 2009 to 2015 and stuck with African-American studies and is now living in Rio de Janeiro. I’ll reach out to him for more details. If you’d like to contribute your thoughts on academic mismatch or point me to some important scholarship I haven’t mentioned yet, drop me an email. Update from a reader with a gut reaction:

So if the educators running our most elite institutions can’t educate “mismatched” students, isn’t that a damning indictment of their capabilities? Or do they not think it’s their responsibility to do so? Because at the end of the day, this is about helping slightly challenged but otherwise bright students, and I simply can’t see why any institution would exempt themselves from that mission.

The Fear of Islam in Tennessee Public Schools

Williamson County, Tennessee, embodies demographic stereotypes about the South: The county just south of Nashville is overwhelmingly white, Christian, and Republican. But this fall, a curious controversy emerged there. Parents and school-board members have voiced worries about alleged Islamic indoctrination in the public schools.

In seventh grade, kids study world geography and history, including a unit on “the Islamic world” up to the year 1500 A.D. “Williamson County parents and taxpayers have expressed concerns that some social-studies textbooks and supplemental materials in use in Tennessee classrooms contain a pro-Islamic/anti-Judeo- Christian bias,” one school-board member, Beth Burgos, wrote in a resolution. She questioned whether it’s right to test students on the tenets of Islam, along with the state and district’s learning standards related to religion. She also said the textbook should mention concepts like jihad and not portray Islam as a fundamentally peaceful religion. “How are our children to reconcile what they’re seeing happening in the Middle East when they’re not even exposed to the radical sects of Islam like ISIS?” she said at a working meeting in mid-October. (Burgos did not respond to multiple emails and phone calls requesting comment.)

The Objectification of Muslims in America

In interviews, a number of parents and school-board members used the word distraction to describe the local debate over “Islamic indoctrination.” “We have a shortage of bus drivers,” said a school-board member, Robert Hullett, at that October working meeting. “We have a problem with substitute teachers. We have things that are affecting our kids right now, and we’re fooling around with this.”

Ultimately, the resolution was withdrawn, but Islam and education continues to be a topic of discussion. This week, the local chapter of Glenn Beck’s nationwide advocacy organization, the 912 Project, is hosting a townhall about it. Other Tennessee counties are talking about this, too. In October, the school board in Maury County, which borders Williamson, submitted a resolution to the State Board of Education questioning whether basic knowledge of world history “requires the depth of study of the underlying contents or tenets of world religion to the extent that the State currently requires in sixth and seventh grade social studies, especially given the impressionable nature of students’ ages during such grades.” The resolution also called for units covering religion to be moved to high school. In White County, farther east, a group that calls itself Citizens Against Islamic Indoctrination placed an ad in the local paper, the Sparta Expositor, featuring all-caps text: “ISLAMIC INDOCTRINATION IS IN SCHOOLS ACROSS OUR STATE AND OUR NATION,” it read, inviting parents and citizens to attend a town-hall meeting with a self-identified Muslim convert to Christianity. It also featured this graphic:

Sparta Expositor

Partially in response to similar concerns raised across the state earlier in the summer, the state’s department of education decided to move up its regularly scheduled review of learning standards to January 2016—two years early, according to Candice McQueen, Tennessee’s commissioner of education. It’s not clear what they’ll find, but the move sends a clear message: This is a politically potent anxiety in the state of Tennessee.

In Williamson County and elsewhere in the United States, people are experiencing real fear about Islam. They are scared of ISIS, and they don’t know what to make of religiously motivated terrorism. At one of those October meetings, a seventh grader at Heritage Middle School—who started by clarifying that she is “almost 13 years old”—said she is concerned about her social-studies lessons. “I am being taught in class that Islam is a peaceful religion, yet there are many historical and modern-day examples of violent killings and persecution in the name of Allah and Islam,” she said.

Above all, the public-education system has an obligation to this 12-year-old girl: to teach her how to read the news and understand it; to prepare her to sort through truths and untruths about world religions; to ensure she can navigate complicated questions about ideology and violence. The question, though, is whether this kind of campaign against “Islamic indoctrination” in classrooms actually helps kids, and their parents, grapple with their fear and uncertainty in a constructive way—and whether these are plausible concerns in an overwhelmingly white, Christian place like Williamson County.

* * *

The debate over “Islamic indoctrination” in schools hasn’t just been happening in Tennessee. In April, a high-school history teacher in Union Grove, Wisconsin, allegedly assigned her students to write a five-paragraph essay from the perspective of an American Muslim. In response, the American Center for Law and Justice, a D.C.-based legal nonprofit founded in 1990 by the evangelist Pat Robertson, wrote a letter to the school’s principal, advising him that this task violated students’ First Amendment rights. “This assignment is problematic because it required the students to adopt and adhere to Islamic religious activity and viewpoints,” wrote Carly Gammill, a senior litigator at the organization. “By requiring students to engage in and adopt a Muslim lifestyle, Union Grove is advancing a particular religious viewpoint.”

Gammill and the ACLJ have also been involved in the Tennessee cases, although the firm does not provide money to support particular issues or candidates in school-board elections and does all of its work pro bono. The organization claims it has been contacted by 7,000 Tennesseans about the way Islam is taught in social-studies classrooms. In response, it filed an open-records request with the state in September to be able to review lesson plans and other school materials. The request was later withdrawn.

“The ACLJ has become known as the place to call if your child is having an issue and … religion is being taught in what seems like an inappropriate manner,” said Gammill in an interview. She said the organization tracks First Amendment violations related to all religions, but most concerns tend to be about Islam. “All that these students are being taught is that Islam is entirely a peaceful religion, and that they peacefully colonized—I think we know historically that that is not entirely accurate,” she said. “It is very difficult to attribute ill intentions when you don’t have all of the facts. But it certainly raises questions about who’s behind this, and is this agenda-driven?”

“We have a shortage of bus drivers. We have a problem with substitute teachers. And we’re fooling around with this.”

To understand the concerns Gammill, Burgos, and others have raised, it’s helpful to understand where Williamson County’s learning requirements and resources come from. Roughly once every six years, the state reviews its set of learning standards for different grades and subjects—basically, what a student should know by the time she reaches the end of each school year. (Right now, in Tennessee, some of those standards are drawn from the Common Core, but not for social studies—the Common Core only informs the standards for math and language arts.) On a separate six-year cycle, the state reviews possible textbooks that schools can use and puts together a list of recommendations. Drawing on these recommendations, districts like Williamson County develop their own set of learning standards and choose what textbooks they want to use and purchase, often in consultation with teachers. Ultimately, teachers decide how to design their day-to-day curricula and how to use the textbooks—they have control over their lesson plans and assignments.

The concerns about “Islamic indoctrination” in Williamson County involve nearly every part of this process. In her October resolution, Burgos wrote that social-studies classes should cover all world religions equally, “except to the extent necessary to accurately reflect the Judeo-Christian heritage expressed by our Founding Fathers.” She argued that students should not be tested on their knowledge of religion, meaning that the state wouldn’t be able to measure whether middle-school students had met its learning standards for the religion components of sixth- and seventh-grade social studies. And during a school-board meeting, she questioned the textbook used by the county, alleging that it includes disproportionate coverage of Islam compared to other religions and omits historical facts about Muslims persecuting and converting others.

“In Williamson County, I can say, without any hesitation at all, that there is no slant toward Islam in our curriculum or in our teaching,” said Tim Gaddis, the county’s assistant superintendent of teaching, learning, and assessment, in an interview. He said the textbook does not mention Islam more than Christianity and Judaism, and all teachers are trained to talk about religion in historical and cultural terms, rather than spiritual or theological ones. But perhaps more importantly, there just isn’t a lot in the curriculum about religion, period.

“All of our middle schools … covered [the Islamic World] unit in a week this year,” Gaddis said. “It’s a survey course—you don’t get deeply into anything when you’re going from earliest civilizations all the way through the fall of Rome.”

In the absence of Muslim neighbors, it’s easier to see those who practice Islam as fundamentally foreign.

Some of the concerns about Islam in Williamson County have been about the way individual teachers make assignments and lesson plans, allegedly framing Islamic beliefs as truth, rather than part of culture or history. This was the charge the ACLJ raised in Union Grove, Wisconsin. Gaddis said he’s seen rumors of those kinds of assignments floating around the Internet, but it’s simply not something that’s happening in the county. “We would know,” he said, referring to the county superintendent’s office. “We’re in Williamson County, Tennessee. Our population of our county is overwhelmingly Christian, and our teachers reflect that. So the concept that anyone is trying to convert someone to Islam through some means is not only not true; it’s difficult for me to understand where something like that could even come from.”

It’s a fascinating question: How has Islamic indoctrination become a point of controversy in a county that’s chock full of churches? On one level, the concerns are about substance, such as whether Islam is being taught accurately and in proportion to lessons about other religions. But these questions seem to hint at something deeper and darker: fear. Perhaps that fear is all the more powerful in a place like Williamson County because the religion is largely an abstraction. In the absence of Muslim neighbors, it’s easier to see those who practice Islam as fundamentally foreign, and to elide their faith with violence.

Still, those who fear Islamic indoctrination in the county are likely a minority; at the very least, they don’t represent the views of many who live there. In 2014, a group of four moms started blogging on a website and Facebook page called Williamson Strong. Although they have pushed back on many of the initiatives proposed by the county’s relatively new school board, they have recently focused on challenging the anti-Islamic indoctrination campaign. Two of the founders, Jennifer Smith and Kim Henke, said they’ve been attacked for this and other issues. “We’ve been accused of not being Christian enough, not being Republican enough,” Smith said. And: “working for Obama, working for George Soros,” Henke added. “I’m also a solstice-worshipper—that’s one I’ve gotten, too.”

Smith said she has recently heard from a lot of parents about the Islamic indoctrination debate, and many have said they don’t want Williamson County Schools to promote any kind of religious values, Islamic, Christian, or otherwise. “It’s not the school’s job to teach my kids religion. It’s my job,” she said. “And it’s my decision where I want to go to church, or whatever faith I want to believe in or not believe in.”

Over the past year and a half, the group has gotten into a lot of fights. In the spring, a board member, Susan Curlee, filed a complaint alleging that Williamson Strong was acting as an unregistered Political Action Committee. The Registration of Election Finance agreed; Williamson Strong has appealed and filed a federal lawsuit. If nothing else, this legal back-and-forth shows just how contentious the county’s school-board issues have become, particularly with the involvement of groups like the American Center for Liberty and Justice. (This is not the only national organization that has become involved in the county’s local politics. In 2014, four of the six newly elected candidates were mentioned in ads and mailers paid for by Americans for Prosperity, the political lobbying organization founded by Charles and David Koch. The organization told The Tennessean it spent $500,000 on anti-Common Core campaigns in the state in the six weeks leading up to the school-board election.)

Others in the county are concerned that the focus on “Islamic indoctrination” could reflect poorly on the community. “I have never had a parent express concern about this,” said a Williamson County school-board member, Anne McGraw, at that October working session. “We each represent thousands of families. I don’t think this represents the county that I live in and am raising my children in.” At a board meeting the next week, a junior at Brentwood High School, Connor Carroll, said he feared colleges wouldn’t look at students “from a [school] system that is moving toward a curriculum … that is Islamophobic.” And Lane Rosencrans, a former English teacher, said “the ongoing overreach and intrusion into my classroom ultimately served as the reason why I left. … It’s asinine to think that to simply regurgitate a culture’s main tenets is a systemic indoctrination of their faith. To believe that it has any bearing on our own [faith] highlights the weakness in our own beliefs.”

Kids who grow up south of Nashville probably aren’t going to be exposed to many other faiths in daily life.

Williamson is known for being wealthy, partly because it’s home to global corporations like Nissan (and their executives). Matt Largen, the president and CEO of the county’s chamber of commerce, spends a lot of time talking with corporate heads who are considering moving their operations or headquarters to the area. “Resolutions like this make it a challenge to recruit companies to Williamson County,” he said in an interview. He worries that these companies, which boast workforces of people from all over the world, will come to town, see headlines about fear of Islam in schools, and get second thoughts. “Our economic future is tied to how we welcome people from outside the area,” he said. “Our strongest selling point is our public-school system. If what [company executives] read time and time again in the press is [about] a district struggling with these issues, it gives the impression that there is something fundamentally wrong with this district.”

Then again, if companies are looking for a diverse, global-feeling place to move, maybe Williamson County isn’t the right choice anyway. Daoud Abudiab, a Muslim parent who has been involved with Williamson Strong, said his kids have faced discrimination in all of the schools they’ve tried, including a few in Maury County. He and his wife tried homeschooling and co-ops for a while when they were living in Columbia, Tennessee, but “after a year or so, it was: Our kids can’t play together, because we learned in Sunday school that Muslims want to convert or kill everybody,” he said. “Our only choice was really to leave that and come to Williamson County. And now, we’re faced with even public schools where our kids don’t feel welcome.”

Abudiab, too, thought it odd that anti-“Islamic indoctrination” protests have come up in an area that’s almost entirely white and Christian—rather than, for example, diverse, cosmopolitan Nashville, one county north. “You would think they would go into Davidson County, where they’re liberal and there are school teachers who are Muslim. But they’re not worried about it there; they’re worried about it where there [are] no Muslim teachers. They’re worried about it in Columbia, where there isn’t, to my knowledge, a single Muslim student, and certainly no teachers.”

On a recent Saturday morning in downtown Franklin, Tennessee, I had coffee with Abudiab, Henke, Smith, and a local pastor who is also involved in Williamson Strong. It was an unusually diverse religious gathering for Williamson County: two Christians, a non-religious person, a Muslim, and a Jew. But that’s exactly why the community’s debate over religious education in seventh-grade social studies is so urgent. Kids who grow up south of Nashville probably aren’t going to be exposed to many other faiths in daily life.

“I want to raise my children… [so they] don’t see a difference between you and me,” Smith said, gesturing at Abudiab. “Not because our skin tone is different, our religious beliefs are different—my kids just don’t see that. They’re accepting for who we are as individuals. And at the end of the day, is that what I want as a parent? Yeah.”

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Does Affirmative Action Create Mismatches Between Students and Universities?

Last week, during oral arguments in the Fisher v. University of Texas affirmative action case, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia drew outraged criticism for declaring that “there are those who contend that it does not benefit African­-Americans to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less­ advanced school, a slower­-track school where they do well.” Scalia was clumsily alluding to “mismatch theory,” a prominent critique of affirmative action. Its proponents argue that non-academic preferences in college admissions ill-serve some intended beneficiaries, who end up admitted to schools for which they are relatively unprepared, and struggling, rather than thriving at different schools where they would be at least as well prepared as their classmates.

The denunciations were fierce.

“It is deeply disturbing to hear a Supreme Court justice endorse racist ideas from the bench on the nation’s highest court,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid. The cover of the New York Daily News declared it “Scalia’s racist rant.” Andy Borowitz, whose humor reliably flatters the preexisting beliefs of the average New Yorker reader, quipped that Justice Antonin Scalia would fare better if he served as a judge at a court that was ‘less advanced’ than the United States Supreme Court.”

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In response, some indignant conservative media critics declared that “mismatch theory” is “a taboo subject for the MSM” and that “the left” is made up of “contemptible liars” who are “terming Scalia a racist” because “the left’s ugly belief that subjective hurt somehow trumps statistical fact means that he must be labeled a bigot.”

If the underlying subject were inconsequential, America’s red and blue tribes could watch the uncharitable back-and-forth, get their respective serotonin boosts, and depart with the satisfaction of feeling superior to their ideological adversaries. As is often the case, however, the hyperbolic sniping that emerged from the political culture of stigma-and-outrage junkies muddied an important debate about a subject that deserves to be engaged cooly, rigorously, and constructively.

After all, many institutions of higher education give admissions boosts for non-academic characteristics, including race, athletic ability, musical talent, leadership potential, geographic diversity, and having parents who are alumni. It would be beneficial for the relevant admissions officers to have empirical answers to questions like, “Does an admitted student’s graduation rate change predictably depending on how many standard deviations they are from the mean SAT score or GPA?”

Colleges can hardly avoid provisional, working answers to that question. And there are cases in which nearly everyone either agrees with, or rejects, “mismatch theory.” If Harvard’s admissions team unexpectedly decided to admit ten students, never mind their race, who scored in the bottom 10 percent on the SAT, everyone would expect those students to fail. If Duke admitted 10 students of any race who scored a single percentile lower than the school average on the SAT, no one would expect that tranche of students to fail out of the university at a higher rate. Admissions officers regularly say about people of all races, “I’m impressed by this young person, but their ACT score and GPA make me wonder if they’d thrive here or be set up to fail.” Treating that commonplace as taboo is irresponsible. The only question is at what point academic credentials matter and to what degree.

With better information, colleges might learn that more expansive race-based preferences would not lower graduation rates; or that a subset of orchestra members or legacies or minorities are harmed by policies intended to help them; or that institutions can eliminate differences in graduation rates among students with GPA disparities by investing in specific types of academic support. Accurate, detailed conclusions could plausibly improve many thousands of lives, whatever they say.

Yet that isn’t the focus of the public debate. Why?

Scalia’s error was to talk carelessly and imprecisely about a predictably fraught subject. Contrary to his lazy characterization, proponents of “mismatch theory” do not believe that admission to selective colleges “does not benefit African ­Americans,” full stop, or that African Americans would benefit from “a slower track school.”

He ought to have made all of the following clear:

  • Many black students are fully qualified to attend the most highly selective institutions of higher education in America, and proponents of “mismatch theory” of course believe that this subset of black students benefits from doing so.
  • Professor Richard Sander of UCLA, who many regard as the foremost scholarly proponent of “mismatch theory,”and Stuart Taylor Jr. of Brookings, who co-authored the book Mismatch with him, “support the modest use of race in admissions but think very large preferences have harmful effects.”
  • It’s not about just about race. As Sander himself wrote last week in the Washington Post,“The ‘mismatch hypothesis’ contends that any person (certainly not just minorities) can be adversely affected if she attends a school where her level of academic preparation is substantially lower than that of her typical classmate.”

While Scalia’s defenders contend that he was speaking in shorthand and referencing amicus briefs and scholarly research that convey the foregoing more clearly than he did, I do not think it overzealous “political correctness” to expect more carefully drawn words on this subject in a high-profile hearing, given Scalia’s prominence and the ugly, wrongheaded belief in black inferiority that persists in bigoted enclaves. A man of his position and intellect is capable of better. From a purely consequentialist perspective, he should’ve anticipated that his shorthand would add more heat than light to the debate. As Taylor told the New York Times, “Mr. Scalia’s lack of eloquence had made what he said sound worse than it was.”

If Scalia sometimes shows more talent for provocation than rigor, the press ought to understand how amplifying and denouncing his least careful words misleads readers, who are owed a careful exposition of the actual arguments to which he alluded. At Vox, Libby Nelson at least explained to readers, “Scalia wasn’t making up his objection from the bench. He was drawing from a frequent conservative argument against affirmative action: Students with lesser academic qualifications don’t benefit from being admitted to a more competitive college.”

But even she gives the impression that mismatch theory is persuasive only to conservative opponents of affirmative action and that it is safely dismissed. As she put it, “research has found this isn’t true. If anything, it’s the opposite—students benefit from going to the best college that will admit them, even if their academic credentials are a stretch, because more selective colleges tend to have higher graduation rates.”


Sander, who isn’t mentioned in her piece despite his prominence in the debate and an amicus brief in the case before the court, is hardly a conservative ideologue. He graduated from Harvard and chose, as his first job, volunteering as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago; he wrote his graduate dissertation on fair-housing laws and residential segregation; he worked on the effort to elect Democrat Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor, and served on his transition team; he has a track record of empirical research aimed at figuring out how institutions of higher education can best help struggling students to thrive; and he’s a tenured law professor at UCLA. None of those factors means that his theory is necessarily correct; but they certainly cut against innuendo that “mismatch” is rooted in conservative hackery or racism.

Sander’s initial paper on mismatch theory focused on law schools.

Proponents of mismatch theory––and some agnostics––also cite a study by Duke University’s Peter Arcidiacono, who found that affirmative action might cause its beneficiaries to drop out of the most difficult majors at disproportionately high rates. It is conceivable that such mismatches, if they exist, are particularly likely at law schools and in STEM fields, and less likely to be observed in other disciplines—or even that they vary widely by institution.

Other formidable scholars––Matthew Chingo prominent among them––have offered strong critiques of “mismatch theory.” I have no position to offer on the many questions on which these academics disagree. But perusing the critics, Sander’s most up-to-date defense of his scholarship and various attempts to characterize the overarching debate, I’m baffled that any journalists are treating it as settled, even as tenured social-scientists at top-tier universities declare that it deserves to be taken seriously. No one, it seems, can yet provide a precise answer to the question, “at what point do disparities in GPA, SAT score, or high-school quality start to matter,” even though everyone surely agrees that they matter at some inflection point.

It would be useful to know, whatever it is.

One reason for the stridency of the reaction to Scalia’s remarks is the long history of racial exclusion and discrimination in university admissions; some critics fear that “mismatch theory” portends a return to segregated campuses, making the question of mismatches based on race more fraught than it is with respect to preferences based on athletics. Fortunately, almost no one today favors race-based exclusions, and public universities in states like California, where racial preferences are outlawed, have proven able to maintain a large degree of racial diversity. The biggest risk of bungling the mismatch debate is likely leaving students at schools where they are less likely to thrive.

As an observer who is open to the possibility of “mismatch” proponents or skeptics having the better of the argument, the only thing that seems clear to me is that more study of this question is worthwhile. Why does anyone disagree? Nelson writes, “Mismatch theory is always brought up in the context of affirmative action. But universities admit less academically qualified students for all kinds of reasons—because they’re the children of alumni or donors, due to athletic or musical talent, and so on. There isn’t nearly as much concern about how those students fare, and some research has found they’re more likely to drop out than other students, including those admitted through race-based affirmative action.” Wouldn’t it therefore be salutary to have answers to the whole array of questions?

In Mismatch, Sander and Taylor advocate for one step as a possible middle ground. “Schools should provide any information they have available or can reasonably obtain on learning outcomes for past students similar to the admitted student,” they write. “For example, a student admitted to a college with a given SAT score and high-school GPA should receive its best estimate of the past graduation rates of comparable students, their college GPAs, and their rates of attrition from intended majors.”

In one of the most even-handed articles on the controversy, the National Review’s Reihan Salam, an agnostic on racial  preferences, offers a compelling endorsement of that narrow position:

The goal of transparency wouldn’t be to discourage students from attending selective schools. If Chingos is right, the news would in most cases be more encouraging than discouraging. Yet students with below average levels of academic preparation would have a clearer sense of the obstacles they face, and that they’d be wise to take advantage of enrichment resources on campus to keep up with their better-prepared classmates.

It’s not just beneficiaries of racial preferences who’d profit from access information of this kind. So would athletes and benefits of other preferences, like legacy preferences and regional preferences. Indeed, I suspect all students would benefit from having some sense of where they stand in the pecking order. One often hears about students who resent the suggestion that they’ve benefited from racial (or other) preferences. Transparency could do a great deal to address these concerns. If I know that I’ve benefited from a preference, and I’ve made an informed decision about what that will likely mean for my academic prospects, I’d presumably feel far more secure. If I can’t stand the idea of benefiting from a preference, however, I might instead attend a school where I’d start at the top of heap. The ability to make an informed decision in accordance with your values is no small thing.

I suspect information of that sort would’ve better prepared me for the calculus course I struggled through as a Pomona College sophomore admitted with an SAT score that put me well above average in verbal skills and decidedly below it in math. It seems as though it would’ve benefitted Afi-Odelia Scruggs, whose powerful Washington Post op-ed about struggling at an elite college––and benefitting from going there anyway––serves as one powerful anecdotal retort to Scalia’s speculation. And the case for transparency dovetails with the demands of some student activists, who want more transparent data about how successfully institutions eager to recruit them to campus are serving them once they matriculate. Perhaps if lots of private institutions parted with such data, best practices would emerge.

Meanwhile, neither the right nor the left should stigmatize those who disagree with them on this subject. Careful proponents of mismatch theory and its most careful critics are both doing a service by advancing knowledge in an area where accurate information is highly likely to benefit that subset of students of all races who benefit from various admissions preferences, regardless of what the facts turn out to say. Journalists ought to be invested in the rigorous pursuit of that knowledge, and do harm insofar as they overstate what is known, or stigmatize earnest scholars on either side of a debate that won’t be settled without many more studies at diverse institutions.

As John McWhorter put it, this is “a complex matter upon which reasonable minds will differ. With the well-being of young people of color at stake, we can’t afford to pretend otherwise.” Stigma and insults help no one. But more knowledge will.