What Kind of Diversity?

Let me respond to a few articles and papers. They cover different aspects of diversity. I have long been bothered by some of the issues involved and how they are handled. It is disappointing and frustrating to see the endless flow of low quality discussion and analysis, not to mention the inadequate research.

I’ll begin with The Costs of Ethnic Diversity With Garett Jones from The Economics Detective. It’s an old argument, that diversity is bad, bigotry gussied up in scientific language. I’m not racist because I’m a good liberal, says the author; it’s just the damning facts speaking for themselves. Yet other facts say otherwise, as it always depends on which facts one uses and interprets, behind which can be hidden beliefs and biases. To emphasize this point, one could note that fairly high diversity is found among some of the wealthiest, not to mention among the most stable and influential, countries in the world: UK, US, Canada, Australia, Spain, etc. And most of the struggling and dysfunctional countries are extremely homogeneous (or at least perceived as ‘homogeneous’ from the perspective of the Western racial order). That isn’t to blame homogeneity instead, as there are other factors involved such as post-colonial legacies and neo-imperial meddling. But obviously there is no consistent global pattern in lack of diversity, however defined, and societal problems. Even outside of the West, there are diverse societies that manage to get positive results — Amanda Ripley writes (The Smartest Kids in the World, pp. 160-161):

“In Singapore, the opposite happened. There, the population was also diverse, about 77 percent Chinese, 14 percent Malay, 8 percent Indian, and 1.5 percent other. People spoke Chinese, English, Malay, and Tamil and followed five different faiths (Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Taoism, and Hinduism). Yet Singaporeans scored at the top of the world on PISA, right beside Finland and Korea. There was virtually no gap in scores between immigrant and native-born students.
“Of course , Singapore was essentially another planet compared to most countries. It was ruled by an authoritarian regime with an unusually high-performing bureaucracy. The government controlled most of the rigor variables, from the caliber of teacher recruits to the mix of ethnicities in housing developments. Singapore did not have the kind of extreme segregation that existed in the United States, because policy makers had forbidden it.”

Other research shows that segregation is a key factor. Diversity only correlates to social problems when populations are segregated. As Eric Uslaner explained (Segregation and Mistrust, Kindle Locations 65-73): “[C]orrelations across countries and American states between trust and all sorts of measures of diversity were about as close to zero as one can imagine… [L]iving among people who are different from yourself didn’t make you less trusting in people who are different from yourself. But that left me with a quandary: Does the composition of where you live not matter at all for trust in people unlike yourself? I had no ready answer, but going through the cross-national data set I had constructed, I found a variable that seemed remotely relevant: a crude ordinal measure (from the Minorities at Risk Project at my own university, indeed just one floor below my office) of whether minorities lived apart from the majority population. I found a moderately strong correlation with trust across nations – a relationship that held even controlling for other factors in the trust models I had estimated in my 2002 book. It wasn’t diversity but segregation that led to less trust.” Then again, high inequality studies show that economic segregation causes the exact same problems as racial/ethnic segregation. Maybe it isn’t diversity itself that is problematic but how some societies have failed to deal with it well.

It’s interesting that these people who criticize diversity of race, ethnicity, religion, language, etc rarely if ever talk about other forms of diversity such as socioeconomic class, involving issues of vast differences in funding and resources, education and healthcare, environmental racism and toxicity rates, police brutality and ghettoization, biases and prejudices, opportunities and privileges, power and influence. Capitalism (specifically in the form of corporatism, plutocracy, inverted totalitarianism, and social darwinism) causes high levels of income and wealth diversity, i.e., inequality. If diversity was bad, then so is capitalism that causes class diversity. But maybe the main problem of class diversity or any other form of diversity is social division that leads to political divisiveness. Diversity wouldn’t necessarily be problematic, if there were movement between populations. Without racial/ethnic segregation, there is more racial/ethnic integration and assimilation. And without economic segregation, there is more economic mobility and cross-generational wealth accrual. That means the solution is to not isolate populations out of xenophobia and bigotry, especially to not create permanent underclasses of any variety.

Here is the complaint I have with this kind of people, besides some of them expressing anti-diversity fear-mongering or else complicitly going along with it. Between them and I, we are focusing on different evidence which is fine to an extent. But the difficulty is that, generally speaking, I know their evidence while most of them don’t know mine. And I can explain their evidence while they can’t explain mine. It isn’t usually a meeting of minds through fair debate based on mutual respect and mutual concern for truth-seeking. Their arguments almost always come down to cherrypicked data. That isn’t to say their data shouldn’t be accounted for. It’s just it’s hard to take them seriously when they refuse to even acknowledge the data that disproves, undermines, and complicates their dogmatic beliefs or half-thought opinions. I admit that diversity is problematic under particular circumstances. What most of them can’t acknowledge is that diversity is beneficial under other circumstances. That would force them to admit that it isn’t diversity itself that is the crux of the matter. That said, the above piece from The Economics Detective does admit the profit motive for businesses being diversity-friendly and so I’ll give the author some credit for genuinely being a good liberal, but I must take off a few points for his all too typical carelessness in not being fully informed.

Now to the next example. Someone stated that: “The article below said that people are less willing to give when different groups are different status/class/privilege, not necessarily when different in and of itself” This person was referring to the following: Economic versus Cultural Differences: Forms of Ethnic Diversity and Public Goods Provision by Kate Baldwin and John D. Huber. I’d point out there was further research that showed it is more complicated than the original paper’s conclusion: Ethnic divisions and public goods provision, revisited by Rachel M. Gisselquist. Even taking the original paper as is, it still doesn’t answer my criticisms. They aren’t dealing with social identity (race, class, etc) as social construction and social perception created through social control and maintained through social order. That is where such things as segregation come in.

I’m not seeing much good research to explore these more fundamental issues, which leaves them as confounding factors that remain uncontrolled and unaccounted for. There are so many problems and limitations in this area of research. The world we live in was created by centuries of colonial imperialism that has been continuously racist and classist up into the present. What is being measured in any of these countries is not necessarily about diversity but about the legacies of systemic and institutional racism and classism on a global scale. And I’d argue there is no way to separate the racism from the classism, which should be obvious to anyone who has given it much thought. We are talking about complex systems with inseparable factors, such as segregation/ghettoization and integration/assimilation. With diversity, this issue is who gets to define and enforce social identities. Colonial imperialism gave birth to both a particular social/racial/class order and what became the WEIRD culture. The researchers are the inheritors of this all and then enforce their biased views onto their research.

I don’t trust that many of these political and economic researchers understand what is involved. An anthropologist would better understand what I’m talking about, not just the diversity of subjects but more importantly the diversity between scientist and subjects. Researchers from entirely different cultures might approach this far differently. Anthropologists have done much interesting work that probes much deeper than most research (David Graeber could be a useful anthropologist to look into about these overlapping issues). For example, how would an anthropologist who is a Native American study the diversity of Native Americans in states or regions where multiple tribes live, specifically across a history of white supremacy in creating the reservation system? Also, how does the perceived diversity of European-Americans in earlier US history compare to perceived homogeneity of Europeans at present? Might it be important who was in power when diversity was enforced on a population in contrast to when homogeneity was enforced? What about the power dynamic of mostly WEIRD researchers have in a WEIRD society in imposing their views and biases? Is Asia, the majority of the world’s population, diverse as Asians experience it or homogeneous as Westerns perceive it?

Here are the last two I’ll respond to: Why Does Ethnic Diversity Undermine Public Goods Provision? by Habyarimana, Humphreys, Posner, & Weinstein; and Ethnic diversity, social sanctions, and public goods in Kenya by Edward Miguel & Mary Kay Gugerty. These miss a major point. Diversity and homogeneity are built on social constructs. They are dependent on public perception and social control. A society can choose to maintain diversity or not. If we don’t economically and racially/ethnically segregate people while instead treating people fairly and equally, promoting integration and assimilation, and ensuring the social democratic resources and opportunites for all, including geographic and economic mobility… if we do that, then diversity will over the generations turn into homogeneity, as has been historically proven across the world many times over. It has happened repeatedly since the beginning of the species. The Germanic tribes were once diverse, but now they just think of themselves as Germans. The British were once diverse, but have slowly developed a common identity. The Piraha originated from separate ethnic tribes that came together, but now they are just the Piraha. The opposite can happen as well. Take people from the same society and treat them differently. In a short period of time, the two invented groups will immediately take on the new social identities. To go along with this, it won’t take them long to create new cultures, traditions, attire, and ways of talking. You can see this when people join an organization, convert to a religion, get a new group of friends — they will change their appearance and behavior.

Whether enforced from above or taken on by individuals, social influences are powerful. One great example of this was Jane Elliott’s eye color experiment. Along these lines, a ton of interesting studies have been done about the observer-expectancy effect, subject-expectancy effect, Pygmallion/Rosenthal effect. Hawthorne/observer effect, golem effect, etc. I’d add stereotype effect to this list, which deals with group identities more directly. How people are identified doesn’t just shape how they identify but also determines how they are treated and how they behave. Basically, these are self-fulfilling prophecies. Such experiments were only done over short periods. Imagine the results attained by continuing the same experiment across multiple generations or even centuries. Social constructs should be taken seriously, especially when made socially real through disenfranchisement, impoverishment, high inequality, segregation/ghettoization, systemic prejudice and biases, concentrated power, an authoritarian state, police enforcement, and much else. When we are talking about ethnic diversity in terms of immigration and refugee crises, this includes centuries of colonialism, resource exploitation, military actions, covert operations, political intervention, economic sanctions, and on and on. There are long, ugly legacies behind these racial, ethnic, and national divides. In many cases, ethnic immigrants come from countries that were former colonies and have borders that were artificially created by empires. First and foremost, there is the immeasurable diversity of justice and injustice, power and oppression. Diversity as racial order didn’t naturally develop but was violently enacted, a racial ideology shaping racial realities.

So what do these people think they are studying when they research diversity? And what are they actually studying? The confounding factors are so immense that it’s hard to wrap one’s mind around it. About people who study and discuss these kinds of topics, one gets the sense that many of them aren’t deep and careful thinkers. Things that seem obvious to me never occur to them. Or else these things do occur to them but for ideological reasons they can’t acknowledge them. I wonder what some people even think diversity means. As I’ve said before, I have more in common with a non-white Midwesterner than I have with a white Southerner. And I have more in common with a non-white American than a white European. Diversity of skin color doesn’t necessarily correlate to diversity of ethnicity, language, religion, etc. The average African-American shares the same basic culture as other Americans. A large part of African-Americans should technically be called European-Americans, both in terms of genetics and culture. As Thomas Sowell argues, African-Americans don’t have an African culture, rather a Southern culture. What makes African-Americans stand out in the North is that because of segregation they have more fully maintained their Southern culture. But that depends on where one lives. Here in Iowa City, most of the African-Americans are either immigrants of African ethnicties or individuals whose families have been in the region so long that they are assimilated to Midwestern culture, but African-Americans with Southern culture are rare around here.

If cultural diversity is what is deemed problematic, then that has nothing directly to do with skin color. But if we are talking about conflict based on skin color, that is simply an issue of racism. So, what exactly are we concerned about? Let’s get clear on that first. And then only after considering all the evidence, let’s begin the process of honest debate and informed analysis.

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Distrusting Those Promoting Mistrust

There are endless arguments about diversity being bad. Many such arguments are made by racists. But others come from well-meaning people who lack much information and imagination, unable to see outside of mainstream opinion. One such example is a 2010 dissertation by Maureen A. Eger, Ethnic Heterogeneity and the Limits of Altruism (University of Washington):

“Taken together, the analyses in this dissertation provide empirical support for the diversity-altruism hypothesis. The comparative strategy reveals that immigration-generated diversity depresses support for welfare state attitudes regardless of a country’s institutional features. However, these analyses also demonstrate that the relationship between diversity and altruism manifests itself in country- specific ways. Results suggest that countries’ historical institutions and experiences with ethnic diversity play a more important role than contemporary national institutions in how diversity affects attitudes.”

How does that explain that multicultural Western social democracies have stronger, more well funded welfare systems than most of the homogeneous countries in the world?

Only by cherry-picking examples and data (along with not controlling for confounding factors) can you make an argument that multicultural Western social democracies are failures, relative to most other sociopolitical systems. There are plenty of severely dysfunctional and oppressive societies out there with governments that don’t take care of their citizens, no matter how homogeneous the population.

Also, as always, context matters. There is a vast difference between freely chosen immigration of those seeking opportunities of betterment and enforced immigration because of refugee crises caused by civil conflict, international war, terrorism, genocide, climate change-caused droughts, etc. We are living at a time of vast global instability. That doesn’t lead to good results for anyone. But let’s keep in mind that this vast global instability was largely caused and supported by the Western elites now discussing whether diversity and immigration are beneficial (e.g., Why are there refugees at the US southern border?).

Those in power like to complain about dangerous brown-skinned others, even as their power is dependent on the neoliberal exploitation of cheap labor that impoverishes and makes desperate those people, turning them into immigrants and refugees. That neoliberalism backed by the neocon war machine has harmed and destroyed so many societies, bleeding them dry of their natural resources and externalizing the costs of Western industry. These foreigners are on the frontlines of climate change with the harsh reality of environmental destruction, ecosystem collapse, drought, food shortages, social instability, political weakening, economic problems, and the ensuing refugee crises.

Many of the Middle Eastern refugees right now are escaping droughts in particular that have made farming impossible in what was once the bread basket of the world. What are all these poor, unemployed farmers to do when they can’t even grow food to feed themselves, much less to make a living? And if these countries can no longer feed their own people and their economies are in free fall, what exactly are they supposed to do? These people are struggling for survival, in dealing with problems largely caused by others. Meanwhile, the Western elites are debating whether climate change is real and debating whether diversity is good. These elites are either entirely disconnected from reality or they are sociopaths, authoritarians, and social dominance orientation types — surely, a combination of all of these, going by what they say and do.

Here is an idea. Maybe stop destroying people’s lives in other countries and then we can discuss the problems caused by past and ongoing failures of political vision and moral accountability. Just a suggestion.

I made a rule about this a while back:

“We can only deny immigration to citizens of countries where the US government and military has never meddled in their society. We will demand any immigrants to go away and leave us alone, if and only if we have done the same to them.”

If we are serious about trust, then we should quit implementing the very policies that destroy trust. We already know what builds and destroys a culture of trust. This isn’t exactly a new area of study. Besides, it’s all rather common sense, if one can free one’s mind from dogmatic rhetoric and ideological ‘realism’.

As Eric Uslaner explained (from Segregation and Mistrust, Kindle Locations 65-73):

“[C]orrelations across countries and American states between trust and all sorts of measures of diversity were about as close to zero as one can imagine… [L]iving among people who are different from yourself didn’t make you less trusting in people who are different from yourself. But that left me with a quandary: Does the composition of where you live not matter at all for trust in people unlike yourself? I had no ready answer, but going through the cross-national data set I had constructed, I found a variable that seemed remotely relevant: a crude ordinal measure (from the Minorities at Risk Project at my own university, indeed just one floor below my office) of whether minorities lived apart from the majority population. I found a moderately strong correlation with trust across nations – a relationship that held even controlling for other factors in the trust models I had estimated in my 2002 book. It wasn’t diversity but segregation that led to less trust.”

(*begin rant*)

Let me explain something for those a bit slow in the head, cold in the heart, and stunted in imagination. It isn’t diversity that harms a society. It is division.

This typically is caused by segregation, no matter what form it takes: race, ethnicity, religion, nativism, class, regionalism, etc. In American society, racism and classism have been inseparable. But even without racism, international studies have shown that high economic inequality leads to vast social problems and political dysfunction.

When a society separates itself into social groups and communities that don’t interact with each other, the natural human impulse of empathy shrivels up and conflict inevitably follows. When people see their fellow citizens and humans as enemies, the results are never pretty. Division and divisiveness go hand in hand.

Wake the eff up, people! This isn’t rocket science. It’s Human Nature 101.

(*end rant*)

I’m not arguing that a kind of exclusionary, authoritarian ‘trust’ can’t be created in a bigoted, closed society. Germany under the Nazis was a high trust society, in a severely limited sense, even though Jews who had lived their for centuries weren’t trusted. Many authoritarian societies are high trust because the citizens/subjects are obedient from some combination of propaganda, violent rule, external threat, xenophobia, scapegoating, and a collective Stockholm syndrome.

No one is doubting that such ‘trust’ can be created and enforced. And in the case of Nazi Germany, the average German was initially doing quite well and was comfortably oblivious to the suffering of those in the concentration camps, at least until it was too late. The average citizen in most reasonably functional societies wants to trust their government. Such basic trust isn’t hard to achieve and authoritarians easily take advantage of it.

The question is: What kind of trust? And to what end?

That is a particularly difficult question in a society like that of the United States. North America has been an immigrant destination for a half millennia and, for that reason, it is diverse in terms of culture, ethnicity, race, religion, language, etc. Diversity is the very heart of American culture. Yet contrary to the beliefs of some people, the United States rates way above the global average in terms of culture of trust, functioning social democracy, and strength of welfare state. We are far from a perfect country, but we are even further from being one of the worst.

Immigration and diversity is an American tradition, the very foundation of our society. We have many centuries of practice (i.e., learning by way of mistakes) in dealing with diversity, tolerance, and assimilation. Why scrap the one thing that has made American a great or at least interesting, albeit imperfect, experiment?

Besides, if not for multiculturalism and the welcoming of the huddled masses to American shores, what moral justification is there for our present American imperialism that seeks to rule over the entire world? How are we to pay the moral debt to the victims of Western policies, if we are to refuse them even the basic right of refuge from the problems we helped cause? Why do elites assume their opinions matter at all, these elites being the very people who are most responsible for and most benefiting from this state of injustice and unfairness?

(*crickets chirping*)

Maybe the greatest threat we face isn’t from immigrants and diversity but from those who fear-monger and scapegoat to push their self-serving agenda of cronyism, authoritarianism, plutocracy, oligarchy, corporatism, and neo-imperialism. Is the concern about what makes the world a better place for all or how the elite can maintain their wealth and privilege, power and control? Those are opposing purposes to be pursued with far different kinds of methods, policies, and actions. What if we average people, the common masses choose to disagree with those who presume to be our masters, the self-proclaimed meritocratic elite?

If anyone bothered to ask me, I know the kinds of people I’d deport and imprison. In seeking to create a culture of trust, it is exceedingly clear the oppressors who undermine trust and so who are a threat to a culture of trust. Those who disseminate mistrust should not be trusted. There is the source of the problem that needs to be taken care of with extreme prejudice.

* * *

The Golden Rule and Reality
Origin of American Diversity

The Root and Rot of the Tree of Liberty
Midlands Mestizo: Pluralism and Social Democracy
The Fight For Freedom Is the Fight To Exist: Independence and Interdependence
“Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America.”
“…from every part of Europe.”
Incentives of Individualism
How do we make the strange familiar?
Good Liberals vs Savage Nihilists
Cost of War
The War on Democracy: a simple answer
A System of Unhappiness
Costs Must Be Paid: Social Darwinism As Public Good
Ideological Realism & Scarcity of Imagination
The Unimagined: Capitalism and Crappiness
“just a means to that end”
It’s All Your Fault, You Fat Loser!
Capitalism as Social Control

The Moral Imagination of Fear
The Living Apocalypse, A Lived Reality Tunnel
Racial Reality Tunnel
Race Realism and Racialized Medicine
More Minorities, Less Crime
The Desperate Acting Desperately
From Bad to Worse: Trends Across Generations
Are White Appalachians A Special Case?
Opportunity Precedes Achievement, Good Timing Also Helps
Moral Flynn Effect?

America’s Less-Than-Smartest Education System

I came across a great talk by Amanda Ripley about her book, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way. It is from C-SPAN in their coverage of this year’s National Book Festival (see video here).

She compares education systems in various countries. Her purpose seems to primarily be to understand the problems, challenges, and unique qualities of American education. In order to do this, she focuses on some of the best education systems in the world. It is the most intelligent and insightful analysis of education that I’ve come across. She also comes across as intellectually humble, something I always admire.

Here is a short video where she gives a brief introduction and overview:

The C-SPAN video happened to be playing on television while I was visiting my parent’s home. My mother likes C-SPAN. She was a public school teacher for her entire career. She has also been a conservative her entire life. She is critical of many things about public education, but she is still an ardent supporter of it, unlike my more libertarian father.

Amanda Ripley comes across as being somewhere on the left side of the spectrum, probably a fairly standard mainstream liberal. It was interesting that my mother agreed with everything Ripley spoke about. However, after the C-SPAN talk was over, both of my parents brought up the issue of tracking which they see as the solution. As that didn’t come up in the talk, I decided to buy the e-book and do a quick search. She does cover that issue in the book, but it isn’t what my parents would like to see. It doesn’t confirm their beliefs on this one aspect (pp. 137-138):

“Intuitively, tracking made sense. A classroom should function more efficiently if all the kids were at the same level. In reality, though, second tracks almost always came with second-rate expectations.

“Statistically speaking, tracking tended to diminish learning and boost inequality wherever it was tried. In general, the younger the tracking happened, the worse the entire country did on PISA. There seemed to be some kind of ghetto effect : Once kids were labeled and segregated into the lower track, their learning slowed down.”

Of course, it isn’t just my parents who love the idea of tracking. It is a mainstream position in the United States. Even many on the left will argue tracking is one of the answers to educational failure, although those on the right emphasize it the most. Conservatives say that some kids are just low IQ or lazy or untalented. Not all kids deserve equal education, because not all students are equal. In their minds, it would actually be unfair to treat all kids equally.

However, as this author demonstrates, it is precisely because Finland treats all students equally and gives all students equal opportunity that they have the greatest schools in the world. You go to one school in Finland and it is basically the same quality as any other. They direct their funding to where it is needed, not to where rich people send their kids to school.

No Finnish student gets permanently tracked, not even special education students, for in Finland they assume special education is a temporary condition. They have high expectations of all students and so all students improve, unlike in the US. Americans don’t realize how highly unusual is our version of tracking (pp. 138-139):

“When most people thought of tracking, they thought of places like Germany or Austria, where students were siphoned off to separate schools depending on their aspirations. Tracking took different forms in places like the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, Norway, and Sweden. But that didn’t mean it was less powerful.

“Tracking in elementary school was a uniquely American policy. The sorting began at a very young age, and it came in the form of magnet schools, honors classes, Advanced Placement courses, or International Baccalaureate programs. In fact, the United States was one of the few countries where schools not only divided younger children by ability, but actually taught different content to the more advanced track. In other countries , including Germany and Singapore, all kids were meant to learn the same challenging core content; the most advanced kids just went deeper into the material.

“Meanwhile, the enduring segregation of U.S. schools by race and income created another de facto tracking system, in which minority and low-income kids were far more likely to attend inferior schools with fewer Advanced Placement classes and less experienced teachers.”

There are many things that are fundamentally different about the U.S. education system, like so much else in this country. The author notes that the American obsession about extracurricular activities is one of the most unusual aspects.

Americans are obsessed about school more than are the Finnish, but there is a disconnect in this obsession. U.S. teachers give more homework, for example, and yet in Finland students get higher quality homework that demands more challenging independent thought. Finnish schools are laidback by American standards and parents are almost entirely uninvolved, but what they do is heavily invest in quality everything, especially teachers (who get their teacher training in the Finnish equivalent of U.S. Ivy League colleges). They don’t waste their time and money on keeping students entertained with sports, clubs, and other activities.

In most countries in the world, children simply go to school to learn and nothing else. Foreign students who come to the U.S. observe how easy is education here. And U.S. students that travel to the countries with better education systems observe that the students there take education more seriously.

The U.S. is atypical partly because of its dark history of racial segregation. Obviously, this plays into the dysfunctional tracking system that directs most resources to certain students. This leaves a substandard education for the rest of the students, mostly poor and minority. Tracking directly fits into a system of social hierarchy and social control. Those put on the lower track have little expectations placed upon them, or rather a great many negative expectations forced upon them.

Low expectations goes hand in hand with lowered standards and results. This isn’t surprising for anyone who knows about the research on the power of expectations, from the Rosenthal-Pygmalion Effect to Stereotype Threat. Tracking institutionalizes some of the worst aspects of our society, but it isn’t just about the failure of American society. Tracking, generally speaking, is just a bad system in any society.

Lessening the emphasis on tracking has been a wild success in countries all around the world. Americans should take note (pp. 139-140):

“By the early twenty-first century, many countries were slowly, haltingly, delaying tracking. When they did so, all kids tended to do better. In most Polish schools, tracking occurred at age sixteen. At Tom’s school in Wrocław, the sorting had already happened; only a third to half of the students who applied were accepted. Tom only saw the vocational kids when he came to gym class. They left as his class arrived.

“Finland tracked kids, too. As in Poland, the division happened later, at age sixteen, the consequence of forty years of reforms, each round of which had delayed tracking a little longer. Until students reached age sixteen, though, Finnish schools followed a strict ethic of equity. Teachers could not, as a rule, hold kids back or promote them when they weren’t ready. That left only one option: All kids had to learn. To make this possible, Finland’s education system funneled money toward kids who needed help. As soon as young kids showed signs of slipping, teachers descended upon them like a pit crew before they fell further behind. About a third of kids got special help during their first nine years of school. Only 2 percent repeated a grade in Finnish primary school (compared to 11 percent in the United States, which was above average for the developed world).

“Once it happened, tracking was less of a stigma in Finland. The government gave vocational high schools extra money, and in many towns, they were as prestigious as the academic programs. In fact, the more remote or disadvantaged the school, the more money it got. This balance was just as important as delaying tracking; once students got channeled into a vocational track, it had to lead somewhere. Not all kids had to go to college, but they all had to learn useful skills.

“In Finland and all the top countries, spending on education was tied to need, which was only logical. The worse off the students, the more money their school got. In Pennsylvania, Tom’s home state, the opposite was true. The poorest school districts spent 20 percent less per student, around $ 9,000 compared to around $ 11,000 in the richest school districts.”

Other countries came to realize tracking was ineffective, and so they changed their methods. For Americans, it has been just more cowbell (p. 140):

“That backward math was one of the most obvious differences between the United States and other countries. In almost every other developed country, the schools with the poorest students had more teachers per student; the opposite was true in only four countries: the United States, Israel, Slovenia, and Turkey, where the poorest schools had fewer teachers per student.

“It was a striking difference, and it related to rigor. In countries where people agreed that school was serious, it had to be serious for everyone. If rigor was a prerequisite for success in life, then it had to be applied evenly. Equity— a core value of fairness, backed up by money and institutionalized by delayed tracking— was a telltale sign of rigor.”

Many Americans, especially on the right, would argue these countries are successful because they are small and homogenous. They think that the main problem is that we have a large bureaucratic government that is trying to enforce a one-size-fits-all solution onto a diverse population. That of course misses the entire point of tracking. The U.S. has one of the least one-size-fits-all solutions in the world. Even ignoring that, can U.S. education problems be blamed on the government and on diversity?

To answer that question, I would put it into the context of what Ripley has to say about Singapore (pp. 160-161):

“In Singapore, the opposite happened. There, the population was also diverse, about 77 percent Chinese, 14 percent Malay, 8 percent Indian, and 1.5 percent other. People spoke Chinese, English, Malay, and Tamil and followed five different faiths (Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Taoism, and Hinduism). Yet Singaporeans scored at the top of the world on PISA, right beside Finland and Korea. There was virtually no gap in scores between immigrant and native-born students.

“Of course , Singapore was essentially another planet compared to most countries. It was ruled by an authoritarian regime with an unusually high-performing bureaucracy. The government controlled most of the rigor variables, from the caliber of teacher recruits to the mix of ethnicities in housing developments. Singapore did not have the kind of extreme segregation that existed in the United States, because policy makers had forbidden it.”

I doubt I’d want to live in Singapore, but it offers an interesting example. One of the points the author makes is that there are different ways to get high education results.

To Americans, Singapore seems authoritarian and dystopian. They have a highly centralized and powerful bureaucratic government. They don’t even have the benefit of a homogenous society.

That is everything that right-wingers use to rationalize America’s failing schools. And yet in Singapore it is the precise recipe for educational success.

It isn’t just about a few exceptional countries like Singapore. Diversity isn’t just that big of an issue. There are a high number of highly homogenous countries (homogenous in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, religion, etc) that are extremely poor, have high rates of social problems, and measure low in their education systems. Sure, systems that work best in diverse societies likely will be different than what works in homogenous societies, but the basic point is that there are ways that both types of societies can attain very high standards of education.

Besides, even breaking down the U.S. education system into homogenous and diverse states still doesn’t explain this country’s low ranking in the world. Even many highly homogenous states (almost entirely white in some cases) don’t necessarily get all that great of results. She mentioned one state (one of the Northeastern states, as I recall) that had about average or slightly below average rankings in international comparisons. Even looking back at the supposed golden age of education during the low immigration mid-20th century doesn’t offer much solace. The U.S. never has had a top ranked grade school education system.

Diversity can’t be used as an excuse (p. 17):

“Other Americans defended their system, blaming the diversity of their students for lackluster results . In his meticulous way, Schleicher responded with data: Immigrants could not be blamed for America’s poor showing. The country would have had the same ranking if their scores were ignored. In fact, worldwide, the share of immigrant children explained only 3 percent of the variance between countries.”

Also, it can’t be blamed on poverty, typically associated with immigrants and minorities. Nor can it be blamed on the public schools where immigrants and minorities are concentrated. Ripley makes this very clear (p. 17):

“A student’s race and family income mattered, but how much such things mattered varied wildly from country to country . Rich parents did not always presage high scores, and poor parents did not always presage low scores. American kids at private school tended to perform better, but not any better than similarly privileged kids who went to public school. Private school did not, statistically speaking, add much value.”

It isn’t a matter of whether or not a country has a diverse population or not, but what one does with the population one has. This relates to spending. More funding of education in itself doesn’t correlate to better results. Instead, it is about how that money is used and if it is used equitably to help all students (p. 160):

“The rest depended on what countries did with the children they had. In the United States, the practice of funding schools based on local property taxes motivated families to move into the most affluent neighborhoods they could afford, in effect buying their way into good schools. The system encouraged segregation.

“Since black, Hispanic, and immigrant kids tended to come from less affluent families , they usually ended up in underresourced schools with more kids like them. Between 1998 and 2010, poor American students had become more concentrated in schools with other poor students.

“The biggest problem with this kind of diversity is that it wasn’t actually diverse. Most white kids had majority white classmates. Black and Hispanic students, meanwhile, were more likely to attend majority black or Hispanic schools in 2005 than they were in 1980.

“Populating schools with mostly low-income, Hispanic, or African-American students usually meant compounding low scores, unstable home lives, and low expectations. Kids fed off each other, a dynamic that could work for good and for ill. In Poland, kids lost their edge as soon as they were tracked into vocational schools; likewise, there seemed to be a tipping point for expectations in the United States. On average, schools with mostly low- income kids systematically lacked the symptoms of rigor. They had inconsistent teaching quality, little autonomy for teachers or teenagers, low levels of academic drive, and less equity. By warehousing disadvantaged kids in the same schools, the United States took hard problems and made them harder.”

Once again, dysfunctional tracking in the U.S. is rooted in a history of systemic and institutional racism. Kids are tracked both in the formal and informal sense. Race and class segregation divide up students, and most of the funding is going to wealthier students and white students. It isn’t necessarily that all that extra funding is being used well by those wealthier school districts, but that the poorest school districts have so little money to use for anything, whether used well or badly. Too much funding isn’t necessarily helpful. Too little funding, however, is obviously problematic.

The discussion in America tends to focus only on the average amount of funding for each American child, all the while ignoring the vast disparity of funding between populations. This is how serious attention on the real issues gets avoided. No one wants to talk about the elephant in the room, the historical inequalities that are continually reinforced, not just inequalities between wealth and poverty but inequalities of political power and real world opportunities, inequalities of racial prejudice and privilege. These are among the most politically incorrect issues in this country.

As all of this shows, there is more going on here than can be understood in the ideological frame of mainstream American politics (pp. 163-164):

“The more time I spent in Finland, the more I started to think that the diversity narrative in the United States— the one that blamed our mediocrity on kids’ backgrounds and neighborhoods— was as toxic as funding inequities . There was a fatalism to the story line, which didn’t mean it was wrong. The United States did have too much poverty; minority students were not learning enough. Parents did matter, and so did health care and nutrition. Obviously.

“But the narrative also underwrote low aspirations, shaping the way teachers looked at their students, just as Vuorinen feared. Since the 1960s, studies have shown that if researchers tested a class and told teachers that certain students would thrive academically in the coming months, teachers behaved differently toward the chosen kids. They nodded more, smiled more, and gave those kids more time to answer questions and more specific feedback.

“In fact, the kids had been chosen at random. The label was fictional, but it stuck. At the end of the school year, teachers still described those students as more interesting, better adjusted, and more likely to be successful in life. As for other kids who had done well in the classroom, but were not chosen? The same teachers described them as less likely to succeed and less likable. The human brain depends on labels and patterns; if a researcher (or cultural narrative) offers teachers a compelling pattern, they will tend to defer to it.

“What did it mean, then, that respected U.S. education leaders and professors in teacher colleges were indoctrinating young teachers with the mindset that poverty trumped everything else? What did it mean if teachers were led to believe that they could only be expected to do so much, and that poverty was usually destiny?

“It may be human nature to stereotype, but some countries systematically reinforced the instinct, and some countries inhibited it. It was becoming obvious to me that rigor couldn’t exist without equity. Equity was not just a matter of tracking and budgets; it was a mindset.

“Interestingly, this mindset extended to special education in Finland, too. Teachers considered most special ed students to have temporary learning difficulties, rather than permanent disabilities. That mindset helped explain why Finland had one of the highest proportions of special education kids in the world; the label was temporary and not pejorative. The Finns assumed that all kids could improve. In fact, by their seventeenth birthday, about half of Finnish kids had received some kind of special education services at some point, usually in elementary school, so that they did not fall farther behind. During the 2009 to 2010 school year, about one in four Finnish kids received some kind of special education services—almost always in a normal school, for only part of the day. (By comparison, about one in eight American students received special education services that year.)”

This isn’t something unique to particular societies. It isn’t as if we must resign ourselves to a lesser fate in the global scheme of things. There is evidence that high education standards can even be achieved demographically diverse groups of students in the United States (p. 218):

“Unlike most schools in America, including the best public charter schools, these new schools were actually diverse, in the literal sense. Moskowitz wanted a true mix of white, Asian, African-American , and Hispanic students at a range of income levels, and she got it. That is how kids learn best— together, with a mix of expectations, advantages, and complications— according to the hard-earned lessons of countries around the world.

“There are stories like this all over the country: Success Academy charter schools in New York City, the closest thing to Finland in the United States; William Taylor, a public-school teacher who has almost Korean expectations for his low-income students in Washington, D.C.; and Deborah Gist in Rhode Island, a leader who has dared to raise the bar for what teachers must know, just like reformers in Finland and Korea.

“These world-class educators exist, but they are fighting against the grain of culture and institutions. That fight drains them of energy and time . If they ever win, it will be because parents and students rose up around them, convinced that our children cannot only handle a rigorous education but that they crave it as never before.”

It isn’t just that we Americans have low expectations of American students, especially poor and minority students. The real problem is we have low expectations for our entire society. We expect failure at a collective level, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.