News Alert
VIDEO: Jersey Shore Beach Conditions And Traffic

Single Parents, Race and Stereotypes

Recent discussions here on Patch and around town about race, culture, and the achievement gap have raised some good questions, and pointed to a lot of stereotypes.


So, about those :  I myself had two children out of wedlock.  They are raised in what the census (still) defines as a “female headed household, no spouse present.”    What can we conclude from these descriptions?  Common stereotypes in the media and elsewhere might lead one to believe that my children are poor, urban, minority, and on welfare.   And that would be wrong on all counts.  They even have two parents. 


Not only don’t the stereotypes accurately describe my family, they tend to misrepresent most single parent families, which happen to be white, suburban and headed by working parents.  They absolutely fail to grasp the diversity and complexity of the large group that is “single parents.” 


Stereotypes oversimplify, overgeneralize and frequently involve classic fallacies in reasoning, including the ecological fallacy and the exception fallacy.   In the ecological fallacy, conclusions are made about individuals based on group data.  In the exception fallacy, conclusions are made about a group or class, based on attributes of an individual.  In both cases a plausible argument is made, but because it relies on false or invalid inferences, it misrepresents the situation.


These kinds of stereotypes and logical fallacies are at the center of our community discussions of race and the achievement gap.


While it is well known that factors like family background, concentrated poverty and failing schools are major contributors to the racial achievement gap, other factors such as stereotype threat, tracking, expectations, and test bias also play a role.  


Most national data on the racial achievement gap captures a broad difference in student outcomes between mostly minority children in poor, urban districts and mostly white ones in affluent, suburban towns.  Current research comparing students from families with incomes in the top 10% and the bottom 10% suggests that socioeconomic inequality now plays a greater role than race in explaining the achievement gap at the national level.


But even researchers looking at national level data find that it is hard to pinpoint the relative contributions of between-school factors (as when comparing, say, students in Millburn and Newark) and within-school factors (as when comparing subgroups in our district).   Successful schools in poor communities, and achievement gaps in affluent ones reveal the complexity at more local levels and show that what happens in schools matters just as much as student background.


This is complicated stuff.  Certainly it’s a lot for lay people to try to sort out.  But to understand our achievement gaps we can start by paying more attention to stereotypes, and learning more about who we are in our community.


We do have considerable socioeconomic diversity in our community; our families—black and white—range from lower income to affluent.   Statistically speaking, about two-thirds of our schoolchildren are middle or working class, and most of the rest are affluent.  (Virtually none are in the bottom 10% examined in the study cited above.)  Although a small percentage of our children live in low income families, we remain a relatively affluent district, very different from a large urban one such as neighboring Newark.


The poverty rate in Newark is upwards of 25%.  It’s scarcely measurable in our towns.  While we do have a modest (about 20%) free and reduced lunch population (defined as 135% to 185% of the poverty level) and some of those students do have greater needs, most urban districts have two or three times as many students who qualify for free or reduced lunches, with the percentage at some schools as high as 75%.


Lower income families do have to stretch to live here, but they are not the very poor captured in national statistics.  In Maplewood’s most moderate income neighborhood, the median family income is twice that of Newark as whole.  The college educated population in that neighborhood is nearly four times greater than in Newark’s.  Moderate income families in our towns have high rates of employment, and fewer stay at home parents, than more affluent ones.  Even our least advantaged, highest needs students live in a community with strong, stable neighborhoods and good schools. 


And most moderate income families invest in their children and seek to enrich their lives, just like more affluent families.  Off the top of my head I can think of non-affluent kids who have gone to Kumon tutoring and Kean College for Kids, who swim competitively, play soccer, football, cheerlead, take classes in dance, musical instruments and martial arts, visit the Newark Museum, sing in church choirs, etc.  But these involved children are seldom found in many discussions of the achievement gap which question some families’ values or commitment to education.


So why is there so often so much talk about demographic and social factors in the achievement gap that to a large degree do not apply in our district, and why so much resistance to talking about within-school factors that might affect it—like leveling, in-school expectations, or stereotype threat?


(Data come from the 2005-2009 American Community Survey and the 2010 census.)

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Jill Hammarberg May 17, 2012 at 12:13 PM
I agree, and I wish I had the solution for this! I guess I just want more district effort going into figuring out this rubric than abandoning it. Let's get rid of the level 2-5 labeling, if that makes people feel better about this, but still carefully consider how we place and move children.
Julia Burch May 17, 2012 at 12:58 PM
Because we are talking about people, and many layers of social groups, there are no "neutral" variables. As I have said elsewhere, data and "objective measures" are only part of the picture. They are always interpreted, thus values, priorities, and individual and group experiences will always also be part of the picture. And while we can not eliminate stereotypes, we can learn to be mindful of them. (More on that in a future blog.)
Michael Paris May 17, 2012 at 05:59 PM
Jerry. I think your last comment is insightful and very important. We all need this reminder (I need it more than most). However, I'd like to restate the counterpoint. This too has to be kept in mind. As Ms. Burch says, there is no "neutral" and "objective" to be had here. There is no standpoint outside of or above ideology. Ideology is inevitable; it is part of our emotion-ladden and partial reactions to the complexity of the social world. The desire for rational argument based on hard evidence makes perfect sense. However, there are two dangers. One is that measureable results, which are always rough proxies for what we really care about, and not the thing itself, can sometimes obfuscate more than they illuminate. They can take over the mind. This can happen when we forget that value-ladden interpretation is always involved (it is involved in the construction of the measures in the first place). For example, the overreliance on, or misuse of, test scores under No Child Left Behind has had many unintended and perverse consequences. This doesn't mean that some arguments aren't better than others, or that standards and measures are simpy arbitrary. It does mean that those taking up the mantle of objectivity, or posturing as Olympians looking down with scorn on partisan on both right and left, are themselves often simply taking up one among many possible positions in a political debate. If pushed, they have to take and defend positions too. Best, Michael
Jerry Soffer May 17, 2012 at 06:28 PM
Your points are well taken. However, they mean that we're irretrievably stuck in a partisan ideological firefight that will never end, unless/until we eventually become a truly post-racial society and the achievement/opportunity gaps resolve themselves. That doesn't mean your points are any less well taken. It does mean that the prognoses of these problems are disheartening.
E Rohan May 18, 2012 at 01:39 AM
I'm not sure why or how the moderator thinks it is okay for Michael Paris to accuse me of "thinking about education in a cramped and narrow way" and accuse me of "couching my remarks in a personal, targeted way" when all I did was disagree with his wife Amy Higer's views on education in our district. What I am saying is that some kids need more challenge than others. Since education is not a zero-sum game, the idea that ALL students need challenge should take nothing away from any other students. If Mr. Paris continues with his personal, targeted remarks, his posts should not be allowed. There is no reason for them. Especially in our "diverse" district, diversity of opinion should be allowed and people should be allowed to disagree without engaging in unnecessary and unproductive personal attacks.


More »
Got a question? Something on your mind? Talk to your community, directly.
Note Article
Just a short thought to get the word out quickly about anything in your neighborhood.
Share something with your neighbors.What's on your mind?What's on your mind?Make an announcement, speak your mind, or sell somethingPost something
See more »