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The Bottom Line Progressivism Fails to Clear the Gap


A recent report, The Secret Shame, shows the deleterious effects of progressive policies on education outcomes of minorities. The report concludes that the top 12 progressive cities such as San Francisco, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and Detroit have larger educational achievement gaps between whites and minorities than the top 12 conservative cities, such as Fort Worth, Anaheim, Virginia Beach, and Oklahoma City.

Specifically, “progressive cities, on average, have achievement gaps in math and reading that are 15 and 13 percentage points higher than in conservative cities.” To determine the progressive and conservative cities, the report relied on independent political scientists Chris Tausanovitch and Christopher Warshaw who “pooled data from seven large surveys of U.S. public opinion to rank the nation’s biggest cities in terms of conservatism. [They] then selected the 12 most conservative cities and the 12 least conservative cities from the list to establish the conservative and progressive cities.”

To be clear, this does not necessarily indicate causation. But the numbers are astonishing: math achievement gaps in the 12 most progressive cities on average between black-white and Latino-white were 41.3 and 34.4 respectively. The reading performance gap was not much better, with 40.4 and 33.8 for the respective groups. The graduation rate gaps were 11.3 and 16.5.

As for the conservative cities, although more can be done, the results are more encouraging: for math the two groups measured show gaps of 26.2 and 19.1, 26.9 and 21.8 for reading, and 4.3 and 4.6 for graduation rates. Much better results.

Chris Stewart, the CEO of brightbeam, who produced the report, points out that one of the arguments some may have is “where you’ve got greater income inequality, you have greater academic achievement gaps. Perhaps progressive cities have a harder problem to solve because they have higher rates of income inequality.”

But this is not the case. From the cities studied in this report, income inequality was roughly equal. Citing the Gini index for income inequality, Stewart notes that, “from the most recently available census data (where 0 is total equality and 1 is total inequality), income inequality, on average, in these progressive and conservative cities, is .4681 and .4607 respectively.”

Furthermore, half of the progressive cities studied have, on average, lower-income inequality than nearly half of the conservative cities.

It is apparent from the data that progressives have to shift their focus. As Stewart asserts, “It is not enough for cities to tout their booming economies and call themselves cultural centers if entire swaths of children suffer in the shadows.” The leaders of these cities must be held accountable for their failure to close the achievement gaps.

Although this report successfully diagnoses the negative effects of progressivism on educational gaps, it fails to provide an effective remedy.

Stewart proposes that community leaders should 1) call the city together to understand the issues; 2) make better plans; set short timelines and; 3) share better information. As for parents and advocates, he recommends that citizens 1) spread the word; 2) demand a plan and; 3) make their voice heard in the halls of power.

These recommendations are too vague to be helpful.  They are proposed by almost every public official, whether elected or appointed, as well as by the aspiring advocacy groups. Even if his advice is followed, it won’t fix the problem. As ACTE program chair Don Nielsen has been saying, “the problem is the system…All kids can learn. However, some are far better prepared than others and they get support along the K-12 continuum. Treating them all the same does not take that into account and, therefore, the system fails the ill-prepared.”

At ACTE we aim to transform the education system. In a broad view, our approach is to change an adult-focused system to a student-focused system; change an input-focused system to an output-focused system; change a teaching-focused system to a learning-focused system; change a group-focused system to an individual-focused system; and change a time-focused system to a competency-focused system.  These are the systemic changes needed not only to reduce education gaps, but to improve the educational outcome of all our children.

Bailey Takacs

Development Program Coordinator, American Center for Transforming Education
Bailey Takacs currently serves as development program coordinator to Discovery Institutes' American Center for Transforming Education and Development team. Bailey has experiences which also include: campaign management and administrative roles with elected officials at the local, state, and federal levels of the government. He holds a B.A. in Politics and Government from Pacific Lutheran University.