Adventures in Ethics and Science

On the way home, I heard a story on NPR about a study done at UC Berkeley about the “performance gap” between black kids and white kids in the public schools. I can’t say much about the details of the report — it comes out tomorrow — but one of the people interviewed for the story, Ross Wiener of The Education Trust, noted a finding in this general area of research that screams out for an explanation.

The finding: while white students tend to lose ground during summer vacation (at least with respect to the sorts of performance easily measured with standardized tests and similar assessment methods, one assumes), black kids actually gain ground over the summer. (The text in the webpage for the NPR story says “minority kids lose less ground when they are away from school”, but listen to the sound file linked at the top of that page — Wiener really does say they gain ground.)

So, what could explain this unequal benefit from summer vacation? (For bonus points, how would you test the potential explanations?) And, is this a finding that will play any role at all in the decisions of districts considering eliminating summer vacation in favor of year-round instruction?


  1. #1 igor eduardo kupfer
    November 16, 2006

    So, what could explain this unequal benefit from summer vacation?

    If the tests are biased along racial lines (statistically speaking), and if the black kids test below average and the white kids tested above average, regression to the mean would explain it.

  2. #2 csrster
    November 16, 2006

    You’ve lost me there mate. How is regression to the mean relevant? Especially if black kids actually _improve_ performance over the summer?

    The only explanation I can think of is that the school environment is so toxic to black children that they actually thrive better intellectually outside. Weird and worrying.

  3. #3 The Ridger
    November 16, 2006

    Do they correct for minority kids going to summer school, perhaps?

  4. #4 oliviacw
    November 16, 2006

    How old are the kids? Do these gains last once they are back in school in the fall? What are they doing over the summer? I think this last is the key question. Presumably the gaining kids are not all in summer school, but maybe they spend their summer time in more engaging environments that non-minority kids? (Working instead of zoning out in front of the TV? Spending more time with other adults in the family?) Or perhaps they have improved health over the summer, for some reason (more sleep, more exercise) that benefits mental activity.

  5. #5 Rob Knop
    November 16, 2006

    There is this stereotype — I don’t know if its true, but it may be — that among a lot of the culture of non-wealthy young black people today, it’s considered antisocial to do well at school and to learn.

    (I’ve seen this stereotype a few places. The movie “Finding Forester” started with it. I’ve read it in an editorial by Leonard Pitts.)

    I can imagine this having a few effects. First, if you’re conscious of social standing, you’re going to actively try to avoid getting to engaged at school for fear of being ostracized. This could be part of the school environment being “toxic” to black kids, although in this case I’d say that there’s something disturbing about the culture. HOWEVER, I think it’s pretty well established that the human brain hungers to learn. Even if there is social pressure that “learning at school is giving in to the whities”, brains want to learn… so whatever kids do over the summer will at least partially replace some of what they may have consciously rejected at school.

    How to test this? I dunno. I’m a a physicist, so I’m likely to come forward with “consider a spherical schoolchild,” which might cause some pain.

    Note that by advancing this hypothesis, I’m NOT trying to discard any hypotheses about systemic racism or about the environment being toxic to black kids because of what the environment is. I’m just wondering if there is also a cultural factor from within the black community (which may, indeed, be a reaction to other things).


  6. #6 Periphrasis
    November 16, 2006

    “How to test this? I dunno. I’m a a physicist, so I’m likely to come forward with “consider a spherical schoolchild,” which might cause some pain.”

    Rob, with that, you just gained my everlasting love. Well, the portion of my everlasting love granted to people who make me laugh out loud, in the morning, at work.

    It is an odd finding. I would like to see them accounting for what the kids are doing over the summer as well, but I can hazard a guess or two. For those who don’t hang on my every word (shocking, I know!), I’ll state again that I’m a mixed-race woman of primarily black pedigree (as distinguished from my identity, which awards equal consideration to both aspects of my cultural heritage).

    Included among my thoughts are the (quite possibly competing) theories that:

    a) kids need time to be kids, and the white kids I knew were more likely to have summers where they had a lot of competitive activities in fulltime environments (e.g. sports camp), where the black kids were more likely to spend time with friends and relatives, just being kids. Allowing “debriefing” time, while keeping kids active in some way (a difficult balance) lets them take things in more deeply, and in ways they might not otherwise get in the increasingly-regimented, increasingly-hectic school environment (and the accompanying hyper-scheduled lives, between school and practice and required volunteering, and all of the ‘mandatory hours’ that are beginning to be the standard to which homework assignments are held).

    b) school is a toxic environment, but not exactly for the reasons often pointed to (which, while I realize this isn’t exactly what anyone here is alleging, often comes out sounding like: “Well, black kids just don’t want to learn. Learning isn’t cool or something.”). I received far more encouragement from other minorities for being smart and pursuing academic knowledge than I did from white kids and teachers. (Going to a private school where the vast majority of the students were white, and all of the teachers were, I was automatically placed in the “remedial” track, despite the fact that I easily tested into the normal/advanced classes, and the fact that my parents had requested that I be placed in those classes. My mother had to fight for a year to get them to reverse their decision, but by then, it was too late. When you realize that your entire school thinks you’re subhuman, there’s really very little reason to care.)

    That’s not the main point, however, I’m relatively sure that my story is in the minority, at least in its overt and blatant nature. (Seriously. I was tracked “stupid,” bullied and picked on by adults as well as kids, and actively excluded from participation in extracurricular activities. During one of our activity days – “Water Day,” where kids got to bring waterguns and play on the field for an hour or two before school let out – I was picked up bodily by a group of older kids, each limb held by a different person, carried across the field and thrown into a pool of mud, where some of the girls kicked mud in my face and the boys picked up another boy in my class and threw him on top of me. My friends tried to stop them, but were too small, and the teachers just stood around and watched. I have to believe that that’s not normal.)

    The part about school being toxic is more about what I pointed to in a). The environment in many schools is becoming increasingly rigid and stratified. If you have resources (people who understand the system in place, people who can help you complete your required hours of homework, easy access to transportation so you can get home at a reasonable hour), you can cope with this and continue to experience gains while it’s happening. Then if focus shifts over summer, you’ll be good at that, rather than whatever you crammed for at the end of the summer. If, on the other hand, you don’t have as many resources, you may not gain much at all. Whatever you do that works within a different structure (one for which you might have more appropriate resources, perhaps?) may help you move forward.

    I don’t particularly like the way I laid out either of those, really. I guess I’ll have to wait for the report to come out to say something really useful. I did want to point out, however, that environmental toxicity can manifest itself in a lot of ways, and be mediated by a lot of things that may not necessarily be immediately evident.

  7. #7 greensmile
    November 16, 2006

    cortisol increase depresses short term memory and other “learning and processing” deficits are linked to that. The effects reverse in a few months after cortisol levels go back to normal [effect observed in returning Iraq vets]

    stress increases cortisol

    social expectations of failure plus unsupportive learning environment at home will make school time be stressfull.

    IF that chain is not missing any links, the test is this:
    do at least some black kids [the ones doing well in school] exhibit the summer decline similar to the white kids?

    quick, somebody write a grant proposal!

    mind body? no, actually I kinda like body;)

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