Words change over time, of course. Gay, mood, literally… take your pick. Meaning has never been fixed and nor should it be. Often these changes in usage are of little consequence, and tracing the way their meaning has shaded over time is little more than a parlour game. Other times though, the way words change matters very much. In education over the last two or three years I have noticed changes in the way we are using a particularly important word, possibly you have too. That word is racism, and the term racism is loaded with such emotion and moral judgement that changes in it should be carefully scrutinised. This change is interesting in that my perception is the new usage began on the left of the political spectrum, and now is being cynically exploited by the right.
Alwyn Poole is the latest to get in on this game, calling New Zealand’s education system racist, as part of a bizarre article in which he continues his tedious attack on teacher unions whilst at the same time promoting himself as the saviour of New Zealand education. The nature of his arguments in both cases were essentially self rebutting and I’ll waste no time on them here, but the use of the word racist, reflecting as it does a broader trend, is worth examining.
Poole’s stated case was that New Zealand’s education system is racist because certain ethnic groups (primarily Maori and Pasifika populations) underachieve within it. That’s a really unusual definition of racism. Consider for instance the field of oncology. Maori have far higher rates of death from lung cancer than non-Maori in New Zealand. Very few would argue that this in and of itself means that oncologists are racist. The fault in this case lies more broadly with a social history which sees, predictably, tobacco industries preying on vulnerable populations. Now, it may be that when it comes to accessing health care, there are barriers for Maori: financial, cultural and geographic. Likely this is true. But even this would not, in old language, make the health system racist. It would make it racially biased in terms of delivery, just as education to some extent also is, but not racist.
Racism’s old meaning was a tremendously important one, and there will be important implications if we lose the use of this word, because it describes something we must always be on the guard against. Losing this definition will in time trivialise something that must never be trivialised. Language is powerful in this way. Old racism was a belief that particular subsets of our population were both less capable and less worthy than others, and that this quality was a function of their race. Certain groups just wouldn’t succeed, racists believed, because they were biologically limited. It wasn’t, therefore, worth helping them. This belief system, which misunderstood biology, and undervalued diversity was an ugly and self serving feature of self-appointed messiah cultures and we must make sure we oppose it wherever it appears. An education system, then, is racist if it is peopled by those who believe that certain students underachieve because of their race. A system where people, consciously or otherwise, lower both their expectations, and the time and resource they offer, based upon the colour of a person’s skin. That undoubtedly exists to some degree in New Zealand’s education system (racism isn’t binary), old ugly ideas die hard, and a great deal of it is at the subconscious level. All teachers, regardless of our perceived sensibilities, regardless in fact of our own race, need to critically self monitor the way easily read markers (race, class, gender, religion etc) affect our expectations and interactions.
The trouble is, this is by no means the only reason why a particular group might underachieve within an education system, and there is good evidence that within the New Zealand system it is by far the least powerful influence. If, then, we call an education system racist simply because we are not seeing equal outcomes, we are falling for what we might call the oncology fallacy. This matters both because the casual use of the word racism is inflammatory and divisive, but also because it will misdirect resource and attention to those factors we need to fix.
There is a relatively simple test we can apply to see to what extent racially biased attitudes are responsible for educational underachievement. The trick is to attempt to compare like with like. If Maori students, for example, are underachieving because teachers, upon seeing a Maori face, lower their expectations, or because the way we teach is more difficult for Maori students to access, then statistically speaking this effect will show up once other, non-race based factors are allowed for. We call this multi-factor regression, and a good way of thinking of it is in terms of predictive capacity. How well does a certain piece of information allow us to predict a particular outcome? So, for example, if you give me two students who are similar in every way, beyond the income level within their home, does this single difference tell me much about their likelihood of succeeding in school? The answer is yes, it does, household income is a strong predictive factor of educational achievement. So too mother’s highest educational qualification (moreso than father’s apparently), number of schools attended and so forth. There is serious inequality in educational achievement in New Zealand and if you want to predict where to find it, the best clues to follow are socio-economic. This is true the world over, although in New Zealand the affect is somewhat magnified and there is interesting work to be done trying to discover why that is – socio-economic factors are in themselves very rough and ready measures of something far more complex, and our history appears to have allowed the particularly brutal eroding of social capital. Our economic reforms in the 1980s were, by international standards, especially unforgiving and it would surprise me not at all if that were a crucial factor.
The point is, if we take two students with as much identical predictive profiles apart from race (so for example a Maori and non-Maori with same income levels in the home, same gender, same education level of parents etc) that residual achievement difference predicted by race, that we can properly attribute to the way schools view and treat race, is a relatively small factor. We do, undoubtedly, have a degree of racism in schools, of course. The remnants of that are everywhere. But to link achievement outcomes directly to this is plain silly. We still have massive racial inequality in education, and we still need to do something about it, but naming the problem racism in education is very unhelpful, because it misidentifies causes and therefore quite possibly solutions (although here we must be careful, for causes and solutions are not necessarily linked in the way we imagine. For example, a problem caused by social inequality can sometimes still nevertheless be solved by good education. As ever, the real world is more complicated than Poolean rhetoric would have us believe.)
I said at the outset that the new fervour for blaming schools for outcome disparities has a whiff of the right wing politic about it and I think that’s a very important part of this story. In New Zealand, over the last 35 years, we have pursued a set of economic policies which have shamelessly disregarded the needs of our most vulnerable. Once we prided ourselves on being one of the most egalitarian societies on the planet, in terms of economic opportunity and reward. Now poverty is accepted as an inevitable cost of doing business. In 1991 Ruth Richardson cut benefit levels in a move decried by opposition at the time as inhumane. They were right. Since then successive governments of all persuasions have come and gone, but benefit levels were never restored. There just weren’t votes in it. There is solid evidence that the financially stressed are incredibly disadvantaged in education, that this is both causal and reversible (changes in economic fortunes very quickly translate into changes in educational performance). New Zealand’s history, like that of so many countries’, is steeped in racist exploitation and exclusion and it is no surprise then that we have racially identifiable subsets of our population that have been effectively shut out from meaningful participation in our economy. Fixing that should be an absolute priority, and returning benefits to at least their pre-cut levels in real terms is a no-brainer. An extended, more generous, no-fault benefit system would do more to address educational inequality in this country than tinkering with the way we deliver in the classroom. Selling the lie that education can be transformative in this way takes the pressure off exactly the reforms that are needed, and as such is something of a darling of the political right, because it diverts attention from economic crimes which could much more properly be called racist.
None of this is to argue that we shouldn’t, in schools, do everything we can to help the disadvantaged. Poole has written well on the urgent need to divert educational resources towards lower decile schools, and do this on a massive scale. He is right. And we have an absolute moral duty to celebrate diversity, and make every student feel like there is a place for them in our schools. It’s our job to become comfortable using languages not our own, to examine the way our own practices might make students feel they do not belong in our classrooms. As teachers in New Zealand we have an obligation to play our part in the meaningful expression of bi-culturalism. And always and everywhere we must guard against letting our expectations be coloured by, well colour. But, you know what, we’re trying. Schools are full of good people who care desperately about the plight of their students. Calling us racist for no other reason than to inflate one’s own importance is a stupid thing to do, not to mention an unhelpful abuse of language. A self proclaimed educational leader should know better.