Paul Thomas, professor at Furman University in South Carolina, takes note of the recent story in the New York Times about the weight of poverty and race on academic outcomes and writes that policy must be based on evidence, not outliers.


The story showed the powerful impact of race and poverty. The subtitle was: “Sixth graders in the richest school districts are four grade levels ahead of children in the poorest districts.”


The story identified two districts that were outliers. Two small districts beat the odds. That set off a discussion about how they did it. What could we learn from Unuon City, New Jersey, and Bremen, Georgia? (I too am guilty of pointing to the outliers as models.)


Thomas writes:


“But then there is this:


[Quoting the story in the Times] The data was [sic] not uniformly grim. A few poor districts — like Bremen City, Ga. and Union City, N.J. — posted higher-than-average scores. They suggest the possibility that strong schools could help children from low-income families succeed.


“There are some outliers, and trying to figure out what’s making them more successful is worth looking at,” said Mr. Reardon, a professor of education and lead author of the analysis.
Well, no, if we find outliers—and virtually all data have outliers in research—we should not waste our time trying to figure out how we can make outliers the norm.”


Thomas vigorously dissents:


“The norm is where we should put our efforts in order to confront what is, in fact, not “puzzling” (used earlier in the article) at all; the data are very clear:”


[Quoting the story]: “What emerges clearly in the data is the extent to which race and class are inextricably linked, and how that connection is exacerbated in school settings.”


“Not only are black and Hispanic children more likely to grow up in poor families, but middle-class black and Hispanic children are also much more likely than poor white children to live in neighborhoods and attend schools with high concentrations of poor students.”


Thomas writes:
“Our great education reform failure is one of failing to rethink our questions and our goals.


“Let’s stop trying to find the “miracle” in a rare few schools where vulnerable students appear to succeed despite the odds against them. With time and careful consideration, we must admit, those appearances almost always are mirages.


“Let’s instead put our energy in eradicating the poverty, racism, and sexism that disadvantages some students, vulnerable populations easily identified by race and social class, so that we can educate all students well.”