An American nightmare: Mathematics education

Rocky Mountain News

Seebach: Race-gap study launches 3-stage rant about readers

April 30, 2005

pictureEverybody knows that American blacks and Hispanics are at a disadvantage to whites and Asians both in education and income. Three economists have written a paper demonstrating that the patterns of disadvantages for blacks and for Hispanics are very different, raising questions about the explanations often given for those disadvantages.

In the authors’ own words, here are some take- away points:

“For black males, controlling for an early measure of ability cuts the black-white wage gap in 1990 by 76 percent. For Hispanic males, controlling for ability essentially eliminates the wage gap with whites. For women the results are even more striking. Wage gaps are actually reversed, and controlling for ability produces higher wages for minority females.”

“When we control for the effects of home and family environments on test scores, the Hispanic-white test score gap either decreases or is constant over time while the black-white test score tends to widen with age.”

“Hispanic children start with cognitive and noncognitive deficits similar to those of black children. They also grow up in similar disadvantaged environments, and are likely to attend schools of similar quality. Hispanics have substantially less schooling than blacks. Nevertheless, the ability growth by years of schooling is much higher for Hispanics than blacks. By the time they reach adulthood, Hispanics have significantly higher test scores than blacks.”

“Our analysis of the Hispanic data illuminates the traditional study of black-white differences and casts doubt on many conventional explanations of these differences since they do not apply to Hispanics who also suffer from many of the same disadvantages.”

I know this is contrary to just about everything you’ve heard or read, so you’re asking, “Who are these people?” They’re Pedro Carneiro, University College London; James J. Heckman, University of Chicago, American Bar Foundation and University College London (and winner of the 2000 Nobel Prize in economics for developing the kind of technical statistical analysis that undergirds this paper) and Dimitriy V. Masterov. The paper was written for the Institute for Labor Market Policy Evaluation, a part of the Swedish Ministry of Industry, Employment and Communications, in Uppsala, Sweden.

The paper is “Labor market discrimination and racial differences in premarket factors” and it’s at pdf2005/wp05-03.pdf on the Web.

They don’t argue against current policies on affirmative action – though they certainly could, based on their evidence – merely that policies addressing very early skill gaps are likely to do more good than additional affirmative action policies aimed at the workplace.

One possible explanation of persistent wage gaps is that there is “pervasive labor market discrimination against minorities.” Another, which they observe is equally plausible, is that “Minorities may bring less skill and ability to the market.” And of course both could be true in varying degrees, but I think this is the most important thing they say: “The two polar interpretations of market wage gaps have profoundly different policy implications.”

And how. So if you’re a policy-maker, Go Read The Whole Thing.

Now, since I have room for only a tiny bit of what’s significant in this paper anyway, I’m going to address a different issue that invariably comes up when I write about something so contrary to received opinion.

OK, (/turn rant on/) don’t waste your time writing me that I “haven’t considered” whatever particular bee is buzzing around your bonnet. You have no information about what I have considered; you know only what I have mentioned. And let me tell you, when I’m writing an 800-word summary of a highly technical 50-page paper bristling with statistical analysis, there’s a lot I’ve considered that I don’t mention. There’s even more data that the researchers have considered that they don’t mention – although the existence of Web appendices to scholarly papers has ameliorated that problem.

Next, don’t think you’re being erudite by citing some cliche about “lies, damned lies or statistics,” which I understand is properly credited to Benjamin Disraeli, but is often attributed to Mark Twain. Yes, it is possible to lie with statistics – there’s a charming and useful little book with that in the title – but it’s a lot harder to lie with statistics than without them.

Case in point, the current flap over the number of deaths statistically attributable to obesity. If you’re one of those people who fatuously asserts that “you can prove anything with statistics” I challenge you to find me a peer-reviewed journal article proving that smoking enhances longevity, or that women are taller than men.

Last, don’t talk about motives. You have no evidence about my motives aside from what I tell you – and I could be wrong about that; lots of people are. Even if we were both right about my motives, it would have no bearing on the cogency of my arguments, which do not adduce them; that’s the ad hominem fallacy. “Fallacy,” please note, which means that even if your premises are correct, your conclusion may be wrong. (/Turn rant off/)

Oh, I feel much better now. Excellent paper.

Linda Seebach is an editorial writer for the News. She can be reached by telephone at (303) 892-2519 or by e-mail at .


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