21 September 2010

"Acting Student" and the issue of "Confirmation Bias"

I got into a couple of battles with Stuart Buck on Twitter recently. Stuart is the author of Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation, but when we first clashed, I did not know that. He was arguing that not teaching students what I'd call "traditional skills" was wrong.

It was a heated conversation, but when I paused to think, I thought, "Who is this guy?" So I Googled him, and I found his book, and I bought it. I tend to think this is an important "academic" idea - the close reading of those you disagree with. Sometimes it changes your mind in important ways - I know that, for example, my thoughts on Horace Mann changed dramatically as I really read his words when I began writing my thesis. Sometimes, certainly, it doesn't. But either way, you need to try.

Lincoln School, New Rochelle, NY - the evidence might suggest that when integration
has not been undone, there are differing results.
I don't think he bought mine. Right, but I'm a curious sort of person.
Life Magazine, 1966
Having lived through a big part of this era, I might begin with different questions.
Buck's book, published by the Yale University Press, claims to be a deep reading of the school desegregation experience in the United States and its long term impacts on African-American attitudes toward success in school. He can be an entertaining writer, and at times he writes a good story. And it is not a "one-note" story either, as Richard Thompson Ford wrote in Slate, Buck, "tiptoes through the minefield with nuance and compassion. He credibly (and repeatedly) insists that he supports school desegregation but wants to be forthright about its unintended consequences, so we can find ways to contain them."

And yet, as Ford says (and I have attempted to say to Buck via angry Twitter argument), "But Buck's focus on schools neglects the bigger picture. The power of the epithet "acting white" is just one manifestation of a belligerent youth subculture among poor blacks that rejects mainstream institutions generally. "Acting white" is to education as "stop snitching" is to law enforcement: an attitude of aimless and self-destructive opposition, borne of deprivation, alienation, and despair. The root cause lies in the depth and pervasiveness of inner-city poverty. Buck argues that poverty can't be the cause of "acting white" because "blacks in the Jim Crow era … pursued education eagerly even in the presence of far more dire poverty. If poverty … caused the 'acting white' criticism, it surely would have shown up long before the 1960s." But the problem isn't just objective poverty. It's also social isolation, which worsened dramatically at precisely the time Buck says the acting-white problem emerged."

Buck does not, in my mind, see the big picture precisely because he fails, at the start, to ask the right questions. And perhaps - and I know I'm treading into dangerous assumption territory here - he doesn't ask the right questions because he knew what he wanted to write before he began his research.

What leads me to believe this begins with Buck's casually negative characterizations of people he clearly sees as opponents, those who, "argue that that many of the things learned in school - ways of thinking, writing, or problem-solving, for example - are "white" or "Eurocentric" (p. 19)," as political and sloppy (he quotes William Darity as describing his research as "warfare in the academy" (p. 20) in an attempt to discredit his work at the start).

Obviously, though, Buck's book is essentially a political, not an academic, argument. This is a free-market, America "as it is" declaration, insisting that African-American students and African-American communities must change, because we don't want to (or cannot) make any changes in America's socio-economic or educational structure. Ford again, "Buck endorses everything from vouchers to exclusively black-male charter schools to the novel idea of replacing individual grades in integrated schools with academic competitions between teams of students."

Thus, it is not really a surprise that Buck thinks that when I suggest that we rely on student strengths, and adapt curriculum and especially communication methods to student strengths, we are cheating kids. Or that he gets angry when I suggest that our schools are "white," "Eurocentric," places obsessed with creating "norms." I say these things in a way which suggests problems, and Buck, the white adoptive father of two Black children (book flap), has a very large personal and cultural stake in cultural conversion and moving all toward "a norm."

My experience - and politics - differ. Having watched school desegregation proceed clumsily and badly in New Rochelle, NY, I have also seen what happens when integration has continued in a single public high school city with consistent support for educational institutions and facilities. So, seeing differing results in differing circumstances I might begin from a less certain place.

And thus I might ask different questions up front, including the questions Buck has told me - via Twitter - that he had no interest in asking. Questions about the purpose of the American education system, questions about cognitive theories, questions about learning theories. Even questions about term definitions - how, as an example, might one define, "thinking, writing, [and] problem-solving"? What, I might ask, is, "Acting Student"? And if "Acting Student" is "Acting White," what does that suggest? Because I would ask, can you really discuss these issues if you do not begin by making sure that everyone understands what you mean when you say something?

I think you do. Unless your goal is to confirm what you thought in the first place. Perhaps if your solution is 'changing the students' - your research will lead you to believe that is necessary.

And Buck's book suggests to me that he "neglects the bigger picture" because the bigger picture clashed with the hypothesis - and perhaps a very personal hypothesis - he began with. And not just his book, in a later "battle" we argued over the definition of "private school" - and whether the US definition was the same as the European definition. Buck showed little understanding of the concept of state religion or the differing social structures - perhaps (again, that dangerous assumption) because admitting that Catholic schools in the Republic of Ireland are not really equivalent to for profit charter schools in the United State would challenge the political narrative (defunding American public education) embraced by both himself and his Ivy League sponsors.

Confirmation Bias is a huge problem in research, especially social science research. We too often begin with an 'uneducated guess' which we call a hypothesis. And then we search the internet for information which supports that. We acknowledge challenges but dismiss them. We may even limit observation to ensure that our case studies don't blow up our hypothesis.

So, when I observe differing cultures learning differently, I wonder,  and I try not to generalize. When I see a blind person reading Braille or anyone reading an audiobook, or even (to quote from a Twitter argument with Buck), a telegrapher in an old film reading Morse Code, I wonder about what those things - cognitively - have in common and what separates them. If I see Canadian or European school policy I look at the entirety of the difference, and I, yes, it's the leftist in me, look at who seems to be "winning" and "losing" in the resultant society. I can even look at French laïcité and be both strongly supportive of the goal and deeply troubled by the personal freedom implications.

Now Stuart Buck's interests ("historical" as he says) and mine may not seem to clash. We're both, I suspect, historians by nature, and deeply political historians (is there any other kind?). But I'm a post-modernist and he is not. I doubt truths and he hunts for truths. Still, the biggest separation is that I never begin research with a hypothesis. I am a Grounded Theory guy ("Rather than beginning by researching and developing a hypothesis, the first step is data collection, through a variety of methods."). I begin instead with an interest in a topic, but I refuse to make predictions as to what I will discover.

This does not eliminate bias. Nothing eliminates bias in human learning. But it tends to limit "confirmation bias" because there is nothing to confirm. And it tends to limit confirmation bias because Grounded Theory requires you to define terms. I think of geologist William Smith in Simon Winchester's book The Map That Changed the Worldneeding to begin his work with a definition of "rock." What he was seeing in those coal mines and canal digs of the 1790s couldn't begin to be classified until he determined that definition.

So, I think Buck is wrong about many things. But that's not a problem. Many of us disagree about many things. That's what makes the world an interesting place.

But in why I think he gets it wrong is a cautionary tale for all of us.

- Ira Socol


Stuart Buck said...

Thanks again for reading and commenting.

I'm not sure if there's anything in the book you disagree with besides the one sentence on page 19 that obviously irked you.

Stuart Buck said...

I'm also confused on this point: You think it's too casual or negative to describe certain people as thinking "that many of the things learned in school - ways of thinking, writing, or problem-solving, for example - are 'white' or 'Eurocentric.'"

But then you describe your own beliefs in exactly the same language: "when I suggest that our schools are 'white,' 'Eurocentric.'"

irasocol said...


I disagree with the book in terms of your "causes" - your "solutions" - and, obviously, your scholarly methods. Your rather casual dismissal of those who disagree with you is a symptom of the problems I see.

Ira Socol

irasocol said...

For a longer look at that philosophical difference, you may want to see http://speedchange.blogspot.com/2009/11/colonialism-of-michelle-rhee-or-tfa-v.html

Ira Socol

Stuart Buck said...

It's odd that you think you're disagreeing with me when you wrote this:

"African-Americans have always sent their children to white controlled schools. Integration just made that more so. A mass of Black children dropped into completely unchanging, non-adaptive, schools designed for and around white Protestant children - judged by white teachers and administrators, and almost always judged as inferior because they were not "white enough.""

Except for the first sentence -- which is clearly wrong (black schools were not white controlled in their daily operations) -- you're basically describing the whole point of my book.

Jerrid Kruse said...

Haven't read the book, but wanted to chime in. I think Both Ira and Stuart agree on the problem created by integration, but operationalize it differently. Ira sees this as a problem of school structure more generally (that schools don't react to students at an individual level) whereas Stuart sees it as a specific problem that black students are expected to perform to white norms. Ira's views seem to be more overarching, Stuarts more specific. i think there are some commonalities in what you each find problematic, but because of your different focuses and preferred research stance, are approaching the common problems from different angles.

Of course, this is a fairly uninformed assessment. :)

irasocol said...


You say you are the expert, so please give us a list of all the African-American controlled school districts in the US, say, 1940-1965 and what percentage of Clack students were represented by those districts. I know I'm a "northener" so my experience may not be accurate, but the school districts of New York City, Buffalo, Washington, DC, Richmond, VA, Chicago, Cleveland, Baltimore, Los Angeles, etc were all - in my historical knowledge, white controlled. Who was it that was sued in Topeka and New Rochelle? The Black administrators?

Next, the basic issue does not divide us, but then, simply stating - "integration had problems and some of those problems remain" is not immensely helpful to discourse about change.

What divides us is - in my opinion - (a) a historical systems perspective (as Jerrid suggests), (b) what, in disability studies is the "medical model/social model" split: you seem to see the problem with Black children and Black communities and are suggesting "cures" for them. I see the problem as societal/systemic and think we need to broaden our thinking to include all children, and (c) a highly significant methodological difference which, surely, has its origins in a significant philosophical difference regarding language.


Thank you. I think you describe the issue well.

Ira Socol

Stuart Buck said...

I didn't say blacks controlled districts, I said that they controlled what went on in schools on a day to day basis. Even when outsiders tried to control them by demanding a more industrial curriculum, they'd subvert the system by studying Latin or Shakespeare anyway.

This is all in the book.

irasocol said...

Irish Catholics taught their kids in caves in the 18th Century, and taught them Latin and religion. I wouldn't say "Catholics controlled education in 18th Century Ireland." But I guess you would.

Ira Socol

Stuart Buck said...

Assuming that what you say is true, I'd say that Irish Catholics were controlling what was taught in the caves and that this might have been an important place for them to exercise some autonomy. (You have to be able to make distinctions here: controlling the school board in the segregated South isn't the same as controlling exactly what black teachers and principals did on a day-to-day in black schools. Why would you disagree with that distinction?)

irasocol said...

I find it interesting that Mr. Buck will not engage on any of the points in my blog, and tends to choose to read only the parts of things which confirm his held opinions, but in regards to the last point, controlling the classroom is not, obviously, controlling the educational environment, even if true "control" of the classroom for these oppressed groups was possible. Yes, they could teach Latin or Philosophy, no they could not make resource intensive pedagogical choices. Yes, they could decide how to speak in class, no they could not tap in to the expertise which might have existed in and around white schools. So whatever "control" Catholic clerics had over those hidden students, most would date educational equality of opportunity in Ireland from the 1970s when Trinity College was fully opened to Catholic students. Before this, the limits meant "control" was not truly possible.

Just as, in the "case study" I've referred to, Lincoln School in New Rochelle was, perhaps, no better or no worse than the white ethnic neighborhood schools in the city. But it was more limited in resources. And its students were sent to an otherwise almost all-white Junior High School where they were routinely pushed into shop classes, which led them to the city's old Vocational High School (the Huguenot School) or the business school in the general High School.

The opportunities created by the whites who controlled the schools were not equal. That was what the Supreme Court case was about.

Ira Socol

Stuart Buck said...

Well, you make a lot of points, but not a lot that is actually tied to what I write in the book. I appreciate the fact that if you were writing a book, you'd rather write on "questions about the purpose of the American education system, questions about cognitive theories, questions about learning theories," but the world is larger than the theories that happen to interest you, and I don't see why I'm somehow obligated to tackle your huge questions in order to get to the things I wanted to write about, which involved an enormous amount of research on history, sociology, economics, and social psychology.

Your discussion of confirmation bias is interesting, but it's rather an ad hominem substitute for discussing (let alone refuting) anything that the book actually says.

Correct, I didn't write a manifesto about changing "socioeconomic structure," whatever that's supposed to mean w/r/t attitudes towards school, but again you're just complaining that I wrote my book rather than the book you wish to write. But I do say a lot about changing education -- trying to hire more black males, trying to establish special programs to reach out to inner-city black kids, etc. Maybe that's not utopian and radical enough for you, but that's just your personal bias speaking, and it certainly doesn't affect 95% of what the book is actually about.

irasocol said...


I don't want you to write "my book" - I want you to write a better book next time. I, and apparently at least "one" other, want you to look at the "big picture," to understand that, say, Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" would have been less valuable without the conversation about chemicals.

And I want you to understand why your "research" may not lead to your "conclusions," and perhaps, why you should know more about the theories and history behind education before suggesting change.

A review is just that, whether academic or a blog, it is a critical look at what works and what doesn't work, and a review which is valuable suggests both why, and how things might be better.

Whether you take any of those suggestions is, of course, up to you.

Ira Socol

Stuart Buck said...

"I want you to understand why your "research" may not lead to your "conclusions," and perhaps, why you should know more about the theories and history behind education before suggesting change."

But you haven't given any reasons for this sort of statement, not in any sort of detailed way so that I could even have the faintest idea what you're talking about. What specifically in the book (not in Ford's review) do you actually disagree with? Anything in the chapter on the history of black education? Anything in the chapter on the value of black teachers/principals? Anything in the chapter on integration pioneers? Anything in the chapter on tracking? These are the key chapters, but from the things that you mention and don't mention, you seem to have stopped at page 20.