Many years ago, a renowned mechanech shared with me his philosophy of choosing a yeshiva ketana for his sons: Pick one where your son is likely to be one of the stars.
What about Chazal's dictum that it is better to be the tail of the lion than the head of the foxes? I asked. He replied that he had posed the same question of Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt"l, and the latter told him that Chazal were speaking about what kind of community an adult should choose for himself. And in that context the preference should be for one in which he is surrounded by those whom he can look up to and aspire to be more like.
But the rule does not apply to chinuch, Reb Shlomo Zalman continued. When it comes to our children's educational environment, the first priority is building up their self-confidence and their joy in learning. And in that context it is best to be among the top students.
Every Torah educator can supply plentiful examples of the disastrous consequences of fathers who did not follow Rav Shlomo Zalman's advice, and who pushed their sons into yeshivos where they were destined to be at the bottom of the class so that the fathers could enjoy the prestige of being able to say that their sons attended that particular yeshiva (often the one in which the father had learned.)
RAV SHLOMO ZALMAN'S ADVICE pretty much sums up the theory of academic mismatch, which played a large role in the recent Supreme Court arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas, challenging the University of Texas's affirmative action policies in law school admissions.
Boiled down to its simplest formulation mismatch theory makes two assertions. The first is that most people do not learn well when thrown in over their head with better prepared students. That is referred to as "learning mismatch."
The second proposition is that students will quickly lose interest in those subjects in which they feel incompetent by virtue of competing with better prepared students. That is called "competitive mismatch," and explains why it is so important that our sons' initial experience of Gemara is not one of failure.
UCLA LAW PROFESSOR RICHARD SANDER is the father of mismatch theory as author, with legal journalist Stuart Taylor, of Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It's Intended to Help and Why Universities Won't Admit It (2004). As director of an American Bar Association study After the J.D., he had access to an immense data base of 27,000 entering law students in 1991.
When he compared black and white students who, based on LSAT scores and college grades, showed equal levels of preparedness for law school, it still turned out that the black students did significantly worse on bar exams. Yet if he compared groups that scored equally with respect to the predictors of law school success and also had comparable grades in law school, there was no difference between black and white pass rates on the bar exams.
In other words, it was not that the bar exam was somehow inherently skewed against blacks, but rather something that took place in law school that explains the differential pass rates on the bar exam.
That difference, Sander hypothesized, is that black students, as a group, "benefitted" from affirmative action by being admitted to significantly higher rated law schools than were their white counterparts with the same LSATs and college grades. And thrust into an educational environment for which they were significantly less prepared than their white counterparts, they learned poorly throughout law school, as reflected in much higher failure rates on the bar exam.
Black economist Thomas Sowell's shares another example of the same phenomenon. Forty years ago, while teaching at Cornell, it came to his attention that fully half of black students were on academic probation. And yet these black students were obviously capable of succeeding in college. Their SAT scores placed them on average in the 75thpercentile of entering college students. The only problem was that the average Cornell student ranked in the upper ninetieth percentile.
The Air Force Academy recently decided to test a hypothesis that flew in the face of mismatch theory by assigning a group of students with relatively weak preparation to squadrons of academically strong cadets. The theory was that the placement would create opportunities for mentoring and tutoring. But the opposite occurred. Compared to other lesser prepared students placed in average squadrons, the ones in the superior squadrons learned less and got weaker grades.
The evidence for "competitive mismatch" – dropping out of challenging programs for which other students are better prepared – is equally compelling. Duke economist Peter Arcidiacono found that black students at Duke, a top-tier school, were far more likely to drop challenging majors than were white students. He and two other economists, Esteban Aucejo and Joseph Holtz, analyzed the impact of Californians Proposition 209, which banned racial preferences in higher education admissions in the American Economic Review. Their conclusion: "We find less-prepared minority students at top-ranked campuses would have higher science graduation rates had they attended lower-ranked campuses."
According to Sowells, post-Proposition 209, black students' grades, graduation rates, and the difficulty of their majors increased because they were no longer being pushed into higher caliber institutions in the University of California system for which they were not prepared.
Proponents of mismatch theory are not suggesting that blacks cannot succeed in science or law or any other field, but that they are discouraged from trying by being put in an environment where failure and discouragement are more likely. A 2011 National Institutes of Health study found that the nation's top ten producers of undergraduates who go on to earn doctorates in science and engineering are historically black colleges. None of those black colleges, however, are considered top-track schools.
Dr. Jedidya Isler, the holder of a Yale Ph.D in astrophysics recently took to the op-ed page of the New York Times to decry the discussion of mismatch theory in oral arguments in Fisher. She cited her own achievements as proof that blacks can excel in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) majors
Again no proponent of mismatch theory denied that. But far from refuting the argument that "competitive mismatch" lessens the chances of black STEM majors succeeding, Dr. Isler's career gives it credence. Her undergraduate studies were at a historically black college, where she excelled. And prior to Yale, she enrolled in a Fisk-Vanderbilt Masters-to-Ph.D Bridge Program designed to better prepare black students for advanced degrees in STEM programs.
WHAT CAN WE LEARN from mismatch theory apart from the implications for the chinuch of our own children, with which we began and which remain the most important takeaway.
We'll move from the specific to the general. The debates that took place after oral argument in Fisher demonstrate yet once again that Donald Trump is too intellectually lazy to inform himself on any public issue, and thus unfit for public office. He accused Justice Scalia of saying "horrible" things and pronounced himself supportive of affirmative action in education. Admittedly, Justice Scalia spoke carelessly and hurtfully in oral argument when he said, "There are those who contend that it does not benefit Afro-Americans to get them into the University of Texas, where they do not do well, as opposed to having go to a less advanced law school , . . . a slower-track school, where they do well."
He erred in speaking of Afro-Americans in general rather than to those who are accepted because of affirmative action, as if no Afro-Americans can excel at University of Texas Law School. But the case, after all, is about affirmative action, and anyone with a modicum of interest in the amicus curae briefs filed in the case knew Scalia was referring to mismatch theory. In affirming his support for affirmative action, Trump did not even address the latter. May we be spared Trump appointing Supreme Court justices.
The recent eruptions roiling American campuses, and in particular elite campuses, support aspects of mismatch theory. The ubiquitous demands for expanded psychological counseling capture the despair of minority students who have been set up for failure by affirmative action. Demands for expanding offerings in race studies and the like, and to make them mandatory for all students are essentially an attempt to level the playing field for those who feel themselves disadvantaged in more rigorously academic courses by increasing the percentage of agit-prop pap.
There is a third prong of mismatch theory that maintains that students are more likely to form friendships with students who have similar levels of academic preparation or preparation for college. The widespread demands by minority students for greatly expanded cultural centers and even segregated housing express that impulse to self-segregate by minorities who feel themselves to be over their heads in academic preparedness. Incidentally, if affirmative action leads to self-segregation out goes the "diversity" justification for affirmative action – the only one the Supreme Court considers valid – i.e., that it advantages all students by leading to exposure to those of different backgrounds.
But for me the crucial point remains progressives' lack of concern with real world outcomes of the programs that make them feel virtuous. Have we really done anyone a favor, for instance, by admitting people to three-year law school programs for which they will be starting at a severe disadvantage, if, in the end, there is a fifty percent chance they will fail the bar and not be able to practice law.
What is achieved by stacking the deck in favor of minority failure, and all the psychological distress that goes with it? Why should we wish to encourage policies that make it less and not more likely that minorities will undertake STEM majors and succeed in them?
Compounding the tragedy is that by paying attention to the evidence solutions to the problem of minority underrepresentation in certain areas and professions are more likely to be found. Given the percentage of troops from minority backgrounds, the American army has a great interest in producing minority officers. Yet rather than just accept black applicants with subpar preparation to West Point, the army developed a full-year preparatory program at Fort Dix for them. Sixty per cent successfully completed the program and were then accepted to West Point, where their rates of graduation within four years exceeded those of their non-minority classmates.
As the reviewer of Mismatch in the liberal New Republic put it, the best part of the book is "when it skewers college and university officials who feel morally superior for defending affirmative action." "Racial justice on the cheap," black Yale law professor Stephen Carter calls it.