By Steve Gunn
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – A lot of people in the education world like to bash former President George W. Bush, particularly his “No Child Left Behind” initiative.
But the former president hit the nail on the head when he talked about the “the soft bigotry of low expectations” for minority children in America, and how it prevents too many kids from reaching their full potential.
Children, for the most part, perform the way they’re expected to perform, regardless of their racial or economic backgrounds.
If they sense adults believe in them and expect them to learn, that’s probably what they will do. If they sense they’re expected to fail, they can be counted on to deliver that result.
That’s why we’re so troubled by the new academic standards being implemented this fall in Alabama.
The new standards, outlined in the state’s new Plan 2020, replaces the standards imposed by “No Child Left Behind,” according to the Tuscaloosa News. It’s supposedly designed to close the achievement gap between white and minority students.
That’s all well and good.
But the program gets off to a very bad start by setting significantly different standards for children of different races.
For example, the percentage of third-graders required to pass math by 2013 is much different, depending on which group they’re linked to.
Ninety-three percent of students from Asian or Pacific Islander backgrounds are expected to meet math standards, the news report said. That percentage drops to 91.5 percent for white students, 90.3 percent for American Indian students, 89.4 for multiracial students, 85.5 for Hispanic students, 82.6 for students in poverty, 79.6 percent for English-language learning students, 79 percent for black students and 61.7 percent for special needs students.
Kids who are still learning English are expected to do better than black students who have been speaking English their entire lives? Are they kidding?
‘Dumbing our race down’
Several parents of minority students were understandably troubled and offended by the first-year standards.
“I think having a low bar means they can just pass them on,” Tim Robinson, the father of two black students, told the Tuscaloosa News. “I think it’s dumbing our race down and preparing our boys for prison.
“The teachers aren’t even going to teach all of them anymore. Not the black boys and girls. And if we sit by and let this happen it’s on us.”
Andrea Alston, the mother of a black special needs student, said she heard about Plan 2020 but was told nothing about different standards for different races. She said parents should have been notified before the fact, so they could have offered their input.
“Plan 2020 says it’s going to close the achievement gap and every student is going to graduate, but how is this going to benefit that?” Alston told the newspaper.
Former Tuscaloosa school board member John Gordon said establishing different standards for different races will simply perpetuate the existing problem by maintaining low expectations for some.
“Having high expectations for some and lower expectations for others is unacceptable,” he said. “All children can learn. They just learn at different rates depending on their background. Set the same goals for everyone, because if you don’t, teachers will go into the classrooms with the preconceived notion and a self-fulfilling prophecy that these black kids aren’t going to learn and these white kids are going to learn.”
State officials defend the first-year standards, claiming they are based on reality. They say the achievement gap is real at the moment, and it’s senseless to pretend it doesn’t exist when determining reasonable starting points for different children.
They also note that a higher percentage of students in each group are expected to be proficient each year over a six-year period, and the biggest improvements are expected from the groups that start near the bottom.
As the Tuscaloosa News article puts it, “black third graders are expected to go from 79 percent passing in math in 2013 to 88.5 percent in 2018, while whites are expected to go from 91.5 percent in 2013 to 95.4 percent in 2018.
“We’re not just grabbing the numbers out of the air,” Shanthia Washington, an education administrator for the Alabama Department of Education, told the newspaper. “This is real-life, true data. These are your goals every year. The goal is to reduce the students who aren’t proficient over the period of the next six years.”
Will the circle remain unbroken?
We don’t believe Alabama education officials are being purposefully racist with their new standards. But we suspect they may be falling into the same historic trap that has doomed so many kids from underprivileged circumstances over the years.
When you group people by race and place different expectations on each group, you are automatically create a sort of academic caste system.
Teachers will deal with students of different races based on the preconceived expectations put before them by the state. The students will also act accordingly. If they hear or sense that less is expected from them, that’s what they will produce.
The circle could remain unbroken, the achievement gap left intact.
We much prefer the system under the old “No Child Left Behind” law, which set a single standard for all students, regardless of race. For instance, 95 percent of all third graders were expected to pass math by 2013. That meant all third graders, regardless of where their ancestors came from, or how much money their parents make.
Kids feel challenged and empowered when they are treated the same way as their peers. Some certainly require more help than others, and those in need should receive assistance. But no excuses should be assigned or accepted based on race, income, home life or other criteria.
Of course the results won’t be identical for all students. Some are brighter than others. Some will work harder than others. That’s the way life goes.
But education is an individual endeavor, and most children can and will do better than they did the year before if that’s the expectation, and nobody is allowed to lean on socio-economic crutches.
If the state has faith in these kids, and the teachers follow suit, many more of them will believe in themselves. At that point personal growth can become the norm for many more students, and the mission will be largely accomplished.