Equality through Inequality? The New Focus on Race in Education

White-House-Initiative-on-Educational-Excellence-for-African-AmericansWhen I first heard that there was a “new black Education Director,” I assumed that there was a new director at the Department of Education, and this person was African-American. But I was wrong.  On March 7th, the Department of Education announced a new Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans.

The White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African-Americans was created by Executive Order and was announced in July of 2012. The idea of strengthening the educational outcomes for black students is honorable. In spite of No Child Left Behind and other efforts, achievement gaps between the races still exist.

My own state of Florida falls in the lowest achievement quintile in the nation according to the Department of Education’s ED Data Express website. In Florida, the total graduation rate is 71%. Breaking this down by racial populations, the graduation rate for Asians, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders is 86%.  The graduation for non-Hispanic whites is 76%. For Native Americans and Hispanics, the rates are 70% and 69%, respectively. Black students have a graduation rate of 59%.

Last fall, the Florida Department of Education announced its controversial race-based goals for Florida students. They reasoned that certain populations should be given lower expectations than others because the most challenged populations had a greater improvement to make. They wanted the gains to be achievable. Yet this sends a subtle message to black and Hispanic students that they aren’t as capable as white or Asian students. It also discriminates against struggling learners of other races.

A similar kind of discrimination came to light in February in Aurora, Colorado. Mission Viejo Elementary offers an after-school tutoring program. A sign-up sheet for the program stated that it was for “children of color.” The tutoring program is part of PASS, which is described on the school website as “a parent leadership group dedicated to closing the achievement gap for our African-American and Hispanic or Latino students.” When contacted by the parent of a struggling white student, the principal left a voice mail, saying, ““It’s focused for and designed for children of color, but certainly, if we have space for other kids who have needs, we can definitely meet those needs.” Later, he retracted that statement, saying the program was available to all students on a first-come, first-served basis.

So what is the problem? Why should we care how they do it, as long as improvements are made?

We should care because we cannot promote an end to discrimination by weaving racial discrimination into the fabric of our public institutions. We should care because we want all children to succeed, regardless of race.

Let’s go back to Florida. My state’s student racial breakdown is as follows:

  • 43% White (non-Hispanic)
  • 28% Hispanic
  • 23% Black
  • 3% Asian
  • 3% Other

Out of every 100 Florida students, 29 students will not graduate. The approximate racial breakdown of these 29 students is as follows: 10.32 white, 8.68 Hispanic, 9.43 black, and .57 Asian, Pacific Islander, and Native American and other.

Yet the federal government now has an initiative directed solely at the 9.43, and nobody in Washington sees a problem with this?

I know I do. What would be a better solution? Here are a few ideas.

      1. Stop making decisions based upon skin color. We call that racism. If a child is struggling, help that child, no matter what is or her racial heritage. Why not set a goal for students based upon achievement scores or class grades rather than race? Provide extra help for the students who need to progress the most, regardless of race.
      2. Don’t waste valuable dollars on yet another federal program. Another layer of bureaucracy enriches no one but the bureaucrats. It certainly doesn’t help struggling students.
      3. Keep the solution local. Communities can more easily hold the programs accountable.
      4. Involve parents in the solution. Yes, I know that many of kids who are not progressing are from single parent, disadvantaged homes. Some may feel ill equipped to help, others may not feel they have the time or resources. They need to be encouraged and equipped to help their children. Parents don’t have to be professional educators to have a profound effect on their child’s education. Dr. Ben Carson’s mother inspired him to learn. When he was failing, she required him to write and submit book reports to her every week. He was unaware that she could barely read them. I was taught to read before I entered school by my grandmother who had only a sixth grade education. She had no training, no special curriculum. She simply read to me faithfully from simple storybooks. We should remind parents that, ultimately, they are responsible for their child’s education, and they must be involved.Some parents won’t rise to the challenge, but that is true in every race. Others will, so let’s empower parents to be agents of positive change in their children’s lives.
      5. Address the specific problems, not the race. Drug and alcohol abuse, homelessness, neglect, poverty, and violence make a child’s life unstable and hamper learning. These issues know no racial boundaries. Address the issues, and help the children.

If you imply that a child cannot learn as well as others because of his or her race, you place a burden on that child. You may discourage him or her from trying to learn. Those who do succeed may find themselves always trying to prove themselves, to demonstrate they succeeded on their own merits.

The Presidential Seal bears the words E pluribus Unum – out of many, one. In spite of our varied backgrounds, we are one nation. Separate and Unequal is a giant step backward for America. You cannot create equality by promoting inequality. Stop dividing us, and instead unite us under a common goal  — educational excellence for all.







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