A race towards better education

There is nothing discriminatory about Florida’s new educational reform program

A recent Florida Board of Education change has incited heated debate about race and education. According to a newly passed education reform program, the benchmarks for adequate school performance will differ across ethnicities, with the standards for achievement by Asian and white students being higher than those for black and Hispanic students. Overall, the new program seeks to have all students achieving at the same level by 2023.

The program has received much criticism by those who say that expecting different levels of performance from students of different races is sending a poor message. Yet the negative responses and press that the program has received has slightly detracted from its long term goals. Granted, at a superficial first glance the program may seem condescending toward some minorities. Looking at its ultimate plans, though, one can see that the program does not necessarily deserve such disapproving reactions.

People who do not fully understand the program may be upset by it. And such people would have valid points if only the program’s short term goals are considered. According to the program, 90 percent of Asian students will hopefully be reading at grade level by 2018. On the other hand, only 81 percent of Hispanics and 74 percent of black students are expected to be reading at grade level by then. If those statistics were the extent of the program, critics would be much more vindicated. Their current assertion that all students should be held to the same standards is completely appropriate. Expecting less from blacks or Hispanics than from Asians would indeed be demeaning to those races, as it implies that they have a lower capacity for intellectual success. But paying attention to solely the 2018 goals would be realizing only half of the state’s agenda.

If this new educational reform is successful, all students will have grade-level reading and math skills by 2023. That is, every student, regardless of race, will be found at or above a stricter academic threshold. Thus, it is only in the process of getting to that threshold that disparities in racial expectations play a part. In reality, expecting students of every race to reach grade-level proficiency at an equal rate would be to ignore the current statistics regarding academic achievement by race. Florida presently has 76 percent of Asian students and 69 percent of white students reading at grade level. In contrast, black and Hispanic students are only at 38 percent and 53 percent, respectively. Because there is such a disparity between reading levels by each ethnicity, it would be unrealistic to expect each demographic to achieve reading proficiency at the same time. Getting 24 percent of Asians up to reading proficiency, for example, will obviously be quicker than raising 62 percent of black students to the same level.

The reform program does not comment negatively on individual students of any race, and only temporarily expects different performances from different ethnicities. Opponents of the program are taking the projected numbers to mean that different races are clearly being labeled as having different abilities. That is not entirely true. Individual students of different races may very well have the same abilities. What cannot be disputed, though, is that different ethnic groups are not performing at the same levels. Abilities aside, black and Hispanic student populations need to improve their reading and math skills. Only by clearly pointing out the differences across races can a concrete plan be formulated. What some people view as singling out and insulting races is in fact a necessary step towards improving the academic performance of all students.

Whether or not the Florida education program actually will work is yet to be determined. But there is nothing inherently wrong with the way in which the state is approaching its educational problems. Florida expects to cut the differences in performance by ethnic groups in half by 2018. It would be nice to see the performances of every demographic raised to the 90 percent expected of Asians at that time, but practically it does not seem feasible. What really matters is that by the time the program is finished, all students will hopefully be performing equally in school. True, it was perhaps not necessary to place students into groups by race. Florida could have instead grouped students together by levels of reading, math or test performances and focused on clusters that showed similarly low proficiency levels. The fact that they chose to group by race, though, does not mean that people should now look at particular races as being more inept at school. Using ethnicities to plan academic improvements is simply a way to group students while formulating a plan. Different approaches will not be taken for different races, and all students will receive the help that they individually need. The media needs to recognize that fact, and should stop concerning itself so much with the numbers at any one point in the program.

_Alex Yahanda is a senior associate editor for The Cavalier Daily.
He can be reached at a.yahanda@cavalierdaily.com._

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