Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Race-based Insanity in Florida Education

Last week, the Florida Department of Education approved new guidelines for student achievement in reading and math. These guidelines--the Florida State Board of Education's Strategic Plan--lay out current levels of proficiency in these areas and set goals to be reached by the 2017-2018 school year. For instance, right now 57% of all Florida students--statewide and all grade levels--have scored at or above their grade level in reading assessments. 58% of the same scored at or above their grade level in mathematics. The Plan calls for raising both of these numbers to 82% in the next five years.

Noble goal, that. Is it attainable? Probably not, unless minimum requirements for each grade level are lowered. That's always the easiest way to improve test scores: widen the curve. Of course, such a tactic would be foolish and--more importantly--would also violate the Florida statute that defines the role of the Florida education system:
The mission of Florida’s K-20 education system shall be to increase the proficiency of all students within one seamless, efficient system, by allowing them the opportunity to expand their knowledge and skills through learning opportunities and research valued by students, parents, and communities.
The same statute also instructs the Board of Education on the basis for increasing this proficiency:
The State Board of Education establish performance measures and set performance standards for individual public schools and community colleges, with measures and standards based primarily on student achievement.
Seems pretty clear: the Board is supposed to set some standards--or goals--and the system is supposed to work towards those goals, thus demonstrating an overall increase in student proficiency. What's missing from these two parts of the statute, indeed from the entire statute? Any mention of race or ethnicity. Why? Because race and ethnicity have nothing to do with overall standards, or at least they shouldn't if we assume one student can be as proficient in reading and math as any other.

So then, why is the Board establishing different standards based on race? The Plan beaks down the current results of assessment tests as a function of race (and other factors). Using Reading scores as an example:
Reading
• American Indian 55%
• Asian 76%
• Black/African American 38%
• Hispanic 53%
• White 69%
• Economically Disadvantaged 46%
• English Language Learners 33%
• Students with Disabilities 29%
It then sets goals for the future based on these same standards:
Reading
• American Indian 82%
• Asian 90%
• Black/African American 74%
• Hispanic 81%
• White 88%
• Economically Disadvantaged 72%
• English Language Learners 72%
• Students with Disabilities 78%
Let's put this in plain English: the Board wants to bring up overall reading proficiency to 82% in the next five years. But to meet that goal, it expects lower levels of performance by blacks and Hispanics, while it also expects higher levels of performance from whites and Asians. Remember, the overall goal for Reading is 82%. To make that happen, 88% of white students and 90% of Asian students need to be at or above their grade levels in reading. Only 81% of Hispanic students need to be there, while only 74% of black students do.

The Board argues that these target levels actually set higher standards for blacks and Hispanics, given their current levels of performance. In theory, that might be true. But the reality of this plan is that it establishes standards--expectations--based on race and ethnicity, exactly contrary to the goal mandated by law for the Florida education system and exactly contrary to what the Board is charged with doing, for these are not "measures and standards based primarily on student achievement."

Already, various groups have spoken out against the Board's plan, from the Urban League, to the NAACP, to the Asian American Federation. Hilary Shelton, speaking for the NAACP, says:
It's, what do they say? 'Soft bigotry of low expectations.' They're really letting the educators off the hook playing it this way. We have to challenge our educators to meet the standards of every child.
Exactly right. Setting goals based on race is supremely foolish; the overall goals are fine, but the road to success must be via treating every child as equally capable, not by expecting less from some because of their background or the color of their skin. And really, the Board of Education has no business measuring results on the basis of race or ethnicity, to begin with. It only has that data for each student because of info cards filled out at the beginning of each school year; the race/ethnicity questions are voluntary and are not based--themselves--on qualitative standards.

More broadly, this is the kind of stuff that keeps issues of race alive, that feeds bigotry and racial animosity. If we--as a people--are ever going to put race behind us, we need to stop using it as a tool of division. The Florida Board of Education apparently needs to be educated in this regard. It's current membership roster

Cheers, all.