The Florida Department of Education has announced plans to implement goal-setting based on racial demographics. This approach oversimplifies a complicated challenge, while playing into stereotypes and reinforcing divides that contribute to racial tensions in our society. When it comes to education, too often the real enemy is poverty and the lack of top-down resources which accompany it. Merely structuring goals around demographic data, without attempting to understand or address causal relationships, is not an approach likely to yield successful results.
A plan for goal setting is required as a condition of a waiver that Florida (along with 32 other states) has received within the provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act. My first question would be how much teacher input was collected in designing these goals. Teachers routinely tell me that their greatest challenge in getting students to grade level remains what's going on when the child is not in their classroom and that most of it has to do with the resources of their families.
How much time is one or both parents able to spend with the child? What is the quality of the environment if most of time is spent with a caregiver? Are they getting decent food and a good night's sleep? Is there a parent or other household member proficient in the language in which the material is being taught? Is there excessive conflict in the home caused by violence, alcohol abuse or drug use? What is the education level of the primary caregiver? All of these questions correlate strongly with income levels, especially when the family income is beneath the poverty line.
Because poverty is a fate suffered disproportionately among racial demographics, I suppose some people can confuse such end results with their primary causes, though doing so seems like the relic of antiquated and bigoted lines of thought which I would have hoped we'd long since transcended, especially at the highest levels of state. I would like to think that most of us have accumulated enough experience to understand that given the same resources and environments, excellence is equally attainable, the color of our skin notwithstanding. We should know by now that it's the disparity in resources and environments that too often goes hand in hand with that otherwise meaningless mode of differentiation that too often mirrors racial gaps in achievement.
Broad racial goals will not only teach children that it is appropriate to differentiate expected success in the classroom, but in the world at large. What message does it send to a young child when they see that they are only expected to do marginally well in school, if not that they should expect the same of themselves throughout life? Conversely, what does it teach the other races, and how will it affect the way they view and shape expectations once they are in the workplace? It's easy to imagine ways that such goals can even serve to perpetuate the cycle. Will educators be incentivized to allocate their attention in a way that only compounds the problem? Even if they don't, will the perception be that some students are written off because of the cushion in their demographic's lower goal, while others are given extra attention because there is less room for failure among their demographic?
Schools already have meaningful data on income from their free and reduced lunch programs, standardized by the fact that it is federally funded. Given what we know about poverty and educational outcomes, wouldn't it be more effective – if still admittedly imperfect – to goal-set proficiency percentages according to students who fall below certain household income thresholds, rather than by race? We already employ such weighting in the school "grading" process. In addition to being more closely associated with the factors known to impede academic success, such classifications are also less visible to both teachers and students, therefore helping to differentiate for statistical measurement without turning the skin children wear into a scarlet letter.
I don't doubt that the board's intent is rooted in good intentions, but it certainly seems as if their plan falls far from the mark. As a society, we need to constantly examine why so many families of certain ethnicities remain disproportionately mired in the cycle of poverty and explore ways that we can best address what is undeniably an epidemic of inequality. But policies which relate to the byproducts of that poverty must take aim at the root, not validate those resulting disproportions by presuming they are their own cause.
Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to visit his column archive. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook. Sign up for a free email subscription and get The Bradenton Times' Thursday Weekly Recap and Sunday Edition delivered to your email box each week at no cost.