Last week the Florida State Board of Education passed a plan that would require different achievement goals for students in reading and math according to race. By 2018 the Board wants 92 percent of Asian students, 86 percent of white students, 80 percent of Latino students and 74 percent of African-American students to read at or above grade level. They have also set similar standards in Math proficiency.
The Florida State Board of Education believes the breakdown of these percentages according to race is realistic. It says not all students start out from the same point. The CBS News affiliate in Tampa quotes State Board of Education Chairwoman Kathleen Shanahan saying the goals needed to be divided into ethnic groups in order to comply with a waiver that makes states independent from the Federal government’s No Child Left Behind Act.
As anyone would predict, (except perhaps the Florida State Board of Education) these new benchmarks have created a firestorm of criticism from teachers, parents and leaders in the Latino and African-American communities. For many, lowering the bar for some students and not for others sends the wrong message. Others call it for what it is: racist.
As a father, I hate the No Child Left Behind Act, which enforces standardized testing and enables schools and teachers to be rated and even paid according to the results of these tests. However, dividing achievement goals according to race is a step in the wrong direction. There is no reason to lower the bar for some students and not for others, and certainly not according to race. Should we expect less from President Obama because he is African-American?
Race should not play a role in what is expected of an individual. What the State Board is doing is like moving the finish line in a marathon so that everyone’s a winner even if they didn’t make it to the real finish line.
While I can understand that the State Board is looking at current percentages of students graduating from high school, and trying to set goals according to those results. As an example, last year’s graduation rates in Broward County broken down by race were as follows: 86.8 percent of white students; 79.3 percent of Latinos; and 65.5 percent of black students.
But the problem with the plan is that it is simply moving the finish line instead of helping the students finish the race. This is a big problem with top down plans, like No Child Left Behind. They take into account numbers and not people. The intentions might be good, but statistics tend to divide rather than unite. Politicians at the Federal and State are blind to what is happening on the ground, at schools in different counties with different demographics and economic disparities. What is happening in a school in Miami-Dade County is going to be very different from what is happening in a school in Alachua County. Even within a county’s schools there are dramatic racial and economic differences.
The program implemented by the State Board of Education is exactly the opposite of what has led Finland to become the model for education around the world. (Finland is ranked number one in education by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). In Finland, there are no standardized tests, no competition between schools, teachers are paid well and given prestige and responsibility. Education is not about success, but about quality.
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One size does not fit all when it comes to schools. Here is where the dismal leadership of Florida Governor Rick Scott has fallen to its lowest point. He touts himself as the education governor, and has moved to accept the waiver of No Child Left Behind from the Federal government, but his funding for public education is nil.
I understand there is a budget deficit in the state and federal budgets. And I understand that the Tea Partiers who helped put Scott in Tallahassee do not want higher taxes. Heck, no one wants higher taxes, but here is something they seem to be forgetting: you get what you pay for.
You cannot get better results from public education without investing in education. The idea of creating a different method to measure student achievements is not going to improve things if it only shuffles numbers around to try and prove that everything is fine.
Florida is a losing state when it comes to education spending, teacher salaries and graduation rates. All this has nothing to do with race. It has to do with the fact that Governor Scott would rather give tax breaks to businesses than allocate more money to the education budget.
It is ridiculous to divide students by race and give them different achievement goals. Nowhere is there evidence that African-Americans and Latino students cannot perform as well as Anglo students. Just look at President Obama or Supreme Court Justice Justices Clarence Thomas and Sonya Sotomayor. This is the United States of America, the land of opportunity. By lowering standards for certain students we are taking those opportunities away.
Hopefully legislators and school boards across the nation will finally throw out the idea of assessments and focus on the Finnish model to raise the quality of education for our children with bigger budgets, better teacher pay, smaller class sizes and accountability at school level.