By this time in the course of human progress, I should probably be numb to the idea of racial and ethnic classifications. We’ve been doing this for a very long time and there are, after all, full time number crunchers at every level of educational bureaucracy – federal, state and municipal – who crank out lots of statistics about group disparities, group achievements, group representation, group hiring or group invisibility. That’s what they’re paid to do it, and they come through every time.
Even so, I’m more than a little puzzled by the latest foray in group partitioning that comes to us this time from the Florida State Board of Education, which recently adopted a new strategic plan that aims to improve the reading skills of K-12 students in the state’s public schools.
If you 're an educator, you'll probably wince at terms like “strategic plan.” I’ve seen a number of them come and go myself, and they don’t usually make edifying reading. They’re often akin to the bombastic imprecision of formal platform statements during a political campaign.
What’s striking about the Florida document though, is that instead of simply declaring that it wants all students to be reading better by 2018, the board takes the novel step of breaking them down by race and setting different achievement levels accordingly. Thus, by the target year of 2018, the stated aim is for 90% of Asian students, 88% of whites, 82% American Indians, 81% of Hispanics and 74% of blacks to reading at or above grade level. There’s a similar categorization for math education: 92% of Asians, 86% of whites, 81% of American Indians, 80% of Hispanics and 74 % of blacks will hopefully have learned math skills at or above grade level.
I can’t fathom why the Florida folks have painted themselves into this particular corner. Certainly it’s true that educational outcomes reflect a myriad of factors. Even in the most optimal circumstances, there are usually wide disparities in group performance, and that’s simply not going away, not ever. Absentee rates, family circumstances, economic levels, teacher competence, etc., all figure, usually in ways that elude the best intentions of politicians and educators.
But why, for Pete’s sake, go out on a limb with these racial groupings? Why start by saying that you expect less from some and more from others? Does that mean that resources will be allocated differentially? Most obviously, doesn’t this just about invite charges of racism, as if there weren’t enough already?
Believe me, I don’t need persuading that public education is in bad, bad shape. Schools are often accused unfairly, and are expected to deliver the impossible. They face daily, daunting odds, whether the omnipresence of intrusive, litigious parents in affluent districts, the non-existence of discipline in poorer ones, the uncomfortable fit between teachers in the trenches and imperious administrators who are clueless abut teaching, and are concerned chiefly with graduation statistics.
But on the face of it, the Florida Board of Ed really seems to have made some wholly unnecessary trouble for itself. I just hope the idea doesn’t catch on in higher education, which has also had a certain preoccupation with racial classifications over the years.