July 16, 2013

Race-based academic goals are both offensive and ineffective

By Race-based academic goals are both offensive and ineffective

At PLF, we believe that individuals have a constitutional right to equal treatment by their government regardless of their race, and we’re actively defending that right. Last year we took note when the Florida and Virginia state boards of education approved strategic plans that set different academic targets for different races. In order to get waivers for certain requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, these states had to submit plans to achieve better academic outcomes and reduce the achievement gap between certain “subgroups” of students. These states try to avoid a “one-size-fits-all” approach to evaluating academic progress by creating specific goals for these subgroups, most of which are racial groups.

It turns out that Florida and Virginia are not the only states with race-based goals. In fact, of the 39 states that have been granted some flexibility in meeting NCLB requirements, 27 have plans that include different academic targets for different races. Under one of these plans, Mississippi requires that 89 percent of Asian third-graders will read at grade level by 2017, but only 77 percent of their black classmates will have to read at that level. Similarly, Washington’s standards suggest that it’s realistic to expect that 86 percent of white highschool students perform math at grade-level by 2017, but it can only expect 73 percent of Hispanic students to perform at that level.

In fairness, the race-based targets do not rely on an outdated belief that individuals from certain races are inferior learners. As a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Education argued, “we do have to take into account [the students’] starting point” to set “realistic and attainable” goals, and the eventual aim of these plans is still to have all students achieve proficiency in math and reading. However, those statements don’t explain why racial groups must be the basis for categorizing students with different “starting points.” Why not set goals tied to wealth, geography, or some other less offensive criterion?

In addition to being morally offensive, race-based goals tend to lead to bad results. First, these goals force resource-strapped school districts to walk an extremely fine line between meeting academic targets for particular races and illegally dividing resources along racial lines. This concern even merited mention in the U.S. Department of Education’s list of frequently asked questions about its flexibility program.

Second, economics and psychology suggest that establishing race-based goals makes it more likely that teachers will treat individuals from different races differently. When teachers’ resources and job security are tied to achieving racial targets, they have a strong incentive to expend their resources on individuals from particular races. Teachers trying to meet these requirements will take note of races with lower proficiency targets and may spend their time and effort accordingly. Psychologists have confirmed a similar result. Twin behavioral phenomena, called the Pygmalion and Golem effects, are examples of how teachers’ expectations for their students are often directly correlated with student performance. In short, students held to lower standards tend to do worse.

Finally, race-based targets may harm academic performance by perpetuating racial stereotypes among the students themselves. Students’ beliefs about their own abilities have an effect on their grades similar to that of teachers’ expectations, and sending the message to students that certain races are expected to do better can only heighten racial tensions among classmates.

It is important to set “realistic and attainable” academic goals, and public schools should be held accountable when they fail to educate students – of any race. But setting targets for students based on the color of their skin is both morally offensive and pedagogically ineffective.

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