Mariela Dabbah: Florida Race-Based Goals for Students Send Wrong Message

It’s the wrong message. No matter how you slice it, every time you establish different academic goals for subgroups of students you perpetuate stereotypes, self-doubt, and interracial/inter-ethnic discord.

The Florida Board of Education’s decision to set higher math and reading targets for Asians and whites than for African Americans and Hispanics sends the wrong message to members of each one of those groups.

According to the new plan, by 2018 the state expects to have 90 percent of Asian students, 88 percent of white, 81 percent of Hispanics and 74 percent of African Americans at or above their math and reading grade level. Right now, the percentage of students who are at grade level stand at: 76 percent among Asians, 69 percent in whites, 53 percent in Hispanic and 38 percent among African American students.

So I understand that the reasoning behind the decision is to take into account each student group’s starting point and that, in reality, the board is expecting a larger percentage jump from Hispanics and African Americans that it is from Asians and whites. After all, if the board wants 90 percent of Asians to be at grade level, up from the current 76 percent, that’s a jump of only 18 percent as opposed to African Americans, who would be expected to improve nearly 100 percent (from 38 percent to 74 percent). You could easily say that there are much higher expectations of African Americans than Asians.

But this is not the way to encourage students, teachers or parents to have higher expectations and do what it takes to reduce the achievement gap.

Regardless of the intention behind the decision, it establishes different standards for different people. Instead of finding ways to increase everybody’s performance and providing the additional support that different students require, this kind of policy makes kids feel like they aren’t good enough. (Not to mention that it continues to re-energize the stereotype that all Asians are doing well, when that’s not the case either.)

How do we expect to compete in the global economy with young people who are valued according to their ethnicity or race and are treated like second-class citizens? How do we expect to move achievement (from school to workforce) beyond race and ethnicity if we keep on segregating within our own schools?

I’d like to see Olympic medalists such as Leo Manzano (Hispanic) or Gabrielle Douglas (African American) be told, “Just make sure you match the level of your Hispanic competitors, Leo. And if you can reach the level of your black competitors, Gabrielle, you’ll be fine. ”

Wouldn’t the whole country be enraged about this? It would be a matter of national pride. And so should be our education system. Decisions like the one made by Florida (previously made in Virginia and Washington D.C.,) do not make me proud. We must find ways of moving together as a nation, not in subgroups that are labeled over and over again.