Race a Factor in Academic Achievement? Florida Schools Say Yes

Race is probably going to continue to be one of the most contested issues in America for some time. And, no matter how many times we, as a nation, profess to be beyond it, we will continue to stumble as we attempt to deal with racial disparity. A recent case in which race took center stage was in Florida public schools just last month. At that time, the Florida State Board of Education voted for what many would describe as unequal standards in primary education. Due to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, states have been seeking reprieve to catch students up to national standards as quickly as possible. These disparities weigh heaviest on Black and Hispanic students. And, Florida’s attempt at addressing these issues make it clear that Black and Hispanic students struggle most with the current academic system in the state.

Importantly, this new initiative seeks to address ongoing racial disparities in academic achievement throughout the state. Recent statistics note that, in Florida, 62% of Black students read below grade level compared to 47% of Hispanics, 31% of whites, and 24% of Asian students. Though the educational goals outlined by the academic plan are set to culminate in major educational achievements by 2018, the method by which the goals are intended to be met have raised eyebrows.

Reportedly, the academic standards under the 2018 initiative in Florida are as follows:

“By 2018, the Florida BOE aims to have 74 percent of African-American grade school students at or above grade level in reading.

Eighty-one percent of Hispanic students are expected to achieve the same goal by 2018. The same goes for 82 percent of American Indian students, 88 percent of white students and 90 percent of Asian students. For the economically disadvantaged and English language learners, it’s 72 percent; for students with disabilities, it’s 78 percent.

The goals for grade level proficiency in math have a similar trend: 74 percent of African-American students; 80 percent of Hispanic students; 81 percent of American Indian students; 86 percent of white students; 92 percent of Asian students; 78 percent of economically disadvantaged students; 74 percent of English language learners; 72 percent of students with disabilities.”

And, though these are lofty, maybe even honorable goals, many have criticized the Florida State BOE for the outright declaration that race is indicative of student achievement. Conversely, others have noted that the approach helps to bridge the gaps between races thereby eliminating further or ongoing disparity. So, there are voices on either side of the argument which give credence both to the opposition and support of this educational endeavor.

But, what about the students? We all know that racial minorities, especially Black Americans, continue to struggle with a host of socio-economic issues. And education is the predominant meter for life outcomes. But, how does this new initiative seek to serve the whole student? Well, it doesn’t really. It comes off as yet another piece of legislation that seeks to answer the symptomatic presence of an issue rather than the root cause. There are many studies out there that note a host of issues affecting Black students’ academic achievement. One prominent study by the National Black Caucus of State Legislators (2001) identified a host of extraneous factors contributing to Black Student outcomes including class size, teaching environment, teacher quality, and academic standards and testing.

In this copious review, the authors state that:

“We believe that the educational disparities and lack of educational opportunities that result in life-long inequality are laying the foundation for another civil rights movement. The right to equal educational opportunity was at the core of the civil rights struggle of the 60s, and it has yet to be realized.”

Similarly, other educational academics have noted that schools are not the only ingredient in a healthy academic regimen for Black students, especially poor Black students. Students’ social environments, including home life, parenting, peer groups, and neighborhood safety all greatly contribute to students’ ability to function positively in an educational setting. When will legislators begin to really address these issues? Many Black children live in poorer neighborhoods. Most are riddled with violence, broken families, and poor incentives for achievement in school. These are areas where race should be considered, not the classroom.

Luckily, President Obama has made some strides in improving the NCLB law pertaining specifically to Black students in both primary and secondary public school. His endeavors even seek partnership with historically Black colleges. But there is no guarantee that he will be re-elected.  Therefore, until state and federal political actors begin to see education and social policy as mutually inclusive, they will continue to misdiagnose a major disease in the Black community: under-education. Much like cancer, obesity, or malnutrition, under-education spreads to many other aspects of a student’s life and has lifelong consequences. The Florida State BOE, though well-meaning, might benefit from this deeper understanding of educational disparity and its linkage to student race rather than a half-hearted exercise in bureaucratic problem solving.