Posted tagged ‘education’

Blaming Racism for the Achievement Gap in Our Schools is a Dangerous Road to Take

November 2, 2009

Race and racism are complicated issues in our society that too many people try to simplify; which I believe to be a dangerous road with perilous consequences.

A recent article published by The News Tribune, a Seattle-Tacoma area newspaper, brings up the issue of race and the American educational system. The author, Patrick Welsh, apparently is a high school teacher in Alexandria, Virginia with a high African American population.

The author cites arguments made by educators that the “achievement gap” between white and black students (as if Latino, Asian, and other ethnic students don’t count) is caused by an education system that treats black kids unfairly, which allows white kids to flourish when their darker pigmented peers lag behind.

Calling this problem a “civil rights violation” is a convenient argument, especially when one looks at the numbers. If it is true that white students generally speaking get better grades than black students, playing the race card is definitely a tempting road to take. But Welsh argues that parenting should be more to blame.

He argues that his students weren’t achieving much in the classroom because “their parents just weren’t there for them – at least not in the same way that parents of kids who were doing well tended to be.”

I agree with the writer that blaming this problem on race alone is misleading, counterproductive, and downright dangerous. Children are impressionable; a fact that is true of children of all racial/cultural/ethnic backgrounds. Imagine the message this sends to our young ones; that the reason why certain kids don’t do well in school is because s/he is black, or the reason why s/he is going to college is because s/he is white.

If kids are exposed to this kind of thinking at a young age, it will develop into deep-engrained stereotypes that will eventually come back to haunt us. If black children grow up believing they can’t do well in school because of the color of their skin, that is just as racist as any of the unjust laws civil rights leaders fought against 50 years ago.

Likewise, if white students grow up believing their whiteness will guarantee them a better chance in life than darker skinned students, imagine the racist attitudes that could be borne out of that scenario. Scary, n’est-ce pas?

 It makes logical sense that exclusively playing the race card in this situation can create more problems than it can solve. If the “educational system” is racist, who then is to blame? Teachers? Administrators? The federal government? Students themselves? The list goes on.

If my understanding of American society is correct, public school teachers are some of the most liberal folks in our country. Teachers’ unions fight for liberal causes. A federally-funded public school system is itself a big-government cause. The argument that educators are at their heart creating a racist system holds very little water.

 Racism and race in America are too complicated of topics to generalize like that. There were those who were foolish enough to believe that the election of Barack Obama to the presidency would signal an end of an era in race-relations in our country. That could not be further from the truth. While it is good to see an African American ascend to our nation’s highest office, this is no guarantee that our demons with racism will magically go away. I argued against such naivety shortly after the election and so far I am proven to be right.

Conservatives call this arguing “race baiting” by the left in an effort by liberals to ignore the real questions. I would not go that far, but I do feel they are slightly on to something. Playing the race card is, in my opinion, a tactic that is way overused by certain people, and only further destroys the debate by watering down the meanings of the words “racism,” “prejudice,” and “bigotry.”

We should not blame racism for our problems unless we are completely certain that racism is in fact the cause of whatever problem is being discussed. I do believe that crying “racism” all the time is similar to the story of the Boy Who Cried Wolf. If we see racism everywhere (in schools, in church, in the media, in our neighborhoods, in our government, in businesses, in our politics, in homes, at work, etc.) and pinpoint every social ill we have on racism, eventually people will stop caring. If we’re all racists, what’s the point of doing anything to stop it?

And, of course, when a truly racist thing does happen, no one will blink an eye because they’ve already been there, done that. It is genuinely the Boy Who Cried Wolf, except it’s the Bleeding-Heart Liberal Who Cried Racism. We should be careful before using the dreaded “R” word.

But far right conservatives are wrong about the notion that racism is a dead horse. Racial prejudice is quite alive in our country; it just takes different shapes than it has before. Blaming racism in our discussion of public education might be one of those examples.

By saying over and over again that black kids are doomed to perform academically at lower levels than white kids, is that not a racist notion in itself? Does that imply that black kids are unable to overcome obstacles imposed upon them by our nation’s history? Isn’t it racist to pound into our children’s minds that their teachers are hateful bigots because test scores tend to be skewed? Isn’t it racist to say that Obama’s white heritage is the only reason he has become so successful? Sounds like it to me.

And what about Asian American children, like I once was? Well, I still am Asian American, I’m just not a child anymore. In many parts of the country, East Asian, Indian, and Arab American students are very successful in the classroom. Especially children of recently naturalized immigrants. Their parents worked hard to come into this country, so they have been taught at an early age to work hard in school so that they can live out the American dream. I suppose parenting does play a part in all this.

 If the system works against minority students, how do you explain the success of a good number of Asian American kids? Dumb luck? Maybe their culture of hard work has something to do with it.

Parents who had to fight hard to come into this country are more likely to teach discipline and the importance of an education to their children because they know how hard it is to succeed in life. Welsh is right that absent parents play a much larger role in the educational “achievement gap” than most people are willing to admit. Will making the school days longer, as President Obama recently argued, make our kids get better grades? I doubt it. We don’t need to urgently fix our schools. We need to fix our culture.

We need to bring back to our kids a sense of urgency at getting a good education. We need to teach them not nothing in life comes free, and that your race should never be an excuse for performing well or poorly. We need to bring back the “culture of learning” where reading books and enlightening ourselves are more important than watching reality television and other trashy pop culture garbage.

It all starts in the homes, not the classrooms. Teachers try the best that they can (at least most of them do). No teacher wants their students to fail. So why should be put all the blame on them? Besides, if racism truly is the problem in our schools, how do you propose we fix that? Should we require our educators to attend more “racial tolerance” seminars? Should we ignore all white students and focus more on minority students hoping that will somehow make our problems go away? Not bloody likely.

If any of you can successfully convince me that racism is the sole cause of our school system’s “achievement gap,” please inform, counter-argue, and persuade me and I will definitely write a blog post recanting everything I have said here. If not, then maybe we should tackle our larger problems instead of making up our own ones.


Washington State Needs to Reconsider the Role of the WASL

June 23, 2009

School is out for the summer. For others, school is out for much longer than that. And not those who have graduated and are moving on to bigger and better things. For many high school students in Washington State, they are dropping out of school at rates that we should all be alarmed at.

According to a recent article reported by The News Tribune, the Tacoma area’s largest daily newspaper, Washington students have a 24 percent dropout rate. That means nearly one out of every four students will not see high school graduation anytime in the near future. That means they will continue to struggle to find sustainable jobs and careers that will keep them productive for the rest of their lives.

Things weren’t always like this. There was once a time when hardly anyone dropped out of school. A recent report by the nonprofit organization Editorial Projects in Education (EPE) Research Center found that the U.S. high school graduation rate is 69.2 percent. That is actually an improvement compared to statistics reported in 1996, where the graduation rate was 66.4 percent. If things are improving, there is still plenty of room to go up.

The catastrophic disaster that is our public school system should not come to a surprise to anyone. Conservatives have complained for years that public education is doing nothing but corrupting our children and not teaching them well enough for the real world. Liberals argue that the system is broken, not obsolete. Anyone who has actually attended the public schools know that anyone can get a good education there if they want to. I went to the public schools all my life and I turned out fine.

But not everyone has turned out so well. If nearly one quarter of students are dropping out before the twelfth grade, does this mean that our schools are hurting our children, or our children are hurting themselves? Parents play a very important role in raising children. If kids are not getting help from mom or dad or a guardian, who will help them?

President Obama made this past Fathers Day an opportunity to speak on the importance of fatherhood and being an active participant in a child’s life. He talked about his own father, Barack Obama Sr., who left his family when he was young. The President made sure he communicated to fathers and parents everywhere that we do our children a disservice when we ignore their needs. It was a message that certain people needed to hear.

But other than that, what else is to blame for the poor performance of our students? Let’s take a moment to look at the contentious issue of standardized testing. To many educators and students alike, the words “standardized testing” has become a curse word of the highest order. Students not performing well on standardized tests means less federal funding. It means your school is inadequate. It means children are being left behind. No one wants that.

Washington State has the WASL, which stands for Washington Assessment of Student Learning. When I was in fourth grade, my class was considered one of the early guinea pigs of the WASL system. Fourth graders like me during the 1996-1997 school year were tested on math, reading, and writing. If we passed, we were given a pat on the back and maybe a high-five. Today, tenth graders taking the WASL have slightly different stakes at hand.

If they do not pass all the sections of the WASL satisfactorily, they will not receive their high school diploma. Only after passing all the sections will they be able to graduate. Controversy has broken out because African, Latino, Native American and lower income students were disproportionately failing the WASL compared to their Caucasian and Asian counterparts. While achievement gaps are not a rare occurrence in schools, when graduation depends on it, there is reason to be concerned.

There is also controversy whether or not developmentally disabled students have to pass the WASL as well. As it stands, students with learning disabilities have to take the test. I am not sure about the latest developments regarding the WASL, but a lot of anger has poured out over the years just because of one little exam. This is not a small matter.

It seems fair to say that too much emphasis has been put on the WASL to assess whether our children are really learning. Former President Bush thought it was a good idea to create standardized testing as a way to inspire teachers and students to return America to its once former academic glory. There was once a time when the United States had the best public school system in the world. That is not true anymore by a long shot. Kids in Asia and Europe are achieving math and science scores that are making businesspeople nervous. If standardized testing is supposed to make us stronger, then we’d better hurry up and improve before the rest of the world surpasses us.

The WASL was originally meant to assess student learning, which is part of its name. It was not intended to be a benchmark for deciding who gets to graduate and who doesn’t. Like Affirmative Action, standardized testing has become the only solution to solve our problems, not one of the solutions. In an ideal world, teachers would have more freedom to teach their students the curriculum that they believe is right. When I was going to high school, teachers fretted about inspiring students to perform well on the WASL. Were they inspiring us to learn period? Not really. Just do well on a test. There is something not right about this.

It seems the culture of learning has disappeared from our country. The Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957 inspired the U.S. to advance its teachings of science to kids. Since then, America became one of the best places to educate a child. During the late 90s and the inception of the 21st century, that has dramatically changed. This needs to be fixed.

But standardized testing will not do it alone. I have nothing against tests like the WASL, but when the government thinks it will solve all our problems, they are dead wrong. Students need a reason to go to school. Hopefully the election of an African American president will inspire at least some kids to work harder in school in hope of achieving something great in their lives. But the real responsibility falls upon the parents. They need to stop letting the television and Internet raise their children. They need to be the parents, not the media.

Hopefully if Washington State starts to downplay the importance of the WASL and give teachers and administrators more freedom to teach their students the way they feel is appropriate, progress will be made. If failing the WASL means no diploma, it is no mystery why 24 percent of students are dropping out of high school. They need to be encouraged, not discouraged by one little failure.

Learning is something that cannot always be quantified. Passing a test does not automatically mean you are ready for college or working in the real world. Passing a test means you can pass a test. Learning means you have retained information that will help you later in life and that you know how to apply that knowledge when the opportunity presents itself.

I’m sure our state government will learn better. After all, they are not immune to making mistakes themselves. And as the old saying goes: if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. And our lawmakers need to try again and reconsider what role the WASL should really play in our classrooms.

But for now, enjoy your summer.