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Don't tell minorities they are 'at risk'

Utah's latest study group on the minority "achievement gap" reminds me of an article I came across while in graduate school — "Is It Scientific To Be Optimistic?" It was a controlled and experimental study done at Walter Reed Hospital with World War II soldiers to determine who would be good soldier risks and who would be poor soldier risks.

When researchers did a follow-up, they found they were overwhelmingly incorrect in who they predicted would be poor soldier risks. They concluded that the soldiers succeeded because they were put in the ranks with tough leaders who expected them to succeed. No one told them they were poor soldier risks.

With minority students we have done the opposite. We have come up with creative labels to tell them they can't cut it. They are told they are a population at risk, a target group, underserved, in need of special help, and, my all-time favorite, a protected group. It makes minority students seem like an endangered species. Worst of all, we have created the victim syndrome where minorities are led to believe they cannot make it on their own, and created a host of those who feel the need to save them.

And just when I thought I'd heard it all, experts have come up with a new malady, "the achievement gap." Some creative professionals have rediscovered that minorities are falling behind white students and need to determine what should be done to fix it. For at least four decades, we have studied minorities and found we needed more studies and funded programs to do the same. Somehow the professionals never do "take-aways," only reaffirm that more studies and more money is needed to perpetuate failing programs. They say it will require more special and targeted programs, bilingual, English as a second language (which I would argue is a second language for some non-minority students as well), tutoring, and special testing for minorities. In addition, there are task forces, focus groups and committees trying to see how much more money we need to ask for to do the same, only more of it. In our effort to save minorities, we have created a lucrative "minorities industry" with targeted programs and an army of mercenaries.

In the old days, there was outright racism, and teachers didn't cut us any slack. They told us, "you people are good with your hands" and tried to "counsel" us into auto mechanics, woodwork, upholstering (I suspect those classes may still be taught in some schools). There were no special programs to tell us we were at risk. We knew it and we knew we had to fight harder to make it. It made us realize we had to look to ourselves, work harder and learn to persevere. Nothing was given to us nor did we expect any special treatment, especially from our parents.

In 1992, President George H.W. Bush asked his White House Commission on Hispanic Education: What are the two things we should do to improve education for Hispanic students? We collectively said, "Don't lower the bar and have them all learn English."

But then, that's true for all students.

So let's not talk about the "achievement gap." Let's talk about overcoming the "international gap" — the one between the United States and China, India and other developing nations. That's the challenge our nation faces. That requires schools and parents to raise the bar for all students. However, we are still trying to do education on the cheap, and the professionals who have their pet projects don't help legislators because they come up with the same solutions.

If we look closely, it's not just minorities who are being short-changed. It's part of the culture that prevails in our education system today. Parents must have greater expectations from their students and support teachers. Students want to be challenged, but with all the regulations and demands for accountability placed upon teachers, they are strapped with teaching as though they went through training at the old DMV — "NEXT!"

Let's get back to basics. Create an environment where teachers have the time to cultivate the inquisitive wonderment every child brings to the classroom and let it blossom. That doesn't take special programs or more studies. What it takes is a legislature, school boards and parents who support teachers who inspire students by their caring and having expectations that they will succeed. After all, the greatest gift you can give another human being is to believe in him or her. That's the universal language that transcends race, ethnicity and gender.

Just don't tell kids they can't achieve. Kids don't know that.

Utah native John Florez has founded several Hispanic civil rights organizations and has served on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch and on more than 45 state, local and volunteer boards. He also has been deputy assistant secretary of labor. E-mail: