When Equality Plans Yield Unequal Results
by Nick Cheolas
It's a sad fact that an achievement gap between minority and white students exists. The real question is what to do about it.
For too long, affirmative action - boosting minorities in the college admissions process - has been the preferred big government remedy. Defenders say this helps achieve "diversity" - a sacred concept in academia - and makes up for discrepancies in school funding and quality.
After years of controversy over affirmative action, Michigan will soon decide if racial preferences remain the status quo. Sparked by two 2003 Supreme Court cases challenging the University of Michigan's use of racial preferences in student admissions, a group proposed the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative - a statewide referendum that would ban racial preferences for hiring, contracting and education. The initiative's success would have national implications.
Many argue affirmative action is needed to level the playing field for minority students trapped in bad schools. But what makes a school "bad?" In Detroit, for example, the district now outspends the state average in total and instructional per-pupil expenditures and recently constructed two of the most expensive high schools in the country. Its teachers are among the highest paid in the nation, and 96 percent are deemed "highly qualified." Nonetheless, Detroit schools continue to boast below-average test scores and a graduation rate under 50 percent. Why hasn't money bought success?
One reason is Detroit's large education bureaucracy. Administrative costs are well above the state average, drawing charges of waste and cronyism. Public school districts also tend to spend more for supplies and services than their private counterparts. As such, fewer dollars make it into the classroom.
Regardless, "bad" schools are more the product of poor learning environments than inadequate funding or teachers. In urban schools, students often enter unprepared, fall behind early and lose interest, leading to the disciplinary problems that plague urban schools. Graduation is not the norm and expectations are low. These factors lead to a greater number of at-risk children in urban schools and inhibit learning.
The problem is that nearly all schools rely on the same, one-size-fits-all model (textbooks, many classes, little individual attention) to educate drastically different students. When this fails, officials don't search for innovative ways to improve minority education or increase efficiency. Blaming an alleged racist conspiracy, they lower standards.
And, while lowering the bar may help minority students enter a particular college, it may harm students before and after the admissions phase. High school students have little incentive to improve their performance beyond what is deemed "good enough" for admission. Once enrolled, these students may find themselves overwhelmed. It's the academic equivalent of throwing a child in the deep end to teach him to swim. As Justice Clarence Thomas pointed out in Grutter v. Bollinger, it "[helps] fulfill the bigot's prophecy about black underperformance - just as it confirms the conspiracy theorist's belief that 'institutional racism' is at fault for every racial disparity in our society."
To truly succeed, schools must address the unique needs of their students. The University Preparatory Academy in Detroit does just that. With largely the same students as public schools, U Prep achieves considerably higher test scores, graduates 90 percent of its students, and sends 90 percent of its graduates on to college - all while spending $2,000 less per pupil than Detroit public schools.
How? Among other factors, U Prep develops personal learning plans, places students in mentorship groups and promotes community and parent involvement. Private contractors and the reduction of elective courses help reduce costs. Schools achieve success by promoting environments conducive to learning - not by increasing spending or lowering standards.
Affirmative action allows those responsible for the failures of urban education to shirk accountability with a simple, ineffective solution to a complex problem. For 13 years, urban and suburban students are treated the same way in cookie-cutter schools, despite their disparate characteristics. In the college admissions process, officials suddenly decide minority students should be treated differently. Such is the great paradox of affirmative action - one that Michigan voters may choose to end in a move to try to improve minority education.
Nick Cheolas is a research associate with the black leadership network Project 21. Comments may be sent to Project21@nationalcenter.org.
Published by The National Center for Public Policy Research.
Reprints permitted provided source is credited. New Visions Commentaries
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