A New Visions Commentary paper published November 1996 by The National Center for Public Policy Research, 501 Capitol Court, N.E., Washington, D.C. 20002, 202/543-4110, Fax (202) 543-5975, E-Mail [email protected]
The two young ladies waiting for the el had been my students the year before. Now they were seniors, and I had been bused to another school. I asked them about the old school and other students. Unenthusiastically, they replied.
I asked what the problem was.
"Why did you leave us?" one of them demanded. The hurt and anger in her tone was unmistakable.
The question -- as well as the hurt and anger -- was surprising. These kids knew about busing and affirmative action; they knew about federal quotas and guidelines. One of their friends had even remarked on television, "We don't need teachers who are black or white. We need teachers who teach."
My two students had worked hard. They had earned an answer. I reminded them of busing and affirmative action, and pointed out that federal guidelines and quotas denied my requests for reassignment to their school.
"You mean you didn't leave us because you wanted to? You didn't run away? This is important news!" They hurried off to tell their friends. I continued on to my new school, where I taught in yet another "remedial" program for reading deficiencies. Any experienced teacher could sit in this program for fifteen minutes and know that it was doomed to failure.
The reasons were obvious: not one of the kids assigned to the four or five classes going on in the same room at the same time could read above the third grade level; no attempt had been made to separate students whose reading problems were related to handicaps from those whose problems were related to simple lack of skills; and the director of the program, who had been appointed through affirmative action, had no idea what she was doing.
Affirmative action might level the playing field for these students, but it would level it the wrong way for the wrong reasons. However much affirmative acting might place one or all of these students in a position of authority or leadership, as it had the director of their program, affirmative action could never level their skills, know-how, and competence. If they, like the director of their program, also happened to hold a position which affected the development of the skills and competence of others, then these kids would continue the cycle of dependence on "dumbed down" standards.
People who have never taught remedial language skills find it difficult to understand that a skill as simple as phonics can solve the problem. But it can, in less than a year, with a student who really works. In fact, the program that would eliminate the need for affirmative action in all but cases of clear discrimination is so simple, so basic, and so cheap, that the only reason for not using it is that it does not stimulate government entitlements.
Government entitlements, including affirmative action, may level the playing field, but they will never level the opportunities of the players, particularly in the age of technology. It should be obvious that as long as efforts are focused on leveling playing fields rather than giving people the opportunity to perform at their chosen level, there will be more negatives than positives to such concepts as affirmative action.
The biggest negative of all is that affirmative action limits the future while doing little to affirm the present.
When this applies to the schools, it hurts children the most.
by Camille Harper, a national Advisory Council member of the African-American leadership group Project 21, an editor of the Chicago community-based newsletter The Strobe, and a former Chicago schoolteacher.
Note: New Visions Commentaries represent the views of their author and not necessarily those of Project 21.
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