- - Monday, September 24, 2012

Closing the achievement gap in our schools is both a moral mandate and a national priority. We need all our children to meet high academic standards if we are to compete in the 21st Century global economy.

This is why plans by Washington, D.C., and some states to lower academic standards for minority and low-income students are as puzzling as they are misdirected.

By what calculation do you speed up learning by lowering expectations? This delivers a devastating message to African-American, Hispanic and low-income children that they are not as capable as other children.

Carmen Taylor, vice president of the Virginia chapter of the NAACP, said it best: “If you set low expectations for children, you devalue them and demoralize them to themselves.”

In the District, the plan calls for white students to meet a benchmark of 94 percent proficiency by 2017, but black students will only be expected to reach 71 percent proficiency by that date. Supporters argue this change in policy is fair since black students will be required to make faster gains each year. But are we to believe that schools will work harder to get more out of minority students if they are given the green light to accept less? If you are the parent of a black or Hispanic child, do you feel comfortable knowing her teacher expects less from her than the white or Asian student in the next seat?

This appears to be more about taking the pressure off adults than boosting the learning gains of minority children.

You don’t close an achievement gap by institutionalizing it.

Instead of merely adjusting expectations for different demographic groups, educators should set the same high standard for all children. They then should adopt a plan that emphasizes the progress being made by all low performers, regardless of demographics.

For more than a decade, Florida has taken this approach.

Schools are evaluated on an A through F scale — just like students — with half of a school’s grade based on the percent of students scoring at or above grade level on test scores. The rest of the grade is based on student learning gains, with particular attention given to progress made by the lowest performing 25 percent of students. High-performing schools that fail to advance their struggling students are penalized.

Traditionally, low-performing schools that produce strong learning gains are rewarded. Florida’s A schools are represented in both the suburbs and inner cities.

This policy rewards achievement and progress, without lowering the bar for students based on skin color, national origin or a parent’s salary level.

Over the past decade, Florida has had the largest achievement gains for students with disabilities, the third-largest for low-income students and the fourth-largest in the country for African-Americans. The U.S. Department of Education identified Florida as one of only three states substantially closing the achievement gap between black and white elementary students in both reading and math. Florida’s 4th grade Hispanic students now read as well as or better than the average student in 21 other states.

As a nation, we have rejected police use of racial profiling on the streets. By what rationale do we now accept it from educators in the classroom?

Jeb Bush, former Republican governor of Florida, is chairman of the Foundation for Excellence in Education.

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