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“Race” to the Top? by Darrell Hugueley

November 26, 2012

Thanks to Back in River City favorite Darrell Hugueley for today’s post.

The state of Florida recently announced a proposal to establish standards for students according to their race. (http://tampa.cbslocal.com/2012/10/12/florida-passes-plan-for-racially-based-academic-goals/ ) If  they have their way, Asians, Blacks, Whites, and Hispanics will have different goals of achievement based on data relevant to their supposed abilities. These abilities are tied not only to achievement trends in testing data, but also to their ethnic origins.

Teachers and non-teachers react in horror when they hear me tell them this, aghast that such a conclusion about ability could be made based on ethnicity. To make such claims anywhere is to court perceptions of bigotry from a bygone era. People just don’t say or believe such things any more, do they? With all the volatility surrounding racial profiling, you would think that there would be no way anyone could get away with such sentiment, much less decide as an institution to make it a matter of policy.

Yet my response to this announcement has caused even more turmoil. I have regular conversations with bloggers, church leaders, community organizers and policy analysts on a regular basis, in addition to a variety of teachers. I told them all to just take a deep breath and think about it. From a teacher standpoint, this does sound offensive and unbelievable on the surface, but there is something lurking just under the surface that is familiar. I remind everyone of this fact: these very divisions are how we parse the data after testing, and this is how we are held accountable for student growth. The data comes to us segregated—I’m sorry, disaggregated—in terms of race, students with disabilities, socioeconomic status (SES), and English language proficiency.

We have analyzed student achievement data to the point where we don’t teach students any more, not as people, anyway. We teach “achievement abilities” and the factors that might affect them. We teach to the test, to the targeted influences that we ultimately have no real control over, and to the expectation that knowing students in these ways—their race, home language environment, and special education diagnosis—will best prepare them for achievement and growth on the next test, which in turn seems to be how we define education: achievement on a standardized test.

And in one of these conversations just this week, I had a further epiphany. The blogger I was talking to said, “So now we’ll have Blacks, Asians, Hispanics and Whites taking separate tests, right?”

In an inspired moment of clarity I told him, “No, you know what will happen? We will require teachers to use “racial pedagogy.” We will train teachers to teach to these divisions with specialized teaching practice. The next big education publishing trend will be titles like, Teaching the Black Student, or  Teaching Strategies for Maximizing _________ [insert ethnicity] Gains, or how about Slowing Down the Curriculum: Adjusting Classroom Strategies to Ensure Equal Progress.

When are we going to stop making policy as a reaction to student achievement? Can we not make education policy proactive, assuming best intentions of teachers, with full buy-in to the idea that all students can—and must—learn? The place to start is not at the policy level, except to prevent the odious assumption that all we can do is improve test scores according to biased racial classifications. The place to start is with teachers who refuse to see race, SES, or preconceived notions of ability, but who strive to shape the minds of individual students for their success.

I have a sign above my middle school classroom door that I believe in, but that I can’t live up to most of the time. It says: “If you can’t learn the way I teach, I can teach the way you learn.” This speaks to multiple learning styles of students and the variety of teaching methods at my disposal. I shudder to think that the meaning of this little placard could ever refer to a student’s race. What will happen if students are told that their abilities are established by their race — and actually believe it?

Back In River City regular Darrell Hugueley is a Language Arts Teacher at Cordova Middle School. He is a Teach Plus Fellowship alum, and serves on committees for Memphis City Schools as a teacher voice in the Teacher Effectiveness Initiative and the Teacher Compensation workgroup. Darrell was most recently added to to the joint committee forming the teacher evaluation model for the consolidated school district. He is a published poet and author, has been married 29 years and has two children.

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