The Florida Board of Education has approved a six-year plan to address students achievements based on race, disability, and English proficiency. It took the board one day to negate all of the education research and to reach the most appalling decision, despite decades of research documenting the methods for addressing the academic achievement gap in the United States. Most of this research highlights the need for teachers and school administrators to:
• Understand the races, socioeconomic levels, and cultures of students in your classroom and school;
• Bring the strengths from each group or community of students into instruction, assessment, and the overall classroom environment;
• Take a position of high expectations for all students, all the time.
Space does not allow for a critical review of the extensive research in this area and thus we will focus on teacher expectations of student achievement. This is one of the most well-researched areas in the field of education, and studies by leading education scholars leave little debate that teacher expectations significantly impact student achievement. If members of the board had paid attention to some of that research, they may have reached different conclusions.
Study after study has shown that the combination of caring teachers and high expectations tends to lead to higher academic achievement of students irrespective of their race, but this is especially true for students of color. It is clear that what all children need to succeed is an environment that values them, expects the best from them, provides them with excellent academic instruction, and promotes their development as an individual. According to Geneva Gay, a leading professor of multicultural education at the University of Washington, “Students who are perceived positively are advantaged in instructional interactions. Those who are viewed negatively or skeptically are disadvantaged, often to the extent of total exclusion from participation in substantive academic interactions.”
Indeed, it is clear that lowering the expectations for different racial groups in Florida is a step backward and is likely to have a negative effect in addressing the achievement gaps in math and reading.
Despite the objections of board member John Padget and Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, the board went ahead with its retrograde decision. It sends a clear message to all that different expectations are needed for students of different racial groups and that black and Hispanics students are not capable of performing at the same level as whites. How does a teacher look at the face of a black student and say that all that I expect of you is a C in math and reading but I expect a B+ from your classmate who is white. This is unfair to both of these students and the teacher.
In addition to the clear lack of understanding of the education research in this area, the members of the Florida Board of Education failed to take into account the psychological effect that such a decision will have on students of all races in the state, especially black students. Black students live in a context in which they often receive the implicit message that they are less than others, and often have to prove themselves to the contrary. These subliminal messages can significantly impact the self-esteem and the identity of black children of all ages and are likely to impact their educational achievement.
For example, numerous studies led by Claude Steele, dean of the School of Education at Stanford, have noted a pattern of “stereotype threat” experienced by black students, in which “the unconscious fear of confirming the stereotype (i.e., blacks have inferior intellectual ability) in effect interferes with the student’s actual performance.” Thus, the decision by the board may perpetuate existing stereotypes about different student racial groups in Florida and is likely to have significant psychological impacts on these children’s performance.
The terrible irony of the board’s decision is that, while it proposes to raise all children’s academic achievement levels, the achievement targets leave the racial gaps intact, thus reinforcing in the eye of the public, the children, and their teachers that no matter how they try, black and Hispanic children will be expected to trail behind their white and Asian classmates in a color coded race to the top. Almost 60 years after Brown vs. the Board of Education, is this the best our Board of Education can do?
While we acknowledge that there are numerous systemic issues related to low priority given to the state’s education budget, we feel strongly that setting low expectations is not the answer.
Parents, schools of education, teachers, and administrators throughout Florida need to stand up and respond to this decision. We cannot afford to sit idle. It is not the time for us to have a sideline seat because the educational experience of our kids is at stake!
Elizabeth Harry is the chair of the Department of Teaching and Learning and co-director of Project INCLUDE at the School of Education, University of Miami. Guerda Nicolas is chair of UM’s School of Education and Human Development, Department of Educational and Psychological Studies.