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Are Race-Based Goals In Education Helpful?


We wanted additional perspective about this, so we've called Krista Kafer. She's an education policy expert. She's the executive director of Colorado's Future Project. That's a think tank associated with the Independent Women's Forum. Welcome to you, Krista Kafer. Thank you so much for joining us.

KRISTA KAFER: It's great to be here.

MARTIN: And I do want to mention, again, that you are not with the Florida Department of Education. We did invite them to participate in our conversation, but I take it that you don't agree that these are race-based education goals.

KAFER: You know, I don't...

MARTIN: You don't think that's quite the right way to characterize this.

KAFER: I think it's an unfair characterization. I think what the department was trying to do is kind of expose these things to the light. I mean, I think it's more common for states to lump all the kids together or to lump all the minority kids together and say, well, we hope these kids come up to speed, you know, we don't really know where they're at. I think they were trying to be very explicit in saying, here's where the kids are at, let's set some very ambitious goals in getting them moving forward.

And like it or not, you know, African-American kids have much higher growth expectations under this plan than do Asian or white kids. They're expecting a lot. And this isn't a ceiling, it's goals for the next couple of years with the hope that all kids can be at grade level somewhere down the line.

MARTIN: To that end, though, I just want to play a clip of tape for you. This is Robert Burns. He's a 14-year-old African-American student from the Miami-Dade School District, and he spoke at a press conference by the group that's filing the complaint, the Southern Poverty Law Center, to talk about how he felt about hearing these goals. Here it is.


CHRIS BURNS: I feel as though the color of my skin shall not and will not dictate my future, rather, the knowledge that's inside of me.

MARTIN: Obviously, he goes on to have more to say to this, but as - you know, it's been well reported on the link between teacher expectations and student outcomes. I mean, are you concerned that just setting these goals out there in this way and saying this is what we expect of you, that that's, in fact, what you'll get, you will get the ceiling as opposed to the floor?

KAFER: Well, in that case, I think they probably could have written it differently. Maybe they were - they should have been more proactive in getting a message out there that they were trying to set kind of realistic steps in the right direction. And this is no way a ceiling for these young people, that we really expect every individual student to do their very, very best.

MARTIN: What's a better way to do this? How do you think this should have been handled? Let's assume that everybody has got good intentions here, which is to say that they want to meet students where they are and raise their achievement levels. What would have been a better way to handle this, in your opinion, or is there a better way to handle it?

KAFER: Well, in one way, I appreciate the fact that they're pulling these things out explicitly. I looked at my own state's strategic planning and they kind of lump all minority students together and say, here's our expectations as these kids move forward. I think there's something to be said with making the unknown known. Maybe you don't put that into your strategic plan. Maybe you keep that as kind of, you know, material in the appendix and say, you know, here's what we expect kids to do in the aggregate, and don't break it out specifically. You know, how do you strike that balance between making the unknown known and also saying we appreciate that even though these are just aggregate statistics, every child is an individual and has individual strengths and weaknesses, and let's meet every individual where they're at?

MARTIN: Speaking of this whole question of desegregating the student achievement numbers, I mean, you know, you made the point that, in part, what had been happening in the past is that all students were lumped together and that allowed school districts, you know, to essentially hide the kids who weren't achieving as much behind the kids who were. Former President George W. Bush talked about the soft bigotry of low expectations and that was part of the reason that - one of the underlying principles of his education policy was to break those numbers out, so that people could see what was actually happening.

But I don't think anywhere in there was envisioned that you would say, well, this is all we expect of these kids and we expect more of these kids. I mean, let's just assume everybody's got the best intentions. Is there a way to bridge this so that you're recognizing the reality of where a lot of kids are, without sending the message that this is all that we think you can do?

KAFER: And I really do appreciate that, because it does, on the surface, look like - that the expectations are low. And you think about before No Child Left Behind, when they averaged minority students together, they would have averaged Asian and African-American, you know, kids together and said, oh, look, we're doing pretty well all the way around, and then the problem wouldn't get addressed. I mean, the fact that only maybe a third of African-American kids are at grade level in reading is a significant issue. How do we address that and say we really need to help these kids move up, while letting those very kids know, we know that you can make it? It really is a balance in striking that balance in that message.

MARTIN: Has anybody done it well in a way that you would point to?

KAFER: You know, when I was comparing last night, Colorado to Florida - one state really making the unknown known, the other state using more of an aggregate number - I think Colorado plays it safe, and they're certainly not in trouble with the Southern Poverty Law Center. Florida played it - you know, took a risk in putting that information out there and now they've got to have to, you know, face the consequences of that.

MARTIN: Krista Kafer is the director of Colorado's Future Project. That's a public policy group associated with the Independent Women's Forum. That's a right-of-center think tank. She was with us from Denver. Krista Kafer, thank you so much for speaking with us.

KAFER: It's been great to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.