The O'Connor Project: Can We End Racial Discrimination without Affirmative Action? Here's What It Will Take

By Schorr, Lisbeth B. | The American Prospect, January 2004 | Go to article overview

The O'Connor Project: Can We End Racial Discrimination without Affirmative Action? Here's What It Will Take


Schorr, Lisbeth B., The American Prospect


JUSTICE SANDRA DAY O'CONNOR, SPEAKING FOR A MAJORITY of the U.S. Supreme Court in the University of Michigan affirmative-action case, declared, "We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary ... ."

What would it take for that to become a reality?

In what we might call The O'Connor Project, we would have to commit ourselves to eliminating racial disparities at the starting line and at four subsequent crucial points, each of them involving changes that we already know how to make. By assembling existing knowledge, deepening it and scaling up from current isolated successes, our society could make a long-term commitment to action in each of these five arenas so that minority college applicants of 2028 would be educationally so well-equipped that they would not need the extra help of racial preferences.

Here are the concrete steps that would achieve that goal:

1. Eliminating racial disparities in birth outcomes. We could accomplish this by reducing the incidence of teen births and ensuring every pregnant woman high-quality prenatal care. Birth outcomes that predispose children to trouble at school, such as low birth weight (found twice as often among African American babies as among whites), are associated with serious cognitive impairments, behavioral and learning disorders, health problems and school failure.

2. Eliminating racial disparities in school readiness. By harnessing the tremendous growth in understanding of how parental support and early education (an essential part of high-quality child care) can equip young children for school learning, we could reduce by at least half the existing racial gap. A child's ability to reason and to master language and math depends on the stimulation, caring relationships and supports he or she experiences long before entering school. The founders of Head Start and other early childhood education programs knew this 40 years ago. Their successors are now proving it.

Because school readiness is more than a set of mechanical skills, the most effective ways to set children on a path to school success rely less on flash cards than on attention to emotional, social and health needs, and to the necessity of nurturing, supportive adults in settings that are language-rich and knowledge-centered. For families where parents are impaired by depression, substance abuse, personality disorders or domestic violence, programs must compensate by ensuring that all young children can grow up in environments that are safe, nurturing, stimulating and responsive.

3. Eliminating racial disparities in the opportunities offered by elementary, middle and high schools. Many individual schools have successfully broken the link between academic achievement and racial, economic and family background. Most recently, entire school districts have begun to shrink the race-based gaps that were once seen as immutable. Success has been most dramatic in the early grades. The latest results of nationwide testing among fourth-graders have shown universal improvement, and a significant narrowing in the gaps among racial groups.

Progress in middle schools has been slower and more sporadic, as broader reform efforts have collided with lesser capacity among front-line educators and greater chaos, indifference and hostility in the bureaucratic environment.

In high schools, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is among those showing that we know enough to attack the gross inequities in preparing underserved young people for college. The foundation is successfully investing in the creation of smaller, more personalized learning environments, where every student is known by a school adult and held to high expectations.

Schools at every level and in every neighborhood must be able to attract, retain and support fully competent teachers, ending the scandal of children who need the most skilled instructors being taught by those least able to teach. …

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