Academic journal article Policy Review

Raising the Bar: Minority Pupils Excel the Old-Fashioned Way

Academic journal article Policy Review

Raising the Bar: Minority Pupils Excel the Old-Fashioned Way

Article excerpt

In the great debate about affirmative action that is about to begin, opponents of racial quotas and preferences must be prepared to offer a better way of opening opportunity for racial groups that have historically been victims of discrimination. The answer is high academic standards for everyone, a solution that the Clinton administration is, unfortunately, resisting.

The greatest tragedy of public education today is the low expectations it sets for poor children, especially blacks and Hispanics. The prevailing assumption among teachers and principals in all too many poor neighborhoods seems to be: "These kids can't learn, and even if they do, society is so racist that there's no opportunity for them anyway."

Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Why study hard if your teacher doesn't think you can learn? Racial quotas and preferences reinforce this defeatism by sending the message that blacks and Hispanics can succeed academically and economically only if they are held to a lower standard than Asians and whites.

But the experience of countless schools and teachers shows that, when much is expected of them, black and Hispanic children can achieve at a very high level. Test scores for racial minorities can rise by quantum jumps without the ugly practice of "race-norming," where test scores for blacks and Hispanics are artificially raised to compensate for their racial status.

Consider the track record of Rafe Esquith, a fifth- and sixth-grade teacher at Hobart Elementary School in Los Angeles, near the site of the 1992 riots. Most children at Hobart are poor immigrants from families that don't speak English; 80 percent are Hispanic, 16 percent Asian, 2 percent African-American. Three-quarters have single parents, and many come from alcoholic families. But by the end of the sixth grade, his students have finished a year of algebra and classical literature--including eight of Shakespeare's plays. His junior thespian crew, the "Hobart Shakespeareans,"have performed with Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company. Their performance of Measure for Measure will open the World Shakespeare Congress in Los Angeles this June.

How does Esquith bring out the best in his class? The same way outstanding teachers always do. He sets high standards, and gives his students the help they need to meet them. "I put my heart and soul into my teaching, and the kids know that. I demand the same from them."(They even eat lunch in the classroom.) By teaching his youngsters to solve difficult math equations and to read and perform Shakespeare early on, Esquith trains his kids to take on challenges that at first seem impossible.

The result: Last year, in the mathematics portion of the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills (a test administered to the Los Angeles Unified School District),achieved average scores in the 98th percentile, while the school itself scored in the 64th percentile, and the district in the 47th percentile. On the English test, they scored in the 92nd percentile, while the school overall scored in the 47th percentile, and the district in the 35th percentile. His sixth-grade class produced similar results--even though all of Esquith's students speak English as a second language, and, but for his devotion, most would be written off as "slow" or "troubled."

Esquith's devotion to his students doesn't stop when they graduate from elementary school. On weekends he gathers his former students to prepare them for the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT).to their respective schools. Most of these students are the first in their family ever to attend college.

Esquith's story is compelling, not only because his students do well, but because he proves that high expectations and hard work produce results. His students may be poor, but they will be able to compete in the marketplace on a level playing field because they are well educated, and Esquith--the recipient of the Walt Disney Outstanding Teacher of the Year award in 1992--can trump most private-school teachers any day. …

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