LAST FALL, black students at a large high school in Denver organized a protest against a student newspaper article that quoted statistics on the disparity in achievement between the races. These black students wanted to be seen as "equal kids," not kids categorized by race, which usually meant that teachers would hold lower expectations for them.
A few months later, the U.S. Census Bureau began releasing data from the 2000 census, demonstrating that the roots of the students' uprising reflected much more than a local problem. The role that race plays in setting national policies and in determining national prejudices continues to challenge public education, but the census data show that a dramatic transformation may well be taking place.
Let me say right up front that these comments do not represent a personal change of heart. There is ample evidence in schools, in the justice system, and in employment patterns to indicate the existence of lingering and destructive racism in American society. Nevertheless, affirmative action is already under siege, and the Abigail and Stephan Thernstroms of the world, who use their academic standing to try to negate society's obligation to erase racism from policy making and practice, are the darlings of the media. However, if I were a teacher or a school administrator, I would reflect on the statistics describing what this nation is becoming and realize that we have an opportunity to try out a different lens through which to view students and their potential.
We've all heard the headlines about the data from the 2000 census that emphasize that Hispanics have drawn even with blacks as the nation's largest minority population. Yet the figures tell much more. One-third of Americans now identify themselves as members of a minority group. The minority population, once exclusively concentrated in certain cities and states, is now found in hamlets of the rural South, in cities in Iowa, and in the suburbs from coast to coast. And a new census rule allowed more than 2% of us to declare that we belonged to more than one racial category.
The president of the Association of Multiethnic Americans, who checked three racial categories, told the New York Times that the census begins to redefine "this social myth that we call race and to look at it in a different way than we have in the past." (About the same time as the census results became known, scientists released the preliminary results of genome mapping showing only minuscule - really only skin- deep - genetic differences among humans of all so-called races.)
So how can one close the achievement gap between majority (at least temporarily so) children and children of color? How do we design the policies, distribute the resources, and respect the cultures of all our people without depending on racial categories for so many of the answers?
From a largely cost-conscious point of view, economist Richard Rothstein suggests some possible alternative policies. Take toothaches, for example. According to the U.S. surgeon general, one-third of poor children have untreated dental problems, and a child with an aching tooth probably will not do well on a state-mandated test. According to Rothstein, Columbia University's School of Dentistry runs clinics at low-income schools in New York City at a cost of $175 per pupil. Providing dental services to all poor children in the country would come to a total cost of about $2 billion.
About 10% of poor children have levels of lead in their blood that are high enough to cause learning problems. Rothstein says that, if schoolpeople insisted that federal law be carried out and that all children be screened for lead poisoning (only one-fifth currently are), prevention efforts might be stepped up, and educational interventions could become better targeted. …