February 29, 1996

February 29, 1996 | Commentary on Education

ED022996a: Raising the Bar

In the debate over affirmative action about to begin in Congress, opponents of racial quotas and preferences should be ready to offer a better way of creating opportunity for racial groups that have been victims of discrimination. The answer is high academic standards for everyone.

The greatest tragedy of public education today is the low expectations it sets for poor children, especially blacks and Hispanics. Racial quotas and preferences reinforce this defeatism by sending a 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 there are high expectations, black and Hispanic children can meet them. Test scores for racial minorities can rise by quantum jumps without the ugly practice of "race-norming," where test scores are artificially raised to compensate for racial status.

Take, for instance, the experience of Rafe Esquith, a fifth- and sixth-grade teacher at Hobart Elementary School, located near the site of the 1992 riots in Los Angeles. 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. But by the end of the sixth grade, Esquith's students have finished a year of algebra and classical literature -- including eight Shakespeare 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. Esquith begins teaching his class at 6:30 a.m. and teaches straight until 5 p.m. (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), his fifth-graders 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 produced similar results -- even though all of Esquith's students speak English as a second language. If not for his devotion, most would be written off as "slow" or "troubled."

No one can attest to the success of a teacher like Rafe Esquith better than Barbara Lerner. A lawyer and psychologist, she was an outspoken advocate of the "minimum competence testing" movement in the late 1970s -- a grassroots movement demanding that no student be allowed to graduate from high school without first passing a test proving he or she had mastered basic skills in reading and math. Lerner's 1983 testimony in Debra vs. Turlington (the case challenging Florida's minimum competence test) convinced the courts that minimum competence testing provided just the push these kids needed, pointing out that by the fifth attempt, more than 90 percent of them passed. Lerner believes schools should make the minimum competence exam the standard for grade-school graduation and also should require children to pass an advanced competence test like the Scholastic Aptitude Test to graduate from high school.

But lawsuits and policies challenging advanced competency abound, and efforts to make earning a high-school diploma contingent upon passing a stringent exam bear a heavy political risk -- because, at first, many students are likely to fail the tests. According to a 1995 report by the North Central Regional Education Laboratory, only 17 states require all their high school students to pass some form of graduation test. And of these 17 states, only New York has made significant strides. Thanks to Ramon Cortines, former chancellor of New York City's public schools, standards and accountability were reinstalled as the centerpiece of education in New York City. Although the results of the first year reveal a rise in course-failure rates among African-Americans and Hispanics, the number of minorities taking and passing the more rigorous courses increased greatly.

Opponents of affirmative action present myriad empowerment ideas, such as school-choice vouchers, when challenged to offer alternatives. But as the experiences of teachers like Esquith demonstrate, promoting high standards has proven to boost achievement in a way affirmative action never has and never will.

The best kind of affirmative action is that which will teach children the discipline they need to advance in the educational and professional arena.

About the Author

This essay by Nina Shokraii, director of outreach programs at the Institute for Justice, is adapted from her article in the March/April issue of the Heritage Foundation's magazine Policy Review: The Journal of American Citizenship.