Op-Ed: To Close The Achievement Gap, Don't Lower The Bar Florida and Virginia have adopted new academic standards setting different performance goals for subgroups of students in low-performing schools. In a Miami Herald piece, syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts argues that lowering the bar is not the way to fix the education system.

Op-Ed: To Close The Achievement Gap, Don't Lower The Bar

Op-Ed: To Close The Achievement Gap, Don't Lower The Bar

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Florida and Virginia have adopted new academic standards setting different performance goals for subgroups of students in low-performing schools. In a Miami Herald piece, syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts argues that lowering the bar is not the way to fix the education system.


But now, the achievement gap between different groups of students in the U.S. has been a particularly thorny problem for educators. And school districts have experimented with a number of different solutions. In Florida and Virginia, the latest solution is controversial, to say the least. These states have adopted standards that differ according to the race of the student and whether the student is disabled. So for example, in Virginia, an Asian student needs to get an 82 percent to pass a standardized math exam. A Latino student only needs to get a 52 percent. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Neither state has adopted such standards. Florida and Virginia have adopted standards setting different annual goals for subgroups of students in the lowest-performing schools. All individual students must meet the same proficiency standards.]

Miami Herald syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts recently argued that the way to make progress is not by lowering the bar, but by motivating students to reach higher expectations.

So teachers and administrators, we want to hear from you. How do you motivate students to make them successful? Is it about raising expectations, or bringing the finish line closer? Give us a call. Our number is 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website as well. Go to npr.org, and then click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Leonard Pitts is a syndicated columnist for the Miami Herald. His recent piece is entitled, "Don't Lower the Bar on Education Standards," and he joins us now by phone from Washington, D.C.

Thanks so much for being on the program.

LEONARD PITTS: Oh, thanks for having me.

HEADLEE: So what are we talking about when we say the words "achievement gap" - what does that mean?

PITTS: We are talking about the fact that African-American and Latino-slash-Hispanic students tend to do less well in grading - in grades, and also in standardized testing in schools, than their white and - for that matter - their Asian counterparts.

HEADLEE: OK, so what's the problem? I mean, those standardized tests have a lot of implications. They not only depend - determine whether someone's going to graduate from high school but also, that makes a difference on whether they get into college or not. So why not make it easier for these students to get into college; to graduate?

PITTS: Well, as I pointed out in the column, that's sort of like, you know, if you were arguing that white kids - you want more white kids going out for basketball. So you decide to lower the rim, or make each one of their baskets worth four points. I don't think that's the way that you do it. I think that we all compete on the same field. And I really don't like the idea of telling kids that, well, you've got to compete on a less or easier field, because what that tells them, what they can - what they unavoidably must internalize is it there's something deficient about them that requires this. There's nothing deficient about these kids. What's deficient, you know - or what is problematic, at least, is the way that we've chosen - that we've educated them.

HEADLEE: Isn't it some kind of progress, though, that we're even addressing this; that in Florida and Virginia, they're acknowledging that some students are at a disadvantage, whether it be socioeconomically or, in the case of maybe a disabled student, who has hard - has trouble handling the school environment. Isn't that some kind of progress?

PITTS: Perhaps I'm just a little jaded. It's hard for me to take that as progress because it seems to me we've been having that discussion - we've been at that level of the discussion for as long as I can remember. I'm to the point where I want to be beyond discussing what the problem is, and I want to be into - into fixing it, into seeing real progress and fixing it.

HEADLEE: All right. We have Sarah calling now from Amherst, Virginia. Sarah, you're a high school English teacher. Is that correct?

SARAH: Yes, I am.

HEADLEE: OK. So the question we're asking is, how do you motivate students - do you raise expectations, or do you lower the bar? What's your answer?

SARAH: As I was telling the director, you know, I think fundamentally, the problem is not, you know - we shouldn't be lowering our expectations, you know. That's not what we should be doing, you know. But, you know, we need to raise, you know, continuous - continue to raise the bar but then at the same time, you know, identify the fact that there are some students that are not going to achieve as quickly as others, and through remediation and tutoring and patience, you know, get them to where they need to be.

But also, we need to recognize that, you know, some students, because whether there are - you know, learning differences or learning disabilities, that those students may not be able to achieve those goals in the time given, or by the yearly standardized test. And...

HEADLEE: And they might need a little extra help. And you stay...

SARAH: Right.

HEADLEE: ...after school to tutor them. Thank - that's a really great point. And that's Sarah, calling from Amherst, Virginia. And I wonder - we're speaking with Leonard Pitts, who's a syndicated columnist for The Miami Herald. I wonder, what was the reaction when this happened in your home state of Florida? Is the state considering other options, other solutions to this achievement gap?

PITTS: Well, the state wants you to know that this is an interim situation. This is an interim goal, and that their final goal, their ultimate goal remains to educate each child to the fullest of his or her potential, regardless of race or disability or whatever. So, you know, they are trying to move in the right direction. They are saying, you know, the right things.

And in writing that column, it wasn't really my intention to beat up on either of the states, but simply to say that we've been having this discussion for a long time. And if you really look at it, you know, what works for kids is not rocket science. It's not brain surgery. It's a couple, a few simple, staple things, which when tried, seem to work regardless of, again, race, creed or ability or disability. The fact the matter is that we're just not set up to do these things. And that, to me, is the bigger problem with our entire educational system.

HEADLEE: OK. And I'm glad you mentioned that, because we actually have a phone call here from Bobbi(ph) in Santa Rosa, California. And it sounds, Bobbi, like this is your point, like, it's - we're not set up to treat each student individually.

BOBBI: Right. We aren't set up to treat them individually, just like the medical profession is not set up to treat patients individually. I'm a disabled special educator. And I had individual plans working in a college with students that have learning challenges, and also in the school districts with children. Now I can't work because, you know, it's like treat everyone the same does not work. I don't believe in lowering the bar of education at all, just like you wouldn't take a patient - because what's happened to me is devastating.

But you wouldn't take a patient and say, you don't deserve to have quality of life. So you wouldn't take a student and say, you don't deserve to be as prepared for the world as your classmate does. But you have to consider where they come from, what their learning styles are, and you have to individualize the programs so that they can learn whether it's putting them on a computer, whether it's having an individual aide with them, whether - you just have to break it down, and to see where they're coming from.


BOBBI: I think you have to see what's wrong with the patient instead of just giving them all the same pills or doing the same procedure on somebody that has a slightly different injury. You know what I mean?

HEADLEE: All right. OK. Thank you. That's Bobbi calling from Santa Rosa, California. And, in fact, let me go back, because what we're talking about are different standards for different students based on, not just their race, but as you heard Bobbi talking about, whether students are disabled or not. And, for example, in Virginia, in order to pass the standardized math exam, an Asian student has to get an 82 percent. A disabled student has to get 33. That's the lowest percentage there is.

So let me go back to our guest, Leonard Pitts, a syndicated columnist for The Miami Herald. Right now, as you say, this has been a problem for a very long time. Isn't it also destructive for students to keep failing year after year after year?

PITTS: I think it's devastating for students to keep failing year after year after year. But I also think that when you give students sort of this counterfeit success, this fake version of success that looks like or they're told is success, but it's not really success, they're smart enough to know the difference. You know, if you tell them, oh, you're great. You're wonderful. You've done really well because you did 33 on this test, you know, they may smile and go along with it for a moment, but at some point, it's going to tell.

We have to inculcate in our kids an understanding that they can achieve real success, not just, you know, this sort of fake success, or not just this good-for-a-black-kid or good-for-a-Mexican kid or good-for-a-disabled-kid success. That, I think, is where my problem lies with all of this.

HEADLEE: And we should mention that that same math - that the standardized exam in Virginia that I said an Asian student has to get an 82 percent to pass, a Latino student has to get a 52 percent, a black student has to get a 45 percent in order to pass that same test. But Leonard Pitts, what you're talking about, the kind of education that you're talking about and that our two callers have talked about is expensive. And this - we're speaking to each other at the exact moment when many educational systems are in terrible budget crises. States don't have enough money. They're cutting budgets rather than adding to them.

PITTS: I'm so glad you ask that. A few years ago, I did a bunch of interviews with a bunch of people who are achieving just stellar results with specialized education programs around the country geared to African-American kids who are doing poorly otherwise, or elsewhere in these cities. And I asked Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children's Zone why anyone should help to fund his program, you know, if it's going to cost more than, say, whatever the state of New York already pays to educate kids.

The point he made was that: Why would someone yell at him for, you know, needing $3,000 a year more to educate Alfred, let's say, at age eight, and yet when Alfred turns 18 and commits some heinous crime because he wasn't in school and because he, you know, his life did not go in that direction, they'll think nothing of spending $60,000 a year to incarcerate him for 25 years to life?

So if you can spend a less amount of money on the front end for a finite period of time and, for that investment, you can produce a citizen who contributes to society, versus spending much more money for an open-ended period of time to create a citizen who will only take from society, why would you choose the latter? Now that, to me, it seems is the choice that we keep making.

HEADLEE: And yet this is why this problem has been around so long, because what you're talking about is a fundamental shift in philosophy, a fundamental shift in policy on the state government level.

PITTS: Yeah, a shift in understanding, you know, what matters and where we need to be putting our investment. We seem to have no - one seldom hears of budget crises - one hears of them, but not nearly as often - when we're talking about building prisons or finding some means of, you know, of incarcerating these kids.

We seem to have the budget issues when it's school. And I'm not trying to make the argument that, you know, this is a problem that you throw more money at, but I am saying that we need to be a lot more creative and a lot more inventive in looking at ways to fix the American education system than we have been so far.

HEADLEE: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. We're talking about standards, expectations. In Virginia and Florida, they have changed the standards that a student has to achieve on standardized exams. According to race, it differs, and according to whether the student is disabled or not. And we'd want to hear from teachers and administrators: What do you think? How do you motivate students best? Is it by raising expectations? Or do you lower the bar?

Call us at 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. We have an email question for you here, Leonard Pitts. This is from Tierney(ph), who asks: Is there not a possibility that college admissions will look at black and Latino applicants from Virginia and Florida and not admit them based on the knowledge that the applicants were being judged by lower standards than their white and Asian peers?

PITTS: There's certainly a possibility that that'll factor into the decision, yeah. I mean, why would it not? I can definitely see that happening.

HEADLEE: So - OK. If this requires the kind of huge philosophical shift that you and I were just talking about, a real change in fiscal policy, and if Virginia and Florida, say, what they're doing - Florida, at least, says this is a temporary stop-gap measure. Why not use this as a temporary measure until they can solve that bigger problem you're talking about?

PITTS: Well, without beating up on the state of Florida too badly, my - again, my problem is that I've been hearing this about stop-gap measures and new initiatives and whatever for as long as I can recall. And, you know, it - I guess it makes you a little bit cynical when you begin to hear it again. Plus, frankly, I have not heard - I've heard them say that this is a stop-gap measure and we want to educate all of our children to the fullest.

But I've not heard anyone talk about the kind of philosophical shift that you and I are discussing here, where we perhaps, you know, start to look at more at what we invest in our children and how we go about doing it. There's something - you know, I told you I did - I looked at all of these programs. You know, you go to Harlem, USA, you go to Sunflower County, Mississippi, one of the poorest places in the country, you go to all these inner-city places and you see these kids just blossoming, you know?

And so there's something wrong when that kind of outcome is the exception and not the rule, when you have - when you create a situation where - if you're a kid in a bad neighborhood or a bad place, but if you are lucky enough to get into one of these programs that does it right, then you have a much better outcome. Whereas if you stay in the program, you know, the publicly funded program, you're pretty much out of luck. There's something wrong with that.

HEADLEE: And we're not just talking about educational outcomes or graduating or anything like that. We have a call now from Emily in Cincinnati, Ohio. And, Emily, your point is that this goes beyond just schooling, correct?

EMILY: Yeah. If we're lowering the bar and giving these kids a false sense of success, it's really not helping them in the long run, because when these kids get out of school, the playing field is going to be level. So we're really not setting them up for success in life. Why wouldn't we just take all of the resources we can and help these kids to get where they need to be? Some of them are going to need more than others, and we can give everyone what they need so that they can all come out of school with the potential to be successful.

HEADLEE: Thanks so much. That's Emily, calling from Ohio. Leonard Pitts, your response?

PITTS: One word: Amen.

HEADLEE: You know, but here's the issue: If it's really that simple, if it's just a matter of giving every kid individualized instruction, why can't we - why aren't we already doing that?

PITTS: That's the question I've been asking for a number of years. I think part of the problem is that we as a country are so tied in knots about pretty much everything. Everything is - every question is politicized. Every issue is politicized. There's a - there's sort of this balkanized, polarized feeling going on in this country about everything, that I don't think we can actually sit down and have a discussion about education.

The more I've looked into this, the simpler it has become for me. Again, I've gone to all - to programs all over the country, and you see them having these stellar results. If they can do it, why can't we? There's a school in Baltimore that sits literally in the shadow of the Baltimore Detention Center, where I think they - I'm going to - I hope I don't mangle the statistic. But I believe that 75 percent of their kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and something like 90, 95 percent go to college. I guarantee you those are not the statistics you'll find in Baltimore public schools. So what is this particular school doing that Baltimore public schools and the rest of our public schools could learn from?

HEADLEE: It's a good question, as many of your columns pose a good question. That's Leonard Pitts, a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist for The Miami Herald. His recent column is entitled "Don't Lower the Bar on Education Standards." He joined us by phone from Washington, D.C. Thanks so much. Always a pleasure, Leonard.

PITTS: Thank you so much.

HEADLEE: Tomorrow, it is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Join host Ira Flatow for a look at the fallacies of fat and obesity. And Neal Conan will be back fresh on Monday. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee, in Washington.

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Correction Jan. 31, 2013

The introduction to this story incorrectly states that Virginia and Florida have adopted standards that differ according to the race of the student and whether the student is disabled. Neither state has adopted such standards. Florida and Virginia have adopted standards setting different annual goals for subgroups of students in the lowest-performing schools. All individual students must meet the same proficiency standards.