Where Are Equity and Diversity in America 2000?
The President's America 2000 plan has been alternately characterized as a political agenda, a strategy for reforming public schools, a call to involve the private sector, an attempt to bring choice into the educational arena, and a crusade. Nonetheless, it ignores the concepts of equity and diversity.
In our opinion, when Mr. Bush refers in the text of his plan to the "rest of us," he is not talking about the individuals from non-European racial and ethnic groups who make up most of the urban-school population that will one day become a sizable segment of America's workforce. While America 2000 contains ideals that most Americans hold dear--and the President is to be congratulated for paying attention to education--it also raises serious concerns. Will it improve the quality of public education for all? Or will it widen the already severe educational and economic divisions, especially along ethnic lines, that now exist?
Goals in the New Year
Any successful reform must address and resolve differences that continue to exist in the way opportunities, conditions, practices, and outcomes vary in schools and in industry based on race/ethnicity, gender, or economic status. America 2000 does not do this.
The simplistic logic underlying the proposal for a national examination system, for example, is that such a system will reform schools and improve student learning. By testing students on what they have learned, schools and teachers will be held accountable, will modify what they are doing in the classroom, and, therefore, students will learn more. This logic essentially ignores the gross inequities in instructional conditions--classroom and supplemental instruction, high-school curriculum track, quality of teaching and counseling, and availability of social-support services--that can affect the learning outcomes of students from non-European backgrounds.
These conditions often mirror the "caste like. status of non-European groups in American society and reflect not only financial inequities between school districts but also inequities in the opportunity to learn the appropriate content, skills, and knowledge that may be embodied in a test. Moreover, non-white students are disproportionately represented in non-academic tracks and in remedial and special-education classes, where opportunity to learn is severely restricted Without considering these instructional conditions, the proposed exams would unfairly penalize students of color in financially strapped urban districts and result in "blaming the victims" for their shortcomings.
The issue of"opportunity to learn" has been suggested as one reason why U.S. students, in general, perform poorly on international comparisons of achievement. Our legacy of local school control and "education for the masses" results in dramatic differences between states in educational spending, economic climate, teacher recruitment and preparation, and other factors that have an impact on the quality of the curriculum and instructional conditions. Even in states that have adopted a curricular framework and statewide testing, there are inequities in resources between districts and schools.
These factors strongly imply that before we have a national system for assessing achievement, we must first address inequities that exist in the current educational curriculum.
We endorse the concept of establishing standards, accountability, and tests that can inform the instructional process and enhance student achievement. Developing and determining such standards can in fact be a useful process, particularly when diverse groups of people must agree on them. There is no indication, however, that underrepresented groups will have meaningful input in this process.
We are also concerned with how accurately any nationwide system of exams--including the one presented to the Congress and the U.S. Education Department last week by the National Council on Education Standards and Testing--will measure the learning of students from non-European racial and ethnic groups. Although we might agree that "culture flee" tests do not exist, the evidence for cultural bias in tests has been difficult to substantiate. A more appropriate argument regarding performance, culture, and testing involves how the individual interprets the task based on his or her previous experiences.
The proposed "performance based" assessments would cover a wider range of indicators of learning and include portfolios, demonstrations, and real-life tasks. Once developed, these indicators might be particularly useful to teachers in the classroom for assessing student progress. However, in a national or even regional context, problems of generalizing across tasks, and bias in judging performance of nonEuropean students are just two of the issues affecting accuracy that must be addressed. The problems inherent in including such items in a national system of assessments overshadow the anticipated improvement in measuring learning.
Successful completion of performance-based tasks will be heavily influenced by culture, background knowledge, exposure, and opportunity to learn specific content--most of which will reflect "European" cultures. Thus, it is likely that the achievement gap between subgroups will increase rather than decrease.
For African-Americans and Latinos, tests have been used primarily to perpetuate myths of inferiority and restrict, rather than select, educational opportunities. The historical context of testing, combined with other dimensions of equity, makes it difficult to believe that a new nationwide system of assessments will somehow create more opportunities for "underrepresented groups."
Whenever "high stakes" decisions are made--for example, to determine high school graduation--multiple sources of evidence, rather than the performance on tests alone, must be used. Unless all problems with respect to test validity have been resolved first, decisions based on national tests will negatively affect opportunities for students of color.
Further, if the purpose of the tests is to improve educational outcomes, then a local rather than the national focus is more appropriate and useful for developing alternative tests. Such tests will more likely generate the information necessary to understand achievement in schools. Moreover, individuals at the school and district levels are in better positions to produce the changes needed to improve achievement.
Changes in the structure of the economy and the demographics of the workforce provide a real opportunity to assess whether this nation can become what it set out to be--a society where ethnicity and gender are not artificial barriers to educational achievement and economic success.
This is especially crucial in light of the recent Hudson Institute report, "Workforce 2000." According to it, by the year 2000 the percentage of native Euro-American males in the workforce will decline greatly, while the percentage of people of color will increase greatly.
At first glance, this suggests improvement in the employment prospects of workers of color. However, the proposed use of Mr. Bush's American Achievement Tests not only for assessing achievement in schools but also for certifying job skills to prospective employers will serve as an additional barrier to employment opportunities of African-Americans and Latinos in major urban areas--unless, that is, there are commensurate investments made in education and training.
America 2000 implies that all Americans have the same access to education and have the same educational needs. Mr. Bush's program does not take into account that non-English speaking immigrants will represent the largest share of the increase in the population and workforce. Approximately 600,000 immigrants are projected to enter the United States annually for the remainder of the century. Two-thirds or more are likely to join the workforce.
The influx of immigrants is expected to drastically reshape local economies, promote faster economic growth and labor surpluses, and place severe demands on schools. Ira national examination system is implemented, one can easily imagine how a dual-track educational and occupational structure will develop--one in which immigrants, and ethnic/minority groups are disproportionately represented at the bottom.
For African-Americans and Latinos, changes in demographics and in the nature of the job market offer both a greater opportunity and a greater risk. With fewer Euro-American males entering the workforce, employers will seek out people with good work skills.
One proposed certification system would attempt to use performance based measures to assess employees' job-related skills. However, there is little indication that students from non-European racial and ethnic groups will fare any better in these assessments than they did in the past. In fact, they may do worse, since performance tasks may rely more heavily on culturally relevant experiences, thus decreasing rather than increasing occupational opportunity. Moreover, the types of jobs created in the economy will demand much higher levels of skill than jobs that exist today. This suggests the need for educational programs with academic rigor, and instruction in critical rending, writing, and thinking skills rather than in narrow and specific job-related competencies.
A greater investment in education and training at all levels will be needed to finally deliver the equality of opportunity that has been America's greatest unfulfilled promise. Regardless of Mr. Bush's stated intentions, national exam and job-skill-certification systems will not fulfill this promise, but will only ensure that those students and individuals historically disenfranchised and underrepresented remain in a subordinate position and bear the burden of yet another school-reform program.
Alternatives that are more likely to improve school learning and achievement do exist. They include funding curriculum-development projects, training, and staff development to help local teachers and administrators devise new assessments of student learning in subject-matter areas. Other valuable approaches would be to increase funds to local R&D units to expand the types of tests used, and to fund collaborative efforts between schools and industry, schools and R&D centers, or industry and vocational education.
But perhaps this is too rational and just wishful thinking for "the rest of us" left out of the President's plan.