By Huberta Jackson-Lowman, Ph.D.
Recently the Florida State Board of Education released race/ethnicity-based standards in reading and math for Florida students. The highest standards in reading and math were established for Asian students, followed by Caucasian students, Latina/Latino students, and at the very bottom were African-American students.
The implications of this kind of policy making are far-reaching. Most evident is the continued perpetuation of the myth of Black inferiority that denies the humanity of African people and suggests that they are far less capable of academic pursuits than other groups of people. There is considerable research that links teacher expectations to student performance. A classic study undertaken by Robert Rosenthal and Leonore Jacobson revealed that if teachers were told that a random group of students was very bright and that another random group was average, the performance of these students at the end of the semester reflected the teacher’s expectations of them, regardless of their past academic performance. Rosenthal and Jacobson’s findings and those of other researchers warn us that if teachers believe that students of African ancestry are less capable than other students, their low expectations of them will increase the probability that these students will indeed have less successful outcomes. In fact, the likelihood that the standard the State Board of Education has set for African-Americans will not be met is even greater because this low expectation will affect most African-American students, not just the 26 percent that are expected to fail.
The State Board of Education has justified its low expectations of African-American students based on what it suggests are the current levels of performance for African-American students. Yet, efforts to determine why performance outcomes for African-American students in reading and math have been so dismal appear not to have been undertaken. Indeed, there are a myriad of factors that can be identified, including the fact that a significant proportion of African- American students attend under-resourced schools, with instructors that are the least experienced. High teacher turnover rates, few African-American teachers, and curricula that fail to include their history, culture, and achievements are also factors. Other contributing factors to the poorer outcomes for African-American students include the implementation of zero-tolerance and push-out policies which have resulted in the application of harsher, more punitive disciplinary actions to address the behavior of African-American girls as well as boys. Kimberlé Crenshaw and colleagues, in their report, “Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected,” highlights the excessive rate of suspension and expulsion for Black girls, whose stories are rarely told, in spite of the fact that in some locations their rates exceed that for Black boys.
The impact of social and emotional issues that children bring from their homes and neighborhoods into the classroom cannot be discounted either. The research on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) indicates that children who experience a cluster of traumatic events such as abuse, neglect, family and community violence, or parental incarceration encounter learning challenges, because their brains are in a persistent fight-flight-or-freeze mode, a state which interferes with the ability to learn. In a sample of 17,000 participants who were primarily White, middle-class, college-educated, and suburban with health insurance, 22 percent indicated that they had experienced three or more traumatic events as children. As expected, children living in poverty experience even higher rates of ACEs and, consequently, are extremely vulnerable to poorer academic and health outcomes. According to a 2013 Kaiser Family Foundation report, 24 percent of Blacks in Florida are living in poverty. Single, female-headed families, which constitute the majority of Black families today, have the highest poverty rates. Unfortunately, the trauma in the lives of Black children due to poverty, structural and systemic racism, and historical, interpersonal, and community violence goes unacknowledged. These traumatic experiences often lead to behavioral problems that are addressed with the most punitive strategies available, thus intensifying the school-to-prison pipeline, and low school performance.
There is a plethora of research and literature that exists offering innovative approaches to enhancing educational outcomes for African-American students. To ignore scholarly research and work and endorse these race-based standards instead is comparable to the acceptance of slaveholders’ declaration that enslaved Africans equaled three-fifth of a person. The inferiorization of African-Americans through the re-institutionalization of racist standards cannot be tolerated by those who have the best interests of African-American youth at heart.
Huberta Jackson-Lowman is a full professor in the Department of Psychology at Florida A&M University. All comments expressed in this article are the personal views of the writer.