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Affirming Actions

The problem with the classroom I visited can be easily summed up with a short interaction I had with the teacher. The teacher asked me if I noticed the diversity of his class. And, doing a very skin-deep evaluation of the room, all I could think was, "No." This is because, in a school (with an overall population of about 1,100) with more than 100 African American students and nearly 400 students who identify themselves as Hispanic, I could distinguish not a single one in this particular class. (This does not mean, of course, that there weren't any; racial classification based on my visual perception is of course problematic.)

If you haven't already guessed, the school I visited is "tracked" based on ability. I am not intending to turn this into an argument either for or against tracking, but rather, look at the sad facts surrounding the achievement gap in our country. Achievement that falls along racial lines is a serious social injustice when you believe that cognitive ability and intelligence do not vary by ethnicity. The status quo - that is, that African American and Hispanic students are more likely, as groups, to earn lower test scores than their white and Asian peers, they are more likely to be recommended for special education programs, and ultimately, they are more likely to drop out - does not mesh with the idea of universally God-given ability.

The reality is that the school I visited in fact falls into the " Program Improvement " stage under Title I of the No Child Left Behind legislation, signed into law by the president in 2002. Arguably the first piece of legislation to so comprehensively address the achievement gap and the academic performance of minority students, NCLB means that schools such as the one I visited, where I was told "African American students, as a group, did not score up to standard in math", are subject to penalty if they do not improve test scores across the board. Part of this penalty is that parents are alerted of the school's NCLB classification and are informed of the option to remove their children in favor of a "healthier" school.


So what can be done to remedy the achievement gap? What can be done to ensure that, even if a school is tracked, all classes are proportionate representations of the diversity in the community? How can we change the socioeconomic breakdown of this country, a breakdown that currently falls disturbingly along racial lines?

The answer, I believe, does not lie with programs like affirmative action, despite its appearance on the November ballot in some states . Affirmative action deals with the issue too late, and does a serious injustice to the very populations it seeks to serve. To quote Alan Keyes on the issue:

"In the 1960s, the civil rights movement sought the assistance of government to enforce the fundamental principle that all men are created equal. But today's civil rights groups have abandoned that principle in favor of preferential treatment for groups defined by race or sex. This is simply wrong. We cannot cure a past injustice with another injustice. Preferential affirmative action patronizes American blacks, women, and others by presuming that they cannot succeed on their own."

Regardless of its flaws, the intentions behind NCLB are good - some schools are improving . It does not practice colorblindness but instead recognizes and addresses an unequal playing field. Addressing the achievement gap at its root, that is, by intervening early in the education of elementary and pre-elementary school students in particular (since, by high school, it is already exponentially more difficult ), means that when it comes time for college admissions and job applications, preferential treatment is not necessary. Addressing the disadvantages associated with socioeconomic level prior to a child's entry into kindergarten and actively reversing the achievement of first graders still unable to read can change the status quo. Then, college enrollment will represent the diversity of the country as a whole, and the most qualified will rise to highest job positions, regardless of race, and children from disadvantaged backgrounds can grow up to be upwardly socially mobile. The higher earners will not be disproportionately white, but will also represent our society, which is based on immigration at its very core.

And with all this talk about the issue of race in the upcoming election, perhaps with the improvement of education and the elimination of preferential treatment in college admissions and employment, it can truly become a non-issue in years to come. The cycle can be broken, and credential students in the future can visit San Diego classrooms - high track or no track - and see faces as diverse as those in our great county.