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Embracing Diversity Can Solve MN’s Educational Disparities

April 09, 2014 By Héctor García, Fellow

"We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things not because they are easy but because they are hard…” --President John F. Kennedy

At the core of learning is student motivation and engagement. While curriculum and funding are critical in education overall, they will not make much of a difference if students are not motivated to learn. The current command and punishment approach of high-stakes testing does not appear to be inspiring the students who need it most.

This does not imply that teachers, parents and others are not trying to motivate their students. Most are but we all need to be part of a collaborative effort under a new mindset, which is lacking in the current system.

The test-based system that measures success without context and the racial categorizations we use only work to discourage students. They offer little positive motivation.

In Minnesota, minority and American Indian students are constantly reminded of how their European American counterparts are above-average performers on standard measures of success. The system also conveys a veiled message that not much is expected from minority and Native American students. It makes it much more difficult to motivate these students, keep them engaged in day-to-day learning, and reduce dropouts.

Racial classifications, though rationalized by the fact that “everybody does it,” shackle our minds and, consequently, our ability to discover innovative and effective solutions. Too often, public policy is geared toward “fixing” minority and Native American communities it brands perpetually at-risk and perceives as one-dimensional. In doing so, we miss the richness and potential added-value in these communities, which would motivate their students.

Breaking down test results by demographics began with good intentions and it can still serve a useful purpose as a measurement in quantifying the opportunity gap between majority and minority populations and rich and poor. However, a lack of nuance and context in the use of these numbers and the agendas based on them tend to reinforce the disparities.

There are two key drivers in American history that can get us out of this downward spiral. One is a rarely noted empowerment tool within democracy—its capacity to elicit from every individual in society his or her unique inventiveness and motivation to take risks.

The other is much more obvious, harnessing new immigrants’ ambition, diverse cultural perspectives, hard work and youth. These characteristics have always constituted a key factor in the engine of American economic growth. As our economy becomes more dependent on foreign markets, diverse language and culture-bridging skills will also increase in value
To utilize these two drivers, it will be necessary to let go of our centuries-old and artificial racial classification, which continues to imply, falsely, that non-Europeans lack the inherent capacity to learn, create and attain distinction at the level of individuals the system classifies as “Caucasian” and “white.”

Concurrently, these drivers call for a widespread, authentically held, belief that all human beings, in a context of democratic equity, democratic institutions and constitutional law, can rise above adverse conditions, fulfill their potential and contribute to the commonwealth. On the downside, the demographic growth of the immigrant minority communities and the retirement of the boomer generation, combined with the current mindset, will increase disparities and their negative consequences to the state.

Solving an apparently intractable dilemma requires the union and collaboration of “we, the people” and not the illusion of a perfect majority with the indispensable intelligence and wealth to address the burdens perceived in the minorities and Native Americans. For that collaboration to come about, communication among all groups must transform from its current dysfunction to an acknowledgement of the brutal facts in the convoluted system we created to rationalize the past and focus, instead, on building the future we all want.

The message this would convey to the now failing youth would become one based on their limitless possibilities and our full confidence that they, also, can acquire the American “can do” attitude to change the circumstances, which affect us all. In brief, the system needs to inspire all students to believe in their unique individual potential to contribute to a greater future so that they will, as a team with unique members, work hard to build it. This will only be possible, if the system is transformed from an emphasis on decontextualized group superiority and inferiority to one of interdependence and equity of opportunity.

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