J. Pharoah Doss:  Thinking outside the box but forgetting why the box was there

Months ago, Anthony Hines, an elementary school teacher in Central Florida, scheduled a special assembly for Black fourth and fifth grade students. The presentation conveyed that Black students have underperformed on standardized tests for the past three years and that unsuccessful kids have a higher likelihood of going to jail and being shot or killed.

The assembly’s objective was to encourage Black students to do better in school, but Black parents were outraged and accused the school of holding a segregated assembly.

The assembly received the most criticism from parents whose children passed the state exam but were still forced to attend the event. These parents felt the assembly linked being Black with poor performance, reinforcing the myth of racial inferiority.

When Florida’s public school system rejected an advanced placement course in African American Studies and its new African American history curriculum was accused of implying that Black Americans benefited from slavery, the state received negative press coverage. The last thing the state needed was national media coverage proclaiming, “Segregated assembly in Florida tells Black elementary students their test scores are a problem.”

It’s worth noting that Hines and the teachers who participated in the “segregated” assembly were African Americans, but Anthony Hines resigned after all of the negative media coverage.

Hines informed a CNN reporter that he resigned to avoid drawing bad attention to the school. After 28 years as a teacher, he was devastated. “We had a good time in the assembly,” Hines said, “but I didn’t think it through, and I take full responsibility.”

Hines may have believed that his blackness, coupled with his good intentions, would protect him from public scrutiny and shield the school from accusations of racism. Or perhaps he reasoned that if universities across the country held separate graduation ceremonies for Black students to promote Black excellence, there was no harm in holding a separate assembly to motivate Black students to perform better in school so they could attend college in post-affirmative action America.

However, the school superintendent said, “Students should never be separated by race. We acknowledge that this and other subgroups of students must improve, but our commitment is to improve academic achievement for all students. It is clear that there was no malice in planning this student outreach. However, sometimes, when you try to think ‘outside the box’, you forget why the box is there.”

The superintendent is right. The entire purpose of desegregation was to keep Black students from feeling inferior. As a result, the condemnation of Hines’ assembly was necessary because it violated the principles of individuality and fairness.

The superintendent is also correct that the box is there for a reason.

Oregon’s State Board of Education, for example, has opted to think outside the box. They prolonged the suspension of Oregon’s essential skills proficiency requirements for high school graduation to the 2027–28 school year in a unanimous vote.

Students are no longer expected to demonstrate their ability to read and grasp a wide range of texts, write clearly and accurately, and apply mathematics in a wide range of contexts. Students used to demonstrate mastery of these critical skills by earning a cut score or above on the Oregon Statewide Summative Assessment Test.

Initially, the state suspended the essential skills proficiency requirements through the 2023–2024 school year in order to address the learning loss that occurred during the COVID-19 school closures. However, Oregon’s State Board of Education did not decide to extend the suspension of essential skill proficiency requirements in order to continue dealing with pandemic learning loss; instead, they argued that requiring students to complete standardized tests presented a “harmful hurdle” for historically marginalized students.

Of course, the Oregon Department of Education emphasized that revising graduation requirements is about equity and making a stronger effort to serve students of color across the state.

Black students in Florida who passed the state exam were wrongly grouped with those who did not, solely based on their race. However, the “segregated” assembly was organized to motivate all Black students to strive for a high standard. Passing a state exam is deemed too high of a hurdle for students of color in Oregon, so the state reduced the standards for all students in the name of equity and fairness.

Oregon’s State Board of Education wasn’t thinking outside the box; they forgot the box was there for a reason, and it’s more appalling than a segregated assembly.

 

 

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