I spoke with Amy Wilkins, Ed Trust's vice president for government affairs, who said she's keenly aware that "when you put race and education in the same sentence and it gets volatile pretty quick -- but the fact is unless we set higher goals for kids of color, and demand quicker progress, we're never going to close that gap. And that means we have to name it, we can't pretend that all kids start and the same point and that everything is OK."
The Ed Trust-endorsed blueprint calls for schools to set expectations that students of color show greater -- and faster -- progress than what's expected of their white classmates. While the final goal remains eliminating the gap entirely, Ed Trust argues that it makes more sense to set a realistic course for schools to chart over the next six years.
"Students of color start further behind, and even if they make more progress they're still going to be behind at the end of six years," Wilkins said. "But by 2018, the gap could be half of what it is today. If school and states are doing what they need to do, they'll be educating these kids better than they ever have before."
Wilkins estimated that there are about 15 states that have set up parameters that align with Ed Trust's recommendations. But on the flipside, there are probably an equal number of states that claim their policies are intended to "cut the gap in half," but "that's not what they're doing at all," Wilkins said. "We're working with state-based education reform groups and state and local chapters of national civil rights groups to help them know what's real and what's faux."
An example of a state that has set up appropriate goals for specific ethnic groups -- at least in Ed Trust's view -- is Florida, Wilkins said. What remains to be determined is the state's plan for boosting achievement of Latino, Black and low-income students, and what consequences those schools will face if they fall short.
With the exception of a tiny percentage of students with cognitive disabilities, "We believe all students can achieve at high levels," Wilkins said. "What's holding them back is they're being poorly served by their schools. Students from low-income families and students of color get less of everything that matters."
In the wake of the debate over the waivers, Wilkins said she's "keenly aware" that there are misunderstandings about what "cut the gap in half" is seeking to accomplish. The revised goals, Wilkins said, are to "hold school and districts accountable for accelerating academic progress, not diminishing expectations for any individual students or groups of students."
I put the question of states adjusting expectations based on a student's ethnicity to Carla O'Connor, an associate professor in the School of Education at the University of Michigan. O'Connor, who specializes in African-American student achievement and urban education, said the new sliding bar for expectations is a huge step backward.
"No Child Left Behind presumed that all students would be able to learn and perform at similar levels - the current efforts suggest that not all kids have that ability, and we shouldn't even try," O'Connor said. "Once we shift to different standards, we're institutionalizing the notion that's not even feasible."
O'Connor said there's another problem to consider. The standards as they currently exist were already "pitching relatively low," O'Connor said. "The tests we're using aren't capturing higher-ordered thinking. These are basic-level skills and now we're saying we don't think certain populations of students can even meet those expectations."
To be sure, states will have to tread carefully to ensure that equity isn't a casualty of the reconfigured standards for student achievement. At the same time, the debate over how to define that achievement -- and whether students in traditionally underserved populations might actually benefit from a sliding scale of expectations -- is just getting started.
This post also appears at The Educated Reporter, an Atlantic partner site.