During his successful run for the presidency in 2000, George W. Bush warned against “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” Then-candidate Bush delivered his remarks at the 91st annual meeting of the NAACP on July 10, 2000.
Bush added, “A great movement of education reform has begun in this country built on clear principles: to raise the bar of standards, expect every child can learn; to give schools the flexibility to meet those standards; to measure progress and insist upon results; [and] to blow the whistle on failure. . . .”
But that was then, and this is now. Apparently soft bigotry is not only alive but thriving in San Diego—or at least among the leaders of the San Diego Unified School District. They recently took one small step for a woke administration, but one giant leap for low expectations. You wouldn’t know this from the San Diego Union-Tribune’s headline introducing the story: “San Diego Unified changes grading practices to be equitable, less punitive.”
Would that the “changed grading practices” actually were more “equitable” and “less punitive”! Sadly, that’s not the case. Instead, it is “well-intentioned” racism, what Bush labeled “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” Here’s why.
The Union-Tribune story informs us that, “starting this school year San Diego Unified will eliminate non-academic factors, such as student behavior, from academic grades, following a unanimous vote by the school board Tuesday to overhaul the district’s grading practices.” Why? The answer: “partly to address racial and other disparities in current grading practices, officials said.”
To remedy lower grades in the district reported for “Black, Hispanic, Native American and Pacific Islander high school students” relative to white and Asian students, “experts, teachers and students have said that including non-academic factors into grades and not giving students second chances to learn or make progress can contribute to unfair disparities in grades.”
Under San Diego Unified’s just-adopted grading policy, “academic grades will only be about showing progress toward ‘mastery of standards,’ rather than rewarding students for completing a certain quantity of work.” The new policy will apply to middle- and high-school students.
The new approach is called “standards-based grading.” What exactly does this mean?
First, it means that students will no longer receive lower academic grades for turning work in late. Now, late work will be cited in a separate “citizenship” grade, because somehow the school district now considers punctuality a “non-academic factor.”
Second, students will now receive additional opportunities to revise failing work rather than simply obtaining the low grade they earned the first time they took the exam or quiz. Again, apparently the school district believes doing an assignment correctly or passing a test the first time is a “non-academic factor.”
Third, students caught cheating will now receive a second chance, including the opportunity to receive counseling. Cheating in school, too, is now deemed in San Diego to be “non-academic.”
According to media accounts, the San Diego Unified School District’s new grading policy stems from its desire to make grading more “anti-racist and equitable, partly in response to social justice protests that erupted over the summer in response to George Floyd’s death.”
Yet a 2015 Brookings Institution study raises the question whether this doubtless well-meaning “anti-racism” policy may in fact reflect “systematic biases in teachers’ expectations for the educational attainment of black students.” Which teachers’ biases? White teachers.
The study, conducted by Seth Gershenson, Stephen B. Holt, and Nicholas W. Papageorge, finds that non-black teachers “have significantly lower educational expectations for black students than black teachers do when evaluating the same students” (emphasis in original). The study’s authors find this disparity “concerning, as teachers’ expectations likely shape student outcomes and systematic biases in teachers’ expectations for student success might contribute to persistent socio-demographic gaps in educational achievement and attainment.”
The light the Brookings study sheds on the San Diego Unified School District’s new policy raises the question whether its self-styled “anti-racism” grading policy is, at bottom, less an act of compassion than of condescension. The Brookings data demonstrate that it is white teachers who believe that they know better than their black teacher counterparts just how little to expect from black students.
Expecting less from someone based on his or her race used to be called racism or bigotry. True, the San Diego School District is guided by good intentions. But the road to Hell can be paved with good intentions. And condescension toward blacks hardly qualifies as “anti-racism,” but rather, its antithesis.
What else can it be but condescension to tell black students that they need not live up to “white” standards of timeliness (late papers will no longer receive an academic penalty), quality performance (first-time failing papers will be given “do-overs”), and honesty (cheating will not be punished on the first offense)? Worse, once subjected to these lower standards, how can children—any children, of any race—not help but to internalize this negative view of their aptitude and carry this psychological dagger in their souls into adulthood?
Instead of lowering grading standards based on race, how about this novel approach? We could judge individuals as individuals, not as first and foremost members of an identity group. In so doing, the country would be living up better to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream for our country: “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
There may well be other reasons to support the new grading policy, but “anti-racism” clearly is not one of them. In the final count, then, the San Diego Unified School District is simply misguided—as are all those whose “wokeness” is but a sleepwalk through the moral minefield of the bigotry of low expectations.