As public schools across the country begin their school year, they will be presented with a strange oxymoron: Minority students now make up the majority of their student bodies. In fact, the country will soon find itself in a similar position—the U.S. Census estimates that the white majority will be gone by 2043.
These demographic changes bring a new sense of relevance and urgency to the debate about education and race. The achievement gap is as wide as ever—as of 2013, over 70% of students of color had failing scores on Advanced Placement exams—plus the countless public schools across the country that don’t offer Advanced Placement classes at all. As the college admissions process becomes increasingly competitive, low-income students of color suffer the consequences of their schools’ lack of resources.
Minority Students Only Encouraged to Reach 50th Percentile
Although improving educational access and quality is no doubt a priority for everyone, the new minority majority continues to be held back by a flaw in our discussion of their scholastic potential. While white students are encouraged to shoot for the stars, many students of color are given a far less inspiring goal: the 50th percentile. In its current form, the debate about education policy and the achievement gap is missing a crucial bit of nuance. While we focus our efforts on improving average scores, many of the most talented students of color are falling through the cracks.
Of course, building the institutional capacity of these schools is a necessary step, but it is far from the only thing we can do. It is time for us to recognize that our efforts to advance education for students of color have been constrained by the implicit assumption that the best these students can hope for is to reach the mean. If we want these students to reach the highest heights of educational attainment, the onus is on us to present excellence as their goal.
More Important Than Ever for Students of Color to Get Into Top Universities
And today, “academic excellence” is demonstrated by acceptance to a top university. The opportunities for social mobility and career advancement at an elite university are unrivaled. Studies show that a college degree from a highly ranked institution confers far greater economic benefits on low-income students of color than on their white counterparts. For these students, elite universities are the gateway to much more than a higher income—they create networks and relationships that empower them to earn higher incomes and secure management and leadership positions.
Investing in high-performing students has a significant return both inside and outside of low-income communities. It has never been more necessary for leaders in business, politics, and culture to reflect the changing demographic of the population at large. At stake is the fabric of our civil society and economic ability to compete globally.
Promising Students Often Neglected
All too often, we congratulate ourselves for obtaining “firsts” as we silently assume the opportunity cost of the many promising students we have neglected. Many notable leaders today were fortunate to receive access to challenging academic opportunities as well as the mentorship and resources they needed to be successful. Leaders like Deval Patrick, the first African American governor of Massachusetts, and Michele Roberts, the first African American woman to head the NBA Players Union, are an enormous source of inspiration for young people of color today. How many more of these leaders could there have been? How many more will there be?
The answer depends on us. We must dedicate ourselves not only to the struggling student, but also to those young people of color who are performing well in under-resourced schools. Through our public discourse, we have painted a problematic picture in which nearly all students of color are struggling to catch up to their more privileged peers. In reality, many students of color are striving to be the best in their classes. They too are driven and diligent, hardworking and charismatic. These are the students with the greatest potential to transcend socioeconomic barriers to success. They represent a valuable future talent pool that is often overlooked or counted out. Spending resources on the best and the brightest students of color is a necessary investment in the future leaders of our communities. It is up to teachers to recognize their students’ potential and challenge them to strive for excellence.
It is up to parents to encourage and support their children in achieving excellence. It is the responsibility of education advocates to expand the scope and approaches to educational excellence for all students. Discussions of race and education have for too long been premised on the idea that the best we can do is bring students of color up to the mean. This obscures a reality in which the best, most driven students of color have the potential to reach the same heights as students from all other races and socioeconomic backgrounds. If we want these students to believe in their own potential, then we need to provide them with a set of tools and pathways to high-quality educational opportunities that will allow them to reach it, rather than treating “average” as a victory.