The Death of Affirmative Action, Part 2: Education as a Finite Resource

Part 1 of this series addressed gender and the Fisher case, which will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court later in the year.

According to the CIA, Cuba’s literacy rate is 99.8%.  Why does Cuba, an incredibly poor nation, have a higher literacy rate than the U.S.?  Education is regarded as a priority for all; their poorest youth are treated to boarding schools. The same is true in China.  Some of the most attractive architecture in China happens to be its boarding schools—and those institutions are public.  That’s right—free boarding-school education and dormitories for students.

Around the world some of the best architecture is devoted to public schools.  The American Institute of Architects will host an exhibit on Finnish public schools this year.  Why? Because their public schools are beautiful and their students are among the highest achievers in the world. No special affirmative-action programs, redistricting, busing, magnet schools, charter schools, and the like are needed.  Everyone deserves an excellent education and there is a government commitment to providing it.  However, we need not look to Europe to see a commitment to high-quality facilities and access for all—developing countries have figured that out.

But, we should reexamine what’s happening in the U.S.

Our nation’s largest supply pool to its institutions of higher learning, K-12 schools, are failing–a slow cardiac arrest.  This is no surprise to scholars who’ve paid attention. Just this week, another brow-raising report on education was released: The U.S. Education Reform and National Security Report, authored by a task force chaired by Condoleezza Rice, former secretary of state, and Joel Klein, former chancellor of New York City’s school system. Here are some of the stark findings: 30 percent of high school graduates lack the aptitude to enter the military; 75 percent of young graduates do not qualify for military service because they are inadequately educated, have criminal records, or simply are not physically fit. But, it’s the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) that really places U.S. student performance in perspective.

According to the most recent PISA findings, U.S. students lag behind kids in Canada, Finland, South Korea, Estonia, Japan, Australia, Singapore, the Netherlands, Norway, and Belgium, to name a few.  The U.S. reading scores are closer to those of Latvia and Slovenia than neighboring Canada, where their students are better readers and more adept in math and science.

What neither report speaks to is how our nation arrived at this point, and the Rice/Klein recommendations as to what should be done are modest at best.

Our schools are in crisis, because our education philosophy was flawed from its beginnings.  The problem: education is regarded as a finite resource in the United States.  Access to a “good” education is treated as a luxury if one is poor, and an entitlement for the wealthy.  This explains why affirmative action policies were enacted and variously implemented: to take affirmative actions to remediate past discrimination.  It may also be why those programs may be on the way out.

Our nation’s history is replete with examples of exclusion from the “education club.”  Throughout the first half of the 20th century and into the 1960s, blacks were not the only Americans fighting to get into the club.  Jewish students were denied admission at the nation’s most elite law and medical schools.  “Quotas” were put in place to exclude “too many” Jews from swelling the ranks of the legal profession.  Chicago law schools were notorious for this.  According to David Oshinsky, Cornell, Columbia, University of Pennsylvania, and Yale had “rigid” quotas in place barring Jews from medical schools.  He notes that a Yale medical school dean emphatically instructed: “Never admit more than five Jews, take only two Italian Catholics, and take no blacks at all.” Oshinksky suggests that this is why Jonas Salk who discovered the polio vaccine, attended NYU.

But our country club way of thinking hasn’t changed much.  Americans born into poverty or the working class have huge obstacles to overcome.  As a nation, we invest in a standardized testing model and place our resources there—but not on standardizing quality, content, facilities, or an educational experience.  Education is an equalizer only if there is access to it and if what’s there meets basic standards.  Without high-school competency, college attendance is a moot point.

Affirmative action is a provocative distraction on many levels.  It doesn’t resolve our philosophy toward exclusivity, but it didn’t cause it either.  What is needed is a change in philosophy and practice–and standardized testing is not the answer.  If we want to change the poverty of mind, our philosophy must change with it.  On the front end, this means fundamentally rethinking K-12 education and building a “brain trust” prepared for not only higher education, but broader social and human development.

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