Affirmative action is always 13 years too late for those it's intended to help

If you’re Hispanic or African-American in this country, the chances that you’ll go to college are no better than a coin flip: 50-50. If you’re one of those minorities and you do go to college, the chances that you’ll graduate are another coin flip: half will drop out.

For the millions facing these odds, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin to uphold UT’s affirmative action program blesses an effort that comes 13 years too late. What our minority students really need and deserve is a better K-12 education.

As the founder of IDEA Public Schools, a charter school system whose mission is to send every student to college well-prepared, I know from watching it fail my own graduates that affirmative action alone will not address the complex problem.

For profound historical reasons, African-American and Hispanic families face daunting odds in their quest to escape poverty. Four out of five such families in the bottom two income brackets never escape those brackets their entire lifetimes. The picture changes dramatically, however, if we add one key variable. Nearly three in four such families do climb into one of the top three income brackets if a member of the family has graduated college.

Bottom line: In America, college remains more crucial than ever. So what to do?

Conservatives misdiagnose the problem. Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein, in their book "The Bell Curve," argue that achievement tracks IQ. They go too far with a half-truth: achievement also tracks school quality. The late Justice Antonin Scalia argued that African-Americans would do better at colleges that were less prestigious. He didn’t go far enough: blacks — like Hispanics, whites and everyone else — would do better at the better colleges if they were taught better before they got there.

Liberals tout the wrong solution. They think we have to end poverty before we can fix our schools and help minorities succeed. This gets it backward. We can only end poverty when we fix our schools to make them a ladder out of poverty — right now, they are just another broken institution reinforcing inequity.

And the adults working in our schools? They blame the victim. Studies show that the vast majority of educators attribute a child’s learning failures to deficiencies in the child or the child’s family. It’s the kids who need fixing, not the teaching. This, too, gets it backward. Fix the teaching and kids will thrive in college — any kids, even poor minorities.

Right now, minority students across Texas are scoring 17 percentage points lower on the STAAR than their white peers, according to TEA. That being so, should we be surprised that, compared to white students, their dropout rate from four-year colleges is 14 percent higher? Affirmative action may help some of these students, but it is not helping most of them.

What can be done to ensure that most of them succeed in college? Look no further than several Texas standouts. High-performing charter systems KIPP and YES Prep have achieved successful results in low-income areas year after year. Their minority students outperform state averages by 11 percent.

One way to promote and learn from such high-performing schools is simply to recognize them. The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation awards a prize every year to the charter school system that has achieved the best academic outcomes in the nation, particularly for low-income students and students of color. IDEA had been a finalist the last three years, and this year, we won, joining KIPP and YES as three previous winners from Texas. Tellingly, the Foundation in 2014 suspended its prize recognizing traditional urban public schools because it couldn’t find any it deemed worthy of recognition.

What can those schools learn from our success? That’s easy. IDEA succeeds because we (1) recruit and retain smart, hardworking educators who believe that every child can succeed, (2) train them in the rigorous methods and programs that accelerate learning in all kids, and (3) ensure that every campus is safe and orderly.

Every student at IDEA Public Schools must go through the same rigorous curriculum. Over the years, many students have come to my office in tears, stressed that the workload is just too much. Typically, these students are my most conscientious, high-performing scholars, and all they need is a little coaching and encouragement: When we challenge our young people, they rise to the level of expectation we set.

Our teachers are effective because our schools are not overwhelmed by misbehavior. We expect excellence — from everyone. Every student knows what we expect after high school graduation — college matriculation. I remember one former student, Miguel A., telling me that the peer pressure was almost too much to bear. “The fear,” he said, “of being the first student in the history of IDEA to not be accepted to college kept me on my toes.” Setting high expectations for behavior and scholastic achievement is not something only charters can do. Any school district — traditional, charter, private — can do it. Indeed, some individual schools already are. But most schools aren’t.

Millions of students are not receiving a quality education in our nation today. Last year at IDEA, 50,000 students applied for less than 10,000 spots. Even if we grow as planned to 100,000 students across ten regions by the year 2022, the demand for tuition-free, rigorous, supportive K-12 schools will grow even more. Will we as a democracy rise to meet it? That would be affirmative action worthy of its name.

Tom Torkelson

CEO, IDEA Public Schools

@ideaschools

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