Who Benefits From Canceling Achievement Standards?

August 24, 2021 Updated: September 1, 2021


In 2021, there’s an outright holy war against scholastic achievement.

Oregon has passed a bill that suspends the requirement that students must be able to read, write, and do math to graduate from high school.

Mathematics should be replaced, we are told, by “social justice” mathematics, in which there are no correct answers, and students must not be asked to show the calculations that led to their conclusions.

Standard American English should no longer be the standard, and students shouldn’t be judged on the quality of their writing. And recruitment of future scientists, science teachers, and researchers should no longer be based on achievement, merit, and potential, but on “diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

Even before the year and a half of schoolwork lost to the pandemic, the performance of U.S. school students fell far behind many countries that are America’s competitors and threatening enemies. According to a 2017 Pew report on Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development figures, the United States is 24th in science, 38th in mathematics, and 24th in reading, outstripped by many East Asian and Western European countries and even Canada. You might have thought that those facts would be motivating political and educational authorities to improve the education of American children.

But no, U.S. political and educational authorities are devoting themselves to undermining achievement in science, math, and reading. Advanced programs in science and math are being closed down. Specialized high schools in New York may no longer admit applicants based on academic merit. Classical literature is outlawed. Standardized tests are rejected. And new “subjects,” such as critical race theory, are being imported into schools to replace science, math, and reading.

What problem is this fundamental transformation of education intended to solve? It’s not directed at individuals, and it’s not intended to ensure that individuals are treated with fairness, according to universalistic criteria of achievement, merit, and potential. Rather, this transformation is aimed at gender, racial, sexuality, ableness, and economic class collective categories. The justification of this attack on education is a claimed concern for “marginalized,” “racialized,” and “underserved” minority populations who are allegedly discriminated against and victimized.

The alleged evidence for discrimination and victimization is statistical disparities among the massive census categories. For example, there’s the well-documented achievement gap among racial groups. In academic and professional achievement, the average among racial groups varies, with Asian Americans achieving an A, white Americans getting a B, Hispanics receiving a C, and African Americans getting a D.

Ibram X Kendi, America’s new prophet of “antiracism,” said there are racist and anti-racist explanations for these disparities. The racist explanation attributes responsibility for the results to the members of the category themselves and thus would say that there’s an achievement problem among African Americans. The anti-racist explanation is that the disparate results arise from systemic racism and discrimination. The solution, therefore, according to Kendi, is discrimination, now and in the future, in favor of African Americans.

Kendi may not have noticed that, since President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 Executive Order 10925 mandating “affirmative action,” discrimination in favor of African Americans has been official American policy for 60 years. This program has been reinforced by the new trinity, “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” which requires the same outcomes for all categories.

In this program, results are detached from performance, and in principle, all must receive the same trophies, although in practice, members of preferred categories receive more trophies. In university admission, in university and business hiring, and in every field, African Americans have been sought and given preference and special benefits, at the direct expense of whites and Asian Americans. Yet the disparities haven’t disappeared.

Alternative explanations to racism and discrimination would examine, in all racial categories, such things as family structure, community support and safety, and community culture. To suggest that the reasons for weak achievement among African Americans has something to do with the prevalence of around 75 percent of families being single-parent and the lack of strong male figures in African American communities, the lack of a strong educational orientation in community culture, and high levels of crime, including street gangs, in African American communities, would be, according to Kendi, a racist explanation.

Ideas of “colorblind” achievement, merit, and potential have been labeled “white supremacism” and jettisoned in favor of “social justice,” defined as unending preferences to preferred minorities and the exclusion of members of unpreferred categories, plus the ginning up of race hate. Now, as we see in Washington state, scholastic achievement has been canceled. The idea is, apparently, if African Americans aren’t achieving at the same level as other racial groups, there’s something unnecessary and wrong about achievement.

If African Americans can’t get the correct answer in math, there must no longer be right answers in math.

Brooklyn College math education professor Laurie Rubel wrote on Twitter last year that “along with the ‘of course math is neutral because 2+2=4’ trope are the related (and creepy) ‘math is pure’ and ‘protect math.’ Reeks of white supremacist patriarchy. I’d rather think on nurturing people & protecting the planet (with math in service of them goals).”

We might find, if we’re planning to take reality into account, that the “service of them goals” might require correct mathematics with correct answers. Let’s hope that engineers, of whatever race, planning buildings, bridges, and aircraft still believe that math has correct answers.

If African Americans write poorly, then the quality of writing must not be considered. As Walter E. Williams describes it:

“Just when we thought colleges could not spout loonier ideas, we have a new one from American University. They hired a professor to teach other professors to grade students based on their ‘labor’ rather than their writing ability. The professor that American University hired to teach that nonsense is Asao B. Inoue, who is a professor at the University of Washington in Tacoma in interdisciplinary arts and sciences. He is also the director of the university’s writing center. Inoue believes that a person’s writing ability should not be assessed, in order to promote ‘anti-racist’ objectives. Inoue taught American University’s faculty members that their previous practices of grading writing promoted white language supremacy. Inoue thinks that students should be graded on the effort they put into a project.”

Will this new plan suit businesses and professions?

Educational elites, including university professors and administrators, state and local departments of education and teachers’ unions, and local, regional, and national politicians are in a constant competition for prestige, status, and power that leads to innovation of ideas and policies ever more extreme and detached from reality. Their continued and intensified assaults on scholastic and academic achievement, and Western culture generally, are laying waste to education and to American society.

A good example is the adoption of the discredited Black Lives Matter Marxist and racist propaganda. The College Fix reports that:

“The University of San Diego is offering faculty $600 to take a five-week Black Lives Matter course.

“‘Heeding the call of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and global network, this course joins the nationwide effort to deconstruct anti-Blackness, dismantle white supremacy, center Black resistance, and build solidarity movements that support the wellness and self-determination of Black communities,’ its description states.

“‘It is our intention to reorient canon to recognize Black contribution; to learn about Black networks across the world and throughout history, and to imagine futures that support Black excellence.’”

University of San Diego law professor Gail Heriot responded: “Could a course description be any clearer that it is about inculcating and supporting a fringe ideology? The course description literally states that the course is part of a ‘nationwide effort to deconstruct anti-Blackness [and] dismantle white supremacy.’ The problem is that you couldn’t find a white supremacist in these parts if your life depended on it. These folks are barking mad.”

What do Americans generally think about these policies? Opinion polling shows that a supermajority of Americans, including every racial minority group, oppose using racial and gender preferences in university admissions and were opposed to the Supreme Court decision that conditionally allowed such preferences. Recent referendum initiatives in Washington state and in California, supported by educational and political elites, to institute racial preferences in university admissions were voted down by citizens in those states.

The Oregon elimination of requirements for achievement in reading, writing, and math has received an F from Americans: “The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone and online survey finds that 81% of American Adults would oppose a law in their state that says high school students do not need to be proficient in reading, writing and mathematics to graduate. Only 12% favor such a law in their state.”

Thinking about and organizing people in terms of their race, rather than as complex and highly variable individuals, is going down an extremely dangerous road. This is the very definition of racism. We’ve tried to leave this behind, as a violation of human rights, but it has reemerged as “critical race theory” and “anti-racism.” Where those have taken us is clear from the angry denunciations of “whiteness,” the revivification of widespread antisemitism, and the violent attacks on Asian Americans and Jews. As usual, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Our education and political elites have allowed themselves to be carried away by extreme racist ideology. The damage they’re doing is incalculable, and not least to those on whose behalf they claim to be acting. They should be replaced by people who haven’t lost their minds and who would represent the views of the citizens they’re supposed to represent.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Philip Carl Salzman
Philip Carl Salzman
Philip Carl Salzman is professor emeritus of anthropology at McGill University, senior fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, fellow at the Middle East Forum, and president of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.