For those who missed the story on the news, Dicken Elementary (Ann Arbor, MI) principal Mike Madison, in an effort to help struggling students, set up a "Lunch Bunch" composed only of African-American students. He then took these students to hear a black rocket scientist speak at the University of Michigan. When the kids got back, those excluded from the trip booed them.
Now, what he did was just plain stupid, not to mention probably illegal. (In 2006, Michigan passed Proposal 2 which bans preferential treatment based on race.) I've never quite understood the idea that we achieve racial equality through inequality. If we hope that kids will judge each other on the content of their character and not race, then dividing them based on race seems a little counterproductive. Sending one group on a field trip while the others stay back at the school reinforces a message that these kids hear all too often: that they're different because of the color of their skin.
Also, if the situation was reversed, I have a feeling Al Sharpton would be coming to town. It's difficult to even imagine a white principal scheduling a field trip for only white students. Perhaps they could visit an NBA team and listen to a white basketball player so they see that they too can play in the League.
So why would an otherwise intelligent person and, from what I can gather, good principal, do something so dumb?
Answer: No Child Left Behind
NCLB requires schools to make "Adequate Yearly Progress," which means that the percentage of students scoring "proficient" on the state standardized test must go up by a certain percentage every year. Too many years of failing to make this improvement and the school faces progressively harsher sanctions, many of which will cost the school money (money they don't have).
So why does that matter? Because people who work in schools are no different than anybody else. If they are judged largely on the basis of one test then they will focus their energies on preparing students for that test. If they must improve the overall percentage of proficient students every year, then they will focus their energies on improving the performance of those who didn't pass the test the year before, assuming, usually correctly, that those who already passed the test will pass it again. All of which means that an incredible amount of energy, time, and money are put into helping the least successful students and very little time, energy, and money is spent on the high achievers.
But it doesn't stop there. NCLB also requires that each school achieve AYP in a number of subgroups, one of which is race. So is it any wonder principal Madison did what he did? I am sure that if we looked at Dicken's MEAP scores we would see an African-American population that performed below the level of their white counterparts.* To increase these students' performance, the principal creates this Lunch Bunch and then looks for opportunities to motivate the kids. The white kids are ignored because a. they scored better on the MEAP as a group and b. they are not an official "subgroup." In other words, they get the same treatment most students who do well in school get: they largely get ignored.
All of which leads to this conclusion: When put in ridiculous situations, even smart people will be do ridiculous things.
And for what it's worth, as a white kid, I think I would have dug listening to a rocket scientist. No matter what he looked like.
* I don't know Dicken's demographic breakdown, but statewide 89% of white fourth graders scored proficient in reading versus on 69% of African-Americans.