Cepeda: In education, a 'pobrecito' syndrome
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

CHICAGO — When prospective educators go through training to prepare for teaching low-income, minority or at-risk children, they learn how to empathize with their students' lives. They're taught to acknowledge environments lacking in resources, order or stability and "meet" the students at their level before expecting them to learn as easily as other children do.

Yet for all the lip service that modern pedagogy pays to the precept that "all children can learn," rare are the educators who believe this enough to push such students toward their full academic potential.

Instead, educators come up with misguided policies to go easy on groups of underperforming students, perpetuating the worst kind of disrespect — that of lowered expectations — on whole categories of children who are assumed to be less capable.

Disrespected, underestimated and left behind is how you might imagine many Florida students and their parents felt about the new standards. The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a civil rights complaint against their state board of education's strategic plan, which sets less ambitious goals for black and Hispanic students than for white and Asian ones.

Approved last fall, the plan is designed to reduce below-grade-level performance by categorizing K-12 students into subgroups with adjusted goals for each. Where it goes astray is in expecting less of certain students based on their race.

The Florida Board of Education set the 2018 goal for reading at grade level at 90 percent for Asian students and 88 percent for white students, while expecting only 81 percent of Hispanic and 74 percent of black students to do so.

In math, 92 percent of Asian-American students and 86 percent of white students are expected to perform at grade level by 2018, but this is expected only of 74 percent of black students and 80 percent of Hispanic students.

I'm not suggesting that Florida's Board of Education is racist but it seems as though they've bought into the victim narrative that so often permeates discussions about poverty. They've come down with a bad case of "pobrecito syndrome."

"Pobrecito" roughly translates from Spanish into "poor little boy" and the "syndrome" is how Dr. Pedro Noguera, author of the book "The Trouble With Black Boys … and Other Reflections on Race, Equity, and the Future of Public Education," describes well-meaning people who don't expect much of students who are poor, minority or don't have native English speakers at home.

"I use the term 'pobrecito syndrome' to describe those who lower expectations as a form of sympathy for disadvantaged students," Noguera told me via email. "But our students need empathy, not pity, and they need to be challenged."

Though it might be easier, we simply cannot afford to let ourselves shirk the difficult work of properly educating at-risk students of all races by writing them off as perpetually lower performers.

A recent Sallie Mae study, "How America Pays for College," reported that students from wealthier families are more likely to receive larger scholarship awards than those from low-income families. At the same time, both public and private colleges are increasingly shifting their financial assistance to merit-based aid — as opposed to need-based awards — according to a May report from the New America Foundation.

Taken together, these trends have the potential to disproportionately impede minorities who leave high school inadequately prepared to compete for college admission with affluent, rigorously educated students. That translates into even fewer opportunities to earn a degree in a professional marketplace that more and more shuns workers possessing only a high school diploma.

As reasonable as it might seem to lower the bar for students who face many real hurdles to academic success, it is the absolute wrong approach to take.

Florida has "adopted a similar policy of setting different proficiency standards for different subgroups," said Noguera. "This effectively sends the message that children of color will never measure up to white students and the achievement gap will never be closed. Such an approach institutionalizes disparities in achievement rather than ameliorating them."

Many charter schools, athletic programs and even high-intensity chess programs operating in America's poorest communities have proved time and again that students who are pushed hard by talented and passionate teachers can excel beyond even the highest expectations set for them.

Don't all students deserve the same optimistic belief in their potential?

Esther Cepeda's email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.