John Florez: Affirmative action for all students

Published: Saturday, May 3 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Why do we spend so much time calling for affirmative action in admissions for minority students in higher education when we can’t get them out of high school?

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If I owned a tortilla factory and half of my tortillas were being rejected, I would be out of business. Well, that’s what is happening to our minority students in school – half are dropping out of school. That’s the message I gave as I traveled the nation as director for former president George H. W. Bush’s commission on Hispanic education.

So, why do we spend so much time calling for affirmative action in admissions for minority students in higher education when we can’t get them out of high school? We don’t have an admissions problem; we have a supply side problem. We can have scholarships, fundraisers and special admission standards, but if minority students aren’t prepared to enter college, schools must do better.

Prior to the 60s, discrimination was common in admission of minorities in higher education. There were artificial qualifying barriers such as high school grades and test scores that had nothing to do with the skills needed to succeed in college. Today, employers and some higher education institutions are finding they are not predictors of success in college. A 2006 study commissioned by The College Board, “The Rainbow Project,” on how to better predict student success in college found that looking at creativity and adding “... practical components, like writing and common sense to existing exams,” were a better gauge. “Traditional tests have some predictive value, but they look at kids narrowly. We’re saying creativity is important to success and that you can measure it,” according to Dr. Robert Sternberg, the study’s lead researcher. The study also found that testing broader skills narrowed the scoring gap between ethnic groups, (Periscope, Newsweek, Aug. 14, 2006).

Today’s digital technological workplace now requires innovation, creativity and workers who are curious, empathetic and able to learn and work in groups of diverse backgrounds. Higher education would do well to look to Google to learn the qualifications they are looking for in today’s workplace.

According to Laszlo Bock, the senior vice president of people operations for Google, “GPAs are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless. ... We found that they don’t predict anything...The No. 1 thing we look for is.... the ability to process on the fly. It’s the ability to pull together disparate bits of information.” The second thing “is leadership.... when faced with a problem and you’re a member of a team, do you, at the appropriate time, step in and lead... What else? Humility and ownership.... Without humility, you are unable to learn.... Successful bright people rarely experience failure, and so they don’t learn how to learn from that failure,” (Thomas Friedman, “How To Get a Job At Google”, NYT, Feb. 22, 2014).

We must redesign schools for today’s economy. Our schools take out the most important qualities students need to succeed – innovation, the ability to risk and learn how to fail. Today’s schools demand students to do things right, punish failure and discourage risk taking. Schools are still designed around the industrial era culture; follow the rules, bells, tests and assembly line teaching.

Minorities don’t need special admission standards. What they need are schools that realize the importance of diverse thinking in order to shore up America’s ability to successfully compete in today’s digital technological economy.

While the 60s and 70s called for minorities to knock down doors, today’s challenge is to be prepared to walk through them. That holds true for all students regardless of race or national origin.

Utah native John Florez served on the U.S. Senate Labor Committee, as Utah industrial commissioner and filled White House appointments, including deputy assistant secretary of labor and on the Commission on Hispanic Education. Email: jdflorez@comcast

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