Oregon Democrats Resurrect the ‘Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations’

A new law allows students to graduate from high school without the ability to read, write, or do math.

It’s an education headline that, even in 2021, demands a double take: “Gov. Kate Brown signed a law to allow Oregon students to graduate without proving they can write or do math.”

Brown, Oregon’s Democratic governor, had quietly signed Senate Bill 744 into law last month, discarding the requirement that high school graduates be able to demonstrate an ability to read, write, and do math at a high school level. A spokesman for Brown explained that this would benefit “Oregon’s Black, Latino, Latina, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian, Pacific Islander, Tribal, and students of color.” For those confused about the logic, he added that the state needed “equitable graduation standards, along with expanded learning opportunities and supports.”

This is a story that’s as dangerous as it is silly. It’s hard to think of a policy more threatening to minority kids than the insistence that it’s okay for them to graduate without being able to read. Indeed, it’s hard to think of much that’s more obviously offensive than the suggestion that expecting all high school grads to be literate and numerate is somehow racially suspect. This is  especially true against the backdrop of the pandemic, a time when low-income and minority students have been hit particularly hard by a year of haphazard remote learning, stop-and-start schooling, and socially distanced interaction. If students are to recover from the staggering disruptions of the pandemic, schools need to buckle down to engage and educate kids—not lower (or eliminate) expectations in the name of “equity.”

The pandemic’s social and emotional toll has been brutal for students. The same is true when it comes to academics. A new McKinsey analysis reports that students this year were, on average, four months behind in reading and five months behind in mathematics compared to where they’d normally be—with even bigger shortfalls for schools serving black, Latino, or low-income kids. And then there were all the students who fell off their school’s radar last year—including perhaps a quarter of the nation’s 12 million marginalized students.  

The states that have released reliable test scores from this past spring paint an equally grim picture. Texas, despite offering more in-person learning than any other state, saw students’ scores plummet: The share of students meeting grade-level expectations in Algebra 1 plunged from 62 percent in 2019 to 41 in 2021; in grades three through eight, it dropped 12 points, to an abysmal 28 percent. In New Jersey, NWEA has estimated that just 9 percent of Newark Public Schools students in grades two through eight would’ve met expectations in math and that just 11 percent would’ve done so in reading. Oregon hasn’t released much data, but Portland has reported that the share of students with at least one non-passing grade rose across all demographics.

Despite these numbers, some on the left have decided that the answer is not to insist that schools use the $190 billion in emergency federal COVID school aid to help students catch up and even excel, but to launch a nihilistic crusade in service to a warped mantra of “equity.” This is the same notion of equity that has spurred California’s move to eliminate advanced math instruction and Oregon’s Department of Education urging that teachers learn to abandon “racist” math practices like asking to students “show their work” or worry about “getting the ‘right answer.’” 

What’s going on? To be blunt, too many grownups on the American left have thrown in the towel. Many of the same Democratic leaders who, just a few years ago, were cheering Common Core and Obama’s Race to the Top, now nod along as the woke fringe and “diversity, equity, and inclusion” officialdom insist that schools frequently serve as little more than engines of systemic racism. This line of argument turns out to be surprisingly convenient for Democratic officials, as it permits them to placate the woke base, back away from the kinds of demands that offend their teacher union allies, and suggest that the disappointments of grandiose school reform were a product not of their missteps or excessive faith in bureaucracies but of the public’s own moral failings. 

While it may help Democrats finesse a political squeeze, this tack marks a troubling break with the recent past, when right and left agreed about the perils of the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” While the sweeping, bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) born of that consensus proved to be a mess as a statute—undone by unrealistic dictates and its cavalier expansion of the federal footprint—it represented a powerful, shared conviction that America’s schools must strive to educate every child; that every student should (at least!) learn how to proficiently read, write, and do math; and that we must reject those who would set different expectations for students based on their color creed—whether those are fueled by bigotry or misplaced benevolence. 

Fast forward to 2021, with Oregon’s Democratic leadership now telling high schools to cut kids loose, whether or not they’ve learned the things high school grads need to know. Worse, they’re claiming they’re doing these students a favor—even as they condemn barely literate 18-year-olds to dead-end jobs, indigence, and civic disempowerment, at a time when vulnerable students have already suffered a series of body blows.

The frustrating thing is that most reasonable people—right and left—understand all this. When pollsters ask adults about the primary purpose of education, most say that it’s mastery of “core academic subjects” for students in K-12 and mastering “skills for future employment” in high school. High school grads need to master certain skills, and schools and policymakers should ensure that they do so. This seems both self-evident and pleasantly common-sensical in an era of endless culture war. 

Look, there are real challenges ahead. We’re caught in a ferocious debate about masking and the return to school, made worse by low vaccination rates among 12- to-17-year-olds and uncertainty about FDA approval for vaccinating younger children. It’s now anticipated that 20 percent of schools will be using a hybrid model as the school year begins, despite grave concerns about how well that worked last year.

This is a moment when kids need leaders to stand up for them, not find ways to paper over problems by issuing them meaningless pieces of paper. Gov. Brown and the Oregon legislature just failed that test. Others need to do better.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.