SOME THOUGHTS ON PROJECT EXCITE AND AFFIRMATIVE ACTION
has been running an ongoing and thoughtful series on racism and one of the links he has examined is about a Northwestern University connected pilot program called Project Excite
. The goal of Project Excite is to increase minority student participation in the accelerated, gifted, honors and AP programs in the public schools of Evanston, Illinois and features collaborative interaction from elementary " feeder " districts through High School with Northwestern's Center for Talent Development, one of the nation's premier institutions for working with gifted children.
While generally positive about Project Excite ( which is only in the initial years of a longitudinal study) Prometheus 6 worries that :
"This is not the sort of thing the SCOTUS will approve of, yet it's exactly what is needed to address the education gap. If this program became wide-spread, it will be called racial preferences and either opposed or thinned out by an insistance on the (in my opinion) inappropriate application of the 14th amendment"
I wholeheartedly agree that this sort of program will be likely to address the persisting performance gap on standardized tests between minority and mainstream students but I think Project Excite meets 14th Amendment concerns in a way that fig-leaf or vague arguments about a " compelling state interest in diversity " at the university level do not, for a number of reasons.
First of all, there is a staff development aspect to Project Excite in terms of teacher training that benefits all students regardless of race or even Project Excite participation. Elementary teachers tend to be, on average, underexposed to rigorous science and math courses because they are generalist /Education majors and not focused upon a particular academic discipline like secondary or university instructors. Some of Project Excite's efforts " behind the scenes " are directed at improving the quality and depth of these areas of instruction at an early age ( primary/intermediate grades) when kids can truly become excited about a subject. The Project Excite staff development is a " spillover benefit " for all students and helps build a positive culture of education within schools so that academic interests and success are " socially acceptable " to students in later school years.
Secondly, given the nature of the Evanston community which is well-off financially in aggregate but has schools with student bodies divided between urban, poor and minority students and white and Asian-American peers from very wealthy, suburban and academic homes Project Excite takes no resources from any non-minority students. Few regions of Illinois can boast as successful an array of gifted, honors, accelerated, AP and similar programs as the Evanston schools. The High School for example, has produced forty plus finalists and semi-finalists in the highly prestigious Westinghouse and Intel science competitions. The problem has been not a lack of placement space but a lack of participation in advanced programs by minority students who have dropped out of the academic track from having been underserved in early years, from peer pressure or stress from trying to " catch-up " with a set of unusually advantaged ( relative to the general population) white peers, many of whom hail from homes where a parent is a professional academic, doctor, lawyer or the like.
The large number of alternative advanced programs negates most of the legal objections normally raised in regard to affirmative action in education settings. Granted, in duplicating Project Excite, if the results indicate the validity of this approach, will probably require that school districts beef up their opportunities for gifted and talented students across the board.
And that will be all to the good.