05/03/2012 09:47 am ET Updated Jul 03, 2012

Abandon "Students of Color" Category

In late March a panel of ten education experts gathered in Washington to nominate four most-improved urban school districts for a national education prize. What should have been a routine review of student data, however, suddenly took a new direction.

First one member on the review panel for the annual Broad Prize for Urban Education, then another, noticed the same thing: Plenty of large urban school districts nationwide were making solid progress with Hispanic students closing achievement gaps with white students, but not with African-American students.

In theory, the experts should not have been seeing what they were seeing.

The federal data tracking Hispanic and African American students shows they are making roughly the same progress (not much) in closing learning gaps.

That left the review panel members puzzled. Was this an illusion?

It appears the Broad Prize panel was seeing something very real that suggests that Hispanic and black students should be taught differently.

One reason the trend doesn't appear in federal data is the Broad panel was looking at different indicators, such as "college readiness" data.

The ACT college admissions test, for example, weighs student college readiness on a scale: Between 2002 and 2011, the percentage of black students taking the ACT who met all the readiness benchmarks rose from 3 to 4 percent. Among Hispanic students, that rose from 8 to 11 percent.

The College Board, home of the SAT college admissions test, has similar revealing figures about their Advanced Placement courses: In 2010, black students made up 14.6 percent of high school graduates but only 8.6 percent of AP test takers. By contrast, Hispanics made up 17 percent of graduates and 16 percent of test takers.

This Hispanic-black separation can be seen in many school districts, and not just in the college readiness data. Take San Diego as an example: Regardless of the measure used -- state reading and math tests or the district "exit" exams students need to pass to graduate -- Hispanic students in recent years have been making faster progress than black students.

This revelation comes as no surprise to Amy Wilkins from The Education Trust, an advocate for poor students. "African-American students are more socially and economically isolated than Latino students," said Wilkins. "Black kids are less likely than Latino students to get strong teachers," said Wilkins. "They are less likely to go to the better funded majority white schools."

This observation matches my own reporting over the past two years. While reporting a book on how former Chancellor Michelle Rhee was faring in Washington, DC, I spent months observing the schools serving black students in the city's poorest neighborhoods.

Then, while researching another book on what's working in American public education, I traveled nationally and visited several all-Hispanic schools. In Houston, I toured an "Apollo" high school where a reform principal, given fresh resources and the power to pick her own staff, had turned around a school in just one year.

A high school, in just one year?

Rhee, who was broadly criticized for her hurry-up reforms, gave new principals a year just to achieve "lock down" -- orderly hallways and classrooms. In the second year, they were expected to produce academic gains. Many principals fell short on both those timetables. And high schools are the hardest. But in Houston, a high school achieved both in just one year.

In San Jose I spent time at the Rocketship charter schools serving poor Latino children who were producing test score results that approached scores at some middle and upper-middle schools in Santa Clara County. I haven't seen anything like that in Washington, even at the high performing charter schools.

Don't assume educators have cracked the Hispanic student code to academic success. Their dropout rates are abysmal, and their college attainment track record is no better than black students. Additionally, don't assume black students are somehow "failing" compared to Hispanics.

The real lesson is that we need to stop lumping blacks and Hispanics together -- both in terms of how we measure progress and in terms of policy -- as "students of color." The groups have different educational needs.

At successful all-black schools for example, school staffs build cultures based on social justice and employ highly structured curricula that emphasizes verbal instruction, explained one researcher. At successful Hispanic schools you are more likely to see a school culture based on connections to family with teachers employing an unstructured curriculum emphasizing visual instruction.

Lumping the two groups together only shifts attention away from differing strategies that can work for each group. In San Diego, for example, educators attribute the faster gains by Hispanic students to better professional development aimed at teachers tasked with teaching English-as-a-second-language students. Improvements in language then spilled over into math.

Couldn't something similar be developed for teachers in mostly black schools? The lesson: Dispense with the "students of color" category.

Richard Whitmire, author of Why Boys Fail and The Bee Eater, is co-author, with Gaston Caperton, of the upcoming The Achievable Dream: College Board Lessons on Creating Great Schools.

This commentary first appeared in USA Today.