by José A. Cárdenas, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • November-December 1993

Dr. Jose CardenasThe massive underperformance of large segments of the school population cries out for drastic changes in the schools. Minorities, disadvantaged, limited-English-proficient, migrant and immigrant children are leaving our schools in large numbers without the necessary skills for earning a decent living. The number of such children is further augmented by a sizeable percentage of mainstream students experiencing little success in school and the inability of the schools to provide gender equity in male dominated fields.

The outlook for race, national origin and gender equity is not bright, since the lack of value placed on such populations by the larger society and reflected in the performance of the school places a low priority on addressing the problem. School reform efforts at the national, state and local level adhere to a “trickle down” philosophy which demands that these efforts be focused on reforming the basic structure of the school, with a built-in assumption that when the efficiency of the school is improved, educational benefits will trickle down to all elements of the population. This “trickle down” approach in education reform is not too different from the trickle down economic policy of the past decade which exacerbated rather than diminished the economic plight of the disadvantaged in the United States.

The school reform leadership of the country shares the same position as the educational leadership. As I testified in Keys v. Denver more than twenty years ago, educators generally have little insight into the cultural characteristics of minority students and their impact on school performance. Those few that develop such an understanding do little about it in terms of educational practice. And the insignificant number who attempt to address the problem, invariably do the wrong thing.

Problems in the education of atypical students are so pervasive and the effect is so massive that there exists an urgent need to develop a new educational paradigm to meet the old and the new needs in American education. The Jeffersonian imperative of an educated citizenry for the effective performance of a participatory democracy is still with us, and the dissolution of the family and the growth of social problems place an even greater importance on education.

Equal educational opportunity remains an unfulfilled promise in a land based on the concept that all men are created equal. Two more practical forces, however, also require drastic reform in the schools: the changes in the economic bases at the national, state and local levels, and an equally drastic change in industrial efficiency.

As the U.S. economy shifts emphasis from agricultural, mineral and industrial production to information and services, the need for unskilled labor has diminished to the point of disappearing. Our new economic base demands an efficient educational system to provide the work force needed to support global trade.

In their book, Thinking for a Living, Ray Marshall and Marc Tucker make a strong argument for a movement away from assembly line labor to a more sophisticated development-oriented work force if the United States is to meet world competition in industrial production (1992). The present educational goal of producing a worker with proficiency in the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic, who can follow simple directions and knows how to behave, is an anachronism in our new technological world.

I can predict without any reservations that a drastic breakthrough in the education of atypical populatons cannot and will not come about under the existing paradigm for American education. Education is caught in a vicious cycle of deficit perceptions of atypical students, leading to deficit performances, rationalized by the deficit perceptions. Present reform efforts are cosmetic, changing the appearance of education but doing little for the basic inadequacies.

During its twenty-year history, IDRA has been extensively involved in addressing the educational problems of atypical students. For the most part, this involvement has been too small a tail for wagging a very big dog. Success in a massive reform of education lies in IDRA and similar advocacy organizations meeting two goals. The first is to demolish the current educational philosophy that deficits in atypical populations account for their poor performance in schools. This requires the development and establishment of pilot programs that demonstrate that under appropriate conditions the performance of atypical students can parallel the performance of mainstream students. The second is the development of a framework for a massive restructuring of education; that is, the development of a new educational paradigm which will provide in our schools the conditions necessary for equal educational opportunity and comparable educational success.


Cárdenas, J.A., Robledo Montecel, M. et al. (1988). The Undereducation of American Youth. San Antonio, TX: Intercultural Development Research Association.

Marshall, Ray & Tucker, Marc. (1992). Thinking for a Living. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Dr. José A. Cárdenas is the founder and Director Emeritus of IDRA and a nationally recognized expert on educational issues. Comments and questions may be directed to him via e-mail at

[©1993, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the November-December 1993 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]