Mission now is to help Seattle narrow the achievement gap
The supreme Court has ruled against Seattle's school-assignment plan. Now, race can rarely, if ever, be considered when assigning American...
Special to The Times
The Supreme Court has ruled against Seattle's school-assignment plan. Now, race can rarely, if ever, be considered when assigning American students to schools, and pundits around the country are either lauding or decrying the legal reasoning behind that decision.
Lost in the din is what will happen to Seattle Public Schools, its students and the real segregation that plagues their classrooms. That segregation doesn't involve the Supreme Court, or whether or not schools conform to prescribed percentages of white and black — it's about how well Seattle's students are learning.
And the numbers aren't good. Seventy-eight percent of Seattle's white, public-school seventh-graders met standards on the reading portion of the 2006 Washington Assessment of Student Learning. But only 34 percent of the city's black students hit that mark.
It's even worse on the 2006 math test. While 67 percent of white seventh-graders met standards, a mere 18 percent of black seventh-graders did. That's almost a 50-point difference.
Thus looms the achievement gap, a much more insidious form of segregation than that which garners all the headlines. Achievement gaps are less noticeable than schools with racially monolithic hallways and lunchrooms, but their effects — students who are passed from one grade to the next and who will leave school woefully uneducated — are not.
Other urban districts have battled achievement gaps with creativity. But Seattle, one of the nation's most-educated and most-innovative cities, has confronted the problem with a dispiriting shortage of both inspiration and urgency. One example: When Referendum 55, which would have upheld a new state charter-school law, was on the ballot in 2004, the city's School Board was out in front opposing it.
The first thing Seattle Public Schools should do is block out the national headlines. It should forget about the Supreme Court and the legal issues, and focus on providing a great education for all of Seattle's students. That doesn't mean ignoring massive achievement gaps, but it does mean that concerns about diversity in schools need to be set on the back burner, at least for a while.
And on the front burner? Yup, you guessed it. Bringing public charter schools to Seattle. Simply put, charter schools offer the best hope for narrowing urban achievement gaps.
That's because public charter schools are not subject to the same strictures as regular, district schools. Charter-school principals can hire and fire their staffs, set their own curricula, and have the freedom to embrace educational practices that work and discard those that don't. In short, they have the freedom to innovate and do whatever it takes to educate their students.
And lots of times, that innovation pays big dividends. There are more than 50 KIPP charter schools across the country, for example, and most are in urban areas. About 80 percent of KIPP's students come from low-income families, and more than 90 percent are black or Hispanic. Nearly 80 percent of KIPP alumni have matriculated to college.
KIPP schools have found a winning formula (uniforms, extended learning time, motivated and excited teachers), but it's one that just isn't possible in regular district schools, which are controlled by bureaucratic central offices. Providing solid educations for inner-city kids is difficult when schools remain handcuffed by old-style rules and regulations, and when their creative tendencies are stifled.
Sadly, Seattle's School Board has been predictably hostile to charter schools. In addition to opposing Referendum 55, board members consistently tout their anti — charter-school credentials. And Washington state still has no viable charter-school law — one of only 10 such states in the country.
Change is long overdue. Unions and their allies have been heretofore successful in convincing voters that charter schools are somehow undesirable, but the lousy test scores are starting to pile up. Parents will realize that while Seattle Public Schools is busy fighting court battles, and while policymakers are busy working against charter schools, thousands of black students are learning next to nothing in the city's classrooms.
Now that the Supreme Court has made illegal most racial considerations in school assignment, the district has an opportunity to refocus its attention on providing a good education to all students and closing the noxious achievement gaps in its schools. Whether or not it tackles those challenges with innovation and vigor remains to be seen. Note: The status quo, diverse classrooms or not, hasn't worked. Time for something new.
Liam Julian is a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and writes frequently about education and race.
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.