The only way to accurately describe the achievement and opportunity gap in Washington State is…striking. Having attended college in the Seattle area, surrounded by some of the brightest and progressive minds I have ever had the pleasure of learning with, I would have never imagined that our public schools told a much different narrative of utterly evident disparities between white students who come from middle-high income families and students of color who are from lower income backgrounds. Indeed, such injustices can, and have historically, hidden behind a city beaming with plenty of caffeine, culture, progression, and water-proof sneakers. The truth of the matter is, however, that Washington is one of only a handful of states where the achievement gap is actually widening with time, and the reality of what opportunity and choice looks like for too many of our kids demands our most urgent and courageous steps forward.
And what might this look like, from a more concrete standpoint, you may ask? Let’s start at the beginning, when students first enter the public school system. 50% of incoming kindergartners are not prepared to succeed in the classroom, and are in need of severe remediation from day one. At the elementary level, the contrast of race and income becomes more defined. As showcased in a case study between Bryant Elementary, where students are primarily white and middle/higher income, and Northgate Elementary, where the student population is primarily lower income and students of color- Bryant’s third graders scored 40% higher in math and 60% higher in reading than Northgate’s third graders. These trends, mind you, can be found in many of Washington’s elementary schools, and often can be seen as factions within the same classrooms.
At the secondary level, the chasm between race and income persists and is expansive across the board. To take a local case study, at Garfield High School, students of color and from low-income backgrounds are as far as 70% behind their white peers in math, and 25% in reading. Data can also support that these extremes are representative of the extremes between other schools in the district. Moreover, Washington is 46th in the nation for odds of students going to college by age 19; while the fact remains that 67% of Washington jobs will require post-secondary degrees by 2018.
So. Many have been asking and wrestling with these questions of “why Seattle?”, “why now?”, as education reformers propose changes that threaten the current state of opportunity in Washington. And the truth is that the current state of opportunity is, and has historically been, bleak and inequitable at best. In an ever-globalizing and technological world, every minute spent not strategically addressing these disparities is pulling our state, our city, our communities, our families, and most significantly, our students further into a hole that is getting deeper everyday. All of Washington’s students are tomorrow’s thinkers, leaders, teachers, builders, and workers; and we are doing a poor job at preparing them with the necessary skills and mindsets. To settle for the persisting status quo, to let these numbers stand and expand as they will almost certainly continue if stark changes are not made, is unacceptable. We can and must do better.