Monday, August 22, 2011

Real Talk.

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.


  1. Totally agree. What we need for a system mired in the belt of mediocrity is transformative change. We can't keep using the same tools that we have been using and expect outcomes for our kids to improve. In areas where TFA has been able to place teachers, we have begun to see radical learning on everything from classroom instruction to systems change. This is simply the result of infusing a system with passionate people who think along the edge of the box. In Seattle, where those types of thinkers are lauded in other fields, why should we prohibit them in our education system? Let's allow a broad range of ideas and thinkers and advocates for students who need advocates the most inside! Let's see what can happen. Let's spend time figuring out how to make the most of this opportunity rather than figuring out how to press hard enough to keep our doors closed.

  2. Who has been opposed to innovation in Seattle? Have the individual teachers been unwilling to innovate, or has the district administration been unwilling to allow them to innovate? Do we really need new teachers who are willing and able to innovate? I don't think so. I think we need either new principals and district administrators who will allow innovation or new policies that allow innovation.

    The obstacle isn't in the teachers so the solution will not be found in changing the teachers. The obstacle to innovation and the obstacle to real improvement lies instead in principals who are unwilling to re-organize their schools in more effective ways around the needs of the students. The obstacles are in district administrators who are unwilling to allow for that sort of re-organization. The obstacles are in district policies, such as those that demand fidelity of implementation, that prohibit innovation.

    The solutions will be found by removing those obstacles, not by replacing a tiny percentage of the teaching staff.

  3. By the way, Ms Van Zanten, the choice of Garfield High School was a poor one for comparing the gap between high performing students and low performing students because Garfield is home to high school APP, the District's program for highly capable students. This school intentionally brings together 400 of the highest performing students in the district. This skews the student outcome data.