Whether the measure is test scores, graduation or special-education rates, Washington’s black students as a group fare worse than their white and Asian American counterparts.
That’s unacceptable and it’s got to stop now, say members of a state advisory committee. Committee members met Thursday in Tacoma to work on their legislative mandate: analyze the academic performance gap between black children and other ethnic groups, and recommend a comprehensive plan to erase it.
“I think it absolutely has the potential for us to make a difference,” committee co-chairwoman Mona Bailey said in an interview. But the longtime educator added, “It cannot stop with the Legislature. It has to include the community, parents, students accepting responsibility and obviously schools and school districts.”
Bailey says it’s a historic opportunity. The Legislature allocated $150,000 last session to create the 15-member panel of educators, parents and community representatives. While other initiatives have addressed the achievement gap for disadvantaged students in general, there hasn’t been “a thoughtful, comprehensive and inclusive strategy for African American students,” the legislation says.
Meanwhile, the ubiquitous gap has continued to fester.
In each of the past 10 years, black students had the lowest passing rate of all ethnic groups on the math section of the 10th-grade Washington Assessment of Student Learning. This year alone, 22 percent of black 10th-graders passed the math section compared with 55 percent of white students and nearly 63 percent of Asian American students.
On-time graduation rates reveal another disparity.
In 2006-07, nearly 69 percent of black students graduated within four years of entering ninth grade, compared with three-quarters of white and Asian/Pacific Islander teens. Graduation rates were even lower for Hispanic students (60 percent) and American Indian students (49 percent).
Acknowledging that the achievement gap afflicts other minorities, as well, the state also approved bills last session funding separate studies and improvement plans for Pacific Islander, Asian American, Hispanic and American Indian students. Those efforts are led by the respective group’s ethnic commissions. All the plans are due by Dec. 30.
The committee looking at the black achievement gap has studied reams of research and heard from numerous education experts since it began meeting in May. One of the ideas under consideration is to propose creation of “Millenium Schools” in Tacoma, Seattle and Spokane, incorporating the best practices to raise student achievement of black youth. The schools would be demonstration sites that other educators could visit and learn from, committee member Thelma Jackson said at last week’s meeting.
The committee also heard examples of what’s worked in the Federal Way and Clover Park districts. Federal Way schools chief Tom Murphy and former Clover Park schools superintendent Doris McEwen shared some of the strategies they used to raise the achievement of minority students.
Both said it starts with leadership from the superintendent, support from the school board and a willingness to have “courageous conversations” with staff and community.
“The belief system is critical. If the leader does not believe every child in that district can be successful, then not every child will be successful,” said McEwen, now the Distinguished P-12 Educator at the University of Washington.
To increase the number of minorities in gifted programs in Federal Way, Murphy decided each elementary school should have one instead of grouping children districtwide into one of three regional programs. He required principals to recruit and choose children so that the program’s racial makeup reflects the overall population of their school.
The district also holds principals responsible for raising the achievement of all student racial groups. Under the federal accountability system, a school could achieve its testing goal for students overall, yet have a small concentration of minority students who didn’t pass the test. He tells principals he wants to know the names of teachers whose students weren’t successful.
“Let’s measure all children. Let’s not paint it with a broad brush,” he said. “If we don’t get to that kind of conversation, we won’t solve that problem. We’ll continue to create screens behind which systems can hide.”
In the Clover Park district, raising minority kids’ academic performance ranged from training staff in poverty issues to busing students to summer school to hiring more minority staff.
“I would go so far as to say I will not sign your employment requisition ... til I know you have actively, actively recruited a person of color,” McEwen said.
Not everyone was ready for the district attempts to close the achievement gap.“The pushback came from ’all that she wanted to focus on are those kids who are not making it.’ “ she said. The effort, however, “will never keep me from not focusing on every child. How can you have a district be successful if you dont pay attention to every child?”
Debby Abe: 253-597-8694to learn more
Go to the state Center for Improvement of Student Learning at www.k12.wa.us/cisl. Watch the Web site for updates on public forums on the issue of student achievement.
A student talks frankly about what it takes to succeed. A6
Here are some ideas under consideration by the Committee on Closing the Achievement Gap for African American Students:
• Set a numeric goal and deadline to raise the number of black students who graduate on time.
• Set a numeric goal and deadline to raise the number of black students who won’t need remedial courses when entering college, vocational training or the workplace.
• Collaborate with teaching programs, the State Board of Education and other entities to establish “cultural competency” requirements and training to ensure teachers and administrators work effectively with students of diverse backgrounds.
• Recruit highly qualified special-education and gifted program teachers and specialists who understand cultural needs of black students.