Editorials

Editorial: seattletimes.nwsource.com, December 23, 2011

Other cities might help Seattle close achievement gaps among black students

By Paul T. Hill

AFRICAN-American students are lagging behind other students, including other black ethnic students whose home language is not English, according to new numbers released by Seattle Public Schools. ["'Alarming' new test-score gap discovered in Seattle schools," page one, Dec. 19.]

This is an important problem that other cities have confronted head-on. First, they have admitted they really don't know how to solve the problem. Second, they acknowledge that the normal remedies school districts use to solve achievement problems are too weak to work.

These admissions have led other cities to open themselves up to experimentation in schools serving the most disadvantaged: longer school days and years; no-excuses instructional models; new sources of teachers; partnerships with businesses and cultural institutions that can provide enrichment and role models; use of online instruction to teach subjects like science where school staff are often not qualified; new schools run by national institutions with track records of improving achievement for the most disadvantaged.

It is good Seattle is now aware of this tough challenge. But the diagnosis of institutional racism offered by a School Board member is unproductive moralizing. African-American students do not suffer from a deficit of good intentions in the public schools. To improve results for the students affected, do we really need to mask what real actions must be taken now? Breast-beating only discharges energy that can better be used otherwise.

The solutions other cities have tried are not guaranteed to work. But they have produced some success. What matters as much as what a city tries is its attitude — of determination to look for solutions anywhere they might be found, acknowledge failures and small successes, but keep searching for better.

This is how New Orleans has brought kids who were as much as five years below grade level after Katrina gradually up to speed. That is how New York increased the graduation rate for the poorest students by more than 40 percent. Those places knew there was no magic bullet. In fact, they are still struggling with the problem despite making headway because they were willing to try new ideas.

Is Seattle willing to adopt this attitude? It means treating each school as an experiment that will be closely watched and changed and possibly closed or restaffed if it's not working. It means freeing up money, time and hiring so that schools can run differently than state staffing rules and collective-bargaining agreements mandate. It means creating a new relationship between the school district, particularly the board and superintendent, and the public. Not "We have the answer, trust us," but "We are looking for new ideas and we will be candid about what works."

It means opening the district up to new ideas and seeking support from philanthropies on our doorstep that have decided the Seattle district is too rigid to work with.

A serious attack on the achievement gap between African-American students and all others would require a big change in how the district runs. Why not commit to it now and use the superintendent vacancy to find someone who wants to lead a serious search for what works for the kids our schools are leaving behind?

Paul T. Hill is director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, Bothell.

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