It isn't racism that's oppressing Seattle Public Schools students, it's inflexibility

The most successful schools set high standards and make adjustments when something doesn't work.
The most successful schools set high standards and make adjustments when something doesn't work.

There they go again. As Alex Fryer reported in The Seattle Times, Seattle Public Schools board members want to make sure new candidates for superintendent can talk the talk of socially constructed racial bias. While nearly three-quarters of white SPS 10th-graders passed all three parts of state achievement tests, less than one-quarter of their black counterparts did. A big cause is thought to be "institutional racism," which, as Fryer reports, the district defines as, "an indirect and largely invisible process that operates automatically and results in less access to services and opportunities of a society based on race." That's vague and misguided. Better to start with stuff that's direct and visible. Underachieving students of any race need strong parental involvement in their education – extending to the shaping of the home environment, and their values and social lives. Schools need to provide higher expectations, more focused college prep curricula, and the extra attention needed to help students cross over. Yet sometimes, the necessary focus on "crossover" kids can come at the expense of those already well-situated. In another recent story, the Times reports that has occurred at Seattle's Madrona K-8, with a dollop of perceived anti-white bias thrown in the mix. It is disturbing that the school's principal says parents of higher-achieving white students who transferred out had unreasonable expectations, a reference to requests for art, music, and foreign language courses. Interestingly, the head of SPS's office of equity and race relations, Caprice Hollins, tells Fryer that while she can identify no specific examples of institutional racism in Seattle schools, she does think summer break hurts struggling students. She's right about that. Seattle Times metro columnist Danny Westneat, an ex-Madrona parent himself, Well, yes, let's: Those are just the kind of conversations we should be having. Longer school years and longer school days to accomodate more demanding coursework for low-income, low-performing students can most likely occur by working around teachers union mandates. Just such flexibility, and a close focus on underachieving minority students, are hallmarks of public charter schools – approved by the Washington Legislature in 2004 but sadly overridden in a state teachers union-backed referendum months later. One result: Seattle parents with enough money have continued exercising their own brand of "school choice," sending their kids to private schools or moving to suburbs, while SPS enrollment plummets and painful but necessary school closure decisions multiply amidst angry shouts of – you guessed it – institutional racism. Before apologetically carrying that mantle any further, SPS board members and administrators would do well to read Our School, a profile of San Jose's remarkable Downtown College Prep, serving struggling Latino students. It's written by ex-San Jose Mercury News reporter and columnist Joanne Jacobs. As it happens, Jacobs – also an A-list education blogger – will be in Seattle this Wednesday, April 4, to discuss her book and what she learned in her three-plus years immersed at DCP. The limited-space event is sponsored by the University of Washington's Center On Reinventing Education; Seattle school board members have been invited. (Full disclosure: I'm a friendly blogging acquaintance of Jacobs' and will be hosting a small gathering in her honor while she's here). So what so noteworthy happened at DCP? With deep community support, rigorous courses and promotion policies, unforgivingly tough discipline, and local school district backing – not to mention longer school days plus remedial and accelerated summer classes – the charter school has become a real gateway to academic mastery and college success for some of the hardest cases. Importantly, DCP teachers and administrators confronted their own missteps openly and forcefully, something today's entrenched Seattle educrats eschew. Jacobs is quick to point out not every kid makes it and that charters alone aren't a silver bullet, but that good ones like DCP embody much worth encouraging. Advancing a similar message is Denver's new school superintendent, Michael Bennet. As The New Yorker reported, he imposed the state's toughest graduation requirements and even closed down Manual High School, which predominantly served low-income Latino students, "to show how intolerant of low expectations he planned to be." A revamped Manual is to open in the fall. Whether from San Jose's DCP or Bennet's attempt to right the ship in Denver, there's a lesson for Seattle on minority academic acheivement that is far richer than our school board's nose-wrinkling at "indirect and largely invisible" racial bias. Standards and expectations matter. If better-prepared white students aren't well-served across the Seattle distirct, they will continue to leave. And if poorer minority students with no alternatives to Seattle's union-run public schools aren't better served, they will continue to make do without a four-year college degree and without full literacy, numeracy, and opportunity. In fact, if "institutional racism" can be said to exist at all in the Seattle Public Schools, it is largely a result of barriers to real school choice and excuse-making.


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