To me, this story represents, in microcosm, what is happening throughout Seattle Public Schools. The District has put a great focus on serving underperforming minority students living in poverty. Unfortunately, they have, as usual, been clumsy in their communication - both internal and external. As a result, they have inadvertently given the signal that they are not interested in serving any other students. People have received that inadvertent sign and responded by taking their children either out of the neighborhood school or completely out of the district.
Some of you might think that the message "We are not interested in serving your White affluent child working at or above grade level" is intentional, but I am not ready to arrive at that conclusion. I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt on this.
Here are some facts:
Seattle and the Seattle Public Schools contrast demographically. Seattle is 70% White; Seattle Public Schools is 40% White. Seattle is an extremely affluent city where the median household income in 2001 was $70,000; over 40% of Seattle Public School students qualify for free or reduced price lunch. Seattle is one of the most educated cities in the country where 89.5% of adults are high school graduates and 47.2% have college degrees; only 61-65% of Seattle Public School students graduate high school.
I think that the District is absolutely right to focus attention on the needs of underperforming minority students living in poverty. I just have three problems with the way they are doing it.
- They talk about it a lot, but they don't seem to know how or what to do. For at least the past six years (perhaps longer), the District has said that their number one goal and priority is to close the academic achievement gap by bringing every student up to standard. Yet they have not introduced any plan of action for achieving that goal. That's either crazy or horribly disingenuous. How can you say "This is my number one goal" and then take no action to achieve it?
The District has very few models of success, none of which come from the District level initiatives, and the District doesn't duplicate those practices when they appear. Look at what is happening at Maple and at Van Asselt. Those schools have proven success, yet those successful efforts are strictly limited to those schools. The District has not made any effort (that I am aware of) to duplicate the strategies, work and results from these schools at others. Instead, the District provides initiatives such as cultural competency, which has not proven effective, and courageous conversations, which have not proven effective. The most recent effort from the District is Flight Schools; only time will tell if that effort will prove effective. The District inititiatives, including the Flight Schools initiative, always focus on educating the teacher instead of educating the students. They have coaches - for the teachers. They have additional training - for the teachers. Where are the coaches and additional training for the students?
The District appears to allow schools which have not proven effective to continue along their current path. It feels like neglect. What changes, if any, has the District demanded at schools which are habitually failing to meet AYP? The law requires the school to write an Improvement Plan, but does the District really provide any oversight or extra resources that will make a difference?
- The District very clearly sends the message that they are not interested in serving high performing students or White students or affluent students. That message comes though clearly and frequently. They actually appear angry at these folks and contempuous of them. This is three kinds of bad. First, it is bad because the District should serve EVERY student. Usually when people talk about serving EVERY student it is code for serving underperforming minority students living in poverty. They need to make it mean EVERY student. To do otherwise is immoral. Second, it is bad because they are not serving the community as they find it. They are failing to serve the actual population of Seattle. This is simply a government entity failing to meet the needs of their community. Third, it is bad because these are good people to have in the public school system. Their children bring in just as much revenue from the State as any other child but they are actually less expensive to educate. The families bring additional resources to the District: money, volunteers, political support, and expertise. This isn't unique to Madrona; the District is driving away their most desirable customers all over the city.
- The District's stated commitment to serving underperforming minority students living in poverty has created a culture in which this effort is glorified. So much so, that the culture actually encourages this model and the associated behaviors. They claim to support parental involvement, but only from the right families. If you're White, then your involvement is a manifestation of White privilege and therefore comtemptible. They claim to want volunteers, but they only from the right families. If you're White, then your free time to volunteer in the classroom is a a manifestation of White privilege and therefore comtemptible. I'm not saying that they WANT children to fail academically, but they sure seem to relish wearing the hairshirt of being an urban district with low achievement. Am I the only one getting that vibe? Am I the only one who has heard District personnel say, sometimes unabashedly "I'm sorry that we don't have the time and resources to support your child's continued success, but we have children here who are failing and we need to give them all of our time and attention first."
The District's distorted vision of equity puts ceilings on student achievement. It's like some Soviet era idea - only instead of "No person should have two cows until every person has one cow." it is "No student should learn multiplication until every student has learned addition." At Madrona that means that none of the kids can have music and art because some of them need more time on task with math and reading. Where is the effort to differentiate instruction? Where is the commitment to teach each student at the frontier of their knowledge and skills? The focus on bringing every student up to the Standard has resulted in no support for students working beyond Standards. The Standards, intended in theory as a floor, have become, in practice, a ceiling.
Maybe I'm seeing all of this from a narrow perspective. I would really like to hear from other perspectives.