I don’t know anyone who cares more or knows more about Montgomery County public schools then Joseph Hawkins, a senior study director at the Westat research company.
He tried in 2000 to start a charter school in the county to challenge low-income minority kids. The Board of Education said no, concerned, among other things, that the charter’s plan to have all students in the International Baccalaureate diploma program was too strenuous.
Hawkins still wants more rigorous classes for the students least likely to be in them. In a recent post on the Rockville Patch blog, he suggested the following: At the eight county schools that offer IB classes, black students must go for the full IB diploma, which requires six three-to-five-hour exams and a 4,000-word research paper. His reasons are interesting.
As an adult, Hawkins wrote, he became friends with his middle school basketball coach, Skip Grant. They ran together. Hawkins asked Grant how to get faster.
“I thought he would give me some really complex training program,” Hawkins wrote, “but instead his advice was two words: ‘Train fast.’ In short, you can’t really improve your real race times unless you practice running faster.”
Hawkins is an expert on school statistics. He said he often thought of Grant’s advice when people asked him how schools can close achievement gaps “between their black and white students, their Latino and white students and their poor and rich students.”
“Now I know it sounds simple,” he wrote, “but to close gaps, schools must make the students who are behind (e.g., black students) run faster. And if they do not, then gaps remain.” He said he italicized the word “make” because “it does come down to a requirement. There is no negotiating excellence and better outcomes.”
In his e-mail exchanges with me, Hawkins usually has numbers to illustrate his point. In the Rockville Patch piece, he wrote that in 2011, there were 796 black seniors at the county’s eight IB high schools: Bethesda-Chevy Chase, Einstein, Kennedy, Richard Montgomery, Rockville, Seneca Valley, Springbrook and Watkins Mill. Only 40 black seniors at those schools were candidates for the IB diploma, which is 5 percent.
“That is not even close to good enough,” he wrote.
Wouldn’t a rule that forced just black students to take the IB diploma be discriminatory? What about other groups? How does Hawkins respond to that?
Hawkins and the other charter school backers said making the IB diploma the ultimate goal would transform the usual easy-going, let’s-get-everybody-graduated atmosphere of the typical U.S. high school. With the IB diploma as the goal, “you might need five years of high school to make that happen for some, and that might include going to school six days a week and not five,” Hawkins said.
Advocates of that 2000 charter school dramatized their commitment to academics by saying the school would not have sports teams. School board members said that was ridiculous. Hawkins said that showed they did not understand what was needed to get kids to their full potential.
“We aren’t demanding enough from those who could use the IB diploma more than most,” Hawkins said.
“The black, Latino and perhaps [low-income] students in these eight schools must be challenged and much more expected and demanded from them academically. . . . Without this, we are fooling ourselves on eliminating achievement gaps.”
I think he is right. I also think no regular-enrollment school would ever do this. But I wonder whether we could revive that plan for a charter that demands the most from every student.