A forum on the achievement gap, organized by State Superintendent of Education Deborah A. Gist at Bell Multicultural High School last night, marched earnestly through all the familiar research that surrounds the issue of African American and Latino 17-year-olds who read and do math, on average, at the level of 13-year-old white kids.
Students of color are more likely to attend inferior schools with less-experienced, less-qualified teachers. Many enter school with massive disadvantages created by family and neighborhood life. Low standards and expectations send tragically false signals to students who get good grades and then find themselves overwhelmed later in college or the workplace.
What gave the two-hour-plus session an unexpected emotional jolt was the presence of several DCPS high school students, brought to the meeting by DC VOICE, a group
that promotes community participation in public education. Some were clearly shaken when they saw the PowerPoint slides showing D.C. schools dead last in one achievement benchmark after another, and even suggesting that their "As" might be no better than "Cs" in districts with more academic rigor.
The auditorium, filled with District education officials and school advocates, fell stone silent when they heard the students' reaction.
"It makes me feel really bad," said Marquis Battle, 16, an Anacostia High senior with good grades who wants to be a veterinarian. "If I went to a better school people would think I was a dummy."
"What makes us so different? Why are we so far behind?" asked Tevi Brown, 16, a Roosevelt High junior who wants to go into international politics.
Panelists who had been holding forth on the bleak findings tried to reassure them.
"There's nothing up there that says you are dumb," said Amy Wilkins, vice president of the Education Trust.
The fault isn't with you." said Shanika Hope, assistant state superintendent. "We have failed you."
Hope also said that the numbers are just that--numerical averages--and they don't pass judgment directly on them.
"It's your determination and character that's going to get you where you need to go," said Hope.
The audience applauded heartily. What the kids were thinking is hard to say.