D.C. achievement targets for black students are ambitious, not racist

Courtland Milloy
Columnist September 25, 2012

Double the reading scores of the lowest-achieving students in the District. Quadruple the proportion of students who can read at grade level. In one of the most pitiful school systems in the country? Within five years?

Starting this school year, D.C. students with the worst reading scores will be expected to make quantum leaps in reading proficiency. Even those from the poorest, most-troubled homes will have to make up lost ground by progressing farther and faster than high achievers from the wealthiest, most-educated households.

Realistic goal, or impossible dream?

“Everybody will have to work harder, and everybody will need support — teachers, students, parents,” said Amy Wilkins, vice president of the Education Trust, a nonprofit organization that focuses on ways to improve academic achievement among underprivileged students. “You can’t just tell people, ‘The English textbook will become more complex over the next several years.’ You need to have conversations about the things that must be done now and in the long run to meet the higher standards.”

The Office of the D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education is scheduled to host a “community conversation” at 5:30 p.m. Monday at Amidon-Bowen Elementary School, 401 I St. SW. It’s a step in the right direction. But the questions to be discussed seem more appropriate for an elementary school essay contest: “What is being done now to improve school quality in our neighborhood?” and “What still needs to be done to improve our kids’ educational opportunities?”

How about treating everybody in the room as an adult with a question such as: If just 15 percent of black students are proficient in reading while 90 percent of white students are, is it racist to think that 100 percent of black students will not make it to proficiency as quickly as 100 percent of whites?

Answer: No, it’s not racist.

It’s just the ugly reality of the achievement gap between blacks and whites. What’s racist is allowing it to persist, to widen because of a deep-seated belief that blacks aren’t smart, instead of taking systematic action to close it for good.

Here’s another question for adults: If proficiency among black students is required to increase from 15 percent to 70 percent while proficiency among whites must improve from 90 to 95 percent during the same period, which students do we expect more from?

Here’s an example that Washington Post education writer Emma Brown used in a story last week:

“At Anacostia High, which draws almost exclusively African Americans from one of the District’s most impoverished areas, officials aim to quadruple the proportion of students who are proficient in reading by 2017, but that would still mean that fewer than six out of 10 pass standardized reading tests. Across town at the School Without Walls in Northwest Washington, a diverse and high-performing magnet that enrolls students from across the city, the aim is higher: 99.6 percent.

“Meanwhile, at Wilson Senior High, 67 percent of black students — and 88 percent of Asians and 95 percent of whites — are expected to pass standardized math tests five years from now.”

The goal here is to get all students to 100 percent proficiency. The only issue is how long it will take to get them there. But because D.C. school officials have failed to communicate details of the achievement targets, some black parents believe that the academic bar is being lowered for their children. To the contrary, expectations for low-achieving black students are higher. Much higher. Indeed, it’s a wonder that white parents aren’t demanding that their children get a turbo-boosted education as well.

Now the biggest question for discussion: What does such a turbocharged education look like?

All it takes are strong school leaders, principals who can inspire students the way a Super Bowl coach inspires the team. You need experienced teachers who are in full command of the subject material, who can motivate shell-shocked students like a military officer commanding troops in battle.

You need parents back home supporting the effort, helping any way they can. For the most stressed-out parents, that could simply mean acting like they care.

To set an academic achievement bar as high as the District’s, school officials obviously believe that all students are capable of extraordinary accomplishment in the classroom. A gold star for them. To reach the mark, however, students have to believe it, too, and it takes the best teachers and principals to make that happen.

Can the District do all of that by 2017? The clock is ticking.

To read previous columns by Courtland Milloy, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.

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