On April 27, 2014, hundreds of high school students and others in Montgomery County participated in a march to raise awareness about closing achievement gaps. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
Columnist

Joe Hawkins learned early how much trouble he could get into as an educational researcher, particularly when he reported problems in his high-performing but self-congratulatory school district in Montgomery County, Md.

In 1981, Hawkins, as an evaluation specialist, was the first researcher to identify publicly the district’s black-white achievement gap. When he and a colleague published their results in the College Board Review, a school board member asked why school employees were putting out negative information.

It has been like that his whole career, ending this year at age 68 with his retirement from the position of senior study director for the survey research firm Westat. Few people know his name, but Hawkins has made important discoveries on many issues and been a valuable resource for education writers like me.

He grew up in the Washington area, got a bachelor’s degree in anthropology at Boston University and trained as a reading specialist at Howard University. He has an activist’s temperament. Few researchers have stuck their necks out as far as Hawkins has.

He became particularly notorious in 2001, shortly after he moved to Westat, when the Montgomery County Board of Education — for reasons that still make no sense to me — turned down a proposal by Hawkins and several brilliant Montgomery educators for the Jaime Escalante Public Charter School.

Joe Hawkins in a May 2017 photo. (Andrea Blackman)

The idea was a sixth- through 12th-grade campus for 400 students who were not realizing their potential. Most would be black or Hispanic, the plans said. It would use International Baccalaureate, the most demanding secondary school program in the country.

People who live in affluent suburbs like Montgomery often feel that independently run public charters are just for low-income places, like some D.C. neighborhoods. Despite the fact that the proposed school would have been the first charter in the county, the school board rejected it as not unique. The board was so determined to kill the idea that it overruled Schools Superintendent Jerry Weast’s recommendation that it work with the charter advocates to improve the plan. The board refused to spend another minute on it.

“That was a hurtful defeat,” Hawkins said. “We could not even get a board member to drive into D.C. and visit a few charter schools.”

He continued to gather data and spout off in print. In 2000, right after Weast became superintendent, the average combined SAT score for reading and math for black students in Montgomery was 915 and for white students 1153, Hawkins noted in one of his online columns. The gap was 238 points. Fifteen years later, the scores were 938 points for blacks and 1186 for whites. Both had gone up, but the gap, 248 points, was larger.

“The Board of Education never stops talking about gaps,” Hawkins said. Yet they ignored imaginative solutions such as Hawkins’s proposal to put all black, Hispanic and low-income students on a single IB track.

I asked Hawkins recently what he thought of charter schools that require all high school students to take several Advanced Placement or IB courses and the critics who say that is too much for impoverished children.

His email in reply seethed with exasperation. Such people, he said, only want reform that “plays around the edges.” The country has a learning gap, he said, because most minority children from low-income families “are simply cruising the academic highways at 35 miles an hour while their counterparts never drift below 65 mph. . . . You cannot narrow or close gaps by equaling the speed of those that are ahead of you.”

During his 18 years at Westat, he studied programs in the District and Pennsylvania and spent much time on the Youth Risk Behavior Study for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He said all that information convinced him we need “something that will radically and drastically alter the education landscape for our kids of color, especially the ones who are poor.”

In his view, Montgomery County has good schools. He sent his two children to them. But the numbers tell him even what that favored district is providing is not nearly good enough.