To Upend the Status Quo

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Over the past year, I co-chaired a teacher and parent effort to open the first public charter school in Montgomery County, Md. The plan is quite simple: Open a small secondary school focused just on the academics, and market this challenge to mostly black and Latino youngsters.

The only real solution available for closing the achievement gap is academic rigor.

It is my belief, and that of the other founders, that the only real solution available for closing the achievement gap between these kids and their white counterparts is academic rigor. There is no other answer, or shortcut.

Our charter school effort still has a long way to go, but positive signals from the county board of education make us believe that a fall 2001 opening is a strong possibility.

What follows, however, is not about the "nuts and bolts" of opening a charter school. It is about the resistance we have gotten from school officials when we tell them that ordinary black and Latino youngsters are capable of extraordinary academic feats. We define "ordinary" to mean literally any youngster who walks through the school's door. Other than having the will to do the work, students at our charter school will have no special academic requirements to meet.

Why is this an exceptional notion—that minority youngsters can achieve great things academically? The resistance to it centers, I think, around a number of identifiable fears. And the use of the word "fear" here has little to do with emotions. Instead, think Old English, where the word actually meant "calamity or disaster." Thus, three fears I have identified are these:

  • Fear of failure. Clearly, the resistance we hear coming from many school officials stems partly from their fear that the past will simply repeat itself, and that black and Latino youngsters will once again fail. They always fail. They always disappoint. Now, I will admit, the county's schools have a solid track record that gives credence to this fear. There are far too few black and Latino achievers, and past plans to alter this situation have all failed.

I discussed this dismal record in African-American Males in School and Society, edited by Vernon C. Polite and James Earl Davis. Using W.E.B. Du Bois' turn-of-the-century call for a "Talented Tenth," I suggested that my school system today could barely muster a "Talented 1 Percent" among its nearly 30,000 black students. And this condition has been validated repeatedly by researchers from outside the district, such as A. Wade Boykins of Howard University, Gary Orfield of Harvard University, and Edmund Gordon of Yale University.

So, after nearly two solid decades of failing black and Latino children, it's not really shocking to hear school officials express fearful doubts about our plans to challenge these students with academic rigor. Why believe now? And why encourage a public calamity through a public charter school?

  • Fear of fallout. School officials are afraid of the political ramifications of further failure. This fear can cause even the most rational high school principal to act irrationally. Consider, for example, the all-too-frequent behavior that surrounds SAT scores. For years, the district has had as a goal increasing the number of black and Latino high schoolers taking this assessment. But principals know that in the short run, pushing more black and Latino youngsters to take the SAT may cause the average score to drop. Black and Latino scores are already the lowest on the test, and district leaders have publicly taken principals to the woodshed when average scores dropped in the past. So, it is not uncommon to hear about principals' steering black and Latino youngsters away from the SAT, as well as other academic challenges, such as enrollment in Advanced Placement courses.

I often get calls from parents asking me what to do about school staff members' advising their children or other black and Latino kids not to take the SAT. Usually, I tell them to challenge such nonsense and, if necessary, ignore the school and go it alone. It shouldn't come to this—schools playing the test-score game, or parents going against the school—but the politics of race are never sane politics. And such insanity increases when school officials think in terms of disaster.

  • Fear of change. School officials fear losing control of academic rigor. They fear any serious challenge to the status quo, which in this district is framed by wealth and privilege. To ensure academic rigor, my charter school will offer the International Baccalaureate program in grades 6 through 12. There already are charter schools in the country offering this rigorous curriculum to all comers, and with no specific academic entrance requirements. The IB program also is offered in several of my district's secondary schools, but, to date, it has been treated as a scarce educational commodity, offered mostly to white and affluent gifted-and-talented students.

Frankly, I think this scarce commodity has been used to make white parents feel as though they are getting a private school education for their children without leaving the public schools. Such a prized commodity would be cheapened, in some minds, if just "ordinary" youngsters were provided the opportunity to rise to the occasion and perform this more rigorous work. This is the same simple-minded response heard throughout the country when others have attempted to expose more minority youngsters to both honors and Advanced Placement classes. The more affluent in the community claim that academic standards suffer. Nonsense. Standards never suffer when more is required of black and Latino youngsters.

When I first got involved in starting up a charter school, I knew very little about them. Now I know more than the average educator about charter schools, but I'm still no expert. I have stayed rather narrowly focused on my own school, designing one local neighborhood effort to address and erase the achievement gap.

Standards never suffer when more is required of black and Latino youngsters.

Perhaps by default, though, I have picked up and started using the charter school "talk" about competition. I had heard it all before, but I'm not sure I ever knew what it meant until I got actively involved in a real charter school effort. And from where I sit, it appears as though public school officials are threatened by their first charter school application.

In the past, and even today, officials in my district have insisted that closing the achievement gap was simply a matter of effort. If we just believed more in black and Latino youngsters, things would change. Practically no attention has been paid to changing how learning is actually delivered to students. Charter schools change this reality. We challenge the status quo that says all kids can be educated only in set ways. These new realities may in fact be frightful to those who now control the district.

On the other hand, I find allowing the status quo to stand much more frightening than the risk we are prepared to take by challenging each and every one of our youngsters with the highest academic rigor possible. No one should fear or resist such a future.

Joseph A. Hawkins is a senior study director at Westat in Rockville, Md., an employee-owned company that does government-contracted statistical analysis on education and health research.

Vol. 19, Issue 30, Page 39

Published in Print: April 5, 2000, as To Upend the Status Quo
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