It's time for this state to close the achievement gap

Washington state has the unfortunate distinction of being a state where the academic achievement gap is growing in key areas for African-American and Latino students. The sobering reality here is that these students are twice as likely to drop out of high school before completing their degree.

As business leaders working within our communities to raise the level of education excellence, we see the human toll behind these statistics. High school dropouts earn less money and are more susceptible to poverty and unemployment. This breeds the hopelessness that comes with limited opportunities in a world that is demanding higher work skills linked to math, science, and technology.

The good news is that we have the opportunity for positive change during the current legislative session. The $4.3 billion federal competitive grant — Race to the Top — provides us with such an opportunity. These funds are part of the federal stimulus package and are specifically designed to drive education reform across the country.

Why Race to the Top?

Race to the Top moves the focus away from resources (how much we spend) and onto outcomes (how well our students are learning). The goal is success for every student. That’s why we’re committed to education reform efforts that ensure student achievement data are included in teacher evaluation and that we have a strong system that holds schools accountable for results.

The four areas Race to the Top focuses on — effective teachers and principals, turning around low-performing schools, better data systems and higher standards — are the fundamentals for improving our education system, and implementing last year’s Basic Education Reform law (House Bill 2261).

Race to the Top funds could mean between $150 million and $250 million in new funding that could jumpstart the innovations that our schools need. Even without a single Race to the Top dollar, these reforms are necessary to ensure all students receive a quality education.

The status quo is not acceptable, and here is why:

 • The gap in National Assessment of Educational Progress math scores between low-income students and non-income students is growing. It is now 28 points, which is almost three years. This gap is the 12th largest in the country.

 • On 8th grade math, Washington is one of nine states where the white/African American achievement gap is growing, and one of seven states where the white/Hispanic achievement gap is growing.

If we’re serious about increasing student achievement, closing the achievement gap and being competitive for Race to the Top funds, we need to make the following changes this legislative session:

 • Washington needs to ensure that every student has highly effective teachers. Getting there will require a willingness to change and innovate.

 • Boost the effectiveness of all teachers through meaningful evaluations that are based on multiple measures of teacher effectiveness — with effect on student academic growth accounting for at least 50 percent of the evaluation.

 • Based on what we learn through the evaluations, we need to make hard decisions: Support effective teachers, mentor struggling teachers and dismiss ineffective teachers.

 • Provide extra pay for teachers who work in high poverty, high minority or low-achieving schools, or hard-to-staff subject areas, and who demonstrate effectiveness — closing the achievement gap, raising student performance — in low-achieving schools.

 • We also need to make sure all of our students are held to high standards, and that a high school diploma means students are prepared for the challenges of college and the workplace.

 • Parents, teachers and students must begin to do a better job of leveraging the educational support resources required to help bring these low-performing students up to par and above.

Gov. Chris Gregoire and the state Legislature must ensure we have the strongest Race to the Top application possible. It’s the right thing to do for our kids and our state.

Kevin Washington is a committee chairman for Tabor 100, an organization that focuses on enhancement of the economic, educational and political advancement of African Americans. Michael Sotelo is president of the King County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.