According to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, 81 percent of all Washington students graduate from high school on time. Locally, our school districts do better than the state average, hovering in the high 80s.
Those numbers are a vast improvement over where they were in 1970, when only about half of Americans finished high school. Today’s students also are learning more before they graduate because of rigorous academic standards, added class requirements, and more engaging teaching methods. Without doubt, we have made progress in improving public schools.
But the graduation data also show that graduation rates still vary by race and by resources. For instance, white middle and upper class kids’ graduation rate is 91 percent, compared to 86 percent for middle and upper class African American students. For both races, only 71 percent of low-income kids graduate. English language learners fare even more poorly, as do native Americans.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal is focused on closing those gaps by finding more ways to target funding to schools where the gaps are widest. He says the legislature has yet to come up with a funding formula that specifically aims resources at schools where these needs are most acute. He will be nipping at the legislators’ heels on these issues in future legislative sessions.
He also will be advocating for increased funding for school counselors and school psychologists, which are in short supply. And while the shortage is regrettable, it’s a measure of progress that the need is finally being recognized. In general, public schools are paying far more attention to the social and emotional needs of students than in the past. This shows up not only in the pressure to hire more counselors, but also in greater emphasis on more positive and less discriminatory ways of maintaining discipline that are restorative rather than punitive. This too is progress.
But while some of the gaps in opportunity and achievement are finally narrowing, schools still seem glacially slow in responding to both overt racism and its more insidious manifestations. Just a couple of years ago, a Confederate flag included in a Veterans’ Day Assembly in Tumwater caused outrage; in the course of apologizing for that, the school district revealed that it had been included in those assemblies for years. That certainly makes us wonder what they’ve been teaching kids about the Civil War and what the Confederate flag symbolizes.
At a recent meeting between North Thurston School District Superintendent Debra Clemens and local parents, an African-American mom reported that her daughter was still hearing the “n word” from other students at her high school. That’s in a district where about half of the students are kids of color, and it is arguably the most progressive among local districts in its response to diversity. North Thurston has a full time Director for Equity and Languages, Kate Frazier, and a strategic plan for advancing equity.
But that plan is mostly about consciousness-raising for school staff; it is silent on the subject of reforming curriculum to change the traditional Eurocentric view of history, or to examine the accuracy of what’s taught about immigration, slavery, the Civil War and reconstruction. (Fortunately, a state law requires accurate teaching about local native American tribes.) Frazier reports that the district is working to ensure that kids of color are fully represented in the books in school libraries and in images that teachers use in classes. That’s good, of course, but we wonder why it didn’t happen decades ago.
It’s also discouraging that so many people believe that it’s income inequality rather than race that really matters. Both matter. It’s certainly true that low wages and rising housing costs create instability and trauma that impede student learning for kids of all races.
But no child in our community should ever hear the “n word” or any other racial slur at school. The fact that high school students still use such slurs means they are still abjectly ignorant. And the fact that a Confederate flag was included in a school assembly so recently means that there are still a lot of teachers and school staff who don’t know much history either. That can only be corrected when all teachers and all children learn the full and accurate history of our nation’s long and unfinished struggle to overcome our legacy of racism.
This is especially urgent now, when bigotry is resurgent and hate crimes are becoming ever more common.
People of color comprise about 80 percent of the global population. Within today’s students’ lifetimes, people of color will be the majority in our own country. Our schools must prepare students for this reality – and for the challenge of reinvigorating our struggle to live up to our nation’s best ideals.