The meaning of equality

When assessing a high-poverty school, where do you look? Which of the many numbers that present-day schools generate do you give the greatest weight? What goals do you envision?

Differences over this dilemma were laid bare in Charlotte this past week, when former school board chair Arthur Griffin took aim at Project LIFT, a multi-year philanthropic effort focused on West Charlotte High and its feeder schools.

Griffin directed his critique at West Charlotte’s stubbornly low rates of state test proficiency – in 2016 less than a third of the school’s students scored at grade level. He also pointed out that less a third of the graduating class of 2016 qualified for a diploma “endorsement” that met the state’s definition of education’s new mantra: “college or career readiness.”

The criteria for such achievements was not especially rigorous: endorsements went to students who had completed four years of math and compiled a grade point average of C+ or better. Such figures speak directly to those (myself included) who argue that grades matter more than test scores.

Griffin accused Project LIFT of “dumbing down academic expectations.”

“As a community, we can’t institutionally continue to be dishonest and short-change unwitting students and their families into believing you should be satisfied, or ‘encouraged,’ with the current level of student achievement,” he wrote.

Countering Griffin’s assertions was longtime community leader Ophelia Garmon-Brown, co-chair of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force. She focused on West Charlotte’s much-improved graduation rate, which rose from 51 percent in 2012 to 86 percent in 2016.

“Has Project LIFT been successful in making substantial progress toward improving the education – and lives – of students?” she wrote. “The answer to this question is, unequivocally, yes!”

I appreciate the work of LIFT participants, and the daily difference that dedicated staff and volunteers are making in students’ lives. I don’t agree with Griffin’s argument that the program was designed as window dressing. But he is telling a hard truth.

LIFT’s programs – like so many of the “reform” efforts of recent decades – seek to help struggling students do better with the basic building blocks of education, especially those measured by standardized tests. As Griffin pointed out, that has proved a thorny challenge.

Part of the problem, in my opinion, is that such limited goals don’t reach toward genuine equality, don’t aspire to create schools that match the educational riches available at the district’s highest flying institutions.

The argument for such a focus has generally been basics first, other things later. But in multiple decades of this kind of effort “later” has rarely come. Schools celebrate gains, only to stagnate or slide back in subsequent years. Efforts begin anew. The formula does not work.

The problem lies less with individual schools than with a society that has created and tolerated enormous gaps between well-off and struggling families.

In theory, education is supposed to help bridge those divides, creating equal opportunities for younger generations. But when schools reflect deeply unequal neighborhoods, as they do in Charlotte, they magnify the gap instead – not simply in test scores, which measure a narrow range of often-limited skills, but in course offerings, extracurriculars, opportunities to go beyond test preparation and take up more challenging and inspiring tasks. Across the country, few charter or voucher schools have done better – and many have done worse.

While endeavors such as LIFT aid individual students, they also make it possible to imagine that these divides are being addressed, that providing a relatively modest level of assistance, backed up by a corps of volunteers,  will do the trick – or at least enough of it. As Arthur Griffin pointed out, that has simply not proved true.

It’s time to stop focusing on test scores and on “choice.” It’s time to start talking about what equality really means and what it will take to really get there.

For the exchange, see: www.charlotteobserver.com/opinion/article155345349.html