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Race Key To School Fix

July 24, 2005
Michael C. Williams

Whether in education, health care, safe and affordable housing, or crime and poverty, there is clear evidence of disparities solely along racial and ethnic lines. The disparities are even more dramatic in Connecticut, where the gap between the wealthy and the poor widens daily. Yet we in this state seem unable or unwilling to confront these issues of race.

Connecticut is one of the top three states in the nation in academic achievement for white students - and one of the five worst states in academic achievement for black and Latino children. The 2004 Connecticut Mastery Tests show that in Hartford, white children performed at least four times better than African American and Latino children - notwithstanding such factors as family economics, housing and parenting.

Therefore, if race and ethnicity are major contributors to the achievement gap, they must be major factors in closing the achievement gap. This is my concern - not whether white teachers can teach black children, the question that headlined a controversial news article last week and caused a firestorm.

In formulating solutions, I begin by asserting that structural racism exists within the Hartford Board of Education. According to the Applied Research Center, a California think tank, structural racism is the normalization and legitimization of dynamics - historical, cultural, institutional and interpersonal - that routinely advantage whites while producing adverse outcomes for people of color. Structural racism is apparent in every major quality-of-life indicator in the United States.

Hence, I consider it irresponsible for any public policy-maker or administrator in public education, particularly in an urban educational system, to deny the existence of structural racism. It is the responsibility of Hartford's school board leaders to eliminate the disparity in achievement caused by race and ethnicity.

I believe a comprehensive affirmative action plan could create a culturally competent educational system. The majority of organizations that do this work well in Connecticut would agree that we are not talking about a "quota" system; those who are fearful of honestly addressing affirmative action use that word as a distraction. My plan would assess policies, practices and procedures to identify areas that are not responsive to the diversity in Hartford. This plan could begin to dismantle the structural racism within the school district.

Unfortunately, there is no plan guiding the recruitment and retention of teachers to this end - and measuring the district's performance with goals, objectives and targets. In addition, there is no person responsible for managing complex multicultural issues on a day-to-day basis in the district. Therefore, when such issues surface - as they did recently at the Simpson-Waverly Classical Magnet School - the district's response is inadequate because the capacity is not there. The district must create such capacity so that all teachers and staff members from various racial and ethnic backgrounds are positively supported when racial and cultural conflicts occur.

I am amazed and somewhat offended that the discussion regarding race and education becomes volatile so quickly - and the opportunity for honest and open dialogue dissipates because of society's fear of the race issue. I cannot help but equate my experience as an African American male who has struggled to have at least dialogue if not action on this issue with the experiences of other historically oppressed groups in this country. If the achievement gap that we see daily was based solely on gender - if girls were woefully outperformed academically by boys - I am sure the solution would be to create a gender-based strategy urgently to close the gap. No woman would accept in that scenario a school system with a teaching staff of 80 percent men and 20 percent women.

I take offense at the cry of reverse racism when I advocate that the racial achievement gap needs a race-based solution. Is not race equally important as gender? If we are serious about closing the achievement gap in Hartford schools, the question is not whether whites can teach black children. The more serious questions are why less than half the ninth-graders entering Weaver High School graduate; why there are so many more black and Latino children in special education than white children; why there is such a high suspension and retention rate of black and Latino children starting as early as kindergarten.

Dialogue must occur - not in The Courant but in the communities of Hartford.

Michael C. Williams is vice chairman of the Hartford Board of Education.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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