When I was a member of the Fairfax County school board, I received a call from a friend. Her daughter had just received her first-quarter marks, including a C in algebra.
The mother was upset, and she made an appointment to talk with the teacher. Later, she called me to report on that conversation.
The teacher had smiled at her and said, "Really, Mrs. Smith, a C isn't such a bad grade."
"It is," my friend responded, "at our house. And I suspect it would be at yours."
When President George W. Bush talked about the "soft bigotry of low expectations," this is exactly what he meant. No one denied this young African-American girl the opportunity to take the algebra class. But neither did anyone really expect she would do very well.
Except, of course, her mother.
It's mothers like this who have suddenly become aware that Virginia's waiver from certain provisions of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act has institutionalized lower expectations for minority students and those with disabilities.
Recently, Virginia became one of 33 states (plus the District of Columbia) to be granted a waiver from some of the parts of NCLB that have caused schools the worst heartburn. Of particular concern was the goal that all students achieve grade-level proficiency by 2014. In granting the waiver, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said that it would allow states like Virginia "to develop locally tailored solutions to meet their unique educational challenges." He also called on states to ensure that all students were prepared for college and careers.
Over the years, NCLB has become increasingly unpopular among teachers, administrators and parents. But there has been widespread support for the law's requirement that schools and districts report how different groups of students are doing.
No longer is it enough to say that "on average," students in School X are doing well. Under NCLB, it has been possible to see clearly, in numbers, that while white and Asian students might be performing very well, African-American and Latino students, and those with disabilities, were not.
That "achievement gap" was something school people had long known about. But like the crazy aunt in the attic, it was something they just didn't discuss. NCLB brought all those conversations right out in the open. If there was one thing I thought we had universally agreed on, it was that the goal of our public schools should be to close those gaps.
That's why the new Virginia plan is so disturbing. It establishes different performance targets for different socioeconomic groups of students. Take the math targets (the reading targets won't be established until after the scores for this year's test come in) for the percentage of students who must pass Virginia's test under the new performance rules.
This year, 68 percent of white students met the math targets, while only 45 percent of black students did. In other words, the achievement gap is 23 percent. By the 2017-2018 school year, Virginia says that 57 percent of black students and 78 percent of white students will need to pass. So six years from now the achievement gap will be at 21 percent.
That is not a typo. Virginia's goal is to narrow the black-white academic achievement gap by 2 points. In six years.
Expectations for Latino students are similarly dismal. Their performance is expected to rise only from 52 percent passing to 65 percent in that same period.
It's not that Virginia's standards are all that high. ACT's Condition of College and Career Readiness, released this week, finds that just 33 percent of Virginia seniors are prepared for college in the four key subjects of English, math, history and science — and African-American and Latino students are doing much worse than their white classmates.
But instead of trying to close the achievement gap, these new regulations will allow it to continue. That's why opposition to the new standards is growing.
"Lowering expectations is a detriment to any child's educational progress and will have a negative impact on the lives of these children," said the NAACP's Rovenia Vaughan. Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus, wrote that the proposal means Virginia will meet its goals "through low expectations. Schools will never improve or close the achievement gap if this is the approach to be taken."
Exactly. It's time for Virginia business leaders, concerned citizens and especially parents to send the same message about these new lowered standards: They're not acceptable — at least, not in our house.