by Amanda Zhang
Last year, Brandi Grayson and Alix Shabazz characterized Madison in an article for the Guardian like this: “There have always been two Madisons.” They were speaking specifically on the police violence that was responsible for the death of Tony Robinson, but the sentiment remains true, especially when it comes to education.
As I started my final year at Madison West this fall, more race-conscious than in previous years, I took a look around my AP and honors-level classes and saw few people of color in those classes with me. Over the summer I had listened to NPR’s podcast “This American Life” for the first time. The first episode I listened to was called “The Problem We All Live With” in homage to Norman Rockwell’s iconic painting of Ruby Bridges during the era of school integration.
The program went on to discuss the Normandy School in Ferguson, MO, the same high school Michael Brown graduated from before he was killed last year, detailing the failed efforts of school reintegration.
The problem of racially segregated achievement was obvious in Normandy, and was only exacerbated by the objections expressed by white parents against the effort of reintegration. In Madison, a city widely known and celebrated as being liberal, the oft-overlooked problem of the racial achievement gap is just another example of the existence of two Madisons.
In 2012, Wisconsin was reported as having the worst achievement gap in the nation. This is perhaps most visible in our own Madison Metropolitan School District. The end goal of secondary education, supposedly, is graduation, and graduation is indeed on way of measuring the achievement gap.
At Madison West, the statistics are alarming: about 50% of African American students are graduating in comparison to 85% of their peers. But, another look at the continuity of primary and secondary education reveals that it shouldn’t be all too surprising.
It is a simple fact that Madison neighborhoods are economically and racially divided. This has a hugely significant impact on the success of minority students as early as elementary school. For example, Shorewood Elementary reports 77% of their students identifying as white or Asian, and only 30% coming from low income families. In contrast, Leopold Elementary reports that 75% of their student body identifies as a racial minority, and 73% come from low-income families. The students from Shorewood Elementary scored significantly higher on MAPS test than students from Leopold.
The racial demographics of each and every school, along with a calculated standard for achievement in the entire school district, can be found on MMSD’s website, and takes no longer than a few minutes to assess. For high schools, in addition to graduation rates, the standard for achievement is measured by course failures (two or more) in grade 9 and GPA (3.0 or higher) in grade 11. The statistics are grim.
Having myself only gone through Madison’s secondary schooling, I had no idea that the problem is far more systemic than administrators would probably like to admit. One look at the aforementioned statistics for elementary school profiles reveals that the racial achievement gap problem starts far earlier than a black student’s failure to graduate.
The immediate liberal knee-jerk reaction has been to hold the school “system” culpable — hence the onslaught of race-conscious programs intended to close the gap. But what we should be concluding is not that the school system holds all the fault for the achievement gap. Of course, teachers and schools and their policies do have a significant impact on the well being of their students, but crediting the entire scope of the achievement gap solely to performance in school and school policies is a dangerous oversimplification.
Rather, pre-existing structural economic inequality that disproportionately disadvantages minority students in Madison is only exacerbated by inadequate schooling. Slapping a band-aid solution on a racially-charged education problem by offering up more programs and initiatives as the end-all solution isn’t going to close the achievement gap.
For students, this can seem hopeless; for teachers, perhaps even more so. We’re all rooted in an unfair system. A few policy changes here and there won’t solve for the underlying root causes of inequality. We must first acknowledge that the achievement gap is a symptom of wider structural economic and social inequality before we scramble to try and fix it.