Chun Ng, a parent of three school-aged kids in Seattle, says he was looking for practical information when he emailed some questions to a schools official last fall.
He didn’t expect the response to be so … blunt. Or philosophical.
“I give them points for being honest and open, but I really didn’t expect them to put this in writing,” says Ng, whose kids all attend South End public schools.
The topic was the school district’s drive to disband its longtime Advanced Learning program, sometimes called the “gifted” classes, in which kids test into an accelerated curriculum starting in elementary school.
Ng wrote asking if the district planned any meetings to notify parents at Thurgood Marshall Elementary, which houses a version of the program, and where Ng has a fifth grader. After some back and forth, the district’s chief of equity, partnerships, and engagement, Keisha Scarlett, wrote this:
“These programs have been created based upon the ‘manufactured brilliance’ of the children of mostly white and affluent families,” she emailed. “Children who are not inherently more gifted than other children but benefit from the resources their families and our systems leverage to uphold to redlining in educational spaces. This promotes a scarcity frame and opportunity hoarding.”
It’s so skewed it can’t be fixed, she suggested.
“I also fundamentally believe that we don’t advance racial equity as a measure toward racial and education justice through a focus on increasing access and inclusion,” she wrote. “These are band-aids to camouflage institutional racism.”
Ng, who immigrated to Seattle from Hong Kong when he was a kid, was floored.
“I didn’t know that increasing access and inclusion have become bad things,” he said.
I’m highlighting the exchange because it sheds light on a movement in Seattle Public Schools that’s building to a head, and is expected to come to a vote, at least in part, at Wednesday’s School Board meeting (Jan. 22).
The program was called the Accelerated Progress Program when my kid was in it years ago, and today is called HCC, for Highly Capable Cohort. It’s the “cohort” part the district wants to get rid of. It means the kids go to classes as a group, two to three grade levels ahead, which is a flashpoint because nearly two-thirds who qualify for it are white.
The HCC program would be discontinued — by 2023 according to a proposal — with kids folded back into regular classes in their neighborhood schools. It would be phased out by next year at one school, Washington Middle School, where the district wants to bring in a tech program instead.
Parents, past School Boards and even newspaper columnists have been calling for years for the district to address the program’s inequities by expanding the opportunities to get into it. An example would be testing every student, or, more aggressively, adopting a sliding scale in which kids disadvantaged by poverty get a lower threshold to qualify, as Miami schools have done.
But the email suggests all that is out because the whole premise is corrupt. It uses a phrase I’ve been seeing a lot lately: opportunity hoarding. It was coined by sociologist Charles Tilly in the 1990s, and it refers to how the powerful can manipulate systems in order to reserve slots for themselves, thereby denying slots to those less well-off.
Undoing such hoarding “is delicate territory,” the scholar Richard Reeves explained a few years back, because “improving rates of upward relative mobility from the bottom comes with a sting in the tail: it requires more downward mobility from the top.”
Does it though? That’s only if it’s all a zero-sum game.
Educational opportunity isn’t a capped resource (at least it doesn’t have to be). In the HCC program, for example, there aren’t a fixed number of slots, like in, say, admission to a selective college. So one kid getting in has no effect on another kid’s chances.
I get why there is such intense frustration in the school district at the racial achievement gaps. It’s been an intractable problem for decades. But it’s never been clear how eliminating a program at the top will translate into a boost for anyone else.
The district says the plan is to offer advanced-learning options at every school. I favor that, as we need more high-octane education everywhere. But we could be doing that already, without tearing down a successful program first (or at all).
Ng, who graduated from Seattle public schools himself, said there’s a philosophical question here that’s bigger than any one program.
“This is a debate about what is the role and purpose of a public school district,” he said. “Is it to get every kid to a basic standard? Or is it to foster the potential of every kid? What the district is proposing here is like Medicaid, sort of a broad safety-net approach. It’s understandable because, like with Medicaid, they have people falling through the cracks. But if you want more than that, I guess you have to go to private school.”
I don’t know the right answer. Can’t we do it all? But as a lifelong public-school person, one who believes the schools are the bedrock holding up the city, I worry about what Ng is hinting at: An exodus out of the system.
In other words, some real opportunity hoarding.