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What I Did Last Summer, Part Two

Dear Deborah,

Okay, I promise, this is the last time I will give you a report on what I did last summer. But this event was so remarkable that I couldn't help but tell you about it. You would have enjoyed being there.

I was invited to participate in a panel discussion about the achievement gap by my friend Henry Louis Gates Jr., who directs the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University. "Skip," as he is known, is certainly the premier African-American scholar in the United States today, and he is also witty and funny. The moderator of the discussion was Charlayne Hunter-Gault, and the other members of the panel were Angel Harris of Princeton University, James Comer of Yale University, Michelle Rhee of StudentsFirst, and Lawrence Bobo of Harvard University. The event was held at the Old Whalers' Church in Edgartown, Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. The church is a beautiful 18th century structure, and it was a packed house of about 500 people.

This was one of the most exciting and informative panel discussions in which I have ever participated. Happily, the DuBois Institute made a video, which you can see here. (Requires QuickTime.)

Charlayne Hunter-Gault asked each of us to prepare to answer two questions: First, what are the causes of the achievement gap among children of different races, and, second, what can we do about it?

In some respects, it was a dispiriting conversation because the problem is so deeply rooted, so persistent, and so resistant to easy answers. Gates started the discussion by pointing out that, when Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, the poverty rate among black children was 35 percent. He said that today, the poverty rate among black children is 35 percent. That shameful statistic set the tone for the discussion that followed.

I was enormously impressed by Professor Angel Harris. If you watch the video, you will see that he brought remarkable common sense and warned against treating exceptional cases or anecdotes as the norm. Dr. Comer emphasized the need for a new model of schooling, one that recognizes the developmental needs of children, especially children who live in the stresses of high poverty. Michelle Rhee pointed to studies showing that "three great teachers in a row" close the achievement gap. I pointed out that this sounds good, but that no district has ever made it happen. Lawrence Bobo did a masterful job of summarizing the discussion.

What struck me about the discussion was that it was so much more enlightened and thoughtful than what we usually hear at the national or state levels or in the usual media coverage. Most panelists agreed that there is a yawning gap between the "reform" policies of the moment and the consensus among scholars who have devoted their lives to studying the issues. How to bridge that gap? How to inject a dose of wisdom, experience, and even just respect for evidence into the national conversation?

Diane

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