I’m a parent of two boys who attend public school in Fairfax County, Virginia. Fairfax County is a very large, mostly suburban school division. It’s the twelfth-largest school division in the country, with more than 140,000 students. It has an excellent reputation as an outstanding school system with high achievement. Children in Fairfax County are generally fairly easy to teach. The median household income in Fairfax County is about $90,000 per year.
At a school board meeting in October 2004, almost three years ago, I stood in front of the school board with this graph ... which compares the level of achievement of black children in Fairfax with that of black children in Richmond, Virginia. Both school districts have about the same number of black children—between 15,000 and 20,000—although in Richmond, black children represent 90 percent of the schoolchildren in that city. In Fairfax, they represent 10 percent.
Across the chart, you’ll notice that the data are pretty consistent: reading, math, science, and social studies in third grade, and the same in fifth grade—all the standardized tests they take in Virginia.
What may surprise you, as I told the school board and the administrators at the time, is that the blue bars represent the city of Richmond, and the red bars represent Fairfax County. On every state test given to elementary school students in Virginia that spring, black children in Richmond significantly outperformed black children in Fairfax County.
…. I wanted to know what it was they were doing there, so I telephoned the principal to ask him some questions. With great enthusiasm, he and several other Richmond principals talked about their successes, which, it turned out, came from the same things I would later learn are at the center of No Child Left Behind. George Mason [elementary school] had to change, the principal explained. All the children were failing. Yet there was nothing radical in what they were doing, he told me. They were simply making every moment of the school day count by teaching in ways that were proven to get results. The hardest part, he said, was changing the mind-set of teachers and staff. But once that was done, everything else was just plain common sense.
What had to come first, he said, was that they had to stop blaming others and making excuses for failure; instead, they had to take responsibility themselves for teaching their students. He said, “We have no expectations of the home. We understand that we can’t count on anyone else to teach our children. It’s our job to do it here in the school. And it’s not easy. So every minute of our school day is precious.”
A comment by the head of instruction in Fairfax County to the Washington Post was quite revealing. She said that Richmond’s progress had little relevance for Fairfax County because in Fairfax County, the vast majority of students were passing. School officials, she said, didn’t want to give up the creativity that comes with current teaching methods. She feared that many in our community would say, “This is not what I want for my child.”
The majority of children in Fairfax County are wealthy and white. They can get by with poor instruction. And majority rules, I guess. The disadvantaged children in Fairfax County—well, I guess they’re simply out of luck.