Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

I learned Tiffany’s name from my daughter. She singled her out once, informing me that Tiffany was the girl who was always getting into fights at school. Somehow, it did not surprise me. I knew Tiffany lived in the lone apartment building at the far end of our Brooklyn street with several other little girls who did not appear to be related. A plain, dark-skinned girl with thick glasses and small, squinty eyes, Tiffany had a square head that seemed entirely too large for her compact, muscular frame. She wore her short hair pressed and stretched back into a tiny ponytail that never remained intact. By day’s end, thin wisps of hair jutted out above her forehead, while remnants of the tail hung limply about her neck.

An overweight elderly woman often watched the girls play from the top floor window, summoning them gently when it was time to eat. One Sunday morning, en route to the corner store, I passed Tiffany. She wore a yellow dress, and her hair had been parted into two small braids tied on either side of her head with bright orange ribbons. I remember thinking she looked cute.

Still, Tiffany remained a fuzzy shadow, and had it not been for a class play at one of my daughters’ school, I might never have entered her world at all. One spring afternoon, I found myself sitting next to Tiffany in the auditorium of my neighborhood school. For weeks, my wife and I had rehearsed our second-grader for her featured role as a lady bug. The principal had invited all the other second-grade classes to observe. Tiffany sat slumped in her seat, while I angled my video recorder for the best view. As the curtain rose to reveal a colorful nature scene the children had painted, Tiffany suddenly turned to me and mumbled in a voice more matter-of-fact than sad, “We never get to do nothing.” Then she covered her eyes and looked away.

Throughout the rest of the performance, as I mouthed my daughter’s lines from my chair, I pretended not to notice the way Tiffany’s feet angrily hit the seat in front of her whenever the audience laughed at a particularly funny line. I glanced at Tiffany’s classmates and saw similar faces twisted into sour expressions and silent pouts. As the play ended, I quickly moved to the stage to congratulate the performers. When I returned to my seat, Tiffany’s class had vanished, but not her words: “We never get to do nothing.”

The following week, I visited the school’s principal, a generally soft-spoken man in his early 40s whose staccato laugh was always a bit too loud. I revealed how much I had enjoyed the play and the imaginative work of my daughter’s teacher. Then I inquired about the other classes. Did they also get to do a play? “Remember who we are talking about,” he explained. “There’s only so much we can do for those kids.”

His words stung me, not because he had said them, but because he felt so free to share them with me, an African-American. I could no longer deny my own snobbery. In our majority-black school district, an innovative scheme to lure middle-class parents like myself back to public schools had been wildly successful. In each grade, students with the proper pedigree were placed in a separate cluster for the “gifted and talented.” These children, mine included, enjoyed the best teachers, smaller classes, an enriched curriculum, exciting field trips, challenging assignments, and the protective watch of the principal. They would never be assigned a teacher like Mrs. Simmons, who screamed at her students, kept a brick on her desk, and made frequent calls on her cell phone. Tiffany was in her class.

We, the parents of the gifted and talented, wore our children’s public-school placement like a badge of honor—the inevitable byproduct of good breeding, enlightened parenting, and high civic purpose. We secretly guarded the boundaries separating our offspring from those other, unfortunate children. It never mattered what the other classes did or did not do. In some instinctive fashion, we truly believed that weak instruction, low test scores, and heavy-handed discipline were as much Tiffany’s birthright as quality education was our child’s.

Over the summer between second and third grade, my daughter and Tiffany suddenly became friends. They whispered and giggled, conspired and played. Tiffany began coming to our house, and my daughter going to her apartment. At first, I admit, I was a little concerned. What could they possibly have in common? But that was before I knew Tiffany, before her funny voices made me laugh, before she squealed in delight when I tossed her in the air, before she treasured the books we presented her on her eighth birthday, before she did a perfect backflip in my front yard, before she ceased being a shapeless tragedy and simply became a kid.

When school opened in the fall, my daughter and Tiffany proudly walked together, soul mates, while I followed a safe distance behind. But the experience, the expectations, the education awaiting them remained so distinct I could taste it. Certainly, there was nothing wrong with wanting the best for my kids. But still, through all the field trips and challenging assignments, I kept wondering: What about Tiffany?

I joined with a few other parents and began agitating for change. We started asking questions. Why couldn’t Tiffany’s class do a play or a science project? Why were her teacher so pointlessly mean and the test scores of her class so dismally low? Tiffany’s plight suddenly intertwined with our own. Her future became our rallying call. We suggested that superior teachers be rotated, that coursework and textbooks be standardized throughout the grade, and that high expectations no longer be the province of the gifted alone.

The response was swift and ferocious. The influential parents of the “talented” fought to maintain the distance, arguing that equity would only bring their kids down. Startled parents of the lower classes also rebelled, claiming that their children could never handle the load. The local school administration balked at the prospect of more work. Teachers resisted the notion of greater accountability and insisted that it was the children’s home life that had sealed their fate. Advocacy groups distanced themselves from the issue as well. As a member of one politely explained, Tiffany’s immediate problems were not really the focus of a well-heeled constituency more concerned with protecting the children of the middle class.

Finally, inevitably, Tiffany announced that it no longer mattered whether she did a stupid play or not. Tiffany was indeed being taught. So much around her repeated the same stark message: She simply was not good enough, pretty enough, or special enough to warrant meaningful attention.

Soon, we “reformers” also faltered under the mounting hassles, the weekly trips to school, the altercations with other parents on the playground, the frosty stares from teachers in the hall. The struggle for Tiffany and her classmates began to affect our own kids and their relationships with their classmates and teachers. Could we really afford to care about Tiffany? My allies and I began to slowly retreat, and, at year’s end, my family relocated to Washington, leaving Tiffany waving meekly from her apartment steps.

Of course, I carried the lessons with me to D.C. Quality public education, a limited commodity, did not come without human costs; in order to declare winners, someone had to lose. In my effort to gather and protect all the resources I felt my children needed, someone else’s child would do without. There simply were not enough motivated teachers and administrators to go around.

It was as if my children, as a result of their background, had been handed a golden voucher at birth, a symbolic passport to a glorious future. What fundamental difference did it make if, in exercising their options, they had to leave some playmates behind? The unexpected answer smoldered at first and then suddenly exploded. After a frustrating year at my children’s assigned D.C. elementary school, I abruptly faced the “gifted” game’s most deadly consequence: On any given day, at any given time, your child, your promise, can easily become someone else’s Tiffany.

At first, I embraced our well-appointed neighborhood school with its modern, open classrooms and stated emphasis on equity and teamwork. Unlike some of my neighbors, I did not automatically equate the overwhelmingly African-American student population, teachers, and administration with inferior results. Instead, I welcomed the opportunity to promote strong community ties. The teachers appeared warm and caring. The principal, a native Washingtonian, reminded me of my grandfather, with his meaty slogans, quick handshake, and breezy tone. Perhaps the new school had actually decided to educate my children and Tiffany, too.

But despite the superior roof, fully equipped auditorium, bright, color-coded hallways, and self-sufficient cafeterias on every floor, our neighborhood school was clearly lacking one essential ingredient: a desire for excellence. Painfully, I realized that in the eyes of many, my daughters—with their dark skin and nappy hair—were nothing more than just another expendable pair of Tiffanys. Suddenly, my children were not good enough, pretty enough, or special enough to warrant anyone’s attention.

After months of canceled field trips, spotty homework, nonexistent projects, and polite but indifferent teachers, I began to panic. Fruitless meetings with a principal who suddenly did not appear so receptive followed, and my fears were later confirmed by the steep decline in my middle child’s standardized test scores. Despite all our efforts, the reading and the museums, the Saturday programs, the after-school enrichments and the how-to books, my daughter was falling behind. As I scurried to the offices of everyone I could locate—the busy school administration, the disinterested community, the impotent PTA, my children’s own teachers—the message was always the same: “There is only so much we can do for those kids.”

In the ensuing months, I attended hearings and pigeonholed both strangers and anointed leaders alike. I turned to the local advocacy community as a final option. Surely, parent watchdogs would want to intervene. They all seemed mesmerized by my story, but never quite enough to get involved. Finally, sensing my growing hysteria, one sympathetic official pulled me aside and urged me to do what he and countless other knowledgeable D.C. parents had done before. He suggested I escape.

As he explained, Washington’s legacy of segregated public education still rests on a tenuous balance between cultures and wards. With a few notable exceptions, the awful truth is that unless you send your child to a school with a sizable number of white students heterogeneously grouped, a stellar public education hovers beyond reach. Some argue that the difference accrues from superior parent involvement, supplemental fees, or stimulating home environments. But my children and I know it is neither fund-raising nor parent committees, high culture nor bedtime stories, that carry the day—rather, it is a system that clearly delivers expectations on the basis of outward appearance.

The following year, I transferred my children to a high-achieving public elementary school across town. They became what is known in the local vernacular as “out of boundary” students. The differences between the two schools were striking.

At the old school, on the announced first day, my youngest daughter and I had excitedly entered her kindergarten class, only to be coolly sent away by her teacher, who informed me, without even speaking to my child, that she had elected not to start her class until the following week. On the way home, my daughter, who had waited all summer to attend the “big school” with her sister, squeezed my hand tightly and cried.

Once class did begin, the teacher had sat glued to her chair in the corner while eager young learners wandered aimlessly about the class. As I watched all week from the nearby cubbies, the teacher remained seated at her desk, failing to even acknowledge the children as they entered her classroom each day. When I complained to the grade leader, the older woman vigorously validated my observation and urged me to take my concerns to the top. When I met with the principal, he indicated that my child’s teacher was nowhere near as sour as some he could name.

The following year, at the new school, the first-grade teacher hugged each child, beamed at their bright faces, and then skillfully transformed the class into a cohesive and literate team.

At the old school, my middle daughter had struggled with a seasoned math teacher who refused to assign homework, relied exclusively on calculators, and acknowledged that her students could not manually perform grade-level computations. With an administrator present, she suggested that if I really wanted my child to master math, I should tutor her at home. At the new school, a committed younger teacher employs two math books, designs engaging oral exams, assigns daily homework, and administers weekly written tests where a mark of 95 or better constitutes a passing grade. Money did not deliver these differences; expectation did.

Each morning, as I commute toward Connecticut Avenue and my children’s new public school, I routinely pass the old one. In the two years since we left, I have come to recognize the faces of their former classmates less and less. In the mornings and the afternoons, our car speeds past the playground where my children once begged for just five more minutes with playmates who no longer call, who jump double Dutch, which they no longer play, who engage in hand games they cannot remember. As their test scores rebound and their classes stimulate, I still miss the neighborhood associations my children will never have.

I persist in my struggle to secure meetings with titled personnel in the new system, to share the things I have seen, to tell them about Tiffany. But I must acknowledge I have no standing at all, for once again I enjoy the fruits of a potent double standard. At what decibel level do I scream now that my own children have been freed?

It’s worth saying again: Little girls like Tiffany are not born but created. Too many children who enter school with equal yearnings soon falter under the harsh light of adult assumptions and American cultural history. Our lowered sights precede their own. If, later on down the road, Tiffany succumbs to the gilded strands of false praise, if she joins a con man’s chorus when he calls her pretty, if she bears his baby alone and then re-creates her own childhood, who are we to condemn her?

In the city’s proposed new academic plan, age-appropriate promotions will be eliminated in favor of strict systemwide standards based on grades, teacher-provided assessments, and standardized test scores. Principal evaluations will be tied to results, and many children will be forced to redo a year. At first glance, the direction seems admirable and necessary. But I know from Tiffany and my own kids that the problem is not children who do not wish to learn, but a system often reluctant to teach.

Besides the certain prospect of repeated grades and mandatory summer school for Tiffany, what portion of the plan will bring art, show-your-work math, grammar, thoughtful assignments, corrected homework, and a committed, competent teacher into her classroom? Which chart details how the city’s public schools will alleviate the stench of low expectations polluting too many of our schools? As it stands now, a chosen few may be rescued; the rest will continue to see their potential fester where it lies.

As I transport my children back and forth to their demanding new setting, I strive very hard not to feel empty. I blanket myself with the memory of parents and neighborhoods that failed to demand excellence close to home. What else could I do except shelter my own? Surely, they have a right to soar. Yet as I whiz past the shiny neighborhood school, I still wonder sometimes if we forfeited more than we gained. In those bittersweet moments, I strain to focus only on my children’s immediate horizon, on their envisioned flight. But, every now and then, I stop and think about Tiffany. Who is looking out for her now? CP