Racial gaps in education must
close, official says
Ventura County Star
February 7, 2007
By Timm Herdt, therdt@VenturaCountyStar.com
letters can be sent to: letters@VenturaCountyStar.com
O'Connell hopes to pinpoint root of disparities
SACRAMENTO — Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell on Tuesday called upon educators across the state to redouble efforts to close the achievement gap among different ethnic and racial groups in California — even if it means developing ethnic- and race-specific teaching strategies.
O'Connell said he will ask his statewide advisory group to examine data on low-performing groups, including Latinos and blacks, to look at the root causes and set specific goals for narrowing the achievement gap. He will then convene a statewide summit in November to bring together thousands of educators to help develop specific classroom strategies for underperforming groups.
"We need to honestly use the data we now have and also have an honest conversation — a courageous conversation, some would say — about our individual subgroups and their individual struggles," O'Connell said. "Are there teaching practices that are uniquely beneficial to a specific subgroup?"
O'Connell announced the plans in his annual State of Education address to school officials and education experts.
Plan for change gets support
He noted that results from statewide assessment tests show about two out of three white students score "proficient" or better in language arts, while only about one out of three Latino and black students achieve such scores. In math, slightly more than half of white students score proficient or better, compared to less than a third of Latinos and less than a quarter of blacks.
"There is simply no harder job in education than closing this pernicious achievement gap," he said. "There is also nothing simply more important. Let's approach the job ahead as if our own child were attending a low-performing school."
Most in attendance praised the superintendent's decision to target the issue.
"I think it's absolutely the right focus," said acting Secretary of Education Scott Himelstein, top education adviser to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. "The governor's perspective is the same: We have to take a real honest look at why that's happening."
Paul Chatman, an Ocean View school board member from Oxnard and president-elect of the California School Boards Association, said closing the achievement gap is "the No. 1 issue" facing California schools.
Chatman, who is black, acknowledged there is some concern in minority communities that ratcheting up demands and expectations on students in low-performing schools will inevitably cause some to fail.
"There's nothing wrong with failing," Chatman said. "We shouldn't run from failure, because sometimes people learn through failing. We've had this thing called social promotion, and it hasn't gotten us any place."
Reasons for gap not clear
O'Connell noted that while scores on statewide educational assessment tests have steadily improved across the board, in every subgroup, the gap has not narrowed between the highest-achieving subgroups, Asians and whites, and the lowest-achieving groups, Latinos and blacks.
Income levels and other sociological factors don't entirely explain the gap, he said, citing state data that show 39 percent of white students living in poverty are proficient in school, while only 24 percent of Latinos and 23 percent of blacks living in poverty are proficient.
"What are the other factors?" O'Connell asked. "We need to consider whether institutionally low expectations or other factors are holding specific groups of students back."
Aides to O'Connell said the superintendent will propose specific strategies next year, after 12 months of examining the data and soliciting ideas. They noted that other states have come up with race-specific strategies, citing a Maryland effort to offer all-boy schools in black neighborhoods after data showed that boys who are black tend to learn better in same-sex classrooms.
On other subjects, O'Connell said he will make a strong effort in the year ahead to encourage and support "character education," which seeks to impart in students "old-fashioned values" such as respect, integrity, community service, commitment and tolerance.
He said he will use the visibility of his office to call public attention to schools with positive programs that promote character.
"When strong character is a schoolwide focus along with strong academics — when tolerance and kindness are rewarded and hostility, cliques or irresponsible behavior simply not accepted — schools are safe havens for all of our students to be able to learn," he said.
O'Connell also praised school officials around the state for the progress they have made over the past several years, as test scores have climbed in every subject area in every grade level. He urged lawmakers to stay the course, even as everyone recognizes much more progress needs to be made.
"We want a silver bullet — if not a magic pill, a magic bill — to turn things around now," he said. "I understand the need for a sense of urgency. Let's not, however, underestimate the magnitude of what we're asking our schools to do, or how far they've come. Our schools have indeed made progress worth celebrating."