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Schools chief seeks end to learning gap

O'Connell gets praise for his candor on a sensitive topic: persistent lagging achievement among blacks and Latinos.

August 19, 2007|Mitchell Landsberg and Howard Blume | Times Staff Writers

Jack O'Connell, the state superintendent of public instruction, turned heads in education circles last week with the message that race, not poverty, helped explain why African American and Latino students lagged behind their white and Asian counterparts.

It wasn't what he said that was remarkable. It was the fact that he said it at all.

"These are not just economic achievement gaps, they are racial achievement gaps," O'Connell said after his annual release of California's standardized test scores. "We cannot afford to excuse them; they simply must be addressed."

That message was old news to many educational researchers, who have been writing about the issue with increasing urgency for years. But policymakers, particularly white policymakers like O'Connell, have generally been reluctant to discuss race as a factor in student achievement for fear of inflaming racial passions and being seen as racially insensitive.

O'Connell's comments were generally applauded by leading educators, who said it was about time that someone in public life took on a crucial, and hitherto muffled, part of the educational debate.

But some cautioned that there were dangers in beginning such a conversation -- and that, in any case, talk about race was useless without carefully calibrated action to encourage higher achievement by black and Latino students.

"It's tricky to figure out how to introduce it in public," said Ron Ferguson, director of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University and author of a forthcoming book on the subject. He said he worried that such discussions could lead not to constructive changes but to "blame and responsibility and maybe even genetics."

Jeannie Oakes, a professor in the graduate school of education at UCLA who has sometimes been critical of O'Connell, praised him for raising the issue. "It's a new level of candor, I think, about the combination of factors that seem to relate to low achievement," she said.

But Oakes added: "When you go down this path, then we have to be very careful about what we choose to talk about and examine, because it's very easy to fall into stereotypical views, and historical views, of people with darker skin being less intelligent . . . or people from immigrant families and African Americans not valuing education."

O'Connell drew his conclusions from the latest round of standardized test results for California schools. They showed, once again, the stubborn persistence of an achievement gap -- the difference in academic performance separating African American and Latino students from their white and Asian American counterparts. All groups have been making dogged upward progress, but at such similar rates that the gap has not budged.

In the past, the differences between groups have sometimes been "explained away," O'Connell said, by the fact that black and Latino students are more likely to be poor.

"The results show this explanation not to be true," he said.

The test results reveal that, in math, poor white and Asian students outperform black and Latino students whose families are not poor. In English, non-poor Latino students barely outperform poor whites, and non-poor African Americans lag further.

The findings are based on fairly crude measures of poverty. "Poor" students are those who have applied for free or reduced-price meals at school. "Non-poor" students are those who haven't applied, even though some of them might, in fact, come from low-income families.

Nevertheless, the data are in line with various studies over the last decade showing that African American students in particular fare worse than whites or Asians on various measures of achievement, even when they come from middle-class families.

Simply raising the issue brings up several uncomfortable questions: Are there cultural reasons why African Americans and Latinos lag? Do they come from families, or communities, that don't value education highly enough? Do they learn differently from white and Asian students? Are they more likely to go to bad schools with less-experienced teachers? Do teachers hold them to lower standards?

"If you don't acknowledge a problem, there's no way to address it," said Abigail Thernstrom, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute in New York and coauthor, with her husband, Stephen, of "No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning."

But, she said, "Once you say that and once you mean it, then you have to ask yourself what is going on with these kids and you've got to address not only the problems of reading, writing and arithmetic, but all the habits that make for an absence of internalized discipline when it comes to schoolwork, and . . . all the habits of life that make for the possibility of social mobility."

Thernstrom, who is white, has long been willing to suggest that educators and minority families need to confront their own attitudes and habits that, she concludes, are undermining academic achievement.

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