On the eve of the state's first gathering to unravel why minority students fare worse than whites and Asians, the state's top elected educator sparked controversy last week when he linked black churches to cultural barriers that hold back African American students.
A San Francisco Chronicle article paraphrased State Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell as offering "the example of black children who learn at church that it's good to clap, speak loudly and be a bit raucous. But doing the same thing at school, where 72% of teachers are white and may be unfamiliar with such customs, will get them in trouble."
O'Connell, who is white, said he meant to fault only the education system, but the comparison led to criticism. The ensuing mini-tempest prompted a follow-up by the local NBC television affiliate.
"This is a big put-down," the Rev. Amos Brown, head of the San Francisco NAACP, told the NBC reporter. "I think that he owes a statement of clarification or an apology."
In an interview, O'Connell said he merely repeated an example offered by Glenn Eric Singleton, an author and school reform consultant. But Singleton is black, which makes a difference to some.
"I've heard from some of my black minister friends to think of another example," O'Connell said.
The controversy underscored the challenge of talking about the subject, let alone doing something about it.
But the state's schools chief nevertheless won more praise than criticism for enabling a frank discussion of the issue at his Achievement Gap Summit, an assembly of more than 4,000 educators, parents, businesspeople and policymakers in Sacramento.
Researchers have long noticed an ethnic academic disparity that seems to transcend poverty. O'Connell took on the issue volubly this year, saying educators must confront the fact that white and Asian children are generally outperforming Latinos and blacks. The education system can and should be modified to ensure that all children learn, he said.
Singleton was among the summit's featured speakers who, one after another, asserted that they did not hold parents or students responsible for failing to seize educational opportunities.
The traditional tendency of educators to blame families has become "the perfect crime," because it faults the victim, he said.
Singleton cited attitudes toward parents as an example of institutional racism: "When we hold that one dysfunctional parent as our mental model for the whole race, it becomes immobilizing for the whole system."
O'Connell concurred, talking of "a cultural bias that impedes instruction. Well-meaning, well-educated people can unintentionally be part of perpetuating institutional racism." The nation's schooling system, he said, "developed to educate white children and remains most advantageous to white children."
Cultural differences among Latinos can undermine gang prevention efforts, said Hector Molina, an administrator in the Woodland Joint Unified School District, west of Sacramento. Some Latino families, for example, don't allow their daughters to stay after school for potentially valuable enrichment activities that could lead them away from gangs.
A possible solution, Molina said, would include offering activities during an extended school day. He said he has also found that occasional home visits by teachers are influential.
The fundamental problem, many said, is inadequate resources, including inexperienced teachers and the lack of enough counselors and college-prep classes.
Author and school reform analyst Richard Rothstein took the issue beyond schools, asserting that blaming educators lets the makers of public policy off the hook for tolerating persistent social inequities. He added that white, suburban children will continue to outscore the poor -- who often are the products of generations of debilitating poverty. To expect otherwise sets up schools to fail and "demoralizes great teachers."
Others offered "I worked miracles and you can too" narratives. These tales of triumph ranged from providing students with breakfast to turning teaching around at an urban high school through data analysis.
O'Connell is collecting "best practices" to distribute to California schools, even though some results are more promising than definitive. His appointed school reform committee will also address the gap, as part of a larger statewide debate next year over the future of California schooling that will involve the governor and the Legislature.
Douglas Reeves, an author and school performance expert, said the winning strategies are almost too obvious, such as assigning teachers based on students' needs and monitoring the performance of both students and school staff. The key is for an entire school to commit to high achievement through the chosen plan and stick with it, he said.
The role of actor Edward James Olmos at the conference was purely inspirational. Olmos, although not an educator, portrayed famed teacher Jaime Escalante in the 1988 movie "Stand and Deliver."
Speaking sometimes in Spanish, Olmos also focused on institutional racism, which became the closest thing to a consensus villain. He decried a curriculum that denies Latino children the benefit of Latino role models.
Olmos was "electrifying," said Monique Navarro, an English teacher at Buena High School in Ventura. "From the outset, he proclaimed, 'There's no equality here. . . .' I have been saying the same thing for 35 years, and nothing has changed.' Other than disheartening me, this reality has reinvigorated me."