Students are excused at the end of their school day in front of Walter Reed… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )
Pasadena teacher Scott Phelps sparked a community firestorm when he famously proclaimed nine years ago that unruly black students were to blame for dismal test scores at John Muir High.
Teachers can't concentrate on teaching, he said, because they spend too much energy trying to change the behavior of boisterous, disrespectful African American teenagers, students who "are not like them."
The claim, in a letter to fellow teachers, raised such a ruckus at Muir High that Phelps — an award-winning science teacher with a master's degree from Caltech — had to be escorted off campus and put on leave for his own protection.
Weeks of forums and community meetings made it clear that Phelps had touched a tender spot.
Black teachers echoed his concerns, students defended his passion, and African American parents agreed that too many black teenage boys in their community were not being disciplined or guided at home.
I wrote about the fracas back then, and it has stuck with me. It was a powerful reminder that even clumsy conversations about culture and race can help a community coalesce.
I share it now because, as colorblind as we might like to be, the impact of race and culture hovers over every discussion of public school performance in California.
I'm not going to dissect the subject here. The standings are familiar to anyone who's been paying attention to education.
Asian American students, as a group, outperform their white, black and Latino counterparts in California. They flock to good schools, make mediocre schools better and rise to the top of the academic heap.
That's a stereotype, of course, just like Phelps' characterization of rowdy black kids running wild and ruining his campus. Or, to borrow the teacher's words, "empirical observations of behavior that are totally supported by data."
Data like the fact that 45% of the freshmen classes as UCLA and UC Berkeley are Asian or Asian American. Take that at face value and you're left clinging to another cultural stereotype: The answer to educational inequity is "Tiger Mom" tactics for everybody.
It's not so much the stereotypes that trouble me and trip us up. The danger is letting those broad-based group assumptions simmer, unacknowledged and unchallenged, until they begin to direct our thoughts and actions.
I've talked to teachers with years of experience who admit they don't bother calling Latino parents when their son or daughter has a problem in class. Why? Because, the teachers say, those parents don't speak English, don't understand schoolwork, have too many jobs or children or responsibilities to do much about failing grades.
I've talked to Asian students who say some teachers expect perfection and are harder on them than on their classmates, and other teachers overlook mistakes, even pad their grades because, as one Chinese eighth-grader told me, only half joking, "They know if I get a B, I get kicked out."
I've heard parents of black students complain that teachers don't push their children enough. And I've heard teachers counter that they're afraid to level with black parents when a student is slacking off because they've seen angry parents "go off."
Cushon Bell is a former Los Angeles Unified teacher and the head of the African American parent council at Sierra Madre Elementary, Pasadena's highest-ranked school. She bumped into the power of stereotypes when she went to speak to her son's teacher about his "downward trend" in math, she said.
She got a "blank stare" from the teacher when she pushed to find out "what more we could be doing at home. She said, 'He's proficient, so what's the problem?' She didn't see my point.
"That is not the goal we try to encourage in our son … this sort of mediocrity. They seem to think if our children are doing anything above average, we should be excited as parents."
At Sierra Madre, there's a "huge gap" between the test scores of black and Asian kids, she said. She's not blaming teachers; it also reflects a lack of involvement among black parents.
"Parents think, 'I've gotten my kid into this top-performing school so I can just trust that they are going to do the right thing.' They feel intimidated, afraid to question things. What they ought to be doing is going in and connecting with those teachers."
Does parenting make a difference? Sure.
It makes sense that parents from cultures in which education is the primary route to status and success will cultivate respect for school in their homes and push their children to succeed.
I remember marveling at the list of valedictorians when my daughter graduated four years ago from a high school where most of the students are white but about a third hail from families with roots in Asia and the Middle East. Of the 75 top scholars, probably 60 had family ties to Korea, India or Armenia.
These were not all brainiacs, nor the kids of hard-charging Tiger Moms. I'd seen them on the soccer field, in the band, on stage in talent shows. They were disciplined, hard-working students, whose parents supported what teachers wanted.
In that way, they have an advantage, no matter their language barrier or economic status. If you come from a country where education is the way to rise and you focus your energy on academics, your children, and their campus, will reflect that.
But that doesn't mean that the rest of us have to settle for second best. Culture does indeed drive parenting, and parenting influences school performance. But an even bigger difference is possible when teachers and parents get real with one another and function as partners.