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Every time state schools chief Jack O’Connell thought he was doing something to close the achievement gap, a new round of test scores showed that black and Latino students had gained no ground on their white and Asian American peers.
Like many educators, O’Connell assumed the culprit was poverty. Then he noticed an even wider ethnic disparity among students who were not poor.
The realization was a jolt: Being black or Latino — not poor — was what the low-scorers had in common. And it changed everything.
O’Connell now believes that widespread cultural ignorance within the California school system is responsible for the poor academic performance of many black and Latino students in school.
The achievement gap is “absolutely, positively not genetic,” O’Connell said. “All kids can learn. I’m saying it’s racial.”
He said that until last year, he presided over a school-ranking system that let ethnic groups of students achieve at a slower pace than schools as a whole had to do.
O’Connell and top educators in the California Department of Education have taken hours of racial sensitivity training, which O’Connell wants to extend to teachers statewide. He’s also reorganized the state Department of Education to focus on raising the test scores of black and Latino students.
And now he is taking it to the people with a two-day conference on race and the achievement gap.
Hundreds of experts from around the country will offer 125 different panels with such titles as “A Mindset is a Difficult Thing to Change,” and “Policies that Support the Academic Development of Urban Black Males.”
Some 4,000 people — teachers, principals, lawyers, school secretaries and others — will pack into the Sacramento Convention Center on Tuesday and Wednesday for what is being billed as an Achievement Gap Summit.
Keynote speakers include talk-show host Tavis Smiley; “Stand and Deliver” actor Edward James Olmos; and Nicolina Hernandez, who founded the San Joaquin Valley University Project while in high school to help students apply to college.
Also on center stage will be Glenn Singleton, the coach O’Connell hired for the Education Department’s racial sensitivity classes. Singleton runs a San Francisco consulting firm called Pacific Educational Group and is the author of “Courageous Conversations about Race: a Strategy for Achieving Equity in Schools.”
Contrary to widely held views that parents play a strong role in whether their children do well academically, Singleton believes the schools, not parents, are the biggest influence.
“If we were to say that black or brown kids don’t perform as well because of their parents, we’re saying black and brown parents aren’t as effective as white parents,” Singleton told The Chronicle. “That’s pretty much a racist statement.”
At schools with large numbers of black and Latino students, white teachers are not only culturally unfamiliar with their students, they are often the “least seasoned and skilled” at teaching, he said.
“I don’t think we believe that race is the issue,” said Dean Vogel, vice president of the vast California Teachers Association, who speculated that O’Connell is using the topic to gain exposure for a possible run for governor.
Vogel disputed one of the most common examples of inequity cited by Singleton and others: that labor contracts — which let experienced teachers choose where they work — contribute to the achievement gap because the veterans typically aim for high-performing schools with few black and Latino students.
“I never heard people say they don’t want to work with those kids,” Vogel said. “They say, ‘I want to work somewhere where I have enough materials, where the heater works and the roof doesn’t leak, and where there’s a manageable class size.’ “
By coincidence, he said, that isn’t where most black and Latino students go to school.
Fixing those inequities — not focusing on race — is the way to close the achievement gap, Vogel said.
Yet another cause of the racial achievement gap is neighborhood violence, say school counselors and mental health experts.
That topic is missing from O’Connell’s achievement gap conference. But student mental health is the “pink elephant” in the room that no one talks about, said Pia Escudero, of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Crisis Counseling and Intervention Services.
About 30 percent of children living in violent urban neighborhoods have post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, according to the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a division of the Department of Veterans Affairs.