Can all of the experts in the world help schools close the achievement gap?

gap22.jpgIn Sacramento right now, scores of experts and thousands of educators are debating why some groups of students in California do so much better than others, and what can be done about it.

State Superintendent Jack O’Connell told the audience today, as reported by The Associated Press, that the gap isn’t just based on poverty. (That’s probably not a news flash to many of you who have seen year after year of articles on the subject.)

The Oakland school district, for one, has whopping racial disparities in test scores. About 86 percent of white fourth-graders scored proficient or advanced on the STAR tests this spring, but just 33 percent of black fourth-graders did.

That’s a 53 percentage point difference, and it’s even larger between white and Latino students. It doesn’t get any smaller as they get older, either.

The “achievement gap” is discussed so much it has become almost trite. Is it something politicians, educators, students and families honestly believe they can close? If you were invited to speak on one of the Achievement Gap Summit panels, what insights would you give?

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Caroline

    If O’Connell is saying that the achievement gap is caused by white educators’ cultural disconnect with black and Latino students, wouldn’t that mean that black and Latino teachers would be achieving much better results with black and Latino kids? Is that happening?

    KIPP is often cited for improving the achievement of black and Latino students. But they pretty openly teach them to act white, including to “walk briskly down the hall” (quoted from a description of KIPP). (Wouldn’t you love to be a fly on the wall at those lessons?) So is that the key?

  • Oakland Hills Mom

    It’s attitude not aptitude….

    No, I think that schools play a limited role. From everything I’ve seen and read, it isn’t that there is an aptitude difference (anyone can learn and succeed) but there is a difference in attitudes towards learning. As an example, the average Asian household, regardless of income levels, is going to place a higher emphasis on education and academic excellence than the average African-American household. That’s why even poor Asians do better academically than their poor African-American counterparts. Until attitudes changes in some cultures and communities to embrace and prioritize education, then their children will be hampered. How sad is it that some black kids are being chastised for “acting white” when they succeed in school? That needs to change and it comes from the home and/or their community. Schools are a secondary factor.

  • Parent at a School with a 100 Point Gap

    At our school there is a LARGE gap. There are some of the obvious reasons, socioeconomic status, intact families, etc.

    But here are my observations based on my daughter’s 3 years at an Oakland public school and three years at a private school in Berkeley. Reading is taught in the morning. The Oakland Unified School District has a policy that a child is not late until 31 minutes after they are scheduled to be in class. Every child of color in my daughter’s classes the first two years in public school was late under 30 minutes at least twice per week (3 children of color the first year; 5 children of color the second year out of 20 children). One of the children was reading above grade level, the others were reading substantially below grade level.

    None of the children listed above had a library card. Libraries are open evenings and weekends.

    All of the children of color had video games and played them regularly. Less than 25% of the other children in my daughter’s classes did so.

    Children of color at my daughter’s school more often than not do not have the signed forms, permission slips, homework agreements, etc. completed on time, if at all.

    Parents of color at my daughter’s school are more likely to use physical punishment rather than talk to and reason with their child.

    The language of “I don’t got no homework” needs to be corrected by the parent, teacher and any other adult present, yet it is not. I’d not sure if this is about not offending someone, but the language is not corrected. In this environment of invented spelling and writing as one speaks to get the message on paper, spoken language matters. Children who say “wif” spell with as “wif” because that is how it sounds to them. When taking a test, our current measurement, this is a determent.

    My question would be, “Do we want children to speak, write and read proper English even if it means making everyone sound white? Do we want children to be able to play at recess, PE or after school, even if it means that we tell them they cannot wear baggy pants that inhibit movement,” even if it is culturally insensitive?

    At what point is something deemed “culturally insensitive” or “middle class” because the behavior requested above is what middle class people do regardless of color. Yet, I have often heard my daughter’s friends say that she is “acting white.” My daughter is neither white, nor black, nor middle or upper class. She is in the top 10% of her class.

  • Katy Murphy

    The previous posters have all referred to an expression that has always puzzled me. Why is speaking standard English, making eye contact (as, I believe, is also taught in the KIPP model) and working hard in school considered by so many people to be “acting white?”

    It seems to imply that white people own the rights to such behavior — and to the doors that might open for them because of it. What is so shameful about doing what it takes to be successful?

    (That sounds like a rhetorical question, but it’s not meant to be.)

  • Caroline

    This is a bit complex and inside-baseball, but here’s the source of the line I quoted about KIPP: an internal document from the once-controversial, for-profit, now-largely-forgotten school management company Edison Schools about how to reinvent itself to win back respect and market share. The document is clear that KIPP has been successful where Edison was not, and calls for emulating KIPP. An excerpt is posted below. You can see the racial implications (there’s a reference to “we” that presumably means “we the educated middle class”). The concept makes me scratch my head; I’m not totally sure what to make of it — I don’t think it’s inherently racist or invalid. I would love to see the actual lesson in walking briskly down the hall, though.

    Anyway, here’s the excerpt that addresses the whole notion. (Much more is posted at http://www.sfschools.org )
    The notion that all children require the same curriculum and education is one of the least challenged myths in American education. It’s politically correct silliness, no more true than that children from urban poverty require the same health care services as affluent suburban children. … One possibility is not to compromise in “tuning” the culture to the demographic we serve. It may be necessary to adjust the model slightly for middle-class and suburban settings. That is, the goals and vision will be the same, but we will choose behavior plans, reward systems, etc., appropriate to the circumstances and needs of the students.

    KIPP’s culture is suited to its population of students from economically and socially
    disadvantaged families. KIPP recognizes that children from poverty differ not in the values their parents hold — low-income parents have “middle-class” aspirations for their children — but in the skills and habits with which they are equipped to realize these aspirations. When children first arrive at school in the fifth grade, they are taught to “dress for success,” walk down the halls briskly, sit properly in their chairs without delay, stand up to greet someone, and look directly at a person when conversing. They are also taught how to organze their classroom materials. Students chant the school’s rules, which include the acronym SLANT: Sit up, Listen, Ask and answer questions, Nod your head so people know you are listening and understanding, Track your speaker by keeping your eyes on the person. All the students chant: “We SLANT at all times/We listen carefully at all times/We follow the teachers’ instructions/We answer when given the signal/We stay focused to save time/We will always be nice and work hard.”

    These are social habits that we take for granted, but which are often absent in disadvantaged students, and are essential to creating a focused, disciplined culture that values achievement. …

    The E2 curriculum wil include explicit instruction in motivation and habits of school success. As part of the E2 development, we would craft an aray of rituals, slogans, and practices that support a compelling school culture that reshapes how students see themselves and their futures. This culture must be powerful enough to compete wth the culture of the streets. It should contain many of the same elements as the KlPP culture.


    Caroline again: Nothing — NOTHING — would get my high-achieving white middle-class kids to chant “We SLANT at all times/We listen carefully at all times/We follow the teachers’ instructions/We answer when given the signal/We stay focused to save time/We will always be nice and work hard.” My 13-year-old, having read this, wants to enroll at KIPP and lead the oppressed masses in rebellion to glorious freedom. So that’s another head-scratching cultural issue.

  • Doowhopper

    I hate to see us get caught up in the stereotypes.I sub nearly every day in Oakland and never cease to be surprised.Last month I sat in in an advanced Math Analysis class taught by a volunteer teacher.The two most passionate and best versed in the curriculum were two African American girls.Or maybe I should say they were the most VOCAL in a class dominated by Asian students(all good in math,right?),some who slept in the back of the room,completely oblivious to what was transpiring.
    In all the years I have worked in Oakland,I think I have only seen one student ridiculed for”acting white”and even that was rather good natured,not vicious.Most academically high achieving black students are able to balance peer acceptance with their long range goals pretty well.I recall sitting in an awards assembly at Castlemont several years ago where studentsts who had received college scholarships and honor roll mention were vigorously applauded by the other students.No one derided them as Uncle Toms and similiar nonsense.I think that is a media myth not manifested by reality.

  • Doowhopper

    Sorry for the mixed up spelling.The way this forum is structured makes it impossible to correct such errors till they appear in the post

  • Oakland Hills Mom

    Doowhopper, how do you explain the huge gap in scores then? I just read an article in the paper this week which talked about the gap in performance even when other factors, such as poverty, were ruled out. I’m concerned about the things that “Parent at a School with a 100 Point Gap” listed as I feel those are not isolated experiences. And yesterday’s SF Chronicle article (sorry to list another paper) made it seem like the fault lies with the educators who don’t understand why some black kids act as they do. Excuse me? Now the teachers are the problem for wanting kids to settle down, raise hands, pay attention, listen and learn? What about the parents accepting responsibility for creating an environment where learning and excelling at valued? I’m not Asian, but even I can see that the Asian families seem to be a better job at this than any of the other races, but most notably when compared with Black and Hispanic families. I’m not trying to be insensitive, but I’m not afraid to speak out about things that might not be politically correct.

    Katy, please can you do something about the weird formatting when one writes comments? You can’t see part of your line, which makes proofreading and correcting a challenge. Also, the ability to preview comments would be great.

  • Caroline

    At my own kids’ diverse SFUSD middle school, which has separate GATE/honors academic classes, I hear from African-American GATE students and their parents that the larger group of African-American students frequently taunt the GATE kids. One African-American GATE student left because of that — she switched to a school that’s mostly Chinese and white.

    That’s anecdotal, but the achievement gap is not, of course — it’s based on actual test scores.

    Who was that scam artist who got paid to tell O’Connell’s event that putting kids’ work on the wall and teaching them to take notes would eliminate the achievement gap? How much did he get for that speech? Can I get that job?

  • Jim Mordecai


    A problem is not that these arguments are anedotal, but the so called achievement gap is based on test scores that do not measure achievement.

    Testing expert Popham points out in an article recently posted on Ed Week on line that what most of the so-called achievement tests measure is mostly SES or Social Economic Status.

    Professor Popham argument is that test items must be constructed to discriminate and the easiest way to provide differentiation in scores over time is test items that are sensitive to SES.

    While SES and Race are intertwined looking for a single cause as a basis of intervention is similar to the nature/nuture debate. Attending to only one factor creates a distortion and a false basis for taking action.

    Iran may not yet have a WMD but they are more likely to achieve that goal before America has develops standardized tests that measure achievement. Professor Popham feels because racial biased tests has been reduced in over a decade given time testing experts can devise an achievement tests that measure achievement.

    Meanwhile the achievement gap conversation continues without test that measure that gap.

    Education Week
    Published in Print: November 14, 2007
    Accountability Tests’ Instructional Insensitivity: The Time Bomb Ticketh
    By W. James Popharn

  • Parent of a School with a 100 Point GAP

    I agree that test scores are not a valid measurement. But right now – at this point – we have no other measurement to use. I work full time and I am in the classroom volunteering twice a week. I hear our students read. I watch them figure math problems. I participate in the science experiments. I listen to our classroom students attempt to get their ideas across to their fellow students and teachers. There’s a real live GAP. It’s not about test scores.

    I am in a position to hire new employees at our company. I can tell by the employment application the person’s gender, school achievement, aptitude for excellence in their work and their communication style and skill. I have to say that it’s hard to sit through an interview with some of these high school graduates – I believe that many of the students in Oakland ending their classroom work will not be able to pass the exit exam, which is a test. A generally accepted test of the knowledge they will need to know if they want a job with our organization.

    There is a belief in the broad African American and Hispanic communities of our school, that children who are “dressed for success and go to the right school will succeed.” It is simply not true. There is a difference. A recent survey commissioned by Harvard stated that one of the biggest predictors of success is whether the families champion “middle class values.” There needs to be a belief that the way up and out of being poor is education, communication and interaction. Not top down but lateral communication. Not directives by a parent or a church leader but by working side by side with your parents and church leaders in communication.

    This is a very frustrating situation. We can spend one-on-one time helping a child learn to read, talking to him or her, but if there is not active discussion at home all of our work at school is of little consequence. Children are in school an average of 182 days a year. That is just half of the year.

    I believe the answer lies in the acceptance of a set of principles in a classroom, a school, and the family. If we know what works, and Harvard has studied this for decades, we need to somehow spread the information and have a “contract” of sorts that asks parents of children who are not succeeding to try the new way of interacting at home. I would also love to see the Gates foundation (or another foundation) financially reward kids for getting a public library card and using it. It would also be helpful to pay parents for taking a communication course over several weeks each year to reinforce the vital communication that needs to happen (from Foundation money).

    These suggestions would have to come from private money because we do not need to create another public bureaucracy that is inflexible to change. The kids and families who are not succeeding at our school need to be shown another way.

  • Doowhopper

    Hillsmom,I simply do not believe that standardized tests can truly measure”intelligence”.whatever that is.Just TALKING to many of these low test scores black and Latino youngsters shows me that for the most part they are very bright and insightful thinkers.Unfortunatley,many take an”oppositional”stance toward these tests and do not put in the necessary effort to attain a high score.That is a cultural issue as is the proclivity to”talk loud”and not be punctual to class.
    I suppose my feelings on this issue are colored somewhat by my own experiences in an all white middle class high school over forty years ago when I didn’t even break 800 on my SAT’s and was told by my counselor that I was a “big fat zero”and should forget about going to college.Well,three degrees later I obviously proved him wrong.I guess you could even say that I feel a visceral identification with the students who are labeled and categorized as underachievers.
    And,off the subject,I wish we could change the format of these posts so as to be able to view ALL of our postings before hitting the button.

  • Parent of a School with a 100 Point GAP

    To the people who have a problem with viewing the material you write before posting:

    Cut the information from the box, paste it in word. Spell check it – make sure it says what you want it to say – then cut if from word and paste in in the box. Then hit send. It’s not perfect, but works better than anything else I have tried.

  • Katy Murphy

    Better yet, you can just write your comment in Word and then paste it into the box.

    I’ve asked our tech people about the mysterious right margin issue. I’ve also put in your requests to preview the comments before they are published. Hopefully they’ll fix it soon.

  • Oakland Hills Mom

    Responding to Doowhopper… As I said above, anyone, any race and learn and succeed. I just don’t understand the lack of motivation and effort put forth by many students and families of color. Worse than that, some put down others for being smart and for academic achievements. Why do some people of color accept lower performance? Why be content with mediocre? As for “cultural issues” like talking loudly, speaking without raising your hand, being late, purposely not trying on tests and so on… well to me that’s not a cultural issue. That’s either poor manners, bad behavior or just down right silly or even stupid. Again, I’m not saying that the people of color can’t do well. I’m just perplexed as to why they are holding themselves back from being the best that they can!

  • Parent in a School with a 100 GAP

    We wouldn’t accept loud talking, being late, not completing work on time and failing “tests” in the workplace. Why would, or should we accept it in our schools?

  • sharon

    One of my favorite studies which illustrates the difference in parenting abilities concluded that “by three years of age, the children of professionals had larger vocabularies themselves than the vocabularies used by adults from welfare families in speaking to their children.”

    I recently calculated the amount of time that Bret Harte Middle School students are actually in classes with a teacher. It is slightly less than 16% of their waking hours over the course of the year. And of course, the teachers are dividing their attention among 30 or more kids.

    Honestly, how can anyone expect teachers to fill the gap with the amount of time they spend with students? Parent efforts and supplementation at home are essential, and the more, the better. The degree to which families have created an educationally-oriented home environment makes all the difference. People need to be realistic about their expectations of the schools. They can only do so much.

    Here’s a book that OUSD should buy to give to every family in the district: “Top of the Class: How Asian Parents Raise High Achievers—and How You Can Too” by Abboud and Kim. Then Gates and Broad could give $1000 to parents who demonstrate that they have actually read it. That would do about as much good as anything else they’re trying.

  • Parent in a School with a 100 GAP

    Sharon – I’ve read “Top of the Class.” The system is smart, simple and allows for kids who are working both ahead and behind the curve. I also agree that classroom teaching is not necessarily going to work if 80% of the time they are in environments that do not support education and a love of learning both inside and outside the classroom.

    Foundations should work on an incentive basis to help students and their families spend more time around people who use rich vocabularies (librarians, museum volunteers, etc.). I would love to see Lawrence Hall of Science, Chabot Space and Science Center, Oakland Museum, Children’s Museum of Art and the Oakland Zoo offer annual Memberships to low income families ($45,000 and below) for a minimum of 3 hours per year volunteer time which could be done by the student or the parent.

    New York is experimenting with paying parents when they take their child to get a library card. It will be interesting to track the results.

  • teacher

    “One of my favorite studies which illustrates the difference in parenting abilities concluded that “by three years of age, the children of professionals had larger vocabularies themselves than the vocabularies used by adults from welfare families in speaking to their children.””

    This is so sad but so true. Most of my high school students have much smaller academic vocabularies than my second grader. Words like “compromise.”

  • John Willson

    The Afro American Bill Cosby once commented that Afro American parents need to
    make sure they assist their children in a manner that facilitates their getting a good
    education. The response from Afro American leaders, and others, was viscious.
    Therefore I won’t say that the “achievement gap” experienced by Afro American
    children has anything to do with the absence of good parenting in this area. It is
    particularly important that I not say this, or endorse Mr. Cosby’s comments if I want to
    get elected to the school board. It’s easier, and more politically expedient, to blame
    teachers and teaching strategies, especially if your Jack O’Connell and have ambitions
    to become California’s next Govenor!