Henry Hitz, a Montera Middle School parent, former teacher and executive director of Oakland Parents Together, also attended last week’s Achievement Gap Summit in Sacramento. Among other topics, Hitz discusses the responsibilities white teachers bear when educating students of color.
By Henry Hitz
I went to the Achievement Gap Summit in Sacramento on Tuesday and Wednesday last week. I’m no fan of Jack O’Connell for how he is disrespecting Oakland by opposing local control and pushing the testing agenda generally, but I have to say, this event was for the most part quite good.
I attended four breakout sessions and heard two of the keynotes. The first breakout I went to was Linda Darling Hammond talking about how we need to address the “opportunity gap.” She had the good sense to bring three students from two small schools to tell why their schools actually worked. No surprise: the key reason was that they had deeply caring teachers and administrators who took personal interest in the students. Linda is a leading opponent of NCLB and made her views known.
The second break out I went to was a presentation by 3 dynamic black teachers describing their program in LA, The Village Nation, where they bring the black students together to talk about what is really going on and get them fired up about racism (Katrina, Jena6, the schools) and teach them their history and show how much they care, and no surprise, the students do a lot better even on the admittedly culturally biased standardized tests.
The keynote at lunch on the first day was a debate between conservative Chester Finn and liberal Richard Rothstein on how to approach the achievement gap, moderated by Christoper Cross, all white men, which was a little jarring. Finn is a better speaker and arguably won the debate on points if anyone was scoring, but the crowd preferred Rothstein. The loudest cheer came when he suggested that NCLB be abolished.
In essence, Finn argued that the achievement gap could be significantly reduced (even he balked at the NCLB 100% figure) by the schools alone by proliferating superschools of choice following the KIPP mode. Rothstein argued that an approach that focused exclusively on the schools was an excuse to ignore a larger social agenda involving health care, reducing poverty, etc. To my mind, the debate showed how difficult it is to refute the right’s argument without questioning the destructive role of the high stakes tests.
On the second day, I went to a pretty lame breakout about a state SDE committee charged with integrating data about students from all sources. While the intent seemed to be to have sufficient data to help the students, the fact is they are talking about data from the criminal justice system and mental health system and I got a chilly feeling that all this data in the wrong hands might not be that helpful.
The lunch keynote was excellent, however, Glenn Singleton (www.pacificeducationalgroup. com) talking about “Courageous Conversation: an essential strategy to eliminating racial achievement disparity in California.” He and his team go into schools and districts and get everyone talking about race, including writing a “racial autobiography. ” I also went to the breakout on this subject after lunch, and am now campaigning to bring his work to Oakland.
While, like Singleton, I do not blame white teachers for the “educational equity gap” as he calls it, I do recognize that white teachers need to confront their issues around race if they are going to work effectively with students of color. As a white former teacher myself for 30 years, relatively conscious of the problem, I know I had and still have those little squishy fears that get in the way of powerfully guiding students of color. I know this is a major factor from my experience last year tutoring math at a mostly black charter high school: A third to a half of the students didn’t know their times tables, and this has nothing to do with poverty or biased tests, and everything to do with teachers having the personal power to insist that students learn what they need to know.
To be sure, there was plenty to criticize about the summit, mainly that in all 36 hours there was no mention of the underfunding of California schools. Also, it would have been nice to have the event accessible to parents and others who aren’t part of the educational bureaucracy. Still I can’t remember the last time I went to such a conference that dealt so substantively with such breadth and depth on so important an issue.