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Another parent’s take on the Achievement Gap Summit

By Katy Murphy
Monday, November 19th, 2007 at 4:44 pm in school reform.

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.

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  • Michael

    In my field (math) I would have to say that if there is a cultural bias in standardized testing, the bias would have to be towards Asians who consistently outscore whites, blacks and Latinos. It just seemed weird to me why the cultural bias in the math portion of testing would lean towards Asians -please would someone tell me how standardized testing in math is biased against whites, blacks and Latinos, as demonstrated through Asians dominance?

  • Doowhopper

    I second you on that comment. I cannot see how Math problems contain cultural bias. I do recall when I was taking “achievement” tests in the Sixties, you would find questions about terms used in Yachting! Now THATS cultural bias! I really don’t believe that Asians are inherently better in Math than any other group. I think they WORK harder overall in the academic area but I refuse to adopt the popular myth that one group is intrinsically better in a subject because of some genetic reason. That opens the door for all kinds of racialist and eugenics theories that have been discredited-or SHOULD have been-decades ago.

  • Steve Weinberg

    I can understand how people can be skeptical about “culural bias” be used as part of the explanation for the achievement gap, especially in math, but there is certainly economic bias. There are released items from the CST posted on the CDE website, and I found at least 7 items from the 64 6th grade released items where an understanding of some non-math concept that would be more common among higher income families than inner-city families would help a student answer the questions. Question 6 involves acres and harvests. 11 requires familiarity with tipping at a restaurant. 14 uses the expression “marked down.” 17 talks about hiking in an area that begins below sea level and then continues above sea level. 19 refers to temperatures below 0, and in California poorer students would be much less likely to be familiar with such temperatures. 21 involves the price of a share of stock. 59 compares the profits of 5 companies.
    It is interesting that Doowhopper referred to a question about yachting from a test in the 1960s as a prime example of cultural bias. Unforunately, it is illegal to discuss any test item that has not been released, but if it is ever released I could show you exactly that kind of question still being used.
    Cultural and economic bias is not the whole explanation for the achievement gap, but it clearly still exists, and even if it accounts for only a small part of the gap between social and ethnic groups we should not tolerate it.

  • Caroline

    My husband took the MCAT (is it Medical College Admission Test? Whatever it stands for — you get the idea) around 1970. He says it included these two questions (paraphrased);

    What product does Steuben make?

    If a menu item is labeled Florentine, what does that mean?

  • Alice

    I for one, (and still do) had problems understanding math in school, years ago. Algebra specifically was a problem for me. If my parents had not gotten me tutors to help me in the subject, and pass with C’s, I might not have gotten admitted to college. It was also the same with chemistry. This was not cultural. Either you understand the theories or you do not. Now students need a chance to at least have the subject put to them where they can try to understand it, this is where the problem lies. If there is not a competent teacher to teach the subject, we have a problem. Math teachers are hard to hire here in Oakland.

  • teacher

    Bias exists. Why wouldn’t it? We live in a racist, sexist, xenophobic country. Maybe less than it used to be, but still.

    Here’s the dealio, though: If students and their families passively accept this with nothing more than grumbling, they will continue to be shut out. There are two separate but equal (!) things that must happen:

    1. Political action to take on the testing industry, Prop. 13, the death of affirmative action, and other setbacks to leveling the playing field.

    2. Individuals working harder to OVERCOME the inherent disadvantages and biases. That’s what immigrants tend to do.

  • teacher

    Just to clarify point number two, above: Individuals facing blocks to progress must work harder than those who don’t to achieve similar success. My disadvantaged students can’t work as hard as a middle-class white kid and expect to get the same grade — they are going to have to work HARDER to overcome their deficiencies in vocabulary, home support, prior educational situation, the influence of their peers and even nutrition in order to succeed. No wonder so many of them despair when they realize this. “You mean I’m just a kid and I’m already way the hell behind? Screw it, I give up.”

    Many of us were born on third and think we hit a triple! (Like our president.)