Straight talk on ‘achievement gap’

In California and national education circles, the K-12 student “achievement gap” is understood to refer to the consistently lower test scores of blacks and Hispanics — as groups — in comparison with whites and Asians. In general, political correctness has decreed that this gap be explained in terms of poverty-family disadvantage.

However, California’s consistently discouraging results have led state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell to recognize other factors are involved. Last week, his Achievement Gap Summit conference in Sacramento drew some 4,000 educators who were seeking a better understanding of what holds down many black and Hispanic children and hopefully find some remedies.

O’Connell entered the summit saying he now thinks a primary cause of the uneven grades is rampant cultural misunderstanding between school personnel and the minority students, parents and peers. He gave the example of young black children who might learn in church that it is appropriate to move around enthusiastically, sing and clap, and respond loudly to the preacher. In classrooms, where the majority of teachers are probably unfamiliar with these practices, such behavior would be misinterpreted as bad conduct.

“All kids can learn,” O’Connell said. The achievement gap is “absolutely, positively not genetic.” But he did not do his cause a favor by adding, “We have a racial achievement gap also … [not] solely based on poverty.”

In context, O’Connell was clearly referring to ethno-cultural communication variables, not making veiled suggestions of inferiority. But he still got blasted by the Rev. Amos Brown, who is the president of the San Francisco chapter of the NAACP.

What seemed most intriguing about the summit was that its best ideas were direct, simple, already proven effective and did not call for throwing large sums of money at the unequal group scoring.

A nationally recognized researcher on student achievement, Douglas Reeves, told the educators that minority test scores were measurably better in schools where the majority of teachers and administrators actually do reach out and communicate with students in culturally meaningful ways. He noted that in earliest grades, children of all races and income levels participated enthusiastically in class and had big life dreams. But for many, discouragement set in by puberty and Reeves blamed it on the schools.

A multiethnic panel of students also called for equally direct, simple and inexpensive aid. They said they could learn better if fellow students didn’t make noise all through class, if teachers acted encouraging and caring, and if missed work could be made up.

When President Bush announced the No Child Left Behind program, he said one goal was to end the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” To date, that worthy objective has proven dauntingly difficult. If for no other reason, O’Connell deserves a gold star for making it possible to hear an abundance of usefully straight talk about a social issue that is as important as it is uncomfortable.

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