Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Wrong Tree

The other day I was fortunate enough to attend the opening of what I'm sure will be a stellar event, one organized and run (biennially) by a fantastic organization. At the kick-off portion of the event, Jack O'Connell, the state superintendent of public instruction, spoke, and amid various calls to action and data-driven illustrations of the achievement gap, he said something that I couldn't quite make sense of.

O'Connell is really doing it, if for no other reason that he's using the phrase achievement gap every time he speaks, and this type of prioritizing, even if it elevates effects over causes, moves reform efforts forward. On Sunday, he was showing graphs of performance data broken-down by ethnicity – Latino, African-American, White. Although I found the exclusion of performance data from Asian students odd, this information should not have been terribly surprising to most of the gathered. What was surprising was the lack of comment regarding a slide that showed performance levels of low-income White students has equaled or exceeded the performance of non low-income Latino and African-American students. In California, poor Whites do better than middle- and upper-class Blacks and Latinos.

By way of explanation, O'Connell says, "The achievement gap cannot be understood strictly in terms of socioeconomic status."


Next slide.

I find it bizarre to raise such a potentially volatile issue and leave it so bereft of context or interpretation. Cuz interpretation is everything with this one. Without breaking much of a sweat, I can run off a pretty extensive list of different ways to view these data, many I vehemently disagree with and find repugnant. No doubt, you could too. Some are already starting. Folks from the 408's local paper are planning investigations of the achievement gap, driven in part by this observation of O'Connell's, seeking to shed light on the ways in which cultural groups differ in their approach and support of the educational process.

This is a massive issue. The achievement gap is data on prevasive and institutionalized inequity, an inequity that is driven, experienced, and understood by an ever-expanding array of factors. The whole question of how we see the achievement gap, how we view and interpret these data, whether SES or ethnicity/ culture is a more appropriate lens to drive our analysis, all of this can be endlessly mined for its rich haul of investigative reports, op/ed pieces, and policy initiatives. There is no end to the deforestation this debate could engender, and as someone who goes to work everyday with the foremost intention and ultimate goal of closing the gaps O'Connell highlighted, I gotta tell ya: I don't care.

I don't care. I don't know the answers to these big ticket debate items, don't have much in the way of supported theories, and I'm not trying real hard to figure any of it out. More to the point, I'm not sure my not-knowing detracts from the work I do. Because I do know that some districts, schools, and classrooms are capable of mediating the myriad ways economic, social, ethnic, and language diversity influence teaching and learning. And some are not.

And that's it, right there. Across all levels of the system, some folks know how to get the job done at high levels, and some do not. This is an educator achievement gap, acknowledged in the practice of awarding those people and places that can bring it, but almost never acknowledged in name, not enough, not yet. This is where we ought to turn our time and attention. Given equivalent external factors, why does performance differ across districts, across schools and classrooms? That's the only question that matters. That's the only debate we need, and the only investigation worth undertaking.

All this may very well be what O'Connell meant; I certainly hope so. When we come to understand, identify, and implement – on a large scale – those strategies, skills, process, structures, and dispositions that foster high achievement in the key student groups we're so rightly concerned with, we will see a reduction in gaps, and more importantly, a corresponding reduction in the generational factors that can, in a vacuum, pull away from success and make it more difficult to attain. This is what we need to be doing. Everything else is a form of buck-passing or camouflaging – an unfortunate misappropriation of time, energy, and money.


Blogger the robot said...

I don't understand. Doesn't the slide simply underline something already known (if not accepted by the powers that be) about the way in which the deck is stacked against people of color, be they rich or poor? And doesn't that have implication from the systems level of what programs are funded (and to what end) to the individual level of educators existing within a sea of institutional racism?

Are you saying that it doesn't necessarily matter why there is institutional racism, in terms of day-to-day teaching in the classroom? Because it seems to me that it absolutely does. But maybe I'm not understanding.

Also, it's on the wrong coast, but I saw something that may be of interest on the feed from This American Life, the NPR show, this week.
is Week on the Radio: "Human Resources"
from This American Life Updates
The true story of a secret room in the New York City Board of Education building. Teachers are told to report there instead of their classrooms. No reason is usually given. When they arrive, they find they've been put on some kind of probationary status, and they must report to the secret room every day until the matter is cleared up. Plus other stories of the uneasy interaction between humans and their institutions. Broadcast February 29 - March 2.


12:32 PM  
Anonymous J.D. Williams said...

It's easier to just talk about educating groups instead of educating students.

I agree with you that I don't care about the "achievement gap." It doesn't change the way I teach the kids that are in my classroom everyday. The needs of my individual students changes the way I teach.

4:46 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...


In no way am I suggesting that institutional racism and deck-stacking don't matter. What I reject is the notion that we must fix schools and schooling by FIRST changing the composition of the deck. That silly Richard Rothstein path is a slippery slope, and it's all too easy to pick up some unwelcome traveling companions along the way. We fix schools by first fixing the schools, a two-bird-one-stone-thing that will do much to restack those decks.

10:20 PM  
Blogger the robot said...

the idea being that if the money is following certain students, then lets equitably distribute those students amongst the schools? yes, that's gross.

I was thinking of how to adapt the past tense verb battles to contractions for the second grade on the way home the other day... But my son's teacher this year seems to dislike both he and I, so I'm not sure who I could talk about how it might work in the classroom.

6:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are you familiar with the Close the Gap conference held by O'Connell last year?

7:46 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...

I know it existed. I read down the presenter list once and thought it sounded cool. I wanted to go, but time and $$$ and the kids disallowed it all.

I want to be clear that I'm not impugning the guy. I think he gets it, certainly gets it more than his predecessors. I just know that folks are taking these comments of his and going places with them he may not be down with. I know I'm not down with them.

7:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Blah, blah, blah... debating education politics is like ploughing the ocean - O'Connell is running for office and posturing. Nothing will change. Talking education politics is an utter waste of energy. Not one thing O'Connell will do or has done will filter down much into anyone's classroom....

10:31 PM  
Blogger nbosch said...

Anonymous posts irritate me, it reminds me of those kids who trash mailboxes with baseball bats or use paint ball guns to shoot at bicyclists.

9:24 AM  
Blogger caroline said...

Just for your amusement or something...

I used to be an editor at "the 408's local paper," in the '80s and '90s. For a time we put out local "zoned" neighborhood sections and tried to make them small-towny by using lists of milestones and achievements like births and valedictorians.

It was unavoidably noticeable that all the spelling-bee winners (also listed) and valedictorians were Vietnamese. At one point a reporter tried to look into this and see if there was a story in it, but it was too big, complex and potentially controversial a topic. I don't think the term "achievement gap" existed at the time.

I guess that's really the same story.

By the way, the leading thinkers on school desegregation and equity don't acknowledge the existence of Asians either -- I'm talking about Gary Orfield and Jonathan Kozol. This seems particularly weird here in San Francisco, which is a plurality-Chinese school district.

9:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Good point.

I used to teach in a under-resourced Latino community (8 years) and now teach in a predominantly middle-class Asian community
(2 years).

Though not all of my Asian students are middle-class, it is interesting to see the emphasis on academics.

Hmmm...maybe that's behind the success of my current students: education comes first, leisure second.

Both my dad's parents were immigrants from the Philippines: grandma had a 5th grade education and grandpa a high school education. She did not work, while he joined the U.S. Army. Neither could help my dad nor my aunts and uncles with the advanced high school and college work. So how did they do it? They made sure early on that the kids sat at the table, did their work, and looked it over for completion and neatness. Of course, there was the occasional butt slap and above-the-ear hair pulling, but the results were achieved: all children received a college education with three of them becoming teachers.

What is difficult to break in the "achievement gap" is the cyclical de-emphasis of education's importance.

1:56 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home