Monday, November 19, 2007

Achievement Gap Summit: more limits

The California Department of Education and Superintendent Jack O’Connell organized a Achievement Gap Summit in Sacramento on November 13 and 14, drawing over 4000 educators and policy advocates for a two day conference. The presentations began with some basic facts; California student achievement is among the lowest in the nation and it is not improving. The California drop out rate is horrible. Any reasonable look at the evidence reveals this.
For over a decade, California and the nation have used one strategy for school reform; standards and test based accountability. The evidence is in. There has been little or no progress on reading scores and only limited progress in math. The summit focused on the gap in scores between White students, Black students and Latino students.
Here is a part of the problem. This summit was plush with consultants and policy advocates and very light on teachers as presenters and people who do the work in schools. You can not reform schools without bringing teachers along in the reform. Teachers make up the largest resource in the school. California has 14 years of standards based reform and 14 years of test based reform.
Remember the definition of insanity:
Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

That is not to say that the $1 million expense was wasted. There were some definite positives. A a wide variety of educational professionals recognize the crisis of public schools in California. The CDE provided a diverse group of presenters, so teachers and others looking for solutions were often able to find worthwhile presentations. There was recognition of some of the basic needs to resolve the achievement gap; multicultural education, language support for English language learners, and the approaches now termed culturally appropriate or culturally responsive pedagogy.
There were also some of the chronic problems revealed. If you want to improve the schools you really are going to have to spend some real money. California ranks about 37 in per pupil expenditures, and about 47 in reading. School reform will cost money. The governor and the legislature continue to avoid this reality. Although a real start was made last year in Quality Education Investment Act sponsored by CTA , the current budget situation for next year makes getting desperately needed funds to urban failing schools unlikely. Richard Rothstein spoke to the resources failure in schools. Lack of resources is a political failure.
A second problem dominant at the summit was the large number of policy advocates who each have an answer without first defining what is the problem. There are a number of salesmen of ideas, consulting services, testing packages, and curriculum packages, with little or no comprehension of the working realities of teachers.
It was more than a little interesting to hear that Superintendent O’Connell and his staff are taking a seminar on race and privilege from featured speaker Glenn Singleton. That may be beneficial. Certainly a major part of the problem lies with leadership – or lack of leadership- from elected and appointed officials.
One of the puzzling issues; policy advocates and conferences frequently debate whether the school issues are issues of race or class. What a strange debate.
They are – of course- both race and class.

Teachers, particularly new teachers in difficult schools, need support in creating a positive productive classroom environment. This requires resources, time, support networks, and sufficient counselors in the schools. (California ranks 49 out of the 50 states in counselors per student) And, they need coaches who are successful teachers and experts in helping kids such as English Language learners. New teachers have few of these. Instead they enter a failing system, try to do well, get frustrated, fail more, and become less effective and more defensive. Teachers need a positive work environment to produce a positive learning environment for kids. Few teachers in urban schools have a positive work environment.
The Achievement Gap Summit has spurred some blog commentary on the problems of the schools. The letters to the Sacramento Bee were mostly people responding with their solutions to the school crisis without listening to the problems.
I have a solution, now where is the problem? It is interesting how many people who do not work in schools know precisely what is needed to improve them; or you just need high expectations, or phonics, or English immersion, and on and on. I wish that these folks would go work in a school for a couple of weeks.
I am certainly pleased that the Superintendent hosted the event and that I attended. Now comes the hard part. Making something positive happen for kids in schools. I have written an entire book on this; Choosing Democracy: a practical guide to multicultural education. ( Merrill/Prentice Hall. 2004)
Duane Campbell
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