Teachers Can't Eliminate Achievement Gap

Palo Alto superintendent: Achievement gap can't be eliminated

By Sharon Noguchi

Mercury News
Posted: 02/02/2009 06:58:11 PM PST

When it comes to closing the achievement gap, Palo Alto schools Superintendent Kevin Skelly says educators are deluding themselves. And he dares to say what's become almost unspeakable publicly:

"It's just not possible for the average kid who comes to this country in seventh or eighth grade, or even third grade, without a word of English and parents with little formal education, to match the achievement levels of kids whose mom has a Ph.D. in English from Stanford and can afford to stay home and spend time supplementing the education of her kids."

Closing the gap that is separating higher-scoring white and Asian students on one hand and lower-scoring black and Latinos on the other has become a key mission of California educators. Today, state schools Superintendent Jack O'Connell, who's made eliminating the achievement gap the centerpiece of his administration, is expected to pledge to continue those efforts, even as school budgets are axed.

"We know all students can learn to a high level," said O'Connell, who hasn't wavered in his mission. "We have a moral, social and economic imperative."

Yet totally eliminating the gap would be "the triumph of hope over experience," said Skelly, who came from San Diego 19 months ago to take the helm of Palo Alto's 17 schools. When educators set that lofty goal, "we're not being honest, and it's to our detriment," he said.

Here in the shadow of Stanford University, those socioeconomic and educational differences are arguably magnified. While many professors, high-tech workers and other professionals have paid a premium to live in the city to send their children to highly regarded schools, other parents come from working-class backgrounds, some busing their children from East Palo Alto and eastern Menlo Park.

Make no mistake, Skelly said, his schools should — and do — try to bring up the achievement of Latino and African-American students. But idealistic rhetoric creates high public expectations for schools, while letting families, politicians and society in general off the hook, Skelly believes. By themselves, schools can't overcome the influence of parents, friends and communities, he said.

He believes preschool deserves more funding to better prepare more students to learn, and schools should ensure all students are prepared for college — so they don't end up taking remedial classes at community colleges.

In California, white students outscore blacks by 157 points and Latinos by 133 points on the state's academic achievement index. It's a gap that yawns in both math and language and at all grade levels, across income levels and school districts. And studies have shown a strong link between mothers' educational levels and their children's achievement.

In Palo Alto, where students as a whole outscore the state by a considerable margin, the gap is even wider: On the state's academic performance index for 2008, the district's Asians scored 972, whites scored 934, Latinos 746 and African-Americans 700. That's a 234-point gap between white and black students, up one-third from 2003 and nearly 50 percent higher than statewide figures.

The white-Latino gap also is greater in Palo Alto — 188 points — than it is statewide. But the school district has narrowed that gap by 7 percent over five years.

Skelly said he doesn't know why African-American achievement has fallen in the district. But he insists that schools are educating kids better than they did before. Bill Garrison, the district's testing guru, notes that a higher proportion of blacks and Latinos in Palo Alto suffer from poverty, learning disabilities and English deficiencies, all factors that pull down scores, than do whites and Asians.

Members of Palo Alto's Parent Network for Students of Color say even children who excel in elementary school falter so badly in middle and high school that many barely graduate. "There's a huge problem here," said Melissa Kirven-Brooks, mother of a senior and twin freshmen in the district and a member of the group.

Kirven-Brooks wants Palo Alto to emulate successful staff training and parental involvement programs that have helped narrow the achievement gap elsewhere.

Skelly said the district is working hard on several fronts to bring up lagging students. At Barron Park Elementary School, some fifth-graders have longer school days three days a week and start school two weeks early in the summer. Districtwide, struggling students attend an academic summer school.

While Skelly's colleagues may agree with his realpolitik talk that California must give schools the means to educate the immigrant and poor students, they take issue with his words. "Teaching is more powerful than what kids bring to school with them as background," said Charles Weis, superintendent of Santa Clara County schools. "We can close the achievement gap; we just need to create the environment where it can happen."

Don Iglesias, superintendent of the San Jose Unified School District, is unequivocal: "I absolutely do believe that it is possible for kids from poverty and with high mobility to succeed."

Skelly doesn't disagree with any of that, and he believes that his staff every day works to educate all kids: "If you stop believing you can make a difference in a kid's life, you ought to get out of education," he said. He just has an issue with setting unrealistic goals — similar to the state board of education mandating that all eighth-graders, regardless of readiness, take algebra. He calls that "a nutty idea."

Schools already know what does help students: longer school days, a longer school year and, especially, an excellent classroom teacher for each child.

Yet those seem elusive this year, with massive budget cuts on the horizon. Even in that dark cloud, Skelly finds a possible silver lining. In a bad economy, he believes, "People will take education more seriously."

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