Nearly two weeks have passed since Jack O' Connell, California's State Superintendent of Public Instruction, convened his "Achievement Gap" summit to evaluate why black and Latino students score lower on standardized tests than their white and Asian peers.
O' Connell said, incorrectly and rudely, that California teachers are insensitive to cultural differences among their students. They therefore cannot, in his view, adequately attend to their pupils' educational needs.
As a teacher for the Lodi Unified School District in California's San Joaquin Valley, O'Connell's remarks outraged me. Even though my students are mostly adults, I have close enough ties to K-12 education to recognize how offensive O'Connell's comments are to my colleagues…and, of course, to me.
Teachers are understandably angry about O'Connell's insinuation that their so-called cultural ignorance prevents minority students from reaching their full potential.
O'Connell has taken the long standing-approach to California public schools' deficiencies: children are failing; teachers are to blame. Nothing beats alienating the very people you depend to carry out the nearly impossible and totally thankless task of enlightening millions of California kids.
Since California test scores rank near the bottom of the barrel, someone has to take the fall. Why not blame the largely defenseless teachers who present the easiest target?
In my column today, which will be the first in an on-going series of critical assessments of California K-12 education, I'm going to focus on where the first steps toward academic achievement should be taken—with the parents.
But before going further, let's be clear that O'Connell, despite his lofty position from atop of California's massive, dysfunctional education bureaucracy, is unqualified to comment on classroom conditions.
O'Connell did his last teaching three decades ago—an eternity in public education. After his active teaching career ended, O'Connell moved on to a seat on the Santa Barbara County School Board, a district which at the time had few minority students.
Since he is an aspiring politician with his eye on the governor's seat in 2010, O'Connell may anticipate that thinly-veiled charges of teacher racism will make good sound bites for diverse voters.
Before he points fingers at already beleaguered teachers, here are a few questions O'Connell should ask parents, especially the gripers.
The answer may shock you.
In her 2004 San Francisco Chronicle column, Joan Ryan wrote that the empty desks in the San Francisco Unified School District belong overwhelmingly to African American and Latino students. They account for 66 percent of the K-12 students who had 12 or more unexcused absences during the school year. [S.F. Schools Hard Facts on Truancy: Students of Color Miss Far Too Much, By Joan Ryan, San Francisco Chronicle, March 2, 2004]
Using 12 or more days of missed school as the definition of a truant, of the 8,258 African American students, 1,934 missed without cause. Among Latino students, 1,651 of 11,986 were chronic no-shows.
Compare those totals to the 17,974 Chinese and white students—that is, those who O'Connell would label as "achievers". Only 344 Chinese and 327 white had 12 or more unexcused absences.
The statistics came from report prepared by the San Francisco Unified School District's research, planning and accountability department and were leaked to Ryan.
O'Connell can't hold teachers responsible for truancy. No one can learn if he isn't in school.
By "read the book," I mean study—not stare at pages while listening to an iPod.
And, asking part two of the same question, has it occurred to you or your child that re-reading a chapter often pays dividends?
Many classes offer tutoring for K-12 children. Classes are held Monday through Thursday, morning, afternoon and evening. Except in dire cases, the only excuse for not coming to an ESL class is indifference.
Even if a parent doesn't want to learn English for his own sake, by going to class he would set a good example for his child and be able to more easily interact with teachers.
I'll bet you haven't.
The Lodi Library, for example, has three programs designed to help children.
The "Homework Help Center" meets every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. "Toddler and Preschool Story Time" which encourages good reading habits is offered Wednesdays and Thursdays. And each Saturday morning the library dedicates itself to "Family Story Time".
After parents have explored and exhausted all of the free and readily accessible services to foster learning, then we'll evaluate teacher performance.
In the meantime, let's remember that the key to scholastic success is in the home.