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California’s Achievement Gap: Is Racism Really the Problem?
by Rachel Chaney 11/26/07

Last week State Superintendent of Education Jack O’Connell hosted a weekend summit on the disparity in performance between minority and white/Asian students. O’Connell called this “achievement gap” the “biggest civil rights issue of our time,” and blamed it largely on subtle and inadvertent racism in the classroom.

O’Connell is right in pointing to the achievement gap as an important and problematic issue. But implicitly pointing a finger at teachers for creating a racist classroom misses the target. Socioeconomic factors complicate the problem.  Because many of the students from families classified as “poor” come from minority groups, it may be tempting to conflate underperformance with racism. 

Rachel Chaney

Policy Fellow, Education Studies PRI

Pacific Research Institute

O’Connell argued that the achievement gap persisted among “non-poor” students as well. Yet the classification for “non-poor” in California is a salary of more than $38,000 for a family of four. Many families who make marginally more than this, and are consequently categorized as “non-poor,” still face significant economic difficulties. 

This is especially true for those families living in California’s expensive coastal areas like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Oakland, or San Diego — urban areas that have often struggled with failing school districts. Thus these “non-poor” numbers might actually include a substantial number of families and students still facing pressing economic problems. In addition to these economic factors, socioeconomic influences on students go beyond just money. 

Students from one-parent families, or families that have two working parents working long hours might face educational difficulties due to lack of parental oversight of homework, study skills, or personal habits. Similarly, students whose parents did not attend high school or college, or who do not speak English, might be less able to encourage or help their children succeed in school and on standardized tests.

This does not mean these parents are any less dedicated or qualified as parents. It just means that some students might face socioeconomic disadvantages that others do not. All of these elements complicate O’Connell’s claim that racism is responsible for the achievement gap. So do high achieving schools with large numbers of minority students.

American Indian Public Charter School in Oakland, for example, has a student population of mostly minority students who come from families classified as “poor.” Yet on standardized tests, American Indian has outperformed other area schools, as well as most schools in the state.

Perhaps the teachers at American Indian are among the few non-racist teachers in the state. It seems more likely, however, that the school has adopted successful strategies and set high expectations for success that have led to high scores.

Instead of blaming racism for the problem, O’Connell and California educators should look for ways to improve teacher quality — the factor most highly correlated with student success. Bonus pay initiatives or alternative certification routes might worry teachers’ unions who don’t want to lose their control over California schools. But such initiatives would also help narrow the achievement gap by encouraging and rewarding highly qualified teachers. 

Those looking for blame should consider a system that encourages mediocrity in the name of self-esteem and shies away from standards in the name of fairness. Maybe what our schools really need are teachers and principals committed to setting high standards for all students, rather than making excuses about income or race.  

The real racism lies in the assumption that the achievement gap is insurmountable. Policymakers, voters, and parents should seek reforms that make schools and teachers accountable and that reward districts and teachers who do achieve results. CRO

copyright 2007 Pacific Research Institute



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