Four thousand educators convened last week on a mission to bridge the achievement gap between African American and Latino students and their white peers. They were called to Sacramento by state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell not only to learn the strategies used by schools that are successfully narrowing the gap but to determine exactly how -- not whether -- California schools under-serve students of color.
Hardly had the figurative strains of “Kumbaya” faded when racial fault lines erupted. Before the end of the first day, numerous white educators had stormed out. At workshop after workshop, they had been asked to examine their attitudes toward and expectations for black and Latino students. Only once that was done, they were told, could they initiate change in their schools. Hurt, resentful and angry, the white educators heard this message: Stop being racist.
In turn, some black educators were nearly or literally in tears after Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute stated that even the best schools cannot close the gap. Rather, he said, the cultural and socioeconomic divides between the races -- differences in wealth, health, child-rearing -- must be addressed. Deflated, demoralized and anguished, the black educators heard this: It’s not white institutions that require scrutiny, it’s black and Latino homes.
School superintendents who spoke at the conference, however, said that their on-the-ground investigations reveal abundant disparities in the classroom. Not just different educational outcomes for black and brown students than for whites, but different treatment: meaningless assignments, less encouragement, harsher punishments, more anger. Christine Lim, superintendent of the San Leandro Unified School District, said her visits to classrooms with an eye toward spotting racial inequities set off a rebellion among teachers who felt threatened. One middle school literally locked its doors against her and a diversity consultant. (Lim has her own key and went in anyway.)
And even the best intentions are suspect. O’Connell, who at first found himself under attack by whites who disagree that school systems must change, later found his words misconstrued by blacks. He remarked that schools do not find a place for the enthusiasm and engagement that black children are free to display in, for example, church. Somehow he was entirely misinterpreted by the local media and a branch of the NAACP as linking churchgoing and black students’ academic performance.
Unfortunately, misunderstanding, fear and hurt are inevitable consequences of talking about race. But we hope O’Connell doesn’t back down now. If we are committed to educating all of our children, this conversation must continue. It’s probably going to become a lot more uncomfortable -- certainly for him, but also for the rest of us.