Schools that fail all our children

State schools Supt. Jack O’Connell hosted a summit in Sacramento last week of 4,000 educators, policymakers and experts. He asked them to confront California’s “racial achievement gap” -- the persistently lower test scores of California’s African American and Latino public school students compared with their white and Asian peers. In 125 packed sessions, participants probed causes of the gap and offered strategies to close it. O’Connell asked them to “honestly and courageously face this pernicious problem,” and for two days, the capital was abuzz with ideas, energy and even some hope.

Strikingly, the state’s other “achievement gap” was barely mentioned at the summit; this is the gap between California and the rest of the nation.

The most recent results from the National Assessment of Education Progress test (popularly known as “the nation’s report card”) place California’s fourth- and eighth-graders below those in nearly every other state in math and reading achievement. (Although California’s math scores have improved over the last decade, so have the scores in the rest of the country.)


This national achievement gap affects students across the state regardless of their race. If we don’t address both the racial and national achievement gaps, it’s hard to imagine solving either one

For example, for years, people have been describing and lamenting California’s general decline in education. We’ve all heard it. Test scores of California’s Latino and African American students are, on average, among the lowest in the country. However, white students don’t do well either, and by a wide margin: California’s white eighth-graders score below white eighth-graders in every state but West Virginia and Nevada on the NAEP reading test.

In other subjects and at other grades, California’s white students score below white students in most other states.

Is there a problem with California’s white students? Do they or their parents care less about education than white students in Connecticut or Iowa? No one asks these questions about white students. Yet many people have no qualms about offering “culture” or “family background” as the main reason for the underperformance of Latino and African American students.

In a report released this month by UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access, we offer a different explanation, one that covers the learning problems of minority students and white students, which we call the “opportunity gap.” What this means is that California is significantly behind most other states in providing fundamental learning opportunities, period. Conditions here are bad for all students on average, no matter their race or ethnicity, and on top of that, they are worse for African American and Latino students. Yet these are problems that are readily identified and fixable.

On average, California middle and high school teachers are responsible for almost 50% more students than teachers across the nation. California has a critical shortage of well-trained math teachers even as it expects students to meet math curriculum standards that are among the highest in the country. And when students are struggling, they are unlikely to get help. Public high school students lack sufficient access to counselors -- on average, there is one counselor for every 556 students, the lowest ratio in the nation. Our middle school students have even less access to counselors, with one for every 753 students.

In addition, middle and high schools enrolling the highest proportion of Latino and African American students are far more likely to be overcrowded or lack college prep courses than majority white and Asian schools. Middle schools serving more than 90% Latino and African American students are 22 times more likely than majority white and Asian schools to experience a severe shortage of qualified teachers.

California’s educational standards were designed to produce a highly educated workforce for a technology-based economy and a well-informed citizenry. But achieving these standards is not a simple matter of motivating teachers, students and parents to “try harder.” California has not invested in its schools at a level commensurate with its standards, and our core educational infrastructure is incapable of providing the opportunities these goals demand.

Truly closing the racial achievement gap and the national achievement gap will require directing new resources to those students who are most deprived of fundamental learning opportunities.