State Superintendent Convenes Summit to Close Achievement Gap

Tuesday and Wednesday, thousands of California educators will meet in Sacramento to grapple with a major problem in the state's public schools. School administrators and teachers call it the "achievement gap." As KPCC's Adolfo Guzman-Lopez reports, school leaders want to find solutions for each school, because doing nothing, they say, will cripple the Golden State's future.

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: In the late 1800s, Mark Twain wrote an essay that accused novelist James Fenimore Cooper of crimes against the English language. More than a century later, Macy Lederer challenges her tenth graders to unravel Twain's argument.

Macy Lederer (to students): Okay, let's look at number two, and it says, "How does Twain create the tone?" And you guys talked about it with your partner, so, can I hear some examples of how he creates the tone, looking back through the passage?

Guzman-Lopez: Lederer teaches honors English at Wilson High in Long Beach. Her principal, Lew Kerns, is proud of her – and of what the rest of the school's achieved.

Lew Kerns: We have the last two National Hispanic Merit Scholars at Harvard University, from this school.

Guzman-Lopez: Yet Hispanic and black students at Wilson High, like those in most other schools in Long Beach and the rest of the state, score significantly lower on standardized tests than their white and Asian classmates.

The "achievement gap" is nothing new, and despite local and state reforms, it remains wide. Educators searching for solutions scratch their heads. Some point to poverty. Others say black and Latino students learn differently than other students, and blame schools for not adapting.

Principal Kerns says there may be disagreement about the reasons for the "achievement gap," but there's also a growing consensus that high schools need to try more specialized teaching methods.

Kerns: We're a school that harbors many cultures, and it's our job to make sure that our students want to be here. The learning styles are different for every student, no matter what the culture is.

Guzman-Lopez: Teachers at Wilson High find creative ways for students to fulfill math and English requirements. And Kerns pushes students to join clubs or volunteer off campus; anything to get students jazzed about coming to class. There's even a Chuck Norris club, for students who are fans of the action movie star.

If California doesn't close the achievement gap, says State Superintendent Jack O'Connell, the state's economy will get an action star punch in the gut. California is hungry for smart, well-educated workers. O'Connell's convened a summit in Sacramento to talk about improving education for black and Latino students.

Superintendent Jack O'Connell: We're sharing best practices; there are some islands of excellence in our state and other states. We have a very dynamic group of speakers of presenters, and we're going to have a debate between a couple of different philosophies which I think will be quite entertaining.

Guzman-Lopez: The problem, O'Connell believes, requires a "think globally, act locally" approach. He says the summit's goal is to empower the state's 9,000 schools to come up with their own ideas for filling in the "achievement gap." What won't work, says O'Connell, is one solution for all schools.