Day One of Achievement Gap Summit Focuses on Teaching

Hundreds of teachers, administrators, and parents are in Sacramento to attend a two-day "Achievement Gap Summit." State schools chief Jack O'Connell organized the summit to find ways to bring up the test scores of black and Latino students, who have consistently lagged behind the scores of white and Asian students. KPCC's Julie Small sat in on some of the first day's sessions, and says some of the ideas focus more on teachers than students.

Julie Small: Russlynn Ali's group, "Education Trust West," has analyzed a lot of data on students who don't do well on standardized tests. And she says one common denominator shows up time after time.

Russlynn Ali: Across the board: If you're poor, if you're black or brown, you're going to be four times more likely to have an underqualified teacher.

Small: Ali says the one education reform California's barely tinkered with is making sure that really good teachers teach at schools where most of the students are black and Latino.

Ali: We've not made any real aggressive steps to ensure that poor kids and kids of color get at least their fair share of quality teachers. And we need to go deeper about what we mean by "quality." We need to be able to understand what our teachers that produce the greatest gains in student achievement look like. What are their characteristics? What do they do so well?

Small: Ronald Ferguson knows. He co-chairs Harvard's "Achievement Gap Initiative." Ferguson says the teachers that get results are the ones who explain concepts in different ways if students don't understand right off the bat. They relate the material they're teaching to the students' world. They encourage questions. They expect a lot from their students – and they get it.

Ronald Ferguson: Classroom conditions where students believe that they can be successful if they work hard, that there's a reason to learn the material, that it's going to be kind of enjoyable and not terribly boring; that their teacher likes them, but also pushes them and makes it uncomfortable when they don't work too hard. And that their peers don't tease too much or get in the way. In those types of classrooms, students behave better.

Small: Harvard's Ronald Ferguson says educators collect a lot of data on student performance, but very little on what students think of their teachers. He says devoting dollars to that could go a long way to cultivating more quality teachers. Ferguson says he'd also like to see more teachers teaching each other... and he says that can happen right now.