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In California, every teacher may have to go through racial sensitivity training. It's an idea to reduce the achievement gap; that's the difference in test scores between students of different ethnic groups. The standard explanation for that gap has been poverty. Educators now argue that the gap has more to do with race.
From member station KQED, Elaine Korry reports.
ELAINE KORRY: A sell-out crowd of nearly 4,000 educators gathered at the Sacramento Convention Center to explore some startling research. It shows that race is a better predictor of a child's success in school than economic background.
School reform consultant Edwin Javis(ph) says when he heard that, a light bulb went on.
Mr. EDWIN JAVIS (Consultant): Poverty does matter, as race does matter as well, but if you stratify the data, you find that poor whites do outperform affluent black students, so you have to start asking a different question: what else is going on there?
KORRY: What's going on, according to some experts, it's racism, pure and simple.
Mr. GLENN SINGLETON (Pacific Education Group): Institutional racism blankets all of the aspects of our educational delivery.
KORRY: Glenn Singleton, president of the Pacific Education Group, has led racial sensitivity training sessions with some of California's top educators. A keynote speaker at the conference, he was the first of many to hammer away at the race question.
Jeannie Oakes was another. She directs the Institute for Democracy, Education and Access at UCLA.
Dr. JEANNIE OAKES (UCLA): We have a huge number of schools that are predominantly African-American and Latino that have severe shortages of qualified teachers. Those schools are far more likely to be critically overcrowded as defined by the state.
KORRY: According to Oakes, those schools dumb down their curriculum and funnel more black and Latino students into special education classes. There's also the question of racial bias in the classroom; about 55 percent of California students are black or Latino, but more than 70 percent of their teachers are white.
Richard Owen, a former school superintendent, says that divide leaves minority students feeling left out.
Mr. RICHARD OWEN (Former School Superintendent): We have to make sure that the teachers are able to reach the kids. You can't teach them if you can't reach them. And I think to some extent you have to know how to connect with the culture in order to teach.
KORRY: But the California Teachers Association argues that teachers are always made the scapegoat when students fail. They ask what about family background? And keynote speaker Glenn Singleton agrees. He says social cues from parents, home and neighborhood also have a huge impact on success in school.
Mr. SINGLETON: It's not just what's going on with teachers or administrators, but it's also what, in fact, students have internalized, both white students in terms of their own ability to perform, and students of color in terms of their inability to perform.
KORRY: According to Singleton, the achievement gap won't be closed until racism is addressed and all students come to the classroom on an equal footing. He doesn't expect that to happen soon; neither does California superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell. But he says years of education reform alone have failed to close the achievement gap, so it's time to refocus attention on what he calls the biggest civil rights issue of our time.
Mr. JACK O'CONNELL (Superintendent of Public Instruction, California): We really need to make sure that we're addressing the teacher distribution issue, the resource issue, the expectations issue, so that we can provide that individualized, personalized educational opportunity for each student.
KORRY: The data is clear, says O'Connell: poverty is not the only factor holding black and Latino children back. As a state, he says, California has a moral obligation to act on that evidence.
For NPR News, I'm Elaine Korry.