Susan Sandler | SF Gate
December 13, 2007
What grade would you give a student who has all the knowledge he or she needs to succeed but repeatedly fails to act on that knowledge? California's government is that kind of student when it comes to making our school system work for students of color. The knowledge is there, but policy makers don't act on it.
Now is the right time to issue grades on the job our policy makers are doing in serving students of color. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has dubbed 2008 the Year of Education. Major studies have been completed, and the governor's Committee for Education Excellence will soon be issuing recommendations for how to fix our broken school system.
We actually know what it takes to provide a high quality education to students of color that enables their success in college, career, and community leadership. Some schools are already doing it. Justice Matters, a research and policy organization focused on racial justice in education, recently collaborated with the Stanford University School Redesign Network on a study of such schools. High Schools for Equity: Policy Supports for Student Learning in Communities of Color examines five California high schools that successfully provide students of color with high quality learning. In the words of a student at one of these schools, they are learning "how to learn, not just what is in the textbook." "I developed into an intellectual at this school," explained another student. These schools provide students with an engaging, relevant learning experience that is intellectually rigorous, and they give students the support they need to succeed. They send more than 80 percent of their students to college, more than twice the state average.
Unfortunately, there are very few such schools. Our research sheds light on the reason why. Educators in the High Schools for Equity schools have to contend with a policy environment that provides them with little support and creates many obstacles to the kind of work they are doing. The state's uneven teacher preparation system turns out too few teachers with the skills to carry out these school's sophisticated teaching practices. Once teachers get to a school, they are not given the time to do the kind of quality planning and ongoing learning that is needed to provide learning that is exciting, challenging, and supports the success of all students. The standardized high-stakes tests do not get at the more challenging skills the schools are teaching, and preparing for the tests takes a lot of time away from quality learning. The schools do not have enough funding to implement the practices they know will make the most difference for their students. And on and on.
The discussion of California policy needs to be informed by knowledge of what it takes to provide high quality learning. This is a general issue for California schools, and it is also a racial justice issue. When policy makers talk about the education of students of color, they often set the bar especially low - if students of color develop minimum competency in basic skills, that is good enough. It is thought to be too much to ask that students of color have an opportunity to think deeply, find the connections between academic subject matter and relevance to their lives, or learn the problem-solving skills that will make a difference in addressing the complex challenges our society faces.
Justice Matters has developed a Racial Justice Report Card on California Education Policy based on the High Schools for Equity study. We will be issuing grades for the recommendations of the Governor's Committee on Education Excellence. We will also be grading what both the governor and state Superintendent Jack O'Connell propose to do in 2008. We need to see whether their rhetoric about improving education translates into the kind of bold action that we need to give California students of color the education they deserve but have not had.
Susan Sandler is president of Justice Matters.