State Superintendent of Public Schools Jack O’Connell released the 2008 Base Academic Performance Index (API) report, and once again the news is, in general, dismal for African American students.

The API report summarizes results from the spring 2008 testing period, and shows how many schools have hit or missed the state’s target goal of 800 (see chart below). It also highlights the performance of statistically significant subgroups, and state-wide African Americans (659) scored below every subgroup except students with disabilities (552). By comparison, statewide Asian students scored 864 and non-Hispanic White youngsters scored 814.

According to O’Connell, while the achievement gap is obvious, this year is the first time there has been a narrowing of the difference in scores between Black and Latino pupils and their White and Asian counterparts.

“In the STAR (Standard Testing and Reporting) testing from last year, we saw an incremental reduction in the achievement gap. . . and it has taken Herculean effort to get that,” O’Connell said.

There are shining examples of local schools (which tested at least 100 Blacks) where African American students are on par with their peers around the state. These include Signal Hill Elementary (840) and Newcomb Academy (863) both in Long Beach Unified; El Rincon Elementary (829) in Culver City; the Watts Learning Center in LAUSD (820), Wilder Preparatory (819) and Highland Elementary (817) in Inglewood; View Park Preparatory Accelerated Charter (elementary) (813); McNair Elementary (808) Compton; and Cowan Elementary (800) in L.A.

These campuses are part of a state-wide contingent reflecting that 39.9% of elementary schools have hit or exceeded the state target.

The story is much different on the secondary level where only 30.1% of middle schools and 17.1% of high schools hit the mark. But, noted the state superintendent, the trajectory is upward with middle schools climbing 5.7% this year.

“The reason that gap exists is because it is not a priority of those responsible for educating our children that this gap disappear,” explained noted educator George McKenna, who said this difference has been in place for years.

“Instead of trying to come up with a systemic approach to making changes, they point to individual acts of heroism as examples of why the system works,” added McKenna, who himself was one of those individual acts. As principal at Washington Preparatory High School, he garnered wide-spread public acclaim for transforming a struggling inner city high school into one noted for turning out college-bound students.

In addition to the lack of will, McKenna, who has retired from active involvement in a school district and now operates an educational consulting firm, said there are a number of other factors that must be addressed to close the gap for African American students including the quality of teachers, and the difference African American culture infuses in an educational setting.

According to McKenna teachers need more training to improve their competency, and school district administrators must be willing to hold teachers accountable for their actions or inaction.
“. . . the culture of the teacher doesn’t change unless there’s some consequence to non-performance,” asserted McKenna.

And there is no substitute for a competent teacher, added the nationally renowned educator.

“Some people believe extending the school day and the school year. Well, they tried that in Miami. If you have the same sorry education going on; it’s just more extension of sorry instructional practices. And block scheduling, where you get two hours of math instead of one; well if it’s the same teacher teaching in an effectual instructional manner how does that enhance?
The thing is the training of the classroom teacher.

“Now the classroom teacher, when they are ineffective, suffers no consequences. . . Consistently there is ineffective instruction going on in the classroom, and there’s no way to address that.”
In addition to learning how to teach effectively, McKenna said teachers need to understand the unique differences that African American students bring to the classroom. These include an understanding that to appear smart is to “act White;” a louder and more boisterous way of communicating that impacts everything, how questions are answered in class in contrast to how loud they talk on the school yard; to how they study. (Black students who strive to achieve often study alone because that is how they have been successful in achieving in the past.)

McKenna said another cultural difference is seen in how much time African American youngsters put into school work once they leave campus at 3 p.m. And that too, added the former principal and school superintendent, is often a reflection of what is going on at home and in their environment.

While the state-wide score for African American students and most individual scores at local high schools fall below the 800 mark, there is one school where Black Students have soared above the mark along with their contemporaries but even at the California Academy of Math and Science (CAMS), located on the Campus of Cal State Dominguez Hills, African American children trail their counterparts.

The base API score for CAMS, which accepts from 11 different school districts, is 962. African American students posted a score of 939 compared to 983 for Asians, and 961 for Latinos. There were not enough White (not of Hispanic origins) students tested be numerically significant.

Principal Janice Filer attributes the high scores in part to the school’s rigorous academic requirements and curriculum–students must have an minimum 3.0 grade point average to be accepted; students graduate having taken three years of math and four years of science. Students also attend class alongside Dominguez students and have access to their facilities and professors.
All CAMS students also take advance placement English and calculus.

While she does not deny that her students may start a little above the curve grade-wise, she believes more than that helps them achieve.

“We are not a neighborhood school. If we were a high school in Long Beach, for example, most of the kids (at the school) would live in that neighborhood,” added Filer. “Our school is diverse racially, diverse economically and geographically. They get experience with a diverse group that is not just in their neighborhood.”

And that sharpens student’s competitive instincts, believes Filer.

Group learning is also an essential part of the CAMS experience, added the principal, who has worked at the school for 12 years in various capacities.

“Our students travel in cohorts (groups) in grades nine to 11. First period English moves on to math together. Each year each grade level completes (interdisciplinary) group projects. That project is the capstone project for that grade level at the end of the year,” explained the principal who noted that the school features a lot of group work.

The teachers also engage in a little “group work” of their own, pointed out the school’s top administrator.

“(Teachers) get 100 hours of common play time, where they meet weekly. The 10th grade met today, and when they meet, they can talk about a student falling through the cracks,” Filer said. These meetings are mandatory, and give teachers the opportunity to exchange information about students and to develop interventions, when problems are identified.

The data is there about the problem, but does the data tell you what to do, asked McKenna.

Changing the outcome, will require changing the input, contends the outspoken education reform proponent. That means teachers and administrators must be truly held accountable; teachers must receive real training in how to teach African American children; and parents must be trained (preferably by other parents) on how to help their children.

These changes can result in incremental but definite improvement, and the impetus to achieve this change must come from the outside–from parents and others demanding change, believes McKenna.