The Racial Achievement Gap

Educational policy at times ticks like a metronome, however today the stakes are so vitally high for the efficacy of our country and its people that the pendulum can never swing back. We must be on a collective mission to increase rigor and relevance into the curriculum for each and every child, irrespective of the color of their skin.

“A Time to Act: Closing the Racial Achievement Gap,” a policy brief by the Silicon Valley Education Foundation and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, points out that closing the racial achievement gap is the critical educational issue of our time. For me it is the single most important issue confronting America, not the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the Great Recession. The achievement gap is inextricably tied into the future economic vibrancy of this country. Perhaps the only thing that equals the criticality of the issue is nuclear weapons proliferation.

The East Side Union High School District’s Board of Trustees will vote this week on a recommendation to use the UC and CSU course admission requirements as the default curriculum for students. It’s a tricky issue for them due to the fact they have seven elementary school districts (K-8) that feed students to the high schools, from Alum Rock to Oak Grove, Berryessa to Evergreen, Franklin-McKinley to Mt. Pleasant, to the smallest among them, Orchard. 

The debate over the decision should include the foundational structures for success of each student from the seven diverse “feeder” districts. In fact, these outrageous Waltz Tango Foxtrot (“What The F”) moments argue for the County Civil Grand Jury’s recommendation to have all school districts unified, not duplicative fragmented pieces of the whole.  I have requested a January discussion on the County Office of Education Board agenda highlighting the recommendations on the Civil Grand Jury report issued earlier this year.

Education policy makers believe there is a link between increased academic rigor for all students and the reduction of the achievement gap. ESUHSD will stand beside San Jose Unified School District as the only two districts in this county that have made the tectonic shift. In my view a good and important step, but not in isolation from many others as the SVEF policy brief stipulates, although district unification is not among them.

Last week SVEF’s CEO Mohammed Chaudhry convened a meeting to discuss the Policy Brief on the racial achievement gap by inviting Congressman Michael Honda to keynote the lunch meeting followed by a panel of local experts on the achievement gap debating the recommendations in the policy brief. The Congressman spoke with strong conviction about his concern that there are huge disparities in our public education system.

I know first hand that even in Santa Clara County alone having served as principal in Palo Alto Unified and in Gilroy Unified the education provided is enormously unequal. It is another Waltz, Tango, Foxtrot moment to think the most affluent children in the county receive the richest educational opportunities, but the racial achievement gap still exists in ugly ways even in a Palo Alto. a district that spends over $13,000 of public money per student.  So again one can correctly argue it is not about the money, although money does help.  Congressman Honda correctly asserts that we have a dysfunctional education system that must be radically altered to provide equity for each child’s individual needs.

San Francisco Unified has made some bold promises to their community and is now implementing A-G requirements for each student, again easier to do in a unified district than in ESUHSD.

Two statements that I give very high grades in the SFUSD 2009 strategic plan are:
Access and Equity: “We will ensure that every student has access to quality teaching and learning regardless of background, neighborhood, and income level.”
Achievement: “We will ensure that every student graduates from high school ready for college and/or career with the tools necessary to succeed.”

One panelist at the SVEF event last week was Fred Jones, Legislative Advocate/Counsel for the CA Business Education Association, said it is not enough to do just A-G as a default curriculum. Jones eloquently opined that Career Technical Education (CTE) must be an integral part of every high school student’s experience.  He said CTE reached its zenith in CA in 1987 with 75% of students enrolled in at least one course. Sadly, today the number is 29% of students enrolled in a CTE class.

Therefore, I argue if we do rigor for all we must do relevance for all, certainly a missing link in our system. The STAR test are an enemy to application of relevant learning to real world situations. It is in our collective interest to change the equation.

Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native. His columns reflect his personal opinion and can be found weekly on San Jose Inside.


  1. > We must be on a collective mission to increase rigor and relevance into the curriculum for each and every child, irrespective of the color of their skin.

    Why is the “progressive” education establishment continually surprised that when they treat the education of certain racial/ethnic groups differently, the groups exhibit different educational outcomes?

    In the state of California, I have been told, it is against the law to give a “black” school child an IQ test. OK to give a “white” child an IQ test, but “black” children are excused and can go hang out on the basketball court during testing of the “white” kids.

    From there, start piling on “affirmative action”, “black studies” ebonics, racial bussing, special education, etc, etc, and it all adds up to the fact the the public education/child detention system provides very different experiences for children of different racial/ethnic “identities”.  (Not to mention the fact that the “identity” is itself a construct imposed on children by the education establishment.  E. g., in the past, every child with a “Hispanic” last name was automatically put in ESL classes.)

    The “progressive” education establishment BEGINS with the assumption that non-white children are “victims”, imposes and reinforces that assumption on non-white children, and then acts surprise and dumfounded when non-white children demonstrate the helplessness and lack of initiative of “victims”.

    We need more studies!  We need more programs!  We need more FUNDING! FUNDING! FUNDING!

    For a dramatically contrasting perspective on “The Racial Achievement Gap” that rises above the “progessive” educators woolly and confused thinking, see:

    “Rich, Black, Flunking”
    Cal Professor John Ogbu thinks he knows why rich black kids are failing in school. Nobody wants to hear it.

    . . .

    “Their project yielded an unexpected conclusion: It wasn’t socioeconomics, school funding, or racism, that accounted for the students’ poor academic performance; it was their own attitudes, and those of their parents.”

  2. You’re killing me here DiSalvo. You start your article by claiming, “we must be on a collective mission to increase relevance and rigor into the curriculum for each and every child REGARDLESS OF THE COLOR OF THEIR SKIN” (my emphasis).

    Then you launch into your “closing the achievement gap” routine which is ALL ABOUT paying attention to the color of a child’s skin when determining the level of “rigor and relevance” they will be afforded in their education.

    Like I said before Joe. Yours is a very conflicted soul. Our childrens’ future depends on you getting help NOW.

  3. I don’t know if I buy into the idea of a racial achievement gap.  Because of that, I sometimes wonder if we are pushing a solution in search of a problem, particularly one with strong racial undertones.  My understanding of our public educational system is that it is standardized so that every student, whether h/she goes to school in Cupertino (for example) receives the same education as those in other parts of the Valley, regardless of the District’s residents’ income levels or ethnic makeup.  If this belief is incorrect, I’m open to information that would prove otherwise.  So the question is why students in some Districts outperform others?  Maybe it’s the teachers, family attitudes/values towards education, or family life (or strife) or probably a combination of those factors (and more).  I can’t speak to the administrative side of the equation and only hope that the best and brightest teachers are being retained/nurtured/supported so that the children can bear the fruits of their talents.  As a parent of school age boys, I can unequivocally say that any parent who does not see the opportunities that this country provides for their children through education and does not do everything h/she can to help their kids benefit is just missing the boat.

    • John,

      Your premise is false. We have publicly funded school systems that provide extraordinarily unequal opportunities for students. I recommend doing your own research electronically or by visiting an elementary and middle school in Palo Alto and Alum Rock.

      • > We have publicly funded school systems that provide extraordinarily unequal opportunities for students.

        Simple question:

        Does treating black children as “victims” within the “publicly funded school systems” improve or diminish the opportunities for black students?

        A. Improves
        B. Diminishes

  4. Joseph,

    I went to school at James Lick and at Sheppard middle.

    I also went to school on the west side, I attended Cupertino and Los Gatos high amongst others.

    Based on my own personal experience, let me prose a question for you..

    What would happen if we took the East side kids, and shipped them to the west side schools?  Do you *really* think that there would be an improvement on test scores?

    Problem with the East side is there is still segments of the population that feel oppressed by “the man”, there are parents that let their kids run wild, commit crimes, then defend their kids as their way of “Sticking it to the man”

    Teachers on this side of town know this to be fact.  They’ve grown tired of dealing with parents who don’t take responsibilities for their kids actions, and do nothing to discipline them for disrupting their classrooms.

    This isn’t to say the teachers won’t take an interest in kids. Academically I did OK at sheppard.  My family got really involved with my teachers, something I saw no other parents doing. I would lie about homework assignments, so my family would get a phone call daily from the teacher, outlining what my assignments should be.

    In a year I went from a D student to A’s and B’s.

    Throwing more money at the problem isn’t going to fix the ESJ test scores.  Different teachers isn’t going to fix it either.  Parent attitudes need to change towards teachers and staff.

    This was a stark contrast to what I saw on west side schools.  Kids were more focused on academic achievement, than they were on things like stealing the Mercedes Benz hood ornament from a car in the school parking lot so they could wear it around their neck. (it was a popular fad in the late 80’s)  I would never see kids from Los Gatos or Cupertino doing that.

    Another thing.. If we’re spending $13k per student, where is all that money going?  I could attend 40 units of community college, with books for less. Quick math..

    x   30 students per class
    $390,000 per year, per class
    -$60,000 teacher salary
    $330,000 per class
    x   20 classrooms
    $6,600,000 per year, per school, after teacher salaries.

    I know I’m missing a bunch of stuff, like ground maintenance, monthly recurring costs (power, water, gas, telco) School materials (books, computers, software) and other things like insurance.

    Even without those things added in, the schools receive an overwhelming amount of money that we never account for.

    I have a lot of teachers that come into my bar that talk to me all the time.  I have a teacher from Andrew Hill, a teacher from a school that teaches k-6 Spanish speaking students, and a teacher from Mt Pleasant that have been frequenting the bar I work at for at least the last 8 years.

    They all tell me they feel trapped with the shitty students sometimes.  They’re under pressure to keep these kids in their classroom, they’re told, “the school won’t receive funding for that student, and if we lose funding, you lose your job.”  It’s keep the bad apples in at all costs.

    We all know what bad apples do to the bunch.

    The other schools I went to on west side would not hesitate to cut the bad kids out, east side there is always hesitation. 

    This racial gap you speak of, is BS.  It’s not because of race.

    • The math is a bit off.  First, schools have from $9,000 to $11,000 per student, not $13,000.  Second, teacher benefits need to be included in the calculation.  Starting teachers make $90,000 in salaries and benefits while senior teachers can be about $130,000.  So you should use the average value of about $110,000 per teacher.  There are lots of staff involved in a school other than classroom teachers.  Librarians, counselors, custodians, principals, secretaries, clerks, health clerks, etc.  Then there are the overhead expenses that you mention (utilities, materials, insurance).  So the “extra” money goes fast.

    • All educated people agree that much of human behavior is influenced by genetics.  And we all know that what makes one race different from another, in the objective (biological) sense, is also genetics.  Thus it stands to reason that some behavioral disparities among racially distinct populations correlate (in an effectively causative manner) with race.  Its considered gauche to say so, of course, but I don’t see how it could not be true.  The only question is to what extent race is an issue, and to what extent socio-economic and other cultural factors come into play.  I don’t claim to know the answers to those questions, other than that the answer to the first question is “more than zero.”

  5. Boasting about San Jose Unified’s success with A-G requirements as Noguchi did last Sunday (and as you do here) ignores that, for 11th graders there, half test below grade-level proficiency in English Language Arts and only 5% test at grade-level proficiency in Algebra I. 

    Nothing against the students at San Jose Unified, but the new buzz words of “academic rigor” appear to be just the newest tracking mechanism.  Those you refer to as “education policy makers” may be wrong again.

    Regarding your racial-profiling, USA Today (9/13/10) reported on a College Board report about other ways to analyze student success using SAT scores for the 2010 high school graduating class, and here were some of their non-racial categories:

    SAT Scores….Category of Students

    1721……..Family income over $200K
    1714……..Took AP or honors courses
    1558……..Took core curriculum
    1546……..Took PSAT
    1510……..Family income of $60K-$80K

    1509……..National average score

    1407……..Did not take core curriculum        
    1329……..Family income below $20K

  6. My issue with these “expert panels” is that they are offered in the school day when the experts, the teachers, are in their classrooms doing the work. We are going to keep going in circles until we hear from the people who actually work with the children and see the tests that other people use as data.

    • Most school board members in the county get a stipend of between $200 and $500 per month.  It is a small amount for the work performed.  Some districts offer benefits and some don’t.  In those that don’t, not all board members take the benefits because they have them elsewhere.  The total cost of the board is less than $20,000 in most districts.

      While it is true that the County Superintendent makes over $300,000, don’t let that taint the truth about most districts in the county, where superintendents make under $200,000.  It’s actually a small salary for the CEO of an organization of 1000 employees and a budget on the order of $100 million.

      • David,

        Good points. We must deal with the facts always and not fabrications. This is one of the biggest dilemmas we have to solve as we move forward as a country One can rightfully argue that making more than the Mayor of a city of 1 million citizens is not right or argue that 20-30% less would be more in line with current Supes salaries in SCC. What ever position I think the salary is a grain of sand relative to the beach of sand of problems we must solve in public education.

        Actually the SCCOE employees 1800 people and has an annual budget of nearly $300 million dollars.

        • The “grain of sand” sets a very poor example at a time where teachers are facing pink slips, furloughs, salary freezes, benefits reductions and pressure to change tenure and move to merit pay.
          How about starting with a new contract where half of the superintendent salary would be based on merit (like achieving the lofty SJ 2020 goals)?

        • Put your wallet where your mouth is…

          I couldn’t agree with you more!


          I’m really disappointed that you could dismiss such an unacceptable abuse of taxpayer’s money and public trust by simply dismissing this disgusting salary being given to this guy.

          “Grain of sand?” God it’s outrageous!

          I see teachers buying stuff for their students and for their classrooms out of their own pockets all the time for God’s sake! But a 300 PLUS K income is over the top, come on now.

          I see kids selling candy, wrapping paper etc. just to fund their school. I see parents forking out money for books and all kinds of things they shouldn’t have to, on top of that homeowners are paying out high property taxes to fund their local schools, whether they have kids or not. WHY is that, so that a Superintendent can rake in $200- $300 Plus K salaries? Give me a break.

          Why are School Board Members making any money at all? Don’t they care enough about the kids and their education to fore go a pay check/benefits?  They already use it for a political resume builder!

          I volunteer more than 30 hours a month on a non-profit Board in an effort to raise money for scholarships for low-income students and I don’t even have children. I do it because I care about their tomorrows.

          Sorry Joseph, but your comments exemplify exactly what IS wrong with our educational system and the fools that run it. Throwing good money after bad is just plain ignorant.

        • > Actually the SCCOE employees 1800 people and has an annual budget of nearly $300 million dollars.

          And . . . does not teach a single student.

          And also, the SCCOE Board supervises only ONE of the 1800 employees.

          But the good news is . . . I hear they’re making great progress in solving the Racial Achievement Gap, and with a few more years of 1,800 employees spending $300 million dollars a year, they should have the problem just about solved.

    • Kathleen,

      The elected Board before my time on the Board negotiated the current salary. The SCCOE Board receives a monthly stipend of $590. Some of us opt out of benefits.

      • Joseph,
        If you multiply that $590.00- $895 per person, add benefits for those who take them, multiply that by 12 months, factor in ALL the School Boards doing this, and add in these outrageous salaries for superintendents, you could purchase a lot of school books, have money for sports, the arts, and computers for the kids in poorer areas etc.

        Poor children do WORSE in school because they are treated differently by society, schools in poverty-ridden areas can’t hire good teachers, and they get very little in the way of books, computers, etc.

        Their parents are usually uneducated and SOME don’t push them to do well. Some kids come from horrible back grounds and don’t see the benefit to an education that in today’s economy gets you nowhere, especially when they can earn more than you do by dealing drugs, or get on the welfare gravy train and pump out kids! Some of these kids don’t even speak English so that is another reason they fail!

        And please stop using RACE as the reason children fail to succeed in school, and PLEASE stop teaching them that they are less than because of the color of their skin.

        You are just reinforcing generational bias, prejudice, and creating a self-fulfilling prophecy that they can’t succeed on their own intellect and merit. You are telling them that something is WRONG with them by separating them from the mainstream with all these costly programs.

        We must strive to let our youth know that they, like us, can do anything they put their minds too. We must be there ready and willing to help them learn and stay in school. We can’t keep throwing money at the problem and using RACE as an excuse for the failure of the poor, and people of color in our educational system.

        I know this to be true because I came from a poor back ground and I refused to buy into that ignorant concept of poor=stupid. You become who you are under the support, guidance, and wisdom of those who strive to see you succeed, and not by being given a hall pass to be lazy and make excuses for not being all you can be. Losers aren’t born that way, they become that way because they are told that’s what they are.

        • Kathleen.
          Very well said.  I too came from a poor background and attended, let’s just say less than desirable schools.  Never once did it cross my mind that race had anything to do with achievement.  It’s just too easy to call it a racial achievement gap.

        • John Tang,

          You and Joe represent opposite ends of the education philosophy. DiSalvo believes that our education system should be founded on, and wallow in, the negative aspects of society.
          You- and your children- are living proof that in education, as in life, it is infinitely more rewarding to emphasize the endless array of positive opportunities that are available to ALL Americans if they will only open their eyes and look about them.

        • Jon Tang,
          I admire you and your ability to pass your determination to your children. THANK YOU! You exemplify what hard work, self respect, and dedication is all about. BRAVO!

    • Are you kidding me?  While many public administrators are overpaid, low and mid level managers at Silicon Valley companies make well over $100,000.  So are you suggesting that the Superintendent of a district, who oversees the education of thousands of students and budgets approaching or exceeding $100 million, should make less? 

      The most senior teachers make upwards of $90,000.  Should their supervisors and those who run the district make the same?

      I just keep hearing these arguments that public employees are overpaid, when nobody is comparing their salaries with those of people with similar levels of experience and responsibility in the private sector.  In Silicon Valley, professionals at private companies make more than professionals working in schools.

      • “The most senior teachers make upwards of $90,000.  Should their supervisors and those who run the district make the same?”

        Yeah, pretty much.

        Somebody needs to do that job, but I doubt it requires enormous experience & expertise, a doctoral degree, etc.  I’d be happy to pay everyone as much as they’d like to receive, but there are limits to how much we can afford.

        • >  I’d be happy to pay everyone as much as they’d like to receive,. . . .

          Hooray!! Kevin for governor!!!

          Oh, wait.  That’s how Jerry Brown got elected.

    • Kevin and Kathleen,

      As you share disgust over superintendents and school administrators salaries please don’t lose sight of the real issues tearing apart America…the sickeningly disparate salary ratios between the average American worker and the CEO and top management. It is the millions of dollars in bonuses on Wall Street and the horrendous greed in the corporate world that is tearing at our fragile national fabric.

      • Joseph,
        I have gone on record many times saying the very same thing you just did. Greed, money, and power seem to be much more important in our society than community. We are all in this together and we must start pulling together for the sake of our youth.

      • > As you share disgust over superintendents and school administrators salaries please don’t lose sight of the real issues tearing apart America…the sickeningly disparate salary ratios between the average American worker and the CEO and top management. It is the millions of dollars in bonuses on Wall Street and the horrendous greed in the corporate world that is tearing at our fragile national fabric.

        “Oh! Look over there. A shiny object.”

        – – Marlin to Dory in “Finding Nemo”

        Nice try Joe.  But evasive and irrelevant.

        The topic is the lavish, extravagant, and unjustified salaries and benefits for administrators and bureaucrats in the government monopoly public education establishment.

        You’re in an important leadership role in the public education establishment, and more than anyone else, in a position to address the issue of lavish, extravagant, and unjustified salaries and benefits.

        Others are in a better position than you to take on the issue of “sickeningly disparate salary ratios between the average American worker and the CEO and top management” and we will look to them to get THAT house in order.

        We don’t want to spread your talents and energies too thinly.  Just work on straightening out the problems of the public education system, and society will be in better shape.

      • I don’t actually disagree with Mr. DiSalvo’s remarks, but the voters have a lot more potential influence on how much school administrators are paid, then we do over the whole Wall Street “culture of greed” phenomenon.

        • Describing “Wall Street” (left wingdom’s catchphrase for the free market ecomomy) as the “culture of greed” is invidious and contentious.

          It is probably more valid to describe the culture of public employee unionism as the “culture of greed”, because all they want, in the timeless words of union bigwig Walter Ruether, is “MORE”.

          It is much more accurate and enlightening to characterize the free market economy as the “culture of risk”.

          Those who take the risks are likely to receive the rewards—as long as the government and their unionist parasites don’t swoop in and snatch those rewards away.

          Big government and their unionist zombies ultimately want more taxes, more pay, more benefits, but they want the private economy to bear the risks.

          Big government is truly the “culture of greed”.

  7. Joseph writes: “We must be on a collective mission to increase rigor and relevance into the curriculum for each and every child, irrespective of the color of their skin.”

    Okay.  Then we should be sure we’re aware of every school’s Academic Performance Index scores and trends.  We should hold locally-elected School Site Councils accountable for the details of every Single Plan for Student Achievement they approve.  Do school board members personally review each SPSA prior to approving it in open public session as representatives of the electorate?

    I appreciate the word “rigor.”  There are plenty of students of all backgrounds who work hard.  They want to study.  They want to learn.  They put in the effort to memorize multiplication tables and other “basics.”  They do their homework.

    Some responsibility falls on parents.  Some falls on teachers.  Most responsibility ultimately falls on students.  Administrators have to create school structures that encourage and reward students to exercise individual responsibility.  We as public leaders can identify the schools that outperform on standardized tests.  Those schools’ best practices should be championed and replicated.