Eliminating the Achievement Gap Requires Collaboration

None of the 31 traditional public school districts in Santa Clara County have proven that they can eliminate the achievement gap by themselves. I should stipulate that there are an equal number of efforts to reduce the achievement gap in both charter and traditional public schools. Both use public dollars, but the results for some children—50 percent of students attending public schools in San Jose score below grade level in math and English—are unacceptable and can be blamed for the high school dropout rate.

A recent USA Today column written by Neerav Kingsland and Richard Whitmire reported that politics is winning and kids are losing, especially poor children. I was once optimistic that we could eliminate the achievement gap by 2020, a date set four years ago by former Superintendent Chuck Weis and San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed.

But in every meeting I take these days I am left disheartened by the level of vitriol.

The USA Today column asserts that there is a national movement to thwart the creation of charters: "What is lost in these conflicts is an irreducible truth. Every attack against successful charter schools is an attack on parents who want a different public school option because their neighborhood school has failed them and they have no options."

Kingsland and Whitmire describe the exact same situation that is occurring here in Silicon Valley, where the animus is fueled by turf wars between school boards and superintendents over where children belong.

Both systems are authorized by laws created by a bipartisan state legislature and must be carried out by elected school boards or the state board appointed by the governor. Through the approval or denial of charters on appeal, or countywide petitions, the county Board of Education is attempting to follow the law to the best of its ability.

When I chaired the Board in December 2011, we took an unprecedented vote authorizing 20 countywide charters to be built and established within a five-year period. Due to legal maneuvers by San Jose school districts, not one of the 20 has become operational. It’s tragic that so many parents and children must wait for better academic and social environments.

As Kingsland and Whitmire assert, "In California, the state has wisely allowed county officials to overturn school districts who reject the growth of high performing charter schools. Over the past several years, the best educational opportunity for low-income Latino students in San Jose, CA has been the emergence of Rocketship charter schools."

Many of us who write about public education link it to our national security. The "War on Poverty" waged by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964-65 was a huge investment in breaking the cycle of poverty and helped grow a new middle class. Education initiatives like Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA morphed into NCLB), Head Start and Job Corp were integral components of the President's policies.

Today we are on the battlefield of an ugly, non-productive war on charters, all while children are stuck in an underperforming public schools. Last week Rose Filicetti, executive director of the county School Boards Association, sent an email to all school board members with an article that demonstrate how Rocketship’s scores for the last several years have declined. While true, it does not take all information into account. According to preliminary data being analyzed by the county Office of Education, Rocketship students in 2012-13 performed at significantly higher levels than students who were enrolled in traditional school districts.

Let’s put down the legal and verbal weapons and have a productive dialogue about how to address the achievement gap. We only have 5.5 years left to meet our goal. The children are counting on us.

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.


  1. I’m supportive of the charter schools, but I disagree with Mr. DiSalvo’s point about LBJ’s “War on Poverty” – breaking the cycle of poverty and helped grow a new middle class. The only middle class the programs grew, was a middle class of government functionaries hired to dole out the welfare. How many of the downtrodden actually ended up in the middle class? I suspect it was few. And if did a cost benefit analysis, what was the cost per person for the alleviation of said poverty?

    The way I see it the non-English learners are hampered by the soft racism of low expectations. Society has no expectation for them to learn English, and there is no cost to not learning English – most everything you need to function in California today is provided in multiple languages for the benefit of native speakers. Why should they ever learn English? I have older relatives who were born into immigrant families, went to school in San Jose not speaking a word of English. However, they learned. Expectations were much different, and higher in those days.

    Growing up in San Jose in the 20’s & 30’s, if you did not learn English in school, you were going to pick prunes or work in a packing shed for the rest of your life, or do some other kind of menial work.

    There needs to be a tectonic shift in how people think about language learning, culture and the necessity of English being our common tongue. Until that happens, not much will change and things will only continue to deteriorate.

    And truthfully, I don’t expect anything to change for the better. Things will just keep getting worse and worse and eventually we will see a wholesale collapse of the society around us. Bank on it.

    • A well constructed analysis. Not only were LBJ’s programs not helpful (other than to a new legion of government bureaucrats), but if there ever was any hope that we’d permanently rise above poverty, his “War On Poverty” put the kibosh on that idea and guaranteed us that we’d segregate out certain groups and keep them permanently mired in it.
      But deep down, liberals love this “income inequality” problem. Makes ’em feel useful.
      After all, what would Joe DiSalvo do with his days if he didn’t have the “achievement gap” to wring his hands over?

  2. What is necessary to close the achievement gap is more students and parents who ant to achieve. California provides an opportunity for students to achieve, but the kids and their parents must embrace it. You can lead a horse to water…

  3. For English press 1. Para español, oprima numero dos. For everything else, blame the achievement gap.

    Having a “dialogue” with the local districts about charter schools seems like telling a pitbull to “let go”.

  4. You’re correct, I.Conoclastt & John Galt; but wait, there’s more. U.S. government War on Poverty, War on Drugs, War on Terrorism, the Energy Department, TSA, Homeland Security–all miserable failures; except to increase the number of federal government employees.