Tuesday, September 30, 2008


I just finished reading “Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal” by Randall Kennedy (2008). As an exploration of some of the most dangerous waters that African Americans are forced to navigate, this book is extremely well-researched and fascinating. I especially recommend the book to anyone interested in gaining deeper insight into one of the non-school factors that undoubtedly influences the mindset of African-American students.

The chapters are as follows:
  • Chapter One: Who is “Black”?
  • Chapter Two: The Idea of Sellout in Black American History
  • Chapter Three: The Idea of Sellout in Contemporary Black America
  • Chapter Four: The Case of Clarence Thomas
  • Chapter Five: Passing as Selling Out

Here are a few excerpts from the book.

In the Preface:
“The specter of the “sellout” haunts the African-American imagination. A long-oppressed minority situated in the midst of a dominant white majority, blacks fear that whites will fear and corrupt acquiescent Negroes who, from positions of privilege, will neglect struggles for group elevation…African Americans fear that whites will promote black free riders and defectors who sap solidarity and discourage effective strategies for resisting subordination. Every social group – from the union to the organized crime family to the nation-state – confronts the challenge of exacting loyalty to the collective in the face of self-interest, hardship, or even danger.” [This makes me wonder about the power of the race loyalty which black youth expect from one another. It makes things socially dangerous for individuals who might want to be different, kind of like an "ultra-strength" peer pressure.]
In Chapter Three:
“Angst over complacency, collaboration, and defection continues to occupy a salient place in the Afro-American mind and soul. One hears it in ceaselessly repeated phrases such as “Don’t forget where you come from” and Stay black.” One sees it in the often obsessive attentiveness with which many blacks scrutinize other blacks for evidence of “passing,” “acting white,” or otherwise showing what is denounced as an inadequate commitment of black solidarity…These efforts, according to journalist John Blake, have given rise to “the Soul Patrol… thought police who enforce conformity.” Soul Patrols, he contends, are constituted by “the legions of black people who impose their definition of blackness on other black people.” Obnoxiously intrusive, they aren’t content with choosing your friends, he complains. “They want to tell you how to think, where to live, whom to love, how to do your job.”

“Acting white” is a derogatory term meant to stigmatize blacks who are said to betray the expectations of their own racial group by assimilating the expectations of white society. This use of the term has itself been harshly criticized, since it disparages as “white” such socially useful traits as studiousness, academic ambitiousness, attentiveness to proper grammar, and respect for other conventional protocols. That there exists among certain groups of blacks peer pressure to avoid “acting white” is clear. Controversial, however, is the extent of the stigmatization for “acting white.” The contentious literature on the “acting white” phenomenon is large.” [This reminds me of the time at a school music concert when a frustrated white parent asked a black parent who was sitting nearby to stop talking so loudly with her son. The black parent indirectly responded by loudly telling her son, “Now sit there and be quiet like a good little white boy.” The exchange was loaded with explosive racial issues, and it even feels dangerous to mention it here. Of course it's just another day in Oakland where simmering racial hostility creates a tense atmosphere that prevents important things from being talked about.]

“Homogenizing Black America’s ideological diversity also tends to obscure the tragic dilemmas with which black people have grappled and which they continue to face. Was it commendable to defiantly confront slaveholders even at the cost of certain death? Or was a strategy of mere survival superior?...Was it in the best interest of blacks for antislavery activists to purchase runaway slaves and then emancipate them? Or did the interest of blacks demand an unyielding insistence that any and all transactions in slave markets be condemned as immoral?...Was it in the best interest of blacks to serve in the armed forces…even as the government segregated them and placed them under the guardianship of racist white officers? Or was the interest of blacks best advanced by making black participation conditional on equal treatment? Is racial integration the best goal or strategy for blacks? Or is inward-looking institution-building a preferable alternative?”

“When Bill Cosby criticized blacks who he felt were hurting themselves and the community,” Keith Boykin asks, “Was that an act of loyalty or disloyalty? And when Michael Eric Dyson then criticized Bill Cosby for criticizing his community, was that an act of loyalty or disloyalty?” [Does the lack of unified viewpoint, along with the desire for solidarity, somehow lead to a tolerance for harmful criminal behavior in the Black community? Which commonly heard statement is most true: “We’re angry because we don’t get enough help from the police” or “We HATE the police and we refuse to help or talk to them”?]
In Chapter Four:
“…it was feelings of racial loyalty that constituted the main basis for the remarkable uptick in black support that Thomas received during the Anita Hill phase of his confirmation hearings. A protocol of racial loyalty dictated that only in the most dire of emergencies – for example, an immediate need for self-defense – could a “good brother” or “good sister” properly inform upon a fellow black. Because Hill was deemed to have violated this protocol, many blacks initially saw her as the sellout—an impression that provided Thomas with a small but essential edge in his desperate struggle to win confirmation.” [Does racial loyalty somehow factor into the problematic “No Snitching?” custom in high crime, inner-city communities?]
Anyway, I’ll definitely be checking out some of the other books written by Randall Kennedy:
  • Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity, and Adoption (2003)
  • Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word (2002)
  • Race, Crime, and the Law (1997)

Monday, September 15, 2008

An update on “The Gap”

Last Friday I read an email from the district announcing that, “OUSD is California's most improved large, urban school system over the past four years.” That sentence reminded me that it was time to take a look at our Achievement Gap.

Last spring I calculated the gap for the first time. Initially, I compared the percentage of students who attained proficiency in 2002 to the same group in 2007. Using this measure, I learned that the achievement gap in OUSD (between Asian and White vs. African American and Latino subgroups) had widened over the years in all but one comparison.¹ The exception was the Math achievement between White and Latino students where the gap was slightly narrowed by 0.5 percentage points.

I calculated the gap a second time using different data.² It was suggested that I use the API scores because they portray a more accurate picture of student achievement. This is because the API is derived from the test scores of ALL students and can show more nuance.

This time my calculations revealed that the achievement gap narrowed between Asian and Latino students and between White and Latino students. However, the gap grew wider between Asian and African American students and between White and African American students.

The recently released 2008 figures reveal the same trend.

API scores from 2002 to 2008
  • African American students: 539, 559, 562, 587, 604, 602, 609
  • Asian students: 684, 708, 718, 749, 768, 778, 801
  • Latino students: 494, 542, 559, 592, 609, 616, 642
  • White students: 806, 829, 847, 859, 884, 882, 890
Achievement Gap trends from 2002-2008
  • Between White and African American students: 267, 270, 285, 272, 280, 280 and 281. This gap increased by 14 points.
  • Between Asian and African American students: 145, 149, 156, 162, 164, 176 and 192. This gap increased by 47 points.
  • Between White and Latino students: 312, 287, 288, 267, 275, 266 and 248. This gap decreased by 64 points.
  • Between Asian and Latino students: 190, 166, 159, 157, 159, 162 and 159. This gap decreased by 31 points.
  • Between Latino and African American students (a comparison not typically made): -45, -17, -3, 5, 5, 14 and 33. This gap increased by 78 points.
Yes, it is true that OUSD's test scores are improving, and improving for all groups of students. Of course all students have been getting the same advantage; with the new focus on testing, every student is being “taught to the test.” The improvements don't necessarily mean that all of our achievement gaps are closing.

When will the gaps be closed?

The goal of NCLB is for 100% of students to test proficient in English/language arts (ELA) and mathematics by 2013-14. Despite district efforts to produce accelerated achievement, it doesn't seem likely that the students will meet that goal. But based on the average annual rates of increase of our ELA and Math proficiency scores, and as long as we don't encounter any stumbling blocks, we can project when every OUSD student will reach proficiency.

In 2002, 12.9% of African American students achieved proficiency in ELA, and 10.9% achieved proficiency in Math. In 2008 the figures were 28.9% and 29.0% respectively. The average annual rate of increase for ELA was 2.7 percentage points and for Math it was 3.0. If the current rate of improvement is maintained, African American students will achieve 100% ELA proficiency in 26.3 years (the 2034-35 school year). They will achieve 100% Math proficiency in 23.7 years (the 2031-32 school year).

In 2002, 29.4% of Asian students achieved proficiency in ELA, and 41.1% achieved proficiency in Math. In 2008 the figures were 58.1% and 69.2% respectively. The average annual rate of increase for ELA was 4.8 percentage points and for Math it was 4.7. If the current rate of improvement is maintained, Asian students will achieve 100% ELA proficiency in 8.7 years (the 2016-17 school year). They will achieve 100% Math proficiency in 6.6 years (the 2014-15 school year).

In 2002, 7.8% of Latino students achieved proficiency in ELA, and 10.3% achieved proficiency in Math. In 2008 the figures were 26.2% and 34.9% respectively. The average annual rate of increase for ELA was 3.1 percentage points and for Math it was 4.1. If the current rate of improvement is maintained, Latino students will achieve 100% ELA proficiency in 23.8 years (the 2031-32 school year). They will achieve 100% Math proficiency in 15.9 years (the 2023-24 school year).

In 2002, 64.7% of White students achieved proficiency in ELA, and 59.5% achieved proficiency in Math. In 2008 the figures were 81.1% and 79.5% respectively. The average annual rate of increase for ELA was 2.7 percentage points and for Math it was 3.3. If the current rate of improvement is maintained, White students will achieve 100% ELA proficiency in 7.0 years (the 2014-15 school year). They will achieve 100% Math proficiency in 6.2 years (the 2014-15 school year).

I invite comments and corrections. If you would like me to send you a table of this data, just write to perimeterprimate@yahoo.com.

¹See Perimeter Primate entry called “Who would have guessed?” (5/11/08).
²See Perimeter Primate entry called “What else contributes?” (5/27/08).

Monday, September 8, 2008

Old dogs and new tricks vs. seeing the light

Recently, my neighborhood’s community newspaper published a booster piece I wrote about the local public elementary school, Laurel Elementary. In the article I urge my fellow middle-class/educated neighborhood parents (typically White) to embrace this school and use it – something this group hasn’t done for well over twenty years.

My older neighbors all sent their children to this school and have told me that “Laurel used to be a wonderful little school.” Of course, this was in the 1950’s and 1960’s before white flight, and before the community was damaged when a sizable swath of the established neighborhood was demolished to make way for the construction of I-580. As children from different cultures, lower income groups, and distant neighborhoods filtered in to fill the school's vacancies, many of the remaining local White middle-class families started to shun the school. The demographic changes made them nervous and uncomfortable, and over time they abandoned the school altogether.

Today certain neighborhood families avoid Laurel Elementary School like the plague. Mostly young professionals, they have spent $450-600K on their small 2 or 3 bedroom, eighty-year old homes and then bemoan the fact that their kids “can’t go” to the local public school. Typically, they undertake an enormous body of school research and experience a great deal of anxiety, including sleepless nights, as they try to figure out where they should send their children to school.

In the end, some will decide to move to the suburbs. For those who
remain in Oakland, most will select a private school or a public school out of their neighborhood. Then the whining starts. They'll whine about the inconveniences being caused by their decision, such as how much time it takes for them to transport their children to and fro a distant school, and how much money the private school tuition is sucking out of their budgets. They are in a hole they have dug for themselves.

Today, Laurel Elementary School’s demographics look like this:
  • African American - 38%
  • Asian - 38%
  • Latino - 15%
  • White - 3%
  • Free/Reduced Price Lunch (low income) - 61%
  • English learners - 31%
  • Average parent educational level - 2.30 (where 2 means a high school graduate and 3 means some college)
It’s easy to see why White, educated, middle-class families wouldn’t feel comfortable sending their five-year-old to a school where he or she would be a minority; no one wants their child to be an outsider.

My husband and I felt the same way 15 years ago when it came time for us to send our daughter to kindergarten. When it dawned on us that none of the other parents in our immediate neighborhood were sending their kids to Laurel Elementary, we obtained a transfer to a hills public school. Afterward, we learned just how many families near us had done the exact same thing. There were four or five families on the street below us and two families on the street above us. During the elementary school years, all of us served our adopted school’s PTA, became helpful classroom parents, and advocated for our kids and our school. Those activities come naturally to us because that's the type of parents we are.

My husband and I also knew three or four other immediate neighborhood families who had transferred into a different hills public school, or who had “gone private.” We knew only one family brave enough to try Laurel; both parents were native Oaklanders who had attended the public schools themselves. Incidentally, their son has turned out fine. He graduated at the top of his class at Skyline High School and will be starting at UCLA soon. Obviously his public elementary school experience didn’t damage him too much.

Most of the families I am talking about are perfectly comfortable sending their kids to a public elementary school that has demographics like these:

The ever popular Redwood Heights…
  • African American - 26%
  • Asian - 13%
  • Latino - 16%
  • White – 43%
  • Free/Reduced Price Lunch (low income) - 21%
  • English learners - 5%
  • Average parent educational level – 3.66 (where 3 means some college and 4 means college graduate)
…and Kaiser Elementary, another popular hills school.
  • African American - 51%
  • Asian - 10%
  • Latino - 5%
  • White – 30%
  • Free/Reduced Price Lunch (low income) - 24%
  • English learners - 2%
  • Average parent educational level – 3.74 (where 3 means some college and 4 means college graduate)
Not surprisingly, the level of comfort seems mostly connected to social class and the number of other White kids.

My point is that Laurel Elementary would have become a completely different school years ago if all of the parents who were living in my immediate neighborhood, including us, had simply decided to send our children there. And if all of the other families in our peer group who were living in the school’s attendance area had decided to do the same, the school would be much more acceptable to other local families today and our neighborhood would be that much stronger. Maybe things can still change.

Having lived in this neighborhood for a long time and getting to know it so well, I can easily predict what would happen if families could find out about each other and enroll their children at Laurel Elementary en mass. The school’s demographics would immediately change to a pleasant balance, and it would likely become a school that would make them feel confident, comfortable and happy.

Here are some of the huge benefits that would result if neighborhood families embraced this local school:
  • Reduced costs in dollars and time (daily transportation, school events, trips to friends' houses, etc.)
  • Tens of thousands of dollars saved by not having to pay private school tuitions
  • The building of a more cohesive neighborhood (people would get to know one another)
  • A reduction of local traffic and an increase in affection for the community (because non-neighborhood families would be eliminated)
  • More natural exercise for the kids (they could walk to school)
  • More local friends for kids to play with (because they would actually know each other)
  • Wouldn't have to falsify your address (this sets a bad example for your kids!)
  • Neighbor children wouldn't be isolated from each other (activities like walking home from school and trick-or-treating would be a lot more fun)
  • Higher property values (good schools make the homes more desirable)
For this particular neighborhood, embracing Laurel Elementary School just makes sense. Hopefully some interest will get stirred and some of the sharp, savvy young parents in my neighborhood will decide to get the ball rolling.

Anyway, here's the article:

Neighborhood Schools on the Upswing

With escalating gas prices, high mortgage payments, economic uncertainty, strains on family time, rising private school tuitions, the interest in several Oakland public schools has started to emerge once again.

Over the past several years, the popularity of Peralta and Glenview elementary schools has soared. For decades many neighborhood families would not even consider these schools. Efforts by both the parents and the school have caused a major shift in how these non-hills schools are perceived, and many local parents are now eagerly enrolling their children.

Closer to home, the Sequoia Elementary neighborhood community is getting stronger, too. Young families have connected with each other and word is getting out that the school is on its way up. Recently, one parent of an incoming kindergartener happily reported that she already knows at least 25 other incoming neighborhood families.

Sequoia families recognized their school’s potential and wanted to change how it was perceived by neighborhood parents. They started a Yahoo group and now invite the wider community to attend school events, neighborhood barbecues, parent panels for Q and A, school tours, and even monthly pre-K play dates.

As for Laurel Elementary, there are certainly enough children living in its attendance area to fill many classroom seats. The school's boundaries generally run from Maple to High, and Redding to Carlsen/Victor. Unfortunately, many local parents have not viewed the school as an option for years. Misinformation circulates, such as the impression that Laurel is a “failing school.” This simply is not true.

In fact, Laurel Elementary has surpassed the federal goals every year since the beginning of No Child Left Behind. With a 2007 schoolwide Academic Performance Index (API) of 778, it is close to the statewide performance target of 800. Two of Laurel’s primary subgroups, Asian students and English learners, exceeded the state API target by earning 874 and 822 respectively.

After just two years of leadership from its dynamic new principal, Ron Smith, Laurel is undergoing a series of invigorating changes. New instructional programs and professional development are being carried out at each grade level. An exciting “can-do” spirit pervades the school community, and enrollment is on the upswing.

With this accurate information revealed, perhaps neighborhood parents will begin to connect with each other as they give Laurel Elementary a second thought.

Maps of school boundaries are on the OUSD web site at http://public.ousd.k12.ca.us/. Listen in and participate in conversations about the public schools by joining the Oakland Public School Parents Yahoo group at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/oaklandpublicschoolparents/. Keep up to date with issues in the schools by reading the Oakland Tribune’s Education Report and its reader comments at http://www.ibabuzz.com/education/.

Sharon Higgins has lived with her family in the Laurel District for 20 years. She occasionally writes about education issues and posts at http://perimeterprimate.blogspot.com/.

MacArthur Metro, September 2008