Dear Gov. Brown: closing the achievement gap must be our goal for all students

April 20, 2016
Ryan J. Smith

Ryan J. Smith

This is an open letter to Gov. Jerry Brown.

Dear Governor Brown:

Last week I received a message from Rocio Gonzalez, a parent of two boys attending Jordan High School in Watts. Growing up in an L.A. neighborhood known more for gang violence than for college graduates, Rocio understood that a quality education provided the best shot for her two sons to succeed. So as a single mom who did not complete high school, she did everything she could to make sure her sons did – from researching the best neighborhood schools and learning the right questions to ask her son’s teachers to taking them to local universities across the state.

She got news that her hard work had paid off.  With tears she shared that her oldest son Omar had received an acceptance letter to Cal Poly Pomona. He will graduate from Jordan High School this spring as the first from his family to attend college.

I believe the Gonzalez family story serves as a perfect example of why we fight to close achievement and opportunity gaps. Rocio knew she had to advocate for her children to ensure the educational opportunities that should be given to all students. However, families can’t do this alone.

Governor  Brown, we still have a moral imperative to make sure all students, regardless of race, income, or zip code, receive every opportunity to succeed. Before last week I thought you agreed.

That’s why I’m troubled by your remarks about the achievement gap as reported in a recent Cal Matters article. You were quoted as stating that the Local Control Funding Formula isn’t intended to close achievement gaps:  “The gap has been pretty persistent, so I don’t want to set up what hasn’t been done ever as the test of whether the LCFF is a success or failure. I don’t know why you would go there.” You also suggested closing achievement gaps is “pretty hard to do.”

You’re right – closing gaps is tough work. However, thousands of educators work to move the needle of student performance. We see evidence of schools and districts beating the odds and closing gaps every day. For example, just up the road from the Capitol, at Inderkum High School in Sacramento, 96 percent of black students graduate in four years. At Georgia Morris Elementary School in San Bernardino County, low-income 3rd-graders meet standards on the most recent English tests at nearly twice the rate of all low-income 3rd-graders in the state.

Govenor Brown,  it can be done and we should replicate promising practices when we see them.

More dangerously, though, you seem to provide a justification for the need for these gaps to exist. When asked about the goal to prepare all students for college and career, you remarked, “[do] you mean a career as a waiter? Do you mean a career as a window washer? Or do you mean something more elevated? Then who’s going to do all that other work that’s not elevated? Who does that? Or do we get robots for that?”

Huh? As you know, black and brown and low-income students have always been disproportionately relegated to these low-wage jobs. Are we condemning potentially millions of students to underemployment simply to support the privileged few – because somebody has to do it? We should not be this deterministic about any of California’s students – but it is particularly disconcerting to respond to questions about the achievement gap in such a manner when the majority of our students are students of color or living in poverty.

Your comments confirmed my greatest fear. Equity has become the new coconut water – the trend everyone is talking about, but not all of us are drinking.

Thousands of parents, students, educators, and advocates defended the need for Proposition 30, the move toward LCFF, and the implementation of the new content standards based on the belief that these policies will support equity. I continue to applaud you for moving boldly on these policies.

However, we should expect passage of these policies to accelerate closure of achievement and opportunity gaps. We focus on equitable strategies as a means to achieve results. Unfortunately, we have a history of giving the least to students who already start with less – the least amount of resources, the fewest effective teachers and the fewest opportunities to achieve, while suspending, expelling and pushing them out at higher rates.

Your comments also underscore the need to create strong accountability systems across the state. Some adults – maybe even you – believe these students can’t succeed. Some adults want little accountability for our schools. Because they believe the outcomes are inevitable, they see no need to demand change. However, schools like Inderkum High and Georgia Morris Elementary show that educators can help every child, regardless of background, achieve at high levels. Our state should send a clear signal that we demand those kinds of opportunities and results for all students.

Governor Brown, just as Rocio fought for both her sons to prevail, I believe you’re willing to fight for all of California’s students, too. As you noted in your 2013 State of the State address, “Equal treatment for children in unequal situations is not justice.” It’s not enough to treat our students equally – we must prioritize our most vulnerable students in order to accelerate their academic performance. I hope you can sit down with Californians like the Gonzalez family and clarify how we can make closure of gaps our north star. We can close opportunity and achievement gaps in this generation – but only if we collectively believe it’s possible.


Ryan J. Smith


Ryan Smith is executive director of The Education Trust–West based in Oakland. 

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