Everyone can exhale: Superintendent Frederick Navarro is latching onto a theory that lets off the hook the trustees, himself, and anyone else who has been unable to improve academic performance in Costa Mesa’s schools.

What he writes in his week “DOTS” memo  is a brief description of why there is an achievement gap in the district, based on a theory presented by Kimberly Papillon, a lawyer who, according to her website, is “… a nationally recognized expert on medical, legal and judicial decision-making. Here’s the link to her website: http://thebettermind.com/.

According to Frederick Navarro, Papillon offered that, “Apparently the conditions associated with poverty, micro aggressions [sic], violence and discrimination may cause physiological changes in children that not only affect the current generation, but also may affect several generations that follow.”

(A side note: IMO, “microaggressions” are another attempt to sanitize the world for a couple of generations that have grown up in the “self-esteem” era. That’s when, for example, we started giving trophies to every kid who played in organized sports – even the last place team – because we didn’t want to hurt their feelings. According to the proponents of the concept, if I am speaking to someone with an accent and I ask them where they were born, I have committed a microaggression. But I digress…)

Supt. Frederick Navarro states that  “Ms. Papillon posits that the students who live in poor neighborhoods, where crime and violence are regular occurrences, may in fact suffer changes to their DNA that alters the working of their brains. Furthermore, she stressed that addressing these changes to a person’s DNA can take up to three generations to correct, and then, only if you can successfully remove families from the oppressive conditions under which they live.”

He also writes that he has “much more to learn about this theory” and that the theory is “one that we need to explore more deeply.”

This memo is an interesting insight into the mind of a career bureaucrat. People who work in the education establishment have time to stroke their chins and discuss theories that explain away failures, placing the blame for underperforming schools not on the shoulders of those in charge – where it most certainly belongs – but on the backs of students.

Those of us who are not bureaucrats don’t have time to meet and theorize and discuss and posit because we’re too busy getting things done. The rest of us like progress and have little patience for yet another new education theory.

Of course the superintendent will pursue this theory – it is the perfect rationalization for failure: We can’t improve academic performance in Costa Mesa’s schools because the brains of these students are not wired to close the achievement gap.

But there’s at least one big problem with this whole concept: It doesn’t explain how so many failing schools across the country have been turned around without having to wait three generations.

This theory also diminishes the role of good teachers in the education process – a role that has been proven to be crucial to superior academic performance. From a CNN report in 2012:

“A good teacher not only improves a child’s test scores in the classroom, but also enhances his or her chances to attend college, earn more money and avoid teen pregnancy, according to a new seminal study.

The study, conducted by economists Raj Chetty and John N. Friedman of Harvard and Jonah E. Rockoff of Columbia, tracked 2.5 million students over 20 years from a large urban school district from fourth grade to adulthood, making it one of the largest and most consequential educational studies in recent years.”

But none of this will matter to Supt. Frederick Navarro because he may have found the perfect out – a path to explaining away his failure to fix Costa Mesa’s schools.

What he does not seem to understand, and will likely never understand, is one of the basic concepts of superior leadership. The best leaders know that everything that happens on their watch is their responsibility.

But we don’t have a good leader. We have a superintendent whose previous school performance at the Lennox School District was mediocre, who has no school turnaround experience, and who, according to a recent lawsuit against him and the district, “created a workplace culture of fear and intimidation.”  

So what we get instead is someone who has spent time wasting taxpayer money listening to an attorney talk about the brains of kids instead of listening to turnaround experts offering proven strategies, not theories.

Oh, and he also wants the district staff to “Have a wonderful weekend!”

Steve Smith