Poverty Affects Learning

Amidst all the coverage of Governor Dannel P. Malloy's budget and education proposal, The Hartford Courant's Rick Green points out even the best school reform will need to tackle concentrated poverty to be truly effective:

"Tenure isn't why we have the largest achievement gap in the land. Tenure isn't why nine in 10 black and Hispanic eighth-graders statewide are below proficiency in math, or why just four of five third-graders at Burns Academy in Hartford lack even basic reading proficiency. (When children are behind in third grade, by the way, researchers conclude that more often than not they never catch up.)

"The problem we have is that poor children are falling further and further behind. They live, largely segregated, in poor cities and neighborhoods where we make sure school district boundaries and school funding divide the haves from the have-nots."

Green goes on to highlight that Connecticut is more racially segregated than other parts of the country:

"It's no coincidence that Stanford University researchers recently reported that over the past 40 years the Hartford region has grown more segregated by income than most other metropolitan areas in the land.

"It doesn't matter if this is the second coming of 'Stand and Deliver' educator Jaime Escalante; lofty policy discussions about tenure and teacher evaluation aren't going to change the ugly reality of poverty and how what happens at home affect learning in school."

Green goes on to mention "dysfunctional families," which smacks a little of the "if you're poor you're just not trying hard enough" or "parents need to be held accountable" mentality that pervades so much of our public conversation these days.

What exactly does it mean to "hold parents accountable?" One afternoon radio talk-show host suggests calling parents in from work when their children misbehave in school.

There are two main problems with this:

First, I'll agree that family ability and actions are powerful forces behind children's success. The ability to pay for good early care, read and introduce children to extensive vocabularies, and overall family financial and economic success are extremely important.

Secondly, though, here's a question: Even if some parents are wilfully failing to parent and care for their kids (which I doubt), what's the public policy answer to that? Do we let these kids lurch through grade after grade until they graduate and can't support themselves? Or do we do what we know will work -- ditch our outdated agrarain school calendar, provide longer-day,extended year education, with well-trained teachers and a coordinated curriculum that really prepares kids to be contributing citizens? Not to mention public policies that make it possible for families to earn a living wage and afford health care.

The state could help more by prioritizing racial and economic integration in operating all public schools, and we need to tackle income equality. But Malloy's education proposals do go a long way towards fixing what's wrong with our schools.

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