Entering The Hartford Club reminded me of how I felt during my first year of college. It was a monumental crossing of a threshold that seemed so off limits to me. While The Hartford Club is far more opulent than my alma mater, my anxiety level was nearly the same when approaching both places. Would it be obvious that I did not belong? I would learn, of course, that there were others like me — first generation college students. First time Hartford Club crashers. Trespassers. There was paperwork proving my right to enter, but still, a trespasser at heart.
I would observe how others moved about, spoke to one another, sat in certain groupings. In both experiences, even when I gained cultural literacy, when I began to blend, I knew that at the end of the day, there was part of me that would never, ever, feel at home. Today, as I walked home from The Hartford Club, it became much more apparent. The achievement gap that was being spoken of was purely academic for much of the audience. It was one thing to talk about discrepancies in performance and economics; it is quite another for these disparities to be palpable. In the Georgian Revival private club on Prospect Street, there is mouthwash in the “ladies lounge.” In my neighborhood, there is litter strewn across the school lawn. The litter has been there all summer long and the school is one of the lowest ranked in Hartford. It remains so, even after being shut down and later reopened as a “new school.” The kids who can not read, who are dropping out, who are creating all the financial burdens we heard about in this morning’s forum — they are not some sad abstract statistic; they are the kids that I pass every time I take a walk around the block.
Slamming the Door on the Achievement Gap
The MetroHartford Alliance forum held at The Hartford Club this morning was titled Hartford Public Schools Education Reform and Next Steps. Presenters included Superintendent of Hartford Public Schools, Dr. Steven J. Adamowski; Executive Director of Achieve Hartford!, James L. Starr; and the Commissioner of Higher Education for the State of Connecticut, Michael P. Meotti. All speakers addressed the issue of closing Connecticut’s achievement gap.
The very phrase “achievement gap” softens the issue. Education Week explains the achievement gap as:
[...] the disparity in academic performance between groups of students. It is most often used to describe the troubling performance gaps between many African-American and Hispanic students, at the lower end of the performance scale, and their non-Hispanic white peers, and the similar academic disparity between students from low-income and well-off families. The achievement gap shows up in grades, standardized-test scores, course selection, dropout rates, and college-completion rates. It has become a focal point of education reform efforts.
While National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results have shown that, over time, black and Hispanic students have made great strides in narrowing the breach that separates them from their white peers, that progress seems to have come to a halt since the mid-1980s.
The achievement gap, to put it in more direct terms, refers to the racial and economic disparities in educational outcome. Connecticut has the dishonor of having the greatest achievement gap in all 50 states, based on the NAEP results. The Superintendent stated that there is a 93% poverty rate within the Hartford school district, based on eligibility for free/reduced school lunch. There are correlations between poverty and other social problems: of those in Hartford who have dropped out of school, 60% have been incarcerated. One of the strongest predictors of whether someone will graduate high school, Adamowski said, is how well someone is reading in third grade. For example, in 2006, 28% of third graders in the city were reading on grade level; the high school graduation rate at that time was 29%. He went on to say that education is the “best anti-poverty program in the world.” As a result of the achievement gap, there are expenses: social services, health care, taxes (those not paid due to poverty), and incarceration.
A point not made in the forum was related to incarceration. How many students drop out because they have already become entangled in the legal system? How many later go on to obtain GEDs and enter higher education in a nontraditional way? Some gray area was presented as too black-and-white, but the fact remains that the achievement gap has abysmal consequences.
The Superintendent gave three reasons for why Connecticut has the widest gap in the country. First, students experience a “preparation gap.” This refers to how unprepared they are when they enter kindergarten. Adamowski said that a middle class student enters school with about 1000 words in his/her vocabulary, whereas, a poor student enters with a 400 word vocabulary. Another reason this gap exists, he said, is that the 167 distinct school districts “enable extreme income and tax base disparities among school districts.” Finally, he argued that the gap is maintained when schools all follow the same model; new schools need to be different.
While all students do not learn in the same style, is there something inherently different about urban students that demands another model of schooling? In terms of economic disparities, this makes some sense. Those who do not have the luxury of spending four years using college as an extended summer camp while they figure out what to do with themselves, in other words, those who live in perpetual economic instability no matter how the nation’s economy is faring, may be most concerned with how information and lessons are going to help them. This is something one sees in nontraditional adult students who are largely concerned with how information in a given class is going to help him/her get a (better) career or grow in his/her field. Those who do not know firsthand what poverty is like may be more willing to entertain the traditional model of schooling — teacher teaches and students absorb. But, if a major part of the achievement gap is tied into the disparities between various races, one has to wonder if there is also an underlying message that people of different races and ethnicities learn differently. That’s not an argument I believe to have any merit. What could be asked, instead, is why schools anywhere are clinging to traditional models of education, like learning by rote, when skills like creative and critical thinking are increasingly valued today.
Is it Segregation of Nobody Dares to Speak the Word?
Seeming to dismiss the Sheff Mandate, Adamowski said that the district would be reaching its goals soon, but then indicated that this was nothing more than jumping through hoops. He said that “parents want [to enroll their children in the] best school in their community,” and that when such schools are available, the need for regional schools will decrease. He said that high poverty/high performing schools are possible, and that some are almost entirely comprised of minority students. Aiming for high performance is noble, but dismissing the need for racial integration is not responsible. Data from a Trinity College study shows that of the elementary schools, most had a minority enrollment above 90%. The lowest percentage of minority students was found at Naylor in 2006-2007, at 79.2%. In terms of numbers, what this means, is that some elementary schools have extremely low numbers of white students: Barnard and Sanchez each only had one white student enrolled in 2006-2007. Eleven other elementary schools had enrollment of white students in the single digits. (More recent data shows the racial makeup of schools in form of pie charts.) This kind of segregation may not affect literacy or numeracy, but it impacts students’ social educations.
To reduce the achievement gap, Adamowski spoke about two theories of action: incremental improvement versus fundamental change. He said that Hartford Education Reform uses managed performance empowerment. In other words, low performing schools that “fail to improve are subject to district intervention, redesign, closure, or replacement.” High performing schools receive “autonomy and freedom from bureaucratic operating constraints.” Carrot and stick. With the No Child Left Behind mandates, one wonders how much autonomy teachers are working with in the first place.
According to the Superintendent, money must follow the child, “quality blind seniority” should be replaced by “qualifications-based seniority,” and there should be a reduction in government involvement. The question of seniority is more controversial than it should be. Those who have tenure can currently count on keeping their jobs, even if budget cuts result in poor outcomes. For example, the only instructor in Subject A at a school could be cut due to lack of seniority, while an entire Subject B Department goes untouched.
While there have been some steps made in closing the achievement gap, progress is not as it should be. Adamowski said that the district has closed its achievement gap by a third in the past four years. Jim Starr of Achieve Hartford! painted a less cheerful picture. Starr said that 28 schools improved in 2010, but 12 did not. Only 16% of tenth graders are reading at grade level. The Achieve Hartford! website states a grim reality: “the Hartford Public School District has an unacceptably low high school graduation rate, measured at 42% in 2009, compared to 95% for the state as a whole.” Though this is a sign of improvement, a graduation rate of 42% is low. Something more optimistic is that parents are getting more involved: school choice applications increased 50% from last year. On the other hand, since neighborhood schools are disappearing and being replaced by “choice” schools, the increase in parental involvement might be forced. Are they more involved in other areas, or just this one?
Actually, We Can Put a Price Tag on It
For many in the audience who do not walk from opulence into concentrated poverty (it’s less than 1.5 miles and can be done in heels, by the way) the consequences of this achievement gap were spelled out by Starr:
- a high school drop out costs the State $100,000
- a high school graduate contributes $400,000 to the State
- a college graduate contributes $1.1 million to the State
Michael Meotti, Commissioner of Higher Education, discussed how there is a partnership between k-12 and higher education. Even though the college drop out rate (only half of incoming first-year students will graduate in six years) is something those of us employed in higher education are concerned with, it’s not a hot topic in general. Getting students to college is part of the equation; retaining them is another.
When another audience member asked about how students are being served when schools have constant change of leadership, his core question was not answered. To be more specific, he noted that over the past four years Bellizzi Middle School has had four different principals and now has no guidance counselor. He indicated that it is not fair to the students and wanted to know how this would be addressed? The answer he received was, and I paraphrase, Bellizzi is being reopened as a new school, so the problem is solved. The new Asian Studies Academy at Dwight/Bellizzi does sound exciting. There are eight speakers of Mandarin Chinese who will be teaching there and students will have nine years of exposure to the language. The school will focus on knowledge that will give students a more competitive edge in a global economy. The new principal will be from the Dwight school, which Adamowski claims means the school will have stable leadership. All of this sounds great, but questions remain. If there are budget cuts, how many of those Mandarin Chinese instructors will be axed? Then what happens to the “academy”? How is this fair to the students? These types of questions can be applied to any of the “new” schools that open– what happens to new instructors with no seniority once budget cuts require some teachers lose their jobs? The issue of qualification-based seniority was raised without any indication of how well this concept is supported. A vote last Spring did improve the seniority system somewhat, taking a teacher’s time with an individual school instead of just in the entire district into account.
The forum lasted only about 90 minutes, a time frame which explains the lack of depth given to some very complicated issues. To learn more, check out the following: