“We have a bad way of looking at things, that what gets tested is what gets taught,” Gary Highsmith, said at an education forum on Thursday. Highsmith is the Principal of Hamden High School, where he said students are taught things that are not tested, such as arts and music.
At a forum about inclusive housing policy and its impact on education, it seemed both incongruous and inevitable that the conversation would include the buzzwords of reform and accountability.
The forum — “Connecticut’s Achievement Gap: How Housing Can Help Close It” — held at the Lyceum explored the philosophy of housing policy as school policy, focusing on “Montgomery County,” a single example.
An inclusionary zoning policy — mixing housing affordable to those at different income levels — was adopted in Maryland’s Montgomery County (suburb of Washington, D.C.) in 1974. Heather Schwartz, a policy researcher with the RAND Corporation, conducted a longitudinal study from 2001-2007 of students in public housing who attended schools with very low-to-moderate poverty rates and those who attended schools with a moderate-rate of students living in poverty. Additionally, the moderate-level poverty schools received more resources, enabling smaller classes and more academic supports. The study found that while students in public housing at both types of schools scored about evenly for the first few years, students attending the schools with a low-to-moderate poverty level outscored their peers eventually. Students were placed randomly in these schools, taking out the option for more involved parents to steer their children into the “better” schools.
This study — and the speakers at the forum — failed to address some variables. For one, the study did not follow students throughout their entire k-12 experience.
Additionally, high-poverty schools, such as those with more than 85% of the students qualifying for free lunch, were not included in the study. Even with the botched numbers — some Hartford schools report 100% of students as being in the impoverished category, despite some children in those schools being from households that are firmly middle class — we know that Hartford’s concentration of poverty is not in the low or moderate categories.
Other items not addressed in the Montgomery County study: impact of transiency and the experiences of students who are English Language Learners (ELL) or who qualify for special education.
At the forum, the issue of transiency — students moving in and out of a school mid-year — was discussed in terms of pushing for consistent and shared curricula, at least in schools across the district. No questions were specifically raised about how the “school choice” system, with its multitude of academies, impacts the ability for children to adjust when they move during the school year. Orlando Rodriguez, a Senior Policy Fellow at Connecticut Voices for Children, said there should be a syncing of curriculum so that students who move have a chance of success.
When most of these mid-year moves are due to financial and housing needs, advising a family to stay put for the sake of the student is out of touch with reality. Housing vouchers could have an impact, but not for those who are currently on the waiting list to receive Section 8. Having stable housing helps, yet it does not address the economic problems of those with limited education attempting to find and maintain jobs in areas where employment options are also limited.
Richard Rothstein, a researcher with the Economic Policy Institute, attributes much of the achievement gap to high mobility of students. According to Phillip Lovell and Julia Isaacs, “students who transferred schools at least twice were half as likely to be proficient in reading as their stable peers.” As students fall further behind peers, it is less likely they will graduate.
If transiency and high concentrations of poverty so clearly have a negative impact on student achievement, why are these issues not being addressed as avidly as items like “tenure reform”?
Miguel Cardona, Principal of Hanover Elementary School in Meriden, said, “we have to have the will to say we do not want pockets of poverty. [...] Do we have the will to call [the segregated housing situation] what it is?”
Previously at the forum, Susan Eaton provided a background on the social engineering (including redlining) and “indifference” responsible for racially and economically segregated neighborhoods. Eaton suggested that because these problems were created by “laws and human beings,” then they can be undone by the same.
Principal Highsmith, who lives in an integrated neighborhood, argued, “if we’re serious” about enacting change, then we “have to put race back on the table.”
“Don’t be nice to me,” he said. “Keep it real.”
But as soon as he offered up the need for frank talk on race, the conversation moved swiftly into the general perception problem that Hartford and other cities suffer from. Earlier, a member of the audience had asked panelists if there were any examples of initiatives to revitalize cities in order to attract a middle class. The answer, in short, was “no.”
While Allan Taylor, Chair of the Connecticut State Board of Education, said “there’s a perception problem that needs to be overcome,” Highsmith pushed for action.
“Policymakers,” Highsmith said, are good at “substituting wishbone for a background.”
“You have to change what people are doing before you change the way they think,” Highsmith said.
“Education reform alone,” Cardona said, “is not the answer.”