Efforts by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the Connecticut Council for Education Reform to close the achievement gap between Connecticut's poor and more affluent students have brought ill-advised legislation that will have little impact and will do more to discourage than to support the many teachers who are dedicated to educating, guiding and nurturing students.
To effectively address Connecticut's achievement gap requires first acknowledging its far-reaching and blatantly obvious root cause: poverty.
Despite extensive evidence collected and published by the state, the governor and the reform council are myopically devoting an inordinate amount of time and energy addressing what they believe to be the problems of teacher evaluation, licensing and tenure. The very real and critical issues associated with poverty must first be addressed.
Convincing evidence of poverty's widespread negative impact on the education of Connecticut's children is in reports issued in recent years by state commissions and other groups including the Child Poverty Council Initial Plan, the Recommendations of the Expert Panel to the Connecticut Child Poverty and Prevention Council, the Commission on Children – Child Poverty in Connecticut, and House Speaker Christopher Donovan's Task Force on Children and the Recession in January 2010.
Here are some extracts from those reports:
•In 2007, 10.6 percent of Connecticut children under 18 (85,530 children) lived in a family with income below the federal poverty level ($21, 027).
•In 2007, the state's largest cities had extremely high child poverty rates — Hartford (47 percent), Waterbury (31.4 percent), New Haven (28.7 percent), and Bridgeport (28.4 percent)."
•Undernutrition and environmental factors associated with poverty can permanently retard physical growth, brain development and cognitive functioning.
•Families earning low wages cannot afford to work if they lack access to affordable child care. Families who cannot work fall deeper into poverty, and the children don't receive the early education they need to succeed later in school.
•Research shows that a father's absence in a child's life can be devastating. Children living in fatherless homes are: five times more likely to live in poverty; nine times more likely to drop out of school; 37 percent more likely to abuse drugs; and 20 times more likely to have behavioral disorders.
•An average child growing up in a low-income family receiving welfare hears one-half to one-third as many spoken words as children from more affluent households. At these rates, a low-income child hears 10 million words by age 3 while a high-income child hears as many as 30 million words by then. The low-income child would know about 3,000 words by age 6, while the child of the high-income family would have a vocabulary of 20,000 words.
These are the kind of problems that can have a significant negative effect on the lives and academic performance of our students. Teachers in our most economically disadvantaged areas need support, not condemnation. Not only do these state reports make a strong case about poverty's harm, they offer viable strategies for reversing this grim situation.
Addressing the issues related to poverty is going to take committed, honest and creative leadership. Casting teachers as the sole villains is a politically expedient but ultimately a decidedly ineffective course.
In a March 6 Courant article, Gov. Malloy referred to those challenging his proposed education changes as maintaining a "status quo." With all due respect to the governor, the high level of poverty and its related problems that have plagued Connecticut's urban areas for generations is a "status quo" that has been maintained for far too long.
Our elected officials would better serve all the people of Connecticut by confronting with urgency and compassion the problems associated with poverty. In the same article, Gov. Malloy reportedly said, "We cannot accept excuses when we are failing 40 to 60 percent of our students in some of our urban areas." The "we" that Gov. Malloy refers to must mean everyone in Connecticut, not just teachers.
Knowing that so many of Connecticut's children suffer as the result of poverty, the buck must stop at the governor's desk and in the halls of our state legislature — no excuses.
John F. Carpenter of Windsor teaches gifted students in elementary and middle schools in West Hartford.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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