State data showing that Hartford students attending regional magnet schools and Open Choice suburban schools do better than city students in neighborhood schools may lead many people to an erroneous conclusion.
Mastery Test and Connecticut Academic Performance Test scores collected by the plaintiffs in the Sheff v. O'Neill desegregation case reveal the gap in students' performance and bolster the belief that magnet schools and Open Choice programs are the solution to reaching not only desegregation goals but educational achievement equality. However, in addition to the data on achievement, it is important to consider which students go into the magnet and Open Choice programs, as scores alone do not tell the story.
Participation in magnet schools and Open Choice programs is voluntary. Students and parents who place a high value on education are more likely to apply for these types of programs. The better performance by Hartford students in magnet and Open Choice schools may very well be from a difference in how much students and their parents value education and have little to do with the particular educational systems. It is difficult to believe, however, that magnet and Open Choice programs are the academic solution when Hartford students attending those schools are still nowhere near statewide averages in achievement.
A friend of mine is a white suburbanite who teaches at one of the new magnet schools in the Hartford region and recently attended a play written and performed by Hartford students of all ages. The play centered on racial and economic inequality in education and I am told was well done. After the play, students discussed with the magnet school faculty their concerns about the education system. Although the students proclaimed gratitude that much has been done to increase diversity in the student body, they wished to see more diversity in the faculty. The students, to their credit, boldly said this to a group of suburban-raised white adults, and I believe they are absolutely correct.
Research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General from the University of Texas at Austin has shown that minority students who need to improve their academic performance may do better in school and feel less stereotyped as underachievers if teachers convey high standards and their belief that students can meet them. Many Connecticut teachers enforce this idea, but the problem is that minority students are not as likely to believe a white suburban teacher who says they can achieve these high standards. How could such a teacher ever truly understand the struggles urban youths face?
Research from Thomas S. Dee at Stanford's Graduate School of Education suggests that differences in teacher quality cannot explain the achievement gains associated with students having teachers who share their ethnicity and that teachers are more favorably disposed toward students who share their ethnic background. This further underscores the idea that teacher ethnicity and backgrounds matter.
Our state has many programs to train and place high-quality teachers in failing school systems, but very few come from those districts and can truly relate to the student body. Connecticut spends more than $100 million annually on magnet schools, but only offers up to $5,000 each to a select group of minority students seeking education degrees. The stipend is also only available to full-time juniors and seniors in undergraduate education programs in Connecticut. We must do more as a community to help train and place current Hartford students as future Hartford teachers, regardless of the educational system.
William Craven, 24, of Suffield is a research assistant at the Education Development Center in Boston and a public policy graduate student at the University of Connecticut.
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