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School Achievement Gap Starts Where Home Is

By DAVID FINK

December 12, 2010

Gov.-elect Dan Malloy, to his great credit, is convening groups to talk not just about health care, the environment, transportation and other policy areas, but how they fit together.

There'll be lots of talk about education woes; funding, testing and the state's nation-leading achievement gap between low-income and minority students and their white, more affluent peers.

My hope: that, when it comes to closing that gap, the discussion extends beyond education what happens between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. - to the conditions schoolchildren and their families face between 3 p.m. and 9 a.m. If we fail to do that, we will fail those children yet again.

Last month, 2,800 people packed the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts for a Connecticut Forum on education. Five experts though none representing parents said the major issues are teacher tenure, flexible curriculums, restrictive union rules and test scores as performance barometers.

Not a word was spoken about the array of educational choices Connecticut's affluent families enjoy and the paucity of choices the poor endure.

The devoted effort and recent progress made by the state's urban teachers and administrators notwithstanding, the children who need the most help are trapped in schools overburdened by families who are very poor.

Well-to-do students live in a 24-7 culture of achievement. They go to suburban schools with many resources and live in communities with soccer leagues, scouting, lots of lessons, library branches and community centers. From kindergarten on, everyone assumes they are going to college.

Low-income students are confined primarily to urban schools and neighborhoods with little of the above. Many households just get by, and the education focus is on 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. whatever can be accomplished in school.

But what happens when children, between 3 p.m. and 9 a.m., live in overcrowded homes with no place to do homework? When rent is so expensive even for substandard homes with lead paint and allergens that little is left for nutritious food and a warm coat?

A recent Montgomery County, Md., study showed low-income children whose parents can find affordable homes in the county and send them to its first-class schools do as well as upper-income students.

Could that happen here? No doubt. But for decades, we have because of our zoning laws, tax system, ignorance, fear, prejudice and elitism confined low-income residents to the 31 municipalities that have an adequate supply of affordable homes.

Call it segregation, home rule, liberty call it what you will. But don't call it natural and don't for a second doubt the students who need the most help are confined to the schools with the greatest needs, lowest tax bases and fewest resources. Is it any wonder many of them fail? The miracle is that many of them still succeed.

In response, committed educators have provided lower-income families with other choices: charter and magnet schools, the Open Choice program. Those options work, but they serve too few children.

We need more affordable homes in more places. Children living in homes their parents can't afford become homeless or live in overcrowded settings or have to move frequently, forcing them to change schools in mid-year, a recipe for failing and dropping out. Or their parents spend too much on substandard but scarce housing one out of four renting households in Connecticut makes less than 50 percent of the median income and spends more than half of that on rent. More supply would lower prices.

Having more affordable homes in more school districts will not, alone, solve the achievement gap. Nor should we stop supporting, mightily, the progress made by urban districts. Not everyone wants to move to a suburb, away from their families, friends and cultures.

But if we want to close the achievement gap and allow all families to choose the districts and communities that work best for their children, we need to stop wringing our hands solely about tenure, tests and the six hours between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. We need to provide real school and neighborhood choice and think about a student's entire day: whether his home is safe and affordable, where he does his homework, whether he can play outside or be in a soccer league and whether there's a library branch nearby.

When we start doing that, as Gov.-elect Malloy obviously realizes, we will have truly fit all the pieces together.

David Fink is policy director of the Partnership for Strong Communities, a statewide housing policy organization.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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