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Residents want no child left behind

Ohanian Comment: It is rather hard to believe that people are unfamiliar with the term "achievement gap."

By Matthew J. Malone

Attend a school board meeting in lower Fairfield County and you'll likely hear the phrase "achievement gap" bounced around like a playground ball.

The phrase describes the wide disparity in academic achievement between white and nonwhite students. In the age of the federal No Child Left Behind law, districts are hyper-focused on making the gap history.

The results of a recent Advocate/Greenwich Time survey, conducted by the University of Connecticut Center for Survey Research & Analysis, show that Greenwich, Stamford and Norwalk residents share educators' desire to help all students achieve.

During the next five days, The Advocate and Greenwich Time will review the survey in depth. Today's articles summarize the results and discuss what district leaders have said about the achievement gap.

In the coming days, local attitudes toward the gap, ways to fix it and how to pay for the fixes will be explored. The issues of charter schools, school vouchers, teacher performance and standardized testing will be examined.

You will gain insight into how your neighbors feel about the quality of education in their towns and what districts are doing to polish their images. Residents also were asked who is most responsible for a student's failure to achieve. The results are, if not surprising, illuminating.

In general, when it comes to the gap and ways to close it, views across the three towns are similar. When the education their local schools provide is measured, the consensus starts to crumble.

When asked to give their local schools a grade, from "A" to "F," nearly nine out of 10 Greenwich residents gave a grade of "B" or better. Forty-one percent of Norwalk residents and 34 percent of Stamford residents felt that way about their schools. When asked whether their children were receiving a better education than they did, a majority of Stamford residents -- 52 percent -- said their children were receiving a worse education. Greenwich and Norwalk had a more positive view, with majorities in those towns saying their kids are better off.

The phrase "achievement gap" has not caught on, despite the best efforts of educators, according to the survey results. Less than a quarter of the respondents said they were "very" or "somewhat" familiar with the achievement gap. Although nearly a third said the phrase described the disparity in academic performance between white and minority students, nearly as many said it was the difference in performance between states or between public and private schools.

When told the meaning of the phrase, an overwhelming majority said it was "extremely" or "very" important to close the gap -- 86 percent in Greenwich, 77 percent in Norwalk and 73 percent in Stamford.

Majorities in each town said the public schools were responsible for closing the gap.

Residents in the three towns agreed that the best ways to close the achievement gap are through academically based after-school programs, preschool for all students and reduced class sizes. Residents were less enthusiastic about increasing school choice and extending the school day. Only a quarter of the residents said a longer school day would reduce the gap "a lot."

Correspondingly, 71 percent of residents said they would pay higher taxes to support after-school programs but 31 percent said they would pay for a longer school day. Majorities also said they would pay higher taxes for smaller classes and universal preschool programs.

Despite the support for helping underperforming students improve academically, residents did not support mixing high-performing students in classes with low-performing ones, though they said the arrangement would help the struggling students.

Slim pluralities in Norwalk and Greenwich, and 50 percent of Stamford residents, believe that mixing the students would benefit low performers. But about the same number felt that high performers would be hurt by mixing classes. In the end, 56 percent of all respondents said students should be split into classes based on their abilities.

When asked who bears the most responsibility for the underperformance of some students, 41 percent blamed parents. Less than a quarter of respondents blamed the students themselves. Nearly a third said it was a teacher's responsibility.

When it comes to standardized testing, which has gained increased significance since the passage of No Child Left Behind law in 2001, a majority of residents believe it is a good measure of student ability. The law punishes schools that don't meet annual targets on exams.

No matter what town you're in, charter schools receive strong support. The state-sanctioned and state-funded schools typically operate without the constraints of teachers' or other unions or the set schedules of public schools. Nearly two of three respondents favored charter schools.

Residents were split on the desirability of government vouchers to pay for private or parochial schools. A strong majority of residents, 78 percent, believed that all districts should have equal school funding, even if that means taking money from wealthier districts. Greenwich, the wealthiest of the three towns, was least receptive to that idea, but a majority -- 58 percent -- still supported it.

— Matthew J. Malone
Stamford Advocate


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