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Poverty is No. 1 driver of education achievement gap

Susan Notes:

posted at VT Digger: William Mathis makes critical points. We should be very wary launching a huge effort to line up behind the U. S. Department of Education’s standardization plans before we look at the very real needs of Vermont students. The needs of families seeking help from food pantries speak louder than anything coming out of U. S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's mouth. Improving education for Vermont children must start in Vermont communities, not in Washington D. C.

by William J. Mathis

Three vital reports on Vermont's children and schools have been released this year. The nation's uniform test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, show our eighth grade scores tied for first place in the nation in reading and tied for second in math. For fourth grade exams, we are tied for fourth place in math and tied for sixth in reading. Cross-walked into international scores, Vermont would score among the top ten nations of the world. These results stand in sharp contrast to the federal No Child Left Behind system whose faulty design eventually classifies all schools as failures.

In other good news, the high school Youth Risk Behavior Survey showed improvements in almost all categories since 2009 -- with much more dramatic decreases in risky behaviors over a ten year period. Alcohol use, cigarettes, marijuana, and soda consumption all show long-term declines. (But just because the trend is going in the right direction doesn't mean the 60 percent that has had a drink is a good number). Of particular note, is that community service increased from 43 percent to 55 percent. This was paralleled by an increase in “feeling needed by the community” which rose from 46 percent to 55 percent. These latter numbers are paramount for our schools and our future.

Complimenting this picture is the 2011 Annie Casey Foundation’s “Kids Count” report. While poverty has increased in Vermont since 2005, Vermont ranked fourth overall on child well-being (an improvement from eighth place in 2009). In a time of economic weakness, these numbers say a lot about Vermont’s well-being.

As families, communities and schools interact so dramatically, comprehensive measures of the health of our society are far more important than the myopic view provided by a sole reliance on standardized test scores. We must remember the obvious; all else being equal, communities with greater social and family capital score higher on tests. Thus, when we look at school reforms (whether NCLB, consolidation, testing, etc.) we have to ask whether they will improve the community as well as the school. If the proposals are not comprehensive and if they do not directly improve the child, they are unlikely to succeed and may cause more harm than good.

Our greatest shortcoming is that Vermont has not done much about closing the poverty gap. In other words, what we do for those who don’t have strong families, a rich culture, or supportive communities. Unfortunately, our efforts are inadequate and tokenistic. In human services, we too often address symptoms rather than causes. In education, annual test scores are released and we rightly praise our high achievement. Just as ritualistically, we “shine a spotlight,” on the low scores of our neediest. Unfortunately, this is little more than illuminated neglect. We ask schools with high poverty concentrations to submit improvement plans which, by themselves, do little to improve teaching, economic or social conditions.

We make high-sounding proclamations of belief such as “what happens in schools can compensate for what hasn’t happened elsewhere in a child’s life,” as the state’s Roots of Success document claims. Unfortunately, the report’s own data show the solutions they propose are too weak to have such an effect. Pretending that schools can by themselves overcome egregious parenting and poor environments is too far a reach. Likewise, trotting out “Lighthouse” schools to show that schools can single-handedly (and therefore, we can hold the schools solely responsible for) overcoming the effects of poverty simply misinterprets statistical outliers. Unfortunately, this indefensible misuse of data justifies ineffectiveness and neglect.

Looking broadly, the solution lies in a more comprehensive vision of schools, family and society. For example, the National Bureau of Economic Research recently posted an analysis that showed that a 2 percent increase in unemployment results in a 16 percent increase in schools not making adequate progress. Most troubling, in a nation driven more by self-interest than the common good, the expanding economic gap between the top 1 percent and the remaining 99 percent is a harbinger of an increase in the achievement gap rather than a decrease.

Vermonters have reason to be proud of our schools. They are one of the state's greatest economic and social assets. But we must also take an even sharper look at where we are failing. We should treasure and protect those things that work. Our strength for helping our neediest lies in the united, interactive and comprehensive bolstering of our communities, social capital and schools.

Editor’s note: William J. Mathis is the managing director of the National Education Policy Center and a former Vermont school superintendent. He serves on the State Board of Education. The views expressed are his own.

— William J. Mathis
Vermont Digger


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