OP-ED | Poverty Matters, And So Does Money
This week marks a new low in the disinformation campaign launched in support of Governor Malloy’s proposed school reform legislation, Senate Bill 24. Both poverty and money are at the core of the distortions.
Do those who oppose the governor’s original plan and instead support the “severely diluted” substitute language passed by the Education Committee “blame the current state of education in Connecticut on poverty”? That’s what the Connecticut Council on Education Reform claims. They make clear that either one believes in education reform and therefore necessarily supports SB 24 in toto, or one supports the status quo and attributes abysmal student performance and failing school districts to poverty. The issue is black and white, it’s an either/or.
Fortunately, Governor Malloy has not yet boxed himself into such an absurd and untenable corner, despite the goading by CCER and a few allied organizations. Although his statewide marathon of appearances has proven less than fun when addressing crowds of individuals who seek to improve his reform proposals, he’s repeatedly acknowledged how imperative it is for this state’s future that the ravages of poverty be overcome within our public schools and that policies and state funding mechanisms be devised to ensure equal educational opportunity for all children. He neither denies nor ignores poverty.
Just what do the “1%” who lead CCER know about poverty? Apparently not much. They are clearly not abreast of the research on poverty and its effects on student achievement. Nor have they looked objectively at decades of state investments in school improvement and related policy changes within the two neighboring states they erroneously claim are evidence that poverty doesn’t matter. Getting really tough on teachers and school takeover policies, supposedly, are all that matter.
What the Poverty Research Says
At last month’s annual meeting of the American Education Finance and Policy Association, held in Boston, I had the privilege of again hearing internationally prominent Duke University Professor Helen Ladd, a member of the National Academy of Education, talk about the impact of poverty on student outcomes. Her conference paper notes that…
“Study after study has demonstrated that children from disadvantaged households perform less well in school on average than those from more advantaged households. This empirical relationship shows up in studies using observations at the levels of the individual student, the school, the district, the state, the country. The studies use different measures of family socioeconomic status (SES): income related measures such as family income or poverty; education level of the parents, particularly of the mother; and in some contexts occupation type of the parents or employment status…. Studies based on longitudinal surveys often include far richer measures of family background. Regardless of the measures used and the sophistication of the methods, similar patterns emerge.”
Like countless other acclaimed researchers across the nation, Ladd emphasizes the urgency of gaining a better understanding of the mechanisms by which poverty impacts student learning. Such mechanisms include poor physical and mental health, food insecurity, poor housing conditions, limited out-of-school opportunities, decaying and often crime-ridden neighborhoods, and the complex array of family stresses that affect parenting and a child’s sense of self in the world.
Alarmingly, the achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families has widened substantially since the 1970s, and the gap is growing. That’s what research by Professor Sean Reardon of the Stanford University Center for Education Policy Analysis has found. He notes that among children born in 2001, the gap is roughly 30-40 percent greater than 25 years earlier.
Need more evidence? Take a look at some of the studies that examine school-based poverty concentration and its relationship to student outcomes cited in the annotated bibliography prepared by the Poverty & Race Research Action Council. PRRAC, though based in Washington, DC, is led by West Hartford civil rights attorney Philip Tegeler, formerly the ACLU-CT litigator on the Sheff case and therefore highly attuned to the devastating schooling effects of concentrated poverty and its close relationship to de facto racial segregation.
In sum, research evidence of the strong relationship between poverty and academic achievement are seemingly irrefutable. Moreover, the effects are greatest when poverty is concentrated within a school district, as is the case within Connecticut’s Priority School Districts, other low-performing districts targeted for “conditional funding,” and the Commissioners Network schools subject to state takeover under SB 24.
It Takes Resources To Fight Poverty in Our Schools
Nearly all education researchers agree that much is already known about how our public schools can and should be addressing the many ways in which poverty inhibits student learning. Beginning with high-quality early childhood and universal preschool programs, the list for how best to effectively serve low-income students is very much the same list of resources that comprise an adequate education — including first-rate personnel, appropriate class sizes, a longer school day and year, up-to-date instructional materials and technology, wraparound health and social services, and intensive academic programs and support services targeted to meet the needs of at-risk students for purposes of accelerated remediation, enrichment, social interaction, English-language acquisition, and so forth.
No one in Connecticut is using poverty as an “excuse” for low achievement. Like everyone I know, I’m sick and tired of seeing and hearing this false accusation! It’s equally disingenuous for anyone to deny that poverty is not a salient factor in our urban classrooms and increasingly also within small town/rural schools and suburban communities. Poverty is as ever-present as the darkness at night: we can turn on the lights, but it’s still dark outside. To flatly deny that poverty impacts student achievement or to mockingly shrug off poverty as an “excuse” is more than just utter nonsense. It’s flat-out wrong and even dangerous.
Rather than stubbornly deny the pernicious influences of poverty, most Connecticut school districts focus resources on trying to ameliorate its impact. But to do so requires money, lots more money than it takes to educate a middle-class or affluent child. And lots more money is precisely the real story behind the student performance improvements in both Massachusetts and New Jersey that were carelessly touted by CCER. Ironically, in both those states it was school finance litigation that brought about the serious infusions of state dollars that the highest-poverty districts desperately needed and which thus facilitated the achievement gains that enabled their poor students to out-do their Connecticut peers on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
In Massachusetts, it was the 1993 McDuffy school finance lawsuit victory by plaintiffs that brought about enactment of the Education Reform Act, Chapter 71, ushering in substantially increased resources for schools through the foundation budget, along with state standards, the MCAS assessment system, and an accountability system. When dollars slowed and achievement gains could not be sustained, especially in the poorest communities, the Hancock school finance lawsuit was brought and won in 2004 at the trial court level. At that point the state once again stepped up to the plate with increased funding, at least in a sufficient quantity and fast enough to stave off the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, which in 2005 decided to allow the state more time to show to continue the process of education reform, while noting that the trial judge’s finding “reflect much that remains to be corrected before all children in our Commonwealth are educated.”
The 20-year focus on Massachusetts school reform is still unfinished but moving forward, as remarkable improvements in student assessment results and graduation rates have shown. Even sources dissatisfied with progress and various policy initiatives tell me that the sustained long-term focus on improvement has taken root statewide in terms of classroom practices and the teaching and learning environment. Yet they note that measurable improvements in student outcomes over the years have been highly susceptible to varying levels of resources available to districts, so that some years there have been accelerated gains, other years progress has stalled, and in the years when resources were lacking, programs and staff were cut and class sizes went back up, resulting in lower student performance and an increase in the number of schools identified for higher levels of tiered state interventions. Thus state resources have been and remain a key driver of school reform in Massachusetts.
The New Jersey saga, not to be envied, is rooted in nearly 40 years of litigation, the last 20 of which have been almost non-stop on behalf of the Abbott Districts (some 30 urban districts that serve about half of the state’s poor students) to secure or enforce court-ordered remedies. Given the numerous successful trips to the New Jersey Supreme Court seeking additional resources for plaintiff students, any outperformance of New Jersey’s poor children over those of their Connecticut counterparts is most certainly attributable in large part to the extra resources that the Education Law Center has succeeded in securing. It’s also noteworthy that the primary financial investment made by the State of New Jersey, requested by plaintiffs and ordered by the courts, has been in universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds with full wraparound services. The payoff has been remarkable, particularly in districts where improvements were then implemented in the higher grades as students moved up the system. As in Massachusetts, state resources have been and remain a key driver of school reform in New Jersey.
Both Massachusetts and New Jersey are thus prime examples of how to effectively fight poverty in the schools — i.e., with adequate resources rather than a head-in-the-sand denial of poverty itself. In the past couple of years Massachusetts attempted to introduce its version of a “get tough” teacher performance evaluation system that then had to be softened and is still in flux; New Jersey’s attempts are only now being piloted. Neither state has any linkage of teacher evaluations to tenure or certification as proposed in SB 24. Sources in those two states assure me that what’s being proposed for Connecticut would be the most drastic of all and would surely lead to increased teacher turnover (a costly hidden aspect of SB 24).
Not one to pass up an opportunity to weigh in when data and solid research clash with advocacy that doesn’t pass the smell test, Rutgers Professor Bruce Baker has posted a response to CCER’s “poverty doesn’t matter” manifesto on his SchoolFinance101 blog. Among the several eye-opening figures he presents, the histograms showing average NAEP reading and math scale scores for Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Jersey from 2000 to 2009 based on poverty as measured by students’ eligibility for free/reduced-price meals are particularly eye-opening. As Governor Malloy and the CCJEF adequacy and equity lawsuit rightly point out, the deplorable disparities of student performance based on income in Connecticut, as well as on race and English-language status, are simply unconscionable and must be remedied. No “miracles” with regard to those disparities are to be found in our neighboring higher-performing states, either. Also of great interest is the scatterplot showing the percentage of English language learners by district poverty rates in Connecticut.
Baker’s conclusions should surprise no one:
• income and poverty are highly correlated across Connecticut;
• Connecticut is a highly socioeconomically and racially segregated state; and
• student outcome measures remain highly correlated with poverty and the racial composition of Connecticut’s school districts.
SB 24’s Version of Reform Not Unique to Connecticut
To single out CCER for their “poverty doesn’t matter, we just need to get tougher” mantra probably attributes more credit to these corporate reformers than the group deserves. After all, most of the contested provisions of SB 24 are not at all unique to Connecticut. Similar canned legislative measures are being pushed in many states, with countless corporate-sponsored “think tanks” and the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) behind most.
Writes Stan Karp of “Rethinking Schools,” an online education journal which for the past 25 years has focused on issues of social justice:
“Look again at the proposals the corporate reformers have made prominent features of school reform efforts in every state: rapid expansion of charters, closing “low-performing” schools, more testing, elimination of tenure and seniority for teachers, and test-based teacher evaluation. If every one of these policies were fully implemented in every state tomorrow, it would do absolutely nothing to close academic achievement gaps, increase high school graduation rates, or expand access to college. There is no evidence tying any of these proposals to better outcomes for large numbers of kids over time. The greatest gains in reducing gaps in achievement and opportunity have been made during periods when concentrated poverty has been dispersed through efforts at integration, when lower-income communities have experienced economic growth, or when significant new investments in school funding have occurred, often in response to grassroots campaigns for civil rights and social justice”. (Vol. 26:3, Spring 2012)
The 2008/2009 Open Letter to President-Elect Obama sent by Karp’s journal noted that “For too long, the discussion of poverty has been cut out of the school reform debate. It’s as dangerous as a doctor making a diagnosis on a patient’s condition without looking at any and all environmental factors that affect the patient.” Couldn’t agree more.
Dianne Kaplan deVries is an education consultant who also serves as Project Director for the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, plaintiffs in the CCJEF v. Rell education adequacy and equity lawsuit. Opinions expressed here, however, are solely hers and not necessarily those of CCJEF.