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OP-ED | Poverty Does Matter In Achievement Gap Debate

by Sarah Darer Littman | Apr 6, 2012 1:36pm
(4) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Opinion

Earlier this week, the Connecticut Council for Education Reform, issued a gobsmackingly disingenous blog post claiming that “poverty is not to blame” for the achievement gap. 

“What actions have our neighboring states taken to address their achievement gaps that Connecticut hasn’t?  Put bluntly, they have adopted education reform policies very similar to the ones proposed in Governor Malloy’s original education reform bill,” it wrote.

To put it mildly, CCER omitted important, salient facts.

Massachusetts’ success started with the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993(MERA), a sweeping bill of reform that was prompted by a court decision McDuffy vs. Robertson. (The case originated in 1978 as Webby vs Dukakis). The plaintiffs in McDuffy – all from economically disadvantaged districts- asserted that the state’s school financing system “effectively [denied] them the opportunity to receive an adequate education in the public schools in their communities”.

One of the key reforms in MERA, that CCER conveniently neglected to mention, was that it established a “Foundation Budget” for all districts; in other words the minimum budget required to “adequately educate” all of the students in that district. Chapter 70 state aid is intended to make up the difference between the district’s required contribution and the Foundation Budget. 

Dianne Kaplan deVries wrote about this in detail. But just to make the point even more clear, the NEAP scores over the last 10 years by National School Lunch Eligibility for the three states quoted by CCER, (NJ, MA, and CT) bear out Dianne’s points that poverty does matter and it’s not “an excuse.” The scores for MA and NJ were increasing, and the achievement gap closing even before the “new reform era.”

Chart courtesy Professor Bruce Baker: Rutgers University

What’s more, while CCER might prefer propaganda to facts and research, Gov. Deval Patrick certainly does not: “There is an inescapable association between socioeconomic status and future achievement.’’ Paul Reville, Secretary of Education in the Commonwealth State, also recognizes “the undeniable correlation between poverty and educational attainment.” 

Perhaps the reason Massachusetts has been so successful is that they don’t pretend these things don’t matter in the aid of trying to ram through a package of reforms, parts of which run contrary to research in terms of their efficacy for student learning.

When lobbying groups, politicians, and policymakers willfully and persistently choose to misrepresent issues, and data, parents, voters and legislators should think carefully about the motivation behind their actions.

As Jonathan Pelto has already written about the conflicts of interest of members of the State Board of Education, who serve on ConnCAN’s board.

But let’s look at some of the other information the coalition put out recently. Today,  CBIA tweeted this chart regarding the declining graduation rate in CT

Okay. Fair enough. But it’s critical that legislators to ask ConnCAN and charter school network Achievement First a few questions before committing support to SB24. Achievement First boasts of 100 percent college acceptances for their high school seniors. But what percentage students who matriculate at the AF charter schools in CT in 9th grade stay until 12th grade to graduate? What is the attrition rate? What has the trend line been on that attrition rate over the last 5 years? These are important questions to ask before agreeing to increase funding for charters and further expansions of the charter network.

I’ve spent the last three Thursday evenings taking a taster of the Parents Supporting Educational Excellence course run by the Connecticut Commission on Children and developed in conjunction with the CT Center for School Change. This evening we ran a school district change simulation and what we all learned was how critical it is to build support among the constituencies that are vital to creating and implementing that change.

I’d already wondered why the governor chose to open the education reform session with the language he did, and after taking the PSEE course I’m struggling more than ever to see how his position that this is an “all or nothing” bill is productive. Maybe the governor knows something we don’t. If he does, then we’d love to see the research.

Repeating the same talking points at each of the education reform tour stops won’t convince people. Refusing to listen to or comment on evidence contrary to position won’t convince people. Really listening and being willing to negotiate on the basis of what the research shows is truly efficacious for student learning might.

Sarah Darer Littman is a columnist for Hearst Newspapers and an award-winning novelist of books for teens. Long before the financial meltdown, she worked as a securities analyst and earned her MBA in Finance from the Stern School at NYU

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(4) Comments

posted by: GoatBoyPHD | April 7, 2012  5:49am


Having taught in Mass I found they are better at identifying the proximate cause of poverty and addressing them. Too often in CT poverty is thought of as a cause rather than a symptom.

Let’s take Teen Single Mothers—a complete profile identifies their individual risk factors. Social services can be leveraged to address them individually. Often this is done through contract to the private sector to fulfill the whole IEP.

There’s the whole gap analysis model with a complete needs profile where poverty is not defined strictly in economic terms and special needs becomes more expansive and all encompassing and incorporates a socio-economic model.

Staff in these smaller decentralized Academies take a holistic approach to the client. In several programs these young adults are taking classes at Community College and remedial courses as well as lifeskill courses (all at the Community College).

These smaller decentralized academies are often administered and staffed without union personnel.

Is it possible that education happens without union personnel?

The funny thing is it does. More often than some would like people to believe.

To me its a budgetary issue. Given 3 choices on the menu I’ll take the least expensive one that meets the students needs. If a union inflates the costs of providing these wrap around services then they are expendable.

First and foremost I want to see the kids serviced. Second I want overhead reduced and a policy of continuous cost improvement. Lower costs means more services can be added.

posted by: gerardw | April 7, 2012  10:11pm

Ironic that, in comparing achievement gaps between states Littman posts data from the author of “Why Comparing NAEP Poverty Achievement Gaps Across States
Doesn’t Work” NAEP poverty achievement gaps_0.pdf

posted by: Reasonable | April 9, 2012  7:18pm

Good job - Sarah!  You apparently did more reasearch than Gov. Malloy did.  Perhaps he should use you as an advisor.

posted by: Reasonable | April 13, 2012  5:50pm

Sarah:  You criticized me yesterday for continually demeaning you.  Not true - as I never did.  I give you credit, when credit is due—as I gave you credit for a good job on April 9. If you would correctly blame “both” Democrats and Republicans in office for burying this country to our present economic melt-down, we would would be on the same page.  Your posts reflect a personal grudge by you, against all Republicans, which reflects on all of your written opinions.  You appear to find Republicans as “sinners,” yet seem to “absolve sll Democrats, of all of their sins.”

“I like you Sarah, and have complimented you on your ravishing beauty,” but I can’t agree with your “one way political direction in your commentary.”  That’s my only beef with you Sarah. Otherwise, I hope we are friends.  God bless you.