Heeding Connecticut

April 9th, 2012

Category: News

All too often, poverty is cited as the reason why so many of Delaware’s highest-need students show poor performance in the classroom.  Poverty can be a factor, clearly. Yet, to use poverty as an excuse that lets all of us—educators, parents, public officials, business and community leaders—off the hook is unproductive and poorly reasoned. 

I follow closely what Connecticut, my home state, has been doing to transform its schools.  My heart remains in those public schools, where I spent almost all of my K-12 years.  Today, however, Connecticut has the widest achievement gap in the nation—attributable by many to a 34.4% high-poverty rate among public school students.  The performance of the state’s low-income students is terrible:  low-income fourth graders rank 48th in the nation on NAEP.

I also have been following the bold, smart, and progressive agenda that Connecticut Governor Malloy laid out shortly after his election in late 2010.  The components are sound; after all, they mirror many of the reforms in place in Massachusetts, an adjacent state with a nearly equivalent 34.2% poverty rate among its students.  Despite that, low-income 4th graders rate second in the nation on NAEP. 

So does poverty determine performance?  No, it doesn’t have to.  In Massachusetts, there are tools in place to support and evaluate educators with a sharp eye toward student performance, hold high standards for all students, and intervene aggressively in low-performing schools.  And, if you look across the nation, there are hundreds of schools using targeted strategies—longer school days and wrap-around community services, for example—that are proving that one’s zip codes doesn’t need to define one’s destiny.

Yet, when the Education Committee of the Connecticut legislature reviewed Governor Malloy’s reform plan (SB 24), it chose to gut its strongest provisions, proposing instead watered down, politically guarded language.  The public should ask the legislators, “Why?”  And, “What will you tell parents?”  “What will you tell poor students?”  “What will you tell business leaders who are planning on a college- and career-ready workforce?”  I hope they can provide, and justify, their answers.  The next generation of my family will enter Connecticut schools in just a few years.  Baby George and his parents will need a responsible answer.

Bringing this home to Delaware, we have ten Partnership Zone schools working hard to reverse their chronic low performance.  Each of these schools has a poverty rate of 40% or higher.  A lot of work is underway in each of them and substantial, additional resources are available through Delaware’s Race to the Top grant.  So there is room for optimism.  Yet, if we approach interventions in these schools as anything less than morally binding, we will have abdicated our responsibility to each of the families that has entrusted children to our schools.  And, we will have shortchanged forever the future that those students deserve. 

Those who present poverty as an excuse need to look to Massachusetts, and be mindful of Connecticut.  Interventions must be real; driven by high expectations; expedited by local boards, district leadership, and union representatives; supported by community partners; and implemented, laser-like, by school leadership teams. 

Accountability for student success must be real, with support where it’s needed and consequences for those who consistently fail our neediest children.  Poverty needn’t be destiny.  Not in Delaware, nor for that matter in Connecticut.  So, let’s not water down, slow down, or underestimate the essential work underway and the role that all of us have to play.

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Dori Jacobson




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