Once again we enter a new year looking to close the learning gaps between richer and poorer students. James Kadamus, in his commentary “Time for governor to improve schools” (Providence Journal, 1-1-2018) references the RI Dept. of Education (RIDE) plan to “identify low performing schools.” Low performing schools, if one reads the RIDE proposal to the federal government, are essentially those schools with significant gaps in test scores between children who are white, Latino, African American, living in poverty, and several other designations. Virtually all of these schools are in high poverty neighborhoods.
President George W. Bush created the No child Left Behind initiative. President Obama’s Every Student Succeeds Act renamed the program. Both are monikers attached to President Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) created as part of his War on Poverty. Interestingly enough, the last time the gaps closed between children in need and their more affluent peers was while the War on Poverty waged. Johnson’s program identified poverty as the problem and as poverty was addressed learning outcomes improved.
President Bush and his No Child Left Behind initiative identified the schools as the problem. Schools were to close the learning gaps by 2014. Schools not doing so were tagged as “failing.” Billions of dollars were spent to “fix” the schools. Teachers and administrators lost their jobs. Schools were closed. Alternative, mainly charter, schools were opened so parents would not have to send their children to “failing” schools.
President Obama continued that ill-conceived notion. His administration created the Race to the Top initiative in which states taking aggressive steps to reduce learning gaps were rewarded - billions of more dollars were spent. One year ago (1-19-17), the Washington Post ran this headline, “Obama administration spent billions to fix failing schools, and it didn’t work.”
The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is known as the Nation’s Report Card. NAEP biannually tests fourth and eighth grade students in literacy and math. Between 2003 and 2015, test scores improved overall by ten points (from 240 to 250 on a 500 point scale). The gaps between children living in poverty and their wealthier peers started at ten points and twelve years later were ten points. No change.
How can this be? Children living in poverty are not necessarily learning less in school than more affluent children. A Johns Hopkins study found learning gaps grew most in the summer. Children growing up in homes with two parents and above poverty income arrive at school with far more “learning” than do children growing up in a single parent, poverty home. Several studies indicate they have vocabularies two or more times larger than poorer children. What these children learn at home is, to the largest degree, the difference found in test scores. Home learning creates the learning gap, not schools.
All of the initiatives to “fix” our “failing” schools have mandated the schools find a way to make up for what poor students do not learn at home while at the same time learning everything in the school curriculum being learned by the wealthier students. Handicapped by their home lives to begin with, these children are expected to learn far more in their six hour per day, 180-day school year than the wealthier children who benefit from learning at home.
Ten years ago (6-3-07), Julia Steiny in the Journal, wrote, “We’ve given the students our very best, and we’ve made gains, but the gap will continue until conditions improve in their home lives and neighborhoods. She ended by saying, “In short, we take lousy care of our kids, but find it convenient to blame our schools.” Things haven’t changed.
To better take care of “our kids” we need to level the playing field for children living in poverty. We need to offer them extended school days and school years to supplement their learning in the same way the learning of wealthier children is supplemented in their homes. Our schools are not the problem, which is why all efforts to “fix” them have failed. Living in impoverished homes is the problem. Children living in poverty can achieve to the same level as their wealthier peers if given the opportunity and support.
Editor’s note: A Cranston resident, Joseph Crowley is a retired educator and past president of the RI Association of School Principals.