Letter: The real problem with our schools is poverty

Posted 11/13/19

The scores were unacceptable. Something needed to be done to fix the schools. Rhode Island? Yes, based on the second year of administering the RICAS. Massachusetts? Yes, based on the first years …

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Letter: The real problem with our schools is poverty

Posted

The scores were unacceptable. Something needed to be done to fix the schools. Rhode Island? Yes, based on the second year of administering the RICAS. Massachusetts? Yes, based on the first years of the MCAS.

As an educator working in Massachusetts during those early years, I am more than tired of seeing our Rhode Island public schools and teachers bashed. The latest is comparing Rhode Island’s scores to Massachusetts.

The Massachusetts schools have been working on the same curriculum and tests for over 25 years. Did they start out with the results they are getting today? Of course not. They were much disappointed in the first test results. Things have improved since.

As one example, based on data from the Mass. Dept. of Ed., from 1998 to 2014, the percentage of 10th-graders rated proficient or higher in math increased by 52 percent, and in ELA by 55 percent — roughly 3 percent per year. To be fairer, compare Rhode Island to MCAS 1998 result.

We are now being told our Rhode Island schools, after the second year of testing, should be compared to Massachusetts’ current results. Massachusetts invested millions of dollars in curriculum, test, and professional development. Rhode Island adopted a test. And now, when our results do not compare to MCAS results, it is the fault of our teachers.

If fair comparisons are to be made, compare RICAS second-year results to MCAS second-year results.

The “failing” school concept was first introduced by No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which mandated all learning gaps between poor students and more affluent students, as measured by standardized tests, would be eliminated by 2014. No state in the country, including Massachusetts, eliminated those gaps. The Massachusetts learning gaps were smaller because Massachusetts has fewer children living in dire poverty. The fatal flaw in NCLB was assuming learning gaps were the result of deficiencies in our schools. They are not. Virtually every “failing” school in the country is located in a poverty neighborhood.

There are some school districts who have closed the gaps. Lawrence and Springfield in Massachusetts have done so. Achievement First in Providence has done so. The common thread in all three cases is extended school days.

Why? All three serve large populations of poor children. Poor children do not enjoy the educational advantages enjoyed by their wealthier peers. Children living with educated parents learn from those parents. They also enjoy art, music and dance classes; summer camps; learning vacations; trips to museums and aquariums. Children living in nice neighborhoods do not suffer the stresses of living in poverty. What happens outside of school is reflected in the standardized tests they take in school. Thus, the learning gaps.

How did Lawrence, Springfield and Achievement First narrow those gaps? They provided extended school days. It borders on criminal to expect poor children to learn everything more affluent children learn in a school day and then, in the same day, learn everything the wealthier students learn while out of school.  

It was education malfeasance to focus the whole school day for poor children on only those subjects being tested as a means of closing the gaps. These children were deprived of music and art — even recess — to improve their test scores in ELA and math. Why? Because NCLB mandated draconian punishments for any schools and teachers who did not close the gaps. Schools could be closed and teachers fired.

We now look at Providence. Are Providence teachers responsible for learning gaps? By and large, no. Providence teachers have for years been blamed for something over which they have no control. They teach children living in poverty. Poverty is the problem. Extended school days and school years are one means of overcoming that problem. Beating up on teachers has not closed the learning gaps in 25 years, because teachers are not the problem. It has only exasperated the problem, as Providence cannot higher or retain teachers.

What is the problem?  Poverty is the problem.

We can educate children out of poverty but that requires an investment today that will pay big dividends tomorrow.

Joseph H. Crowley
Cranston

Mr. Crowley is co-author, with Albert Colella, Ph.D, of “Poverty & Despair vs. Education & Opportunity.”

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