Get ready for a change from the silliness of the last entry on the attire to wear to Max Fish to the seriousness of examining how we, as a community, can help children belonging to that group social scientists describe as the lower SES learn.
What’s SES? SES stands for social economic status and is determined by factors such as a parent’s education, occupation, and income. Some sociologists add ethnicity, religion, race, and home address to the equation, but this we know and have known for decades. Children living in lower SES households generally do not achieve at the same academic levels as children belonging to higher SES groups.
While this is a serious issue for all of the residents of Connecticut, for residents of Manchester it is especially so. Slowly, this city of village charm has seen its public school population change and with that change academic performance has declined such that Manchester’s school system has been identified as one of 30 “Alliance” school districts this year. For the many Manchester residents I spoke to as I walked across the 13th House District, being an "Alliance" school district is unacceptable.
What to do?
The following “White Paper” tries to answer that question in the context of Connecticut’s recently passed educational reform act. Written a few weeks ago it does not take into consideration the recent developments concerning teacher evaluation discussions. Still, for the reader seriously interested in the history of this issue, I have spelled out those educational interventions most likely to increase the academic performance of Manchester’s children experiencing academic difficulty. These will be the initiatives I will pursue funding for if I am chosen on Tuesday, August the 14th as the Democratic nominee for the 13th House District, and I go on to win the general election in November.
Helping Our Children Academically Succeed
"Give them the tools to work with". Mom would remind us that this was the guidance that my father gave her just days before his untimely death and that, despite our less than stellar academic performance at report card time, she intended to stick to that plan of action and expected that we would redouble our efforts to learn. She would then get on the phone to talk to each of our teachers and ask for their help in developing a plan to improve our grades. Mom was not expecting her children would end up on the school's honor roll; rather, she wanted her brood to be productive contributing members of society. Leaving school in the 8th grade to help support her family and working much of her life in low paying entry level positions, she was keenly aware of the importance of education and if it was in her power, her children would work and work hard but not without the opportunity to advance, and education was that ticket to advancement.
I offer this childhood experience because it applies to the ongoing frustration that generations of well-meaning individuals have had in trying to change a troubling reality. This reality is that many young people of lower socio-economic status (SES) do not achieve at the same level as young people of middle or higher SES. In the just concluded state legislative session, an attempt was made to once again address this on-going problem. As I desire to represent Manchester and Glastonbury in that legislative body, it is important that you understand my view of this matter. That view is not easily expressed in a few catchy sound bites as this is a dilemma that has consumed nearly a half-century of national debate and defies simple solutions, but solutions do exist. However, I am getting ahead of myself. Let's go back to a time when the thought that money would be enough was discovered to be in error.
The time is 1964 and the nation, still mourning the death of John F. Kennedy, is struggling to reconcile its mythic beliefs with the reality that all people are not treated equally in the eyes of its government and that equality of opportunity is lacking for people of color, women, and the poor. As the Civil Rights Act of 1964 moved through Congress, a section was added to the bill to undertake a study to document the educational inequalities believed to exist between those in the middle and upper SES and those who were not. The respected sociologist, James Coleman, was recruited to conduct this study that was titled: "Equality of Educational Opportunity" (EOEO).
Released in 1966, EOEO was expected to document once and for all that middle and upper SES schools received significantly more financial resources than did lower SES schools. Indeed, Coleman was quoted as saying that this near universally held belief would undoubtedly be scientifically supported and with its confirmation Congress would have the justification to send federal funding into those poor school districts to correct the situation. Imagine then that with the release of EOEO this finding was not completely supported.
Here's what EOEO discovered:
1. Schools are segregated (No surprise there).
2. That low SES students do better academically in high achieving integrated school settings than in segregated settings. (This is one of several reasons in support of busing students.)
3. That the most important school factor is the faculty. (Teachers matter.)
4. That school expenditures are not statistically different. (Per pupil spending is often higher in lower SES schools than in higher SES schools.)
5. The single most important factor in a student's achievement is family background as determined by SES, ethnicity, religious beliefs, etc.
In the years since its publication some of the above findings have changed and others are better understood. For example, school segregation that decreased for a period of time has increased in recent years. A clearer understanding of those teaching attributes necessary for student achievement and the correlation between class size and learning in the first few years of a child's education have been enunciated. That said, family background continues to be the single most important factor predicting a student's academic success.
Connecticut's Effort to Educate All its Youth.
Connecticut has been described as being two states - one with the highest per capita income in the nation and the other with several of the poorest communities in the New England region. This discrepancy goes beyond income and into the realm of learning, an area sacred to a core belief that America is the land of opportunity. The historical covenant that exists between this nation and its people is that education is a means to social and economic mobility. Our present day cultural economic icons are individuals like the late Steve Jobs who launched the personal computer revolution from a garage and Bill Gates whose software is found on virtually every computer. Today's wunderkind are strong in mind not brawn, intelligent not ignorant, and well-spoken not inarticulate.
The United States does not promise equality of condition to its citizens but rather equality of opportunity. Hard work, diligence, persistence, and being equipped as my Dad would say "with the tools to work with" will enable an individual to experience the benefits that this nation offers. This is the meaning of "equality of educational opportunity." Yet, in this, the land of steady habits, the achievement differences between school districts are some of the greatest in the country. To the credit of Governor Dannel Malloy this discrepancy was partially addressed in the last legislative session. Now, one might express displeasure with his initial approach to the issue but understand that is why with its system of three legislative branches this republic has been successful when others have failed. A system of checks and balances does not permit any governmental entity unilateral action. Providing the voter exercises their civic responsibility and chooses their representative wisely, good government and good decisions generally will prevail.
Generally? Did I say generally? Consider it a concession to Murphy's law that being mere mortals legislative errors based on erroneous assumptions can occur. How does SB 458 The Connecticut Educational Reform Bill stand up under that scrutiny? Let's consider the bill from the perspective of strengthening families and then strengthening classroom instruction.
Beginning with EOEO and extending to the present day no one has challenged the prime importance of the family in promoting the academic ability of its offspring. For families with young children who truly care for their child(ren) the following parenting characteristics have been found beneficial:
1. A family member reads stories to the child on a regular basis.
2. The child is engaged in two-way conversations with an adult that build the child's vocabulary and word recognition.
3. A family member continually introduces the child to new phenomenon. These can be colors, shapes, animals, and even the full moon on a clear summer's night.
4. A family member actively plays with the child developmentally appropriate games that improve gross and fine motor control.
Thus, an early childhood effort should incorporate a strong parent education component and Connecticut's Education plan does that, at least on paper. The state's "Family Resource Center" initiative was the brainchild of the respected Yale scholar Ed Zigler. This program has as its principle objectives strengthening a parent's child rearing skills and building at the earliest stage of a child's educational career a strong positive partnership between parent and school. Begun under the O'Neill administration with the strong endorsement of then U.S. Senator Chris Dodd and State Senator John Larson, this program initially flourished but under Republican Governors has languished. Indeed, in recent years the Rell administration had proposed its elimination. To be truly effective it will need to be reinvigorated. Whether an elected legislator or a novice seeking to be elected, this last point is important. To often legislators anxious to deliver on their promises expect instantaneous results from programs whose capacity or structural integrity has been stretched, as has this one, to the breaking point.
While EOEO did not concern itself with health disparities, there is good evidence to suggest that children living in lower SES households have poorer access to health care services for issues that adversely affects learning. Connecticut's Educational Reform Act appropriately addressed this inequity with the expansion of school-based health centers (SBHC). Staffed with Advanced Practice Registered Nurses and master's level mental health clinicians, SBHCs have been shown to reduce school absenteeism due to chronic illnesses like asthma. In school systems with highly mobile pupil populations, they insure that school entrance physical exams and vaccinations are done in a timely manner thus enabling children to be in the classroom not the waiting room. Further, the SBHC is an important counseling resource helping young people with behavioral issues to change their dysfunctional patterns of behavior. Incidentially, this program was also started by the O'Neill administration.
One of the strongest findings in the social sciences including my own foundation-supported research is that a quality preschool experience has lasting academic and prosocial benefits for young children. Research suggests that many young people (about 80% of the time) destined for trouble in school and with the law in adolescence can be identified before age 6. Why then do we wait until dysfunctional habits of poor behavior are firmly established in these children before we (as a society) seek to help them in ways that are far more costly, more time consuming, and frankly less effective? A quality preschool experience with a strong planful emphasis on promoting prosocial behavior offers the type of preventive intervention that has shown positive demonstrated results. Connecticut's Educational Reform Act deserves praise for significantly increasing the number of scholarships to be offered to children who meet qualifying requirements. Hopefully, the State Department of Education will encourage preschool programs to implement strong social and emotional learning components.
No governmental act is perfect, and in signing the Educational Reform Act the Governor acknowledged as much. Strengthening parenting skills, providing quality preschool experiences, and insuring the good health of children are admirable efforts. If I had sat on the House Education Committee I would have strongly advocated for two additional components.
The first is a quality out-of-school experience for children K through fifth grade. Again, the social science literature and my own foundation-supported research in this area speak to the academic and behavioral benefits that such programs provide to their attendees. The research is again clear that students in quality after school programs perform significantly better on achievement tests, have better behavior reports from teachers, and show less "drop off" during the summer break than children without this resource. While a program component of the "Family Resource Center" assigns this responsibility to that program, the repeated financial cuts to this program over the years makes this responsibility difficult if not impossible to achieve. Presently, the State Department of Social Services provides a limited number of scholarships to enable young people to attend out-of-school programs. However, the eligibility rules attached to those programs and the lack of criteria to establish program quality are serious impediments that need to be addressed.
The second unaddressed area in Connecticut's Educational Reform Act is a concerted effort to improve the educational achievement of parents. Again, the "Family Resource Center" has the responsibility on paper of linking parents to adult education but for previously stated reasons expectations will fall short of what needs to happen to achieve equality of educational opportunity. One example of a promising initiative deserving wider field trials is the program "Even Start." The purpose of this effort is to enable uneducated parents of very young children to attain a GED and hopefully go beyond that level of educational achievement. Recall, those parenting behaviors noted earlier that nurture a child's intellectual growth and the rationale for this program is clearly evident. Educated parents are more likely to read, communicate, and interact with their children in ways that boost intelligence and equip them with the basic learning skills necessary in which to enter kindergarten. Of course, exceptions to these observations exist but remember they are exceptions. Indeed, if EOEO is correct in correctly assessing the importance of family background on educational achievement then strengthening the family's ability to fulfill its responsibilities is absolutely essential to achieving equality of educational opportunity in Connecticut.
Strengthening classroom instruction.
Years ago, when I was working towards a graduate degree in education at Trinity, the open classroom movement was the latest craze sweeping the field of education. The concept of young people working quietly and cooperatively in a room with furniture that could be reconfigured to meet the immediate needs of the situation was a refreshing change from my elementary school experience in which the desks were bolted to the floor and inkwell stands spoke to a time when dip pens were used. Some of my earliest research was undertaken in two area school systems looking at the open classroom concept. Imagine my surprise and disappointment when classroom reality did not match educational rhetoric. The classrooms had been reconfigured; walls removed; circular study tables had replaced fixed seating; extensive in-service training undertaken but the expected outcome of quiet, cooperative, group and individual learning was not in evidence. Rather, as time went on and the number of classroom observations grew and test data gathered, I was struck with how loud and nearly unmanageable these settings had become. To be heard above the class located a few yards away, teachers did what is natural. They spoke more loudly. In turn, other teachers in that core spoke even more loudly and soon the space rivaled a wood paneled bar on a Friday night. Not surprisingly, in comparison with children in "traditional" classroom settings, children in "open" settings did not perform as well.
About this same time a Scottish epidemiologist, Archie Cochrane, published a volume examining the decision-making process physicians used to decide what treatment was most appropriate for a patient. Archie's work concluded that doctors treated illnesses on what they had heard would work. In short, most medical practice was based on hearsay - not factual evidence. This surprising revelation gave birth to the "evidence-based" practice movement that now dominates the delivery of physical health care, behavioral health care to a lesser extent, and is just beginning to appear in the field of education. Connecticut's Educational Reform Act embraces this concept of "evidence-based" practice and requires that actions to improve learning in low performing schools be supported by a body of research evidence. If taken seriously, this one requirement in a bill that rivals the length of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” may be, of all its good in-school intentions, the most beneficial.
To illustrate, a critical issue that needs immediate attention is the difference in reading skills that exists between lower and middle SES students. This act recognizes that children who cannot read well by the end of the 3rd grade are at a significant disadvantage. Generally speaking, school curriculums are built on the premise that a child has the basic reading ability necessary for the more intensified learning experiences that begin in 4th grade. For many lower SES children, the gradual erosion of interest in education that began as ill-prepared kindergarten students accelerates, as these 4th graders are unable to keep pace with the system’s expectations. SB 458 provides funding to implement and evaluate several pilot reading programs across the state. The results of those pilot studies should provide a methodology for partly addressing this serious problem. Partly? Like writing, reading improves with practice that needs to occur in the home and the community. But what if the parent is unable to read? Then that child is at an increased risk of failure. Knowing this, our efforts to improve a child’s reading skills must also encourage the parent’s reading skills and here is where adult education and programs like “Even Start” are crucial to this overall effort. Unless we pay serious attention to strengthening the skills of lower SES families, it is doubtful that measurable improvement on their child’s reading scores will occur.
SB 458 also requires that children be provided with at least 20 minutes of physical education a day. I find this requirement a refreshing move away from the present mantra that the more class time devoted to academics the better. In a volume that I co-edited with Aleta Meyers due to be released this month that examines the effects of physical activity on behavior, the importance of rigorous physical exercise as a necessary requirement for proper brain development in early childhood is explored. Consider that for tens upon tens of thousands of years children’s brains matured not tied to desks, televisions, or video games but by running, jumping, and wrestling with peers and siblings. Those activities forged neural pathways that contributed (or so the hypothesis goes) to certain behavioral patterns. These patterns established over the countless millennium have been recently disrupted by changes in our lifestyle patterns. For those of you who might laugh at this suggestion, recognize that this is the first youth cohort whose life expectancy is expected to be less than that of its parents. Life style changes have led to an epidemic of obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure and some even suggest an increase in ADHD.
Next, the issue of teacher evaluation is addressed in this reform act. Being an adjunct faculty member in the state university system since 1974, I can appreciate the concerns teachers have over being evaluated fairly. I can think of no other profession in which the individual is more exposed to public scrutiny. Nearly everyone is an expert on education based on the first hand experience of having gone to school. The profession of communicating knowledge, stimulating imaginations, and encouraging inquisitiveness is fraught with peril as students or their parents may misinterpret the instructor’s intentions - be it a comment to provoke needed debate, a reading assignment to challenge standing beliefs, or a project that violates Linus’ maxim to avoid any discussion that involves politics, religion, or the Great Pumpkin.
Thus, it is not surprising that teacher evaluation is one of two contentious issues connected to this legislative act. To what extent should student achievement be tied to teacher performance? Currently under discussion is an evaluation format that devotes 45% to learning indicators. Of this, half (22,5%) is committed to standardized test scores. There are some who would want to see the full 45% devoted to a student’s testing performance, and I would disagree with that position.
Again, drawing on cognitive psychology and this time the work of Howard Gardner, I am disappointed in those who maintain the perspective that a paper and pencil regurgitation of information is the only means to measure a student’s mastery of material. Those familiar with Gardner’s research are aware that he has identified several forms of intelligence that each of us possess to varying extents. Generally speaking, first world nations place the highest value on two of those eight intelligences, namely verbal and mathematical intelligence. These intelligences lend themselves to measurement by standardized tests that the other six forms of intelligence do not. But should a student be denied the opportunity to demonstrate mastery of a subject using spatial, musical, or kinesthetic intelligence, and should a teacher be penalized for encouraging that means of communication as a bridge to improving verbal and mathematical intelligence? I think not. No one is denying that it is essential for a student to be able to read, write, and (though I never could) master mathematics. The issue is how do we make that journey? If it is to be only by the standardized test then teaching strategies will evolve in that direction, and we will have done a serious disservice to our youth.
The second contentious issue involves the powers of the state should it take over a failing school system. The original proposal put before the legislature could be compared to a bankruptcy declaration in which all previous contractual agreements of the school system with its work force were declared null and void. The legislature was wise to replace this draconian approach to implementing change with one that requires teacher input. Under the system that was passed by the legislature, where disagreements cannot be resolved, an expedited arbitration process is employed. For those who would contend that a unilateral decision making structure is the only way to achieve change, I would ask for their evidence in support of that position. My understanding of human behavior is that more is accomplished through agreement than through coercion. Change in these struggling school systems needs to be lasting and that rarely occurs where hostility is the dominant emotion in the workplace. Even with these modifications SB 458 is a powerful tool enabling the state to comply with its constitutional obligation to educate the youth – all of the youth – of this state.
Here, as earlier, if I had sat in the legislature I would have urged my colleagues to consider the following. First, the development of school-based health centers is a huge plus, and Governor Malloy and the legislature are to be commended. But why not give schools that open SBHCs the option, if they so choose, of extending the reach of those centers to include the siblings and parents of enrolled youth. Known as the “Cambridge” model, my intention in this action is to provide yet another opportunity to “bind” these families to their child’s school.
Next, the Family Resource Centers Phoenix like rebirth is an important recognition of the linkage between parent and school that must occur early in the child’s career if that child is to experience educational success. As noted earlier, Family Resource Centers will need to be rebuilt to achieve their full promise. In that retooling effort, I would have urged my colleagues to extend the FRCs outreach to families through the 3rd grade. Why? Academically K – 3 are the foundational years for most children. The role parents play in that process is critical. If the staff of a FRC establishes a positive relationship with a family in bridging the preschool to K experience then it seems ill-advised to truncate that relationship at a time when the learning experience is just germinating and in keeping with the imagery of the planting season the new plant (that is child) is most vulnerable.
These two observations are, however, minor points of contention when compared to my last concern – the apparent lack of consideration of a “Project STAR” initiative. “Project STAR” was a four year research study undertaken in Tennessee from 1985 – 1989 that looked at one factor and only one factor in the education of children in grades K – 3. That factor was school class size. While the study has methodological problems, it reported that lower SES children in classes of 13 to 17 students in grades K- 3 significantly out performed controls in larger classes. Further, those academic gains were maintained through the 8th grade, and on life experience indices like involvement with the police or teen-age pregnancies, young people in smaller classes avoided police involvement and parenthood. For those involved in field research implementing programs in which issues of fidelity (how true the implementation is to the model) and dosage (how much exposure to the program is necessary to achieve the desired result), the simplicity of this experiment (lower class sizes) for the results it attained (significantly better performance) demands that Connecticut replicate this initiative.
I close this first in a series of conversations with voters before the Tuesday, August 14th Democratic primary with an acknowledgement of how difficult this legislative act was to craft. Whether it was the German Bismarck or the Englishman Saxe who uttered the remark about laws and sausages, SB 458 represents a good first attempt by the Governor, the legislature, and educators to address the educational achievement chasm that exists in this state. I have no doubt that on some issues such as teacher evaluations the passage of this act marks the beginning of a long and arduous process towards ultimately finding ground upon which an agreement can be reached. But in several other areas and specifically those in which I have suggested improvements such as strengthening parent educational skills and duplicating the “Project Star” initiative, these changes can and should be made next session. If given the opportunity to represent the 13th District, I will do my very best to insure that this happens.