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Closing the Poverty Gap: The Way Forward for Education Reform

By Secretary Paul Reville

I have been working on education reform in Massachusetts for a long time, from my days as a teacher through my current position as Secretary of Education. I am proud of this state's many educational accomplishments and our national leadership on student achievement. I am proud of the teachers, students and leaders who have built and shaped our success story.

In spite of our success, I am, nonetheless, regularly startled by what student achievement results tell us about the yawning gap between our educational aspirations and our actual performance. We have been at the business of high standards/high accountability school reform since 1993, and yet we must confront the reality of student outcomes such as these on the 2010 MCAS tests which demonstrate from the earliest grades to the latest grades and across all subjects, our work is far from done.

Consider:

  • Grade 3 reading: 57% of Low Income students scored in the two lowest performance categories compared to 26% of non-Low Income students
  • Grade 3 math: 54% of Low Income students scored in the two lowest performance the categories compared to 23% of non-Low Income students
  • Grade 4 English: 70% of Low Income students scored in the two lowest performance categories compared to 34% of non-Low Income students
  • Grade 4 math: 48% of Low Income students scored in the two lowest performance categories compared to 23% of non-Low Income students
  • Grade 5 English: 59% of Low Income students scored in the two lowest performance categories compared to 26% of non-Low Income students
  • Grade 5 math: 67% of Low Income students scored in the two lowest performance categories compared to 34% of non-Low Income students
  • Grade 5 science: 71% of Low Income students scored in the two lowest performance categories compared to 34% of non-Low Income students
  • Grade 6 English: 52% of Low Income students scored in the two lowest performance categories compared to 19% of non-Low Income students
  • Grade 6 math: 62% of Low Income students scored in the two lowest performance categories compared to 30% of non-Low Income students
  • Grade 7 English: 48% of Low Income students scored in the two lowest performance categories compared to 18% of non-Low Income students
  • Grade 7 math: 69% of Low Income students scored in the two lowest performance categories compared to 35% of non-Low Income students
  • Grade 8 English: 41% of Low Income students scored in the two lowest performance categories compared to 13% of non-Low Income students
  • Grade 8 math: 71% of Low Income students scored in the two lowest performance categories compared to 38% of non-Low Income students
  • Grade 8 science: 82% of Low Income students scored in the two lowest performance categories compared to 50% of non-Low Income students
  • Grade 10 English: 40% of Low Income students scored in the two lowest performance categories compared to 13% of non-Low Income students
  • Grade 10 math: 43% of Low Income students scored in the two lowest performance categories compared to 16% of non-Low Income students
  • Grade 10 science: 59% of Low Income students scored in the two lowest performance categories compared to 25% of non-Low Income students

Unfortunately, these results are neither new nor surprising. We readily recognize the consistent, ironclad law of association between poverty and educational achievement and attainment. However, we persist in school reform strategies that, despite success at the margins, regularly fail to address the factors associated with poverty that, on average, tend to impede student learning. While the past decade-plus of school reform has seen a necessary and laudable increase in emphasis on the need to improve curriculum and instruction for all students, we continue, for the most part, to look the other way when it comes to addressing out of school factors which get in the way of students benefitting from optimized curriculum and instruction.

Why do we look the other way? Maybe it's like looking at the sun. We know the sun is there. We know it creates and suffuses our environment, but it is difficult to look directly at it.

Some want to make the absurd argument that the reason low-income youngsters do poorly is that, mysteriously, all the incompetency in our education systems has coincidentally aggregated around low income students. In this view, all we need to do is scrub the system of incompetency and all will be well. An equally absurd variant on this theme is that poor performance in low-income districts is a function of, again coincidental, misalignment between state standards and local curriculum. Get these in line and all will be fine say the ideologues. Others want to banish any discussion of socio-economic status (SES) and educational performance for fear that it suggests that SES is destiny. It does not. We all know of notable individual exceptions to this rule, but they are exceptions. The averages tell the story.

Some fear that opening schools up to addressing the punishing realities of students' lives is simply too big and too distracting a job for schools. This is a reasonable set of concerns, but schools shouldn't have to do this work on their own and without addressing these factors, students will continue to face barriers to attendance and attentiveness that will, in turn, lead to under-achievement.

Others worry that talking about how poverty impedes learning and what to do about it undermines the value of education generally and somehow nullifies educational accountability by letting schools and teachers off the hook for continuously improving performance. It doesn't. We spend an enormous amount of money on schools, and there is every reason to believe that these schools already make substantial and unique contributions to student learning. However, we also know they can and should do significantly better.

All of these arguments typically get lumped together with the dismissive comment that considering the out of school factors is "making excuses" for students and schools. This reasoning suggests that because one individual or school can achieve excellence, everyone can do it if they try hard enough and we push them hard enough. Maybe they haven't studied statistics. In a normal distribution, there are always some outliers. Not everyone can play basketball like Michael Jordan. Modest changes to our approach to educating children will, at best, only produce minor degrees of progress. To produce a generation of educational, Michael Jordans, we would need a radically overhauled education system.

For twenty years, I have been an unabashed advocate of high standards for all of our students, and I have always said this approach is, above all, an equity strategy. I have always underlined, "all means all".

Now, we have nearly two decades experience in trying to get to this standard with a strictly schooling approach, and as well as we've done, I am forced to admit that we have not attained our goal. We have not eliminated the association between poverty and educational outcomes. Consequently, we, as policy-makers, need to look at the evidence and revise our strategy, in the same way that we ask teachers to do when they examine data on student performance.

It is now blatantly apparent to me and other education activists, ranging form Geoffrey Canada to Richard Rothstein to Linda Darling-Hammond, that the strategy of instructional improvement will not, on average, enable us to overcome the barriers to student learning posed by the conditions of poverty.

As others have argued, we need "a broader, bolder" approach, one that meets every child where he or she is and gives to each one the quality and quantity of support and instruction needed to attain the standards. Those of us who have the privileges of affluence know how to do this at scale with our children. We wrap services and supports around these children from the pre-natal period through their twenties. We know how to do it, but do we have the will to do it for "other people's children"? And do we know how to institutionalize the necessary services and supports that are best provided through families?

One thing is certain: if we want to achieve the goal of preparing all of our students for success then we will need a twenty-first century school system designed to do a very different job that our current education system was designed to do early in the last century. We are no longer batch-processing, mass-producing education for children to enter a low skill, low knowledge economy. We now need to educate all of our children to succeed in a high skill, high knowledge, post-industrial economy. We will need a system that starts in the earliest years of childhood, differentiates between children and meets their widely varying needs, a system that provides academic stimulation and engaging challenges year round while simultaneously guaranteeing that students have access to a robust platform of health and human service supports that will enable them to attend school and other educational opportunities regularly while supplying their best effort to meeting their learning challenges.

In short, we need to reinvent a child development and education system that is equal to the bold aspirations for student success that we appropriately proclaim for the 21st century. All means all.

Our nearly two decades of experience with education reform should tell us that what we have done to date, while necessary, is not sufficient achieve our goals. We need to reinvent our education system. That is the next step in the education reform movement.


S. Paul Reville is the Massachusetts secretary of education, and, in that role, directs the executive office of education and works closely with the commonwealth's education agencies and the University of Massachusetts system while serving as a voting member of the governing board of all four state education agencies. He is the governor's top adviser on education and helps shape the state's education reform agenda, including the recent Achievement Gap Act of 2010.

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