Hard Truth about Our SchoolsNovember 2009
By Nancy Rauch Douzinas
Two studies were released this past month that should give Long Islanders a reality check on how we are educating our children. One provides data on student achievement, the other a close-up of five Long Island school districts.
The close-up study, conducted for The Long Island Index by Columbia University’s Teachers College, examined one wealthy, almost all-white district; one poor, minority district; and three districts with greater diversity. What the researchers found was vast inequity in education systems: in terms of teachers, academic programs, student support, and more.
The achievement data came from the “gold-standard” National Assessment of Educational Progress. Scores on fourth- and eighth-grade math tests, sharply contradicting the rosy results on recent state tests, showed minimal improvement overall, and no narrowing whatsoever in the achievement gap between white and minority children. Today black eighth-graders are approximately three years behind whites.
It is time for us to stop kidding ourselves. We do not have equal opportunity in education, nor are we moving toward it. Not in our nation, and not on Long Island.
We need to acknowledge the depth and resiliency of the achievement gap, and understand its roots. Disadvantaged young children enter school far behind their wealthier peers. The average four-year-old in a poor family has heard some 35 million fewer words than a child in a professional family. What is worse, poor children lag in the personal and social skills—attentiveness, persistence, self-monitoring, etc.—that hold the key to school success.
Wealthy children, then, don’t just have a head start. They’re also speedier in terms of school skills. Common sense tells us that the gap will only widen through the years, and that’s just what happens.
In the face of this reality, what does Long Island do? It gathers children into separate schools in separate districts . . . and gives the least resources to the kids who need the most.
We can wish that this system would close the achievement gap; we cannot seriously believe it will.
Closing the gap is very hard, but one of the few places that did it is right here on Long Island.
In Rockville Centre educators looked at the tracked classes in their schools, with lower tracks predominately black and Latino and high tracks mostly white and Asian, and said, “This is not acceptable.” Step by step, they switched to racially and academically mixed classes. They didn’t dumb down the curriculum; they actually made it more rigorous. But they added a critical ingredient—extra help for anyone who wanted it.
The results? In the last year of tracked biology classes, 48% of black and Latino students passed the State Regents exam, and 85% of whites and Asians. The next year, with mixed classes, the pass rate for blacks and Latinos shot up to 77%. The whites and Asians? They climbed too, to 94%.
So it went, class after class. All groups improved. The achievement gap closed.
Could this happen across Long Island? Only if we will do what Rockville Centre did: face squarely the current inequity . . . and say, “This is not acceptable.”