Monday, October 27, 2014

Education Reform

Recently, my local Connecticut newspaper published a front-page report showing the differences in average SAT scores for students at various high schools throughout Fairfield county. Predictably, the report showed that students from high schools in wealthier communities scored much higher than students from schools in predominately lower class cities with large minority populations.

In Darien, a small, largely white, well to do town along Fairfield County’s so-called Gold Coast, students averaged 1799 on their combined Sat scores. Only 18 miles away in Bridgeport, Connecticut’s most populous city, the largely black and Hispanic students of Bassick High School averaged only 1024 on their combined SAT scores. Actually, the discrepancy is even worse since only a small percentage of Black and Hispanic students even take the SATs.

The newspaper was quick to draw the obvious conclusion that children in wealthier communities get better educations. But why? Is it just that wealthy community pours more resources into their schools? It is true that their buildings look nicer and more modern and have better equipment, but teachers in the inner city schools make largely the same salaries as their colleagues in wealthier towns. Moreover, the schools in Bridgeport receive over $150 million each year in State funding, largely provided by the taxation of the residents in the wealthy Gold Coast towns. The people in Darien are supporting two school systems, their own and Bridgeport’s.

I believe that the reasons for the education gap are not monetary. I also believe that they are not about race or ethnicity. For most of my life I have read articles and editorials about educational reform. No one should dare to write or talk about it without spending some time in a classroom, or at least talking to the teachers who are actually on the front lines. In my financial planning practice many of my clients were teachers in schools from all over the social and economic spectrum. I would often meet these teachers in their schools and get a pretty good idea of what was going on by talking with them, and just using my own two eyes.

I know that the good, the bad, and the ugly exist in the teaching profession just as in any other profession. However, in my experience the good, competent, and dedicated teachers far outweigh the bad. Anyone who blames the teachers for the sorry state of education in our cities has probably never been in a classroom to observe just what they have to deal with.

I know a young white woman fresh out of college with a degree in elementary education who has just started teaching first grade in a Bridgeport school made up largely of black and hispanic children. Her college degree could not have prepared her for the chaos she encountered on her first day. Every day presents a new challenge and these are only first graders. In many ways, first grade is pivotal for it is then that the mind is ready to learn how to read. If the opportunity is missed, students will fall behind and low SAT scores will inevitably result.

Sadly and significantly, the teacher told me that on Parent’s Night, only four parents showed up to hear about their child’s progress. Maybe parent is the wrong word because most of these Bridgeport first graders don’t have parents. They are being raised by grandparents some of whom are not even in their forties. Sometimes even great-grandparents are the caregivers for these children. Moreover, in most cases there are no men involved in the raising of these children.

One need only contrast this situation with the Parents’ Night at a typical white middle class school in nearby Fairfield. The parking lot will be packed with cars and the classes filled with fathers and mothers anxiously seeking news of their child’s progress or lack of it. Actually, I knew a young math teacher in Bridgeport who did not want to work in a suburban school because the parents were too involved.

No amount of money will rectify the tremendous social disaster that has taken place in American cities in the past few generations. Unwed teenage pregnancies create an almost impossible educational problem. To get an education certificate today, teachers have to take courses that would almost qualify them as master psychologists.

Just the other day the newspaper told the story of a nineteen-year-old woman who left her 3 month old child with strangers in an urban motel. Police finally tracked her down 60 miles away in another hotel room with a group of men. The future for this young woman is really bleak but it is practically hopeless for her baby who has been taken into state custody. The probability is very high that the child will be virtually uneducable by the time he goes to first grade. He will come to regard school as a prison and by the time he gets to eight grade he will likely be attacking classmates and teachers, and destroying school property. Next, the probability is also very high that he will join a street gang, become a drug addict or dealer, and eventually wind up in jail or dead on the street.

On the other hand, the Wall St. Journal recently published an op-ed by a young black woman who had just graduated from college. Her story was the familiar one of a fatherless child with a teenage, possibly addicted, mother. By the time she went to school she was completely out of bounds and disruptive in and out of class. However, her life was transformed when godmother took her away from the mother and placed her in a private school in fifth grade. She credited the school and the State of Florida’s tuition support program but I credit the godmother. Finally, the young girl had someone in her life who cared for her and took an interest in her education.

Some advocate busing Black and Hispanic children from their schools in Bridgeport to high achieving predominately white schools in towns like Darien. What good will it do if there are no parents who will ask them how they did in school today?


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