It’s a long trek. The privileged are given a 10-yard lead over the underprivileged. After six hours, both groups have covered the same distance, but the privileged group is still 10 yards ahead. This goes on day after day. The underprivileged keep up but are always behind. Given a little more time, they could catch up.
Let us look at our schools. More affluent children begin school with more learning than children living in poverty – for many reasons. During the course of a school day, the poverty children keep pace but are always behind their wealthier classmates. It’s called a learning gap. Learning gaps tend to remain the same over the course of time so it is apparent the poverty children are not losing ground but neither are they closing the gap.
A school with predominantly poverty children will not achieve the same test scores as schools with more affluent children. This is universal. It happens in Massachusetts. It happens in Finland, an education exemplar. Finland’s international test scores are higher than most because Finland has 5 percent of its students living in poverty. The impact of poverty scores on their average is minimal.
The United States, however, has a 20 perent childhood poverty rate – highest in the industrialized world. The lower test scores of poverty students have a more significant impact on state and national averages. Massachusetts has about 7 percent fewer students living in poverty than Rhode Island impacting comparisons between the two states.
It is welcome news that the Rhode Island legislature has taken an interest in public education. It would be prudent if our legislature did not make the same mistake as the federal government with its No Child Left Behind and Every Student Succeeds Act. Billions of dollars have been spent trying to close the learning gaps between richer and poorer students – to no avail as National Assessment of Educational Progress test results will attest. Not closing the gaps has been the primary determinant of a “failing” school. Virtually all “failing” schools are in high poverty areas.
If, as research validates, learning gaps do not begin or grow in our schools then it should be obvious our schools are not the issue. Blaming schools for learning gaps was the fatal flaw in federal programs to reduce learning gaps. Programs designed to “fix” our schools have failed and are doomed to fail.
If learning gaps are to be reduced, the focus needs to be on students. Which students are privileged and not needing additional supports and which students do? Poverty impacts children throughout their schooling. Wealthier children have far more resources to enhance their educations than poor children. The disparity in life experiences plays a role. In reading comprehension, if a reading prompt is related to taking a vacation, the child who has taken a vacation will comprehend more than the child who has never taken a vacation. Thus a learning gap – a learning gap created by forces outside of school.
Both Central Falls and Providence are experimenting with extended school day programs. This is a targeted approach to leveling the playing field between rich and poor. Children living in poverty cannot be expected to keep up with their more affluent peers during a normal school day and, at the same time, close the gaps between themselves and students who go home to added learning experiences. They cannot be expected to, literally, learn faster than their more privileged peers. But they can narrow the gaps if given a little more time. Schools can, with extended school day and year programs, offer poorer children expanded experiences to close the “gaps.”
Billions of dollars have been wasted trying to “fix” our “failing” schools. Our schools do not create gaps. Our schools are not the problem. If those monies had been directed at students, the learning gaps would be far smaller. One way to reduce gaps is to reduce poverty. Poverty will be reduced when we address the disparities between richer and poorer students so that students leave our schools prepared to enter the workforce and to avoid the poverty of their parents. It will require investments in the short term producing very significant returns in the long term.
This country’s high poverty rates not only hurt those in poverty, they hurt everyone. Maintaining people in poverty, as we currently do, is extremely expensive and a drag on the economy. Educating our children out of poverty will enhance all our lives.
Former director of the Warwick Area Career and Technical Center, Joseph Crowley of Cranston remains active in educational consulting and commentator of the educational scene.