By Daniel Chase
I submitted this as part of a challenge for this blog to be a place which fosters creative problem solving. The intent of the essay is to stimulate other ideas and discussion.
While much discussion has been going on about whether the state takeover is good or not, little discussion is taking place about the educational game as a whole. The unwritten rules of the game place Southbridge at a great disadvantage. We are powerless to change these rules. But we can change the way we play. If we do that, the state vs. local board issue will become moot. But sadly at a moral cost.
Research has shown time and again that there are pronounced difference between low income and middle income families in the way they raise children. This translates into nearly insurmountable differences in school performance compared to middle and upper income students. For instance, low income families typically do not model question-and-answer discussions in the home. As a result children do not learn how to ask questions. This translates into a more challenging learning environment for their children. Studies also show low income families rarely read to children, nor do parents model the importance of literacy by reading books for themselves. Interactive games and puzzles which require discussion between parent and child are also less common among low income families. The children do not receive the benefit of the enhanced communication skills between children and adults that middle and upper income children enjoy. The lack of comparative skill negatively impacts the learning experience for poor children. As a result of these and other factors, children of low income parents hit the school system several steps behind their middle income peers. The gap only compounds and becomes greater as time passes and more education hurdles need to be crossed.
I have yet to read any program or study which portrays a successful way for a public school system to bring low income student scores on par with middle or wealthy students. I’ve searched high and low for the magic bullet. It simply doesn’t exist. I desperately wish that it did. The brutal fact is that when looking at demographic groups, districts with a high concentration of low income families are pretty much doomed have weaker scores compared to middle and upper income students. We may wish this weren’t true all we want. But it is. A state takeover will likely correct some obvious failings we have seen in administration. But there is no reason to think a state takeover can significantly move the needle in results. The best we can hope for is that they leave us with a low performing district that is not failing and is graced with competent administration.
Two good introductory books which explore the reality of low income and education systems are Unequal Childhoods by Annette Lareau (2nd edition) and Make Just One Change by Dan Rothstein. The latter book is particularly interesting in that the author was a community organizer in Lawrence in the 1990s. He advocated and succeeded in making some significant improvements to teaching methods. These were highly praised, and his book is published by Harvard Education Press. However Lawrence schools continued to fail and was taken over by the state. It remains a failing district.
The demographic problem is compounded when a significant percentage of the population does not speak English at home, and has little need to speak English to conduct life’s business. This creates a strange tension in public schools. There is no "official language" in our country. Efforts to establish English as an official language have been met with cries of “racism”. Employers may not mandate workers speak English among themselves and have found themselves at the receiving end of discrimination suits or an EEOC violation if English is not necessary for the tasks of the job. Yet the U.S. Department of Education dictates that English fluency is a critical component of public education and severely punish districts where English fluency is low. It is an odd tension: Our government protects the rights of parents to reject English fluency, but penalizes the school district when their children are not.
A further complication is that Social Security regulations and rulings create an incentive for some U.S. Citizens not to become fluent English. Code of Federal Regulations § 404.1564 covers education as a factor in receiving Social Security disability. This section states:
“Because English is the dominant language of the country, it may be difficult for someone who doesn't speak and understand English to do a job, regardless of the amount of education the person may have in another language. Therefore, we consider a person's ability to communicate in English when we evaluate what work, if any, he or she can do. It generally doesn't matter what other language a person may be fluent in."
Audits by the Office of the Inspector General show a crackdown on giving benefits to non-English speakers who remain in Puerto Rico. This only incentivizes the poor to move to the mainland to qualify for the benefits they would otherwise be entitled to receive as U.S. citizens.
It is quite possible that some of our low income families intentionally do not emphasize English in the home as it might lead to a loss of much needed income. Yet it is in the best interests of their children to be completely immersed in English –at home and in the community. This unfair situation pits the needs of the family against the good of the student. The student grows up in a town where one really does not need English to survive. Businesses and churches either have a high number of Spanish speakers, or cater to Spanish speakers. There is nothing wrong with this. However it does exasperate the problem of English learning for the student. This tension shouldn’t be ignored. But it is.
None of this is "blaming the students". Rather it is taking a very realistic, unvarnished assessment of the situation. The reality is we have a high concentration of low income families and those who struggle with English. Neither the state nor Federal educational bureaucracies consider family income when making performance evaluations despite the overwhelming evidence that it is a significant factor in results. As a result, no matter what type of educational system is installed, Southbridge schools will continue to receive much lower marks than, say, Charlton-Dudley or Tantasqua districts. One only needs to look at the amount of "affordable housing" the towns to see why this is true.
Ultimately I believe the first step to turn our district around is to look at our school district as an economic problem, not an educational one. Right now, our school district is a millstone around the neck of property owners in Southbridge. A successful school district attracts home buyers. A failing one repels them. House prices are strong in strong districts, and poor in failing ones. Towns with higher property values typically have more money to spend on education and vice versa. The strong get stronger, the weak get weaker. The deck is stacked against us.
State law requires towns to provide 10% of its housing supply as “affordable housing” (basically Section 8). Officially, Southbridge has 8% of its housing classified as such, and it has increased at a rate of 11% over the past 3 years. In comparison, Charlton has less than 2% classified as “affordable”. The percentage has not changed one bit in 3 years, and as a former resident of Charlton, I am pretty sure it hasn’t changed in the past 15 years. Southbridge effectively has far more housing at the affordable level even though it doesn’t show up on official reports. Most of our apartments rent at or below the Section 8 “fair market rent” level. This means that we are in the bottom half of rents in the area. This is a magnet for low income families.
The strong districts will attract families who are more likely emphasize educational performance in the home and have the experience and skills to assist their children. Strong results will keep the cost of housing high in those districts making it impossible for low income families to move in. No amount of complaining will change this reality. No politician in either party is going to call for a mandatory busing program to rebalance the mix of low and middle income students. The current school choice program is as close as we will get to that. The game is set up where the outputs of the equation are all that matter. We have very few options in very cruel game in which innocent children’s futures are at stake. We must either accept the hand we have been dealt and make the best of it knowing that we will likely stay a poor performing district, or take draconian steps change the inputs in the equation.
Every property owner in Southbridge has a vital interest in turning the school into a strong performer as it will inevitably lead to increased property values. There is only one way to do it: We need to dramatically shrink the supply of low rent housing, starting with the many marginally habitable slum lord suites.
If we want to improve our scores compared to Charlton or other predominantly middle and upper class districts, we must engage in “inequality redistribution” by intentionally shrinking the supply of low rent housing. This could be done by seeking anti-blight grants, or by the voters authorizing funds to take properties by eminent domain and raze them. A reduction of the worst 10% would be a good start. The reduction should be targeted along the two main entries to Southbridge- Worcester St and Main. This would improve the image of the town to make it more attractive to potential home buyers. While this would initially raise property taxes, it should over time, increase the property value of the remaining houses when buyers move in. The end goal is the politically correct term “town renaissance”.
If we go that route we must first recognize that it does nothing to actually help the low income students and families. Gentrification is simply a nice way of saying “we pushed the poor out to make them someone else’s problem”. No small amount of distress goes into my thinking about this option. I grew up in subsidized housing and have a deep concern for the challenges of low income neighborhoods. I know all too well the struggle to escape. However the idea recognizes how the state and federal education game is played and is a natural and logical response.
Our elected state and federal leaders –most of whom live very comfortable lives in fine school districts- won’t acknowledge the inherent Darwinian consequences of their rules. We have no choice but to play by them and either be resigned to our fate, or change the inputs in the equation.