Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Let's Consider Why Inner City Schools Perform So Poorly

Education will always remain in the forefront in discussions of the health and dynamism of our economy and our political institutions, as it should be. Locally, the dominant issue is the condition of Trenton High School and its impact on teachers, students, and the learning process. At the state level we are preoccupied with the recent tenure reform legislation designed to improve teacher accountability. And at the national level the new Core Curriculum is front and center. I do my best to address issues at all three levels. In the briefest of terms, the items below are what I consider to be the most salient variables that affect teacher performance and successful student learning:

1) Characteristics of Community 2) Access to Resources 3) Engagement of Family 4) Culture of School 5) Development of Teachers 6) Teacher Selection Process 7) Teacher Motivation 8) Student Empowerment 9) Envisioning the Future 10) Public Policy and Government Mandates 11) Availability of Alternatives 12) Co-curricular Opportunities

Today I want to focus on the first item. This has recently drawn my attention after reading an article that noted a statistically significant difference in graduation rates at Trenton's two main high schools, Trenton Central and Trenton West. According to the article there is almost a 30% difference between the two schools, with West having a 78% graduation rate. This is the second consecutive year that this gap existed, but I have yet to hear of anyone in authority making an effort to find out why!!! I sincerely hope, frankly, that this more a matter of oversight than an effort to avoid an issue that may raise sensitive issues about the communities feeding either school.

Months ago I raised a hypothetical question that relates to this issue. Rather than ask what Trenton could do to produce results similar to West Windsor-Plainsboro South, I flipped the issue on its head and asked whether it was conceivable that results at WWPS could ever deteriorate to the level of Trenton. I limited my focus to the characteristics of the community, and in doing so it is clear that such a devolution could never occur. By the same token, I am confident that, assuming that the community characteristics stay constant, Trenton West will continue to maintain relatively high graduation rates.

So what is it about communities that I find so telling? First, the education level of the parents, and the percentage of two parent families. Second, the number of children born out of wedlock. Third, the availability of learning opportunities outside the confines and control of the school. Fourth, the presence of role models within the neighborhood. Fifth, the primary value system in the community. Sixth, the rate of violent crime. Seventh, family income levels and the concentration of poverty. And finally, home valuations. Taken together, these conditions exert an enormous influence on student achievement. I'm really just describing rather than explaining the importance of these variables, I'll have to save that for another day. If you would like some prima facie evidence of the enormous impact this variable has, one need look no further than NJ's list of the best and worst performing schools. And while there are some occasional successes in urban areas, almost exclusively at a few charter schools, the fact is that 95 of the top 100 schools come from districts with the highest "factor groups," and 99 of the 100 worst schools come from districts with the lowest factor groupings.  

This variable raises issues that are extremely sensitive to a lot of people, which may explain why solutions in the inner city are rarely discussed. Unfortunately, until they are our inner city schools will continue to flounder. Do we start busing again? Do we creative incentives to discourage pregnancy among single women? Do we encourage suburbanites to migrate into the cities? Do we literally "close down" our worst neighborhoods disperse the residents? Is race an issue, or is it more likely an income problem?

These and other questions must become part of the discussion on education. The question is whether there are any influential people with the courage to begin it? I hope so, but I doubt it, and that is a shame.  

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