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Race, class & school: The persistent performance problem

Two stories in the past week highlighted one of America’s and New Hampshire’s most persistent educational challenges: improving the performance of low-income and minority students. Usually the achievement gap story is followed by a knee-jerk call for more spending, more resources, more bureaucracy, more experts dictating changes to the schools — as if none of this has been tried before. At some point don’t we have to stop and evaluate whether anything has actually worked?

On Tuesday we reported that New Hampshire’s 2012 high school graduation rate hit 86 percent, one of the highest in the nation. Ninety-one percent of middle/high-income students graduated, while only 73 percent of low-income students did. The low-income figure is higher in New Hampshire than in many states.

In Manchester last week, Assistant Superintendent David Ryan presented the school board with a plan to end “tracking,” which is the practice of grouping students in their classes by academic skills. The city has been doing this for years, and it is a very common practice nationwide. About 75 percent of students nationwide are separated into different math classes based on their skill level, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

This is intuitive. Surveys show that a lot of teachers find it easier to teach classes in which the students are roughly of the same skill level. But administrators, activists, parents and some teachers see the raw data — low-income and minority students being concentrated in the lower-skilled classes — and demand changes. Though the “racism” charge hangs heavily in the air, America has been trying.

In the famous 1983 “Nation at Risk” report by the U.S. Department of Education, the disparity issue was addressed. “We do not believe that a public commitment to excellence and educational reform must be made at the expense of a strong public commitment to the equitable treatment of our diverse population.” A primary goal of George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act (written in part by Sen. Judd Gregg) was to lift minority and low-income students by eliminating “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

A recent solution has proven effective, but it meets with strong resistance from the public school establishment. Last year Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes published a study of American charter schools that covered 95 percent of the country’s charter school population. It found that “charter schools are benefitting low-income, disadvantaged and special-education students,” center director Margaret Raymond said. How? Charter schools that don’t produce educational gains are shut down. That is “the strongest tool available to ensure quality across the sector,” according to the report.

Though this is not the final say, it is a strong indication that educators will find ways to solve the problem when they are held accountable for solving it. We can fiddle with classroom arrangements all we want, but when no one is directly accountable for improving the performance of low-income and minority students, their performance will not improve.


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