The myth of Connecticut's education gap

Can inequality ever be a good thing?

Yes, inequality?

Well, in part, it is a good thing in Connecticut schools today.

Don't be misled by the recent announcement by a state education commission that Connecticut has the nation's worst achievement gap, that is, inequality between the school performance of low-income students and other students.

Yes, Connecticut ranks 50th by that measure, but we have the widest "gap" because the vast majority of our kids, our "non-poor" students, are outperforming most other "non-poor" students across the country, not because our poor kids are lagging behind other poor kids in the nation.

That the majority of Connecticut kids are excelling is good news - the good part of inequality.

That our poor kids are underperforming, but at the national average for poor students, indicates that their problems are not "the worst," which is not to say they should be ignored. "Poor" students are those who qualify for free/discounted-price school lunch - about 30 percent of schoolchildren, both nationally and in Connecticut.

So, despite the somewhat misleading announcement by the Connecticut Commission on Educational Achievement, the real takeaway is that Connecticut's educational system is performing comparatively well.

Let's look at the data. The commission announced that Connecticut has a 34 percentage point "achievement gap" versus the national average gap of 27, which a visit to the National Center for Education Statistics website confirms to be the "gap" numbers for the 2009 NAEP eighth-grade math test.

The 7-point difference between Connecticut's "gap" (34) and the national "gap" (27) is due to a combination of first, Connecticut's non-poor kids outperforming the national non-poor average by 4 points and, two, Connecticut's poor kids underperforming the national average for poor kids by 3 points.

So, by this analysis, the "worst achievement gap in the nation" is not quite so bad. Yet, you might say that we are still falling short teaching our poor kids eighth-grade math. And you would be right.

Let's look at some other test data. Note: All NAEP tests are scored on a 0-500 scale with state averages falling between 200 and 310.

On the 2009 NAEP eighth-grade reading test, once again, Connecticut has the nation's widest "gap," 29 points, versus the national average of 24. Well, our non-poor students ranked fourth nationally with a score of 279, just 3 points behind Massachusetts in the lead and 6 points ahead of the national average for non-poor students. Those 6 points account for more than the entire difference between Connecticut's "gap" and the national "gap."

And, our low-income eighth-grade readers beat their national average as well. The fourth-grade NAEP math and reading tests reflect the same general pattern.

Clearly, Connecticut's wider "gap" is predominantly attributable to the superior performance of the great majority of our students.

So what did the commission have in mind with its exaggerated announcement? Exaggeration is often employed to prepare people for sweeping changes. Indeed, in published reports of its press conference, the commissioners made comments about restructuring school governance and reallocating education funds.

Citizens should be on alert for the commission's official report scheduled for release on Oct. 20.

No doubt, citizens will embrace the report if it recommends changes carefully targeted at improving the performance of the state's poor students. In fact, about 45 percent of the state's poor students - those with some of the worst test results - are concentrated in our four major cities: Bridgeport and Hartford, where 98 percent are poor, and New Haven and Waterbury, where about 70 percent are poor.

In these cities, wholesale changes are undoubtedly long overdue, and, because the schools are populated almost entirely by underperforming poor kids, different policies and approaches can be adopted that target their particular needs and do not jeopardize the school experience for the vast majority of the state's non-poor students.

And that is the point. The state's overall educational system is performing quite well for the large majority of students, so there should be no systemwide changes.

Outside of these four major cities, and majority-poor school districts in a few depressed mid-size cities, poor kids represent only about 15 percent of our students. The needs of 85 percent should trump the needs of 15 percent.

Redington T. Jahncke heads The Townsend Group, a business consulting firm in Greenwich. His e-mail address is RTJahncke@gmail.com.

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