Education isn’t improving, but who is accountable?
Connecticut's Education Department was fairly candid the other day with its annual accountability report for public education. Student performance statewide remains lower than it was before the recent virus epidemic, though schools have been fully reopened for two years.
But faulty as public education in the state has been, with its social promotion, diminishing standards for students and teachers alike, and ever-increasing politically correct distractions from the academic basics — reading, writing, and arithmetic — it would be wrong to blame Connecticut's schools for their worsening results. Mostly the schools are just playing the hand they have been dealt.
The Education Department's chief performance officer, Ajit Gopalakrishnan, makes what may be the crucial observation from the report. He says 93% of ordinary students are performing as they should be so that they will be able to graduate from high school on time, but only 74% of "high needs" students are.
"High needs" students are those from impoverished households, students who haven't learned English or students who have disabilities.
That is, the report probably signifies worsening poverty in the state more than it signifies worsening work done by schools. Children from poor households are coming to school unprepared, farther behind in ordinary parenting and intellectual stimulation at home -- when they come to school at all, as the state's chronic absenteeism rate remains above 20% generally and above 40% in the cities.
Teachers long have been distressed by the growing number of the youngest students who come to school without knowing the alphabet, numbers and colors, and even without knowing how to behave.
Immigration from other countries is a great ideal but as a practical matter it's no good when it overwhelms schools with children who don't speak English and worsens the state's desperate shortage of housing, driving housing costs up and pushing into poverty even native English speakers with steady jobs.
Schools increasingly are providing not only free lunches to students but also free breakfasts and even free dinners, as so many more students are not being adequately fed at home. The next step may be to ask teachers to take their neglected students home with them at night.
Teachers also are increasingly distressed by worsening student misbehavior and disrespect in school, another sign that neglect and even abuse of children are worsening at home. This misbehavior and disrespect are worst in city schools and making it difficult for those schools to retain teachers.
Education can do wonders, and many teachers are compassionate, take heartfelt interest in students and become mentors to them. But the more neglect of students at home and the more dysfunctional students in school, the less schools are able to help them.
Just as Connecticut's emphasis on higher education, with its stratospheric salaries, frivolous course offerings and laughable arrogance, distracts from the state's overwhelming and far more important education challenge — lower education — lower education's increasing effort to remediate child neglect distracts from the source of the problem — the homes where the neglect occurs.
Indeed, as was indicated by falling proficiency test results long before the virus epidemic, Connecticut has probably reached the point of diminishing returns with education and the ever-increasing spending that is never reflected in improvements in student performance.
Reducing household poverty in Connecticut might do far more for student proficiency than spending more in education's name. But is any reform of education possible now that so many people are on its payroll, the unions of its employees are the most politically influential, and spending more on education is such a thoughtless habit, automatically considered virtuous?
Will the Education Department's disappointing new accountability report prompt anyone in authority to wonder aloud, or even privately, if Connecticut should do something with education other than more of what is not improving student performance, however much it pleases the people on the payroll?
That is, will anyone accept the report's invitation to hold schools to account — and then take a look at parents?
Chris Powell has written about Connecticut government and politics for many years. He can be reached at CPowell@cox.net.
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