(Updated with new graphic 6:48pm) By now, anyone who has followed Connecticut’s education reform debate knows that the state has the nation’s worst achievement gap between its white students and their minority counterparts.
But how much do we actually know about the factors that create the gap, and do school disciplinary procedures have an impact?
On Monday, the General Assembly’s Achievement Gap task force took in a data-driven presentation about graduation rates, math proficiency, and suspension rates for young black men in the state’s schools.
Anthony Simmons, a program manager at the Manhattan-based Schott Foundation for Public Education, called black men the “canary in the coal mine” of government policy, meaning that black men feel the adverse effects of government policy more acutely.
“Focusing on the achievement gap means you are already starting when it’s too late,” Simmons told the task force.
Simmons, a Trinity College alumnus, came to Hartford years ago “in the heat of” the discussion around Sheff v. O’Neill, a class-action lawsuit that would become one of America’s last school desegregation cases.
“It was a very contentious time to say the least. But I am truly inspired that almost 20 years later, the state has come to this point,” he said.
The Schott Foundation’s “Opportunity to Learn” campaign has ranked every state in two categories: proficiency or quality of education, and access to quality education.
The good news? Connecticut has the fifth highest percentage of students at or above national proficiency.
The bad news? Connecticut ranked 44th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia for access to quality education.
“The state provides great educational opportunities. It’s just missing for a wide range of students,” Simmons said.
Simmons sought to also incorporate data showing differences corresponding to class in addition to race. He said 78 percent of Connecticut students eligible for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program read below grade level in eighth grade, while only 44 percent of those not eligible for free or reduced-price lunches do so.
One area where the issue of race politics “begins to pop its ugly head,” according to Simmons, is in school disciplinary procedures. According to Schott Foundation research, young Black and Latino men are three times more likely to be suspended and 4 times as likely to be expelled than their white peers. The Schott Foundation gathered the data from the 2006-2007 school year.
Simmons advocated a “restorative justice” model when it comes to dealing with problems at school. Restorative justice seeks to incorporate a more holistic approach to conflict resolution, recognizing that offenders have needs as well as victims, and minimizes punitive retribution which is seen as regressive.
“It’s difficult to teach students — I don’t care if they’re white, black, or Latino — if they’re not in school,” Simmons said.
The task force also heard from Norwalk’s 17-year-old Isaiah Mohammed, who attends Stamford’s Academy of Information Technology and Engineering. Mohammed told the task force that Black and Latino students are regularly discouraged — primarily by teachers — from joining advanced classes, which Simmons said is an all too common instance of subliminal racism in public schools.
Mohammed spoke on behalf of Norwalk’s Mind the Gap youth forum hosted by the Carver foundation. Mohammed will be attending the University of Connecticut in Storrs in the fall.
Among Simmons’ other recommendations were establishing relationships between schools and local universities, and he said that he is pleased that Trinity College has taken steps toward the practice since his time there. Simmons said the state needs to tackle the very systems that create the achievement gap, possibly by facilitating greater economic integration for students, rather than following a “programmatic approach.”
For Simmons, one of these systems is the “scarlet letter” of “tracking,” or splitting students into separate groups based on perceived abilities.
Responding to a question from Rep. Patricia Miller, D-Stamford — who said her city employs the practice — Simmons said the foundation hasn’t come up with a detailed recommendation other than to “stop doing it.”
“It’s an awful snowballing effect,” Simmons said, calling it “sinister.”