By Ann-Marie Adams, Op-Ed
HARTFORD – School reform is like baking a cake. You need all the ingredients to make it work, many experts say. So if state and city officials wonder why closing the achievement gap is moving slowly, perhaps they should revisit numerous reports that gave them a solid blueprint for progress.
In Connecticut, where Gov. Dannel Malloy has taken a leadership role in transforming urban education, diversity is the missing ingredient that has likely resulted in the tepid result unveiled at Hartford Public School’s 2013 State of the Schools symposium at the Bushnell Theater earlier this month. This news comes after the excitement of an educational reform bill passed in the General Assembly last year. However, teacher diversity has been marginalized in discussions about ed reform and submerged in contentious debates over testing, privatization, or charter vs public schools.
At the school district’s symposium, we were reminded of what works. The very first panel with Janice Brown of the much touted success story, the Kalamazoo Promise, made it clear: children do what they see. And if they don’t see images of themselves in the classroom, it is difficult to imagine beyond that.
Other experts have confirmed this idea. According to a 2004 study by the National Education Association, increasing the racial and ethnic diversity in the teaching workforce is directly linked to closing the academic achievement gap. Teacher diversity is about having culturally responsive teachers who understand students and adapt to different learning styles.
The NEA’s report also states that although teacher quality has been noted as an imperative for successful reform, the notion of diversity “is often marginalized rather than accepted as central to the quality of education.”
In Hartford, one of the state’s turnaround districts that received money and flexibility to make substantial changes, officials said the teaching force is almost 25 percent.That figure is questionable. Too many parents in the Hartford school district are seeing schools with nearly an all-white teaching staff “clueless” about their children’s needs and who lack cultural competency to interact with their parents.
Many parents have been encountering this problem before the early 2000 when Hartford started, in earnest, to close the achievement gap. Former Hartford Public School Superintendent Anthony Amato, hired to lead what some dubbed the most dismal school district in Connecticut, said on April 17, 1999: “We will never be last again!”
In 2000, Hartford schools surpassed New Haven’s school district on the Connecticut Mastery Test scores. Since then, Hartford has been inching its way upward on standardized tests, a unit used by administrators, politicians and parents to measure academic improvement.
Three school superintendents later, Hartford Public School is still inching along toward closing the achievement gap. But this time, the progress is highly scrutinized. There are more stakeholders—business partners, foundations, and savvy school reformers—who want accountability and quick results. This time, its even more of an imperative that the state, last in job creation, prepares a workforce for the future and to make every student college ready. The nation’s standing in the world also depends on this singular fact, and many politicians conceded that much.
“We didn’t get into this problem in a short time,” said Malloy during his remark at the symposium. “It took a long time to get into this situation. It’s going to take time to get out of it. Change is hard.”
Yes, we know change is hard and it takes time—especially in the state with the tag line: “land of steady habits.”
But like the governor concluded himself: that line made popular by Mark Twain in the gilded age, a period when the city was the richest in the country, doesn’t work anymore. Hartford is now the second poorest city of its size. And Connecticut has “lost its edge” as a leader in education. So clearly, we can’t keep going in that direction.
And if we don’t hold everyone accountable for real results then, as many recognized, “we’re simply using words to describe what makes us feel best.”
Therefore, we should hold districts accountable for marginalizing the issue of diversity. We know this is the missing ingredient. The human resource is abundant in Connecticut with many unemployed teachers of color. School officials should stop making excuses as to why they cannot add that missing ingredient and hire more teachers of color.
We already know that diversity works.
Dr. Ann-Marie Adams is completing a manuscript about race, reform and education in Connecticut.