By Matthew Borrelli
To Beth Bye, Connecticut Commissioner of Early Childhood:
My goal is to present data that supports the conclusion that there is a cadre of families and children that for decades has not been able to benefit from a regular education. The evidence will support the position that the present Pre-K-12 structure of our schools has exhausted its ability to meet the needs of these children. That their needs are as well defined, and unique as those which were the bases for the enactment CGS 10-76, the special education law. That a response equal in intensity, is required to remedy their plight.
I put together these talking points to hopefully show you that the present Pre-K-12 system is working well for those children that we commonly describe as middle-class (School Synchronized). Conversely the same system has for 40 years failed a cohort of children throughout the state in both suburbs and cities that have been labeled lower-socio-economic (School Separated).
I wish to present a review of the many interventions that the state and local towns have implemented to change this outcome, which sadly have all been to no avail for this cohort
I then wish then to speak about the role of special education, which came about in the late 60s and at the same time, the beginning of Choice programs and what effect they have had on outcomes.
I wish to recalibrate the definitions that we use, and to correct the notion of dealing with Correlation as Causation
Although much of this is apropos to general education; I hope to drill down through the facts to the basis of how children learn in their earliest years and show the correlation between home and school as the link and the linchpin for successful learning.
(School Synchronization vs School Separation)
I would also like to review the actualities in two towns, one in West Hartford and one in Bloomfield which I think will prove some of my contentions. Last, I wish to talk about a concept I have deemed PAINES and how school learning relates to children being ready, and willing so we can make them able.
Historical outcomes of school achievement:
- All national and state testing shows achievement is laddered along economic lines.
- All towns in Connecticut have shown achievement that fluctuates in a narrow channel, not one town has ever shown consistent growth over a period of many years that would take it out of its District Reference Group.
- When skills are tested at the high school through either the SAT or the CAPT in alliance districts; only 30 percent of the students achieve at grade level expectation yet 90 percent of the students graduate.
- Two thirds of the students entering community college require remedial courses prior to taking community college level courses.
- The ratio of on goal to non-goal students has been approximately 70/30 passing on goal in the suburbs and 30/70 in the urban near urban centers. This has not changed in 40 years.
Over the years the state has intervened trying to create a rationale for this bifurcation of scores looking at the possible reasons why this disparity exists:
- Horton versus Meskill more equal spending would create more equal results
- Brown versus Topeka, Sheff in Connecticut, racial balance could be the answer
- Hundreds of changes in curriculum
- Changes in instructional methodology and the addition of technology
- Variations of class size
- More minority representation
- The creation and additional funding in a group of towns called Alliance Districts
- Nutrition programs
- Extended day, school year
- Rigorous teacher evaluations
- The introduction of resource rooms
All of the above related to some correlation, but none have created any change in the outcomes because none of them apparently have been causal.
I would like to show two towns as examples:
The first is Bloomfield; this is a town whose population is majority white but whose school population is almost totally minority. Its board of education is totally minority. Its superintendent who is an excellent superintendent is minority as are many if not most of the administrators. Minorities represent a large number of the teaching staff as well as minorities representing most of the ancillary staff, so we apparently have a situation where race is not a factor and racial bias should not seem to be applicable.
When we look at Bloomfield’s scores we have the same scoring as towns like Manchester or Vernon with approximately 40 percent of the children on goal and 60 percent not. The ratios of on goal to other is the same as in Manchester and Vernon with these towns being a much more racially mixed as a town, school system and faculty. I believe we can argue successfully that the striations in test scores in a town like Bloomfield, which parallels the other alliance districts and is not based on race, it is not based on the lack of minority representation, although they do face racial problems in the sense that some of the highest scoring children are demeaned with terms like “what are you doing are, you trying to be white?”
The next town is West Hartford and truly a tale of two cities. Crossing Farmington Avenue is a little bit like the Mason-Dixon Line. The north end has always been a highly professional, highly educated, highly scoring element of town. In the 70s and 80s this area was a strong blue-collar middle-class community and then in the 80s as the real estate market changed a lower socioeconomic group emerged and the disparity between North and South scores exacerbated.
West Hartford is a town where all things, all resources, all processes were completely evenly divided. West Hartford did not hire a South end Principal or North end Principal or teacher or aide or custodian. There was a single West Hartford standard. There was a single evaluation process of teachers. Everything was the same systemically North and South, and yet the scores always showed a difference. There is a cohort of children that we could not educate, and all of the interventions listed above did nothing to change the ratios because they were not causal.
Change that had effect
The only significant systemic change came in the late 60s through the federal government and we should be proud to be one of the first states that passed a Special Education law CGS 10-76. It was the first time that we recognized that the school system at its best had limits and that there were children based on genetic organic and neurological reasons that were outside of the norm.
The term of art used at that time was these children were “significantly different from the norm.” We saw the causes through medical eyes and recognized that these children were well beyond the scope of our ability to deal with. A whole new system was developed and it has produced a very different kind of result over the last 40 years than in the prior time.
At the same time, the idea of “choice” raised its specter. It was an action taken by successful students’ families to put them in a different context than their neighborhood school would provide. As neighborhoods changed and more needy learners moved in, the children who were more able wanted to exit. It was the beginning of the class flight.
This movement has grown by leaps and bounds, choice has been expanded, charter schools have been developed, magnet schools and been offered and the results are very interesting. Applicants’ families have better scores than their non-applicant families left at the public schools.
This success has been attributed to the fact that privately run businesses, beautifully architected schools, and themes make a difference. The success though has not been in any way proven to be a product of curriculum or architecture or themes since all of those interventions have been tried for the last 40 years in the public schools and they have not worked.
Why do they appear to be working in this situation? The population quality? We have taken middle class families (school synchronized) out of poor neighborhoods and created a middle class school for them.
This brings us to what is causing learning and failure; and to the conclusion that the pre-K-12 system can only educate well those children who come to us ready and willing to learn (school synchronized).
If we look at who is learning, and, who would be learners in any school district, we would readily identify those typified as middle-class, (S-Sync) like the children in your home and my home. This cadre of ready and willing children with middle-class values and upbringing would score on goal in any school system under any teacher in the state of Connecticut without a question. It doesn’t matter what the curriculum is, it doesn’t matter the age and beauty of the school. These kids are coming to a place called school, which is an extension of their lifestyle.
If you would look at your expectations about being a good daughter or son what you need to do to be good, to learn, we’d find clearly that there is a close relationship and commonality between their home and school. The closer the synchronization between the two, the closer to we come to having a 24/7 educational environment. So much of what we do at home parallels what happens in school.
Now let’s take a look at the Latino child on Park Street. Most of the homes are probably parented by adults who are near literate to illiterate, many whom may be Spanish-speaking with some English. The neighborhood is Spanish-speaking. The ability to live in the community is easy. Now we bring that child to school and that child gets five hours a day, 180 days of English-speaking — a different lifestyle, a different class of education.
Many of the traits that are acceptable in the community are not acceptable at school. We even modify the immersion by speaking Spanish during the day. If you look at the separation between the home and community mores and the schools’, it is that difference that causes the educational domain to stop and start. It is not continuous as in a typical synchronized home. So in effect, the child is educated three hours a day in this school environment with almost no echoing after that and so when we look at why there is not a product that goes beyond language. It goes into lifestyle.
As I promised, let’s talk about young children.
I want to present the concept I call PAINES. Yes I claim that children are PAINES when we look at the learning process. We have to look at a total child: P physical, A for academics, I for intellect, N for neurological, E for emotional (how you see yourself) and S social (plays well with others). The paradigm is simple, if everything is normal, if you come to school meeting all of your developmental needs on target A = I.
Therefore if you are a typical child in the third grade you will be scoring on a third grade level. If you’re brighter than normal, you will score on a higher level. If A doesn’t equal I we must ask why. What would cause an educational deficiency? And that’s where we get into (P) physical reasons (N) neurological reasons (learning disability) or it could be E) emotional poor self-concept or (S) social, the inability to get along with others –and this is how we think in special education.
So what we’re dealing with at the youngest age are two factors: home and school. Home provides the readiness through its lifestyle and its culture and language, its mobility and safety, medical and physical care, and in a safe environment what we presently call a middle-class environment, (school synchronized), it creates a readiness to learn.
The family helps the child as its first educator. In many cases the mother is the primary teacher and converts readiness to willingness, and in the best situation, eagerness to learn when that child enters school and school parallels and extends the home. We are extremely capable of making that child able, and in West Hartford and other suburban towns 70 percent of the kids come from those kinds of homes and they are successful; in Bloomfield only 40 percent, in Manchester only 40 percent, in Hartford 30-40 percent.
Yet all our efforts have been focused on the able (school) part. We now offer preschool universally, but the kids who are ready and willing would probably be no different in a half-day program than in a full-day program, but for the children from the other homes the need is vital. We developed resource rooms, but they are rooms for families who come to school. They are drop-in centers. They are not evangelical. They do not seek the missing families, (school separated).
I suggest to you your first step is to develop a program to seek out and evaluate these impoverished homes using the Special Ed model.
We need to service the causal element, which is the separated home life style.
I would ask you to look at programs like Gen-2 and prepare the way for a massive intervention which would probably need legal changes to intervene in these homes at the earliest age possible, given that the mother is the primary teacher. Illiterate mothers, who are under tremendous stress, families living in poverty, living in abusive settings cannot provide readiness, cannot make a child willing, and we have proven we cannot make that child able.
Even in a Greenwich there is that group of kids that the highest scoring system in Connecticut fails.
If you do not get into these homes there is no reason to believe anything will be different, because children who are coming to us unready become unwilling and stay unable. There is so much proof that curriculum instructional changes, architecture, STEM, all of those make learning for the willing learners more interesting, but children from school separated homes are unable to gain any benefit from these interventions.
The vision you must have is that we need to get into the homes more than we ever have in the past. We must educate, counsel and support the parents. We must also enact laws that protect these children.
We must train these primary teachers, (mothers) emotionally and educationally to be more able to play their parenting role; that plus a change in how we educate these children Pre-K =12 is what is required to fulfill our State’s obligation to offer every child an appropriate, free, public education.
Matthew Borrelli of Manchester is a longtime Connecticut educator who has served as an interim superintendent of schools in Bloomfield, Waterbury and Hartford school systems and has served in administrative capacities in a number of districts including South Windsor, West Hartford, New Haven and Hartford.