Ardon: Learning gaps, rural and urban

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There is no greater public education priority in Massachusetts than breaking  the long-standing tie between demographics and destiny. Family income has long  been the best predictor of whether students will succeed in school and go on to  college, or languish and face a future bereft of opportunity.

But if we are to narrow the achievement gap, we must first understand it.  Poverty has many faces, and a strategy that is effective for Lawrence may not  work in North Adams.

The good news is that the performance of virtually all Massachusetts  students — rural and urban, rich and poor — has improved over the last decade.  But while a rising tide has lifted all boats, it hasn’t lifted them all  equally.

Ten years ago, the income-based performance gap was larger in rural areas  than in cities. But by 2011, low-income rural students had improved more rapidly  than urban students and partially closed the gap, while the urban achievement  gap has grown slightly.

Today, low-income students in rural areas outperform their urban peers as  measured by both MCAS scores and graduation rates. The difference may be  attributable to the urban students being poorer and less likely to speak  English.

Overall, Massachusetts ranks eighth among the states in household income.  About 600,000 of the commonwealth’s residents, approximately 10 percent of the  overall population, live below the poverty line. Statewide, roughly one in three  students qualify for free or reduced price lunches, although eligibility by  district ranges from 0.1 percent to over 90 percent.

Compared to the country as a whole, poverty in Massachusetts is more  concentrated in urban areas. Only one state has a lower percentage of rural  students who qualify for free and reduced price lunch, but the percentage of the  commonwealth’s urban students who qualify is higher than in 35 states. The  highest poverty rates are in Suffolk and Hampden Counties, home to Boston and  Springfield, where about one-quarter of school-aged children are below the  poverty line.

But Massachusetts does have pockets of rural poverty. More than half the  students qualify for free or reduced price lunches in the Greenfield, North  Adams, Gill-Montague and Ware school districts.

Massachusetts’ approach over the last decade has been more effective for the  rural poor than for their urban counterparts, which suggests that combating  urban and rural poverty will require multiple strategies. While narrowing the  income-based achievement gap is already a priority, we must now focus on  confronting different types of poverty and devote even more attention to the  problems urban poor students face.

One response would be to provide urban students with a portfolio of options.  Charter public schools have proven very effective at narrowing the achievement  gap in places like Boston, Springfield and Lawrence. In 2010, legislation  entitled “An Act Relative to the Achievement Gap” doubled the number of charter  school seats in some cities, but we will soon be bumping up against the new  caps.

The METCO program, under which more than 3,000 Boston and Springfield  students attend suburban schools, should also be expanded. Participants in the  program outperform their peers in the schools they left.

The academic performance of the commonwealth’s regional vocational-technical  schools has also improved dramatically over the past decade and they have  dropout rates that are far below state averages. Expanding access to voc-techs  could be another ingredient of a strategy to narrow the achievement gap in  Massachusetts cities.

If we are to succeed at eliminating zip code as the surest predictor of our  children’s futures, we must develop strategies tailored to the varying needs of  different impoverished populations. With so much of Massachusetts’ poverty  concentrated in the commonwealth’s cities, providing families with more options  designed to address the urban achievement gap should be job one

Also seen in Dedham Transcript and Natick Bulletin.