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.