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Christopher Anderson and Paul S. Grogan

Poverty needn’t be barrier to learning

By Christopher Anderson and Paul S. Grogan
January 5, 2010

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AS THE LEGISLATURE dives into the messy details of education reform, we risk losing sight of the good news that deserves to be celebrated - an educational strategy that allows large numbers of disadvantaged, low-income children to succeed in school. However, unless a comprehensive reform package emerges from the Legislature this month, these successes will remain as isolated examples in a system that is still leaving behind too many minority and low-income students.

For too long, the prevailing wisdom has been that if you are poor, you can’t do well academically. The enormous barriers imposed by poverty have been deemed simply too great to overcome. So until we eliminate poverty, the logic runs, no one can reasonably expect success.

But creative leaders in the charter school movement turned this orthodoxy on its head. They produced extraordinary results with exactly the same students consigned to failure or mediocrity by that conventional wisdom. Consider the evidence: in 2009, students at Roxbury Prep Charter School in Boston outperformed students from Lexington, Westford, and Weston on the eighth-grade Math MCAS test. MATCH Charter School in Boston ranked first in the state on the 10th-grade math MCAS test, with 100 percent of 10th-grade students scoring advanced or proficient in math. The Edward W. Brooke Charter School was the highest-performing school in Boston on the sixth grade English and math MCAS in 2008.

These results prove that charter schools can close the achievement gap that has been the despair of parents, educators, and civic leaders for far too long. What is the key to this historic breakthrough in performance in Boston? Large, well-established organizations are usually set in their ways and resistant to change, so innovation usually must come from outside the system. In this case, there is a single potent symbol of the barrier to change within the traditional school system that has failed to close the achievement gap: the Boston Teachers Union contract, all 255 pages of it, plus a 40-page appendix.

The charter school movement essentially replaced that document with a blank piece of paper. Then academic entrepreneurs - administrators and teachers - crafted a recipe drawn from the experience of what works. That formula turns out to be both deceptively simple and intuitive: if children who reflect the impact of poverty are going to catch up to their peers, they need more time. They need a longer school day, more school days, a culture of success, and teachers and administrators who are free to use tools that work.

So, for example, it comes as little surprise that many successful charter schools add more arts instruction into the curriculum. Teachers know arts can glue a child to school, engage an imagination, and foster a set of skills that applies across the full range of learning. Go listen to a room full of students at the Excel Charter School, tucked into the side of a CVS store in East Boston, as they sing about the idea of metamorphosis, and you see can see the power of a school free to write its own prescription for success.

The political negotiation over education reform continues. It is critically important that it succeed, as we look forward to a happy resolution from the Legislature. In the meantime, we can celebrate the good news that we no longer have to settle for the immutable formula, that poverty equals poor educational outcomes.

Christopher Anderson is president of the Massachusetts High Technology Council and former chairman of the state Board of Education. Paul S. Grogan is president and CEO of the Boston Foundation.

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