Report sees growing inequality playing out in schools


The growing economic gulf between the haves and have-nots is reflected in Vermont's classrooms, according to a new report that compares test scores and graduation rates.

"As much as we all want our schools to be the great equalizers, this isn't a level playing field, and as inequality is growing across the state for everyone, we are seeing the same thing in our schools," said Molly Goldberg, co-author of "Education Matters: The Impacts of Systemic Inequity in Vermont." The report was presented by Voices for Vermont Children, a research and advocacy nonprofit.

View of a school bus through a rainy window.

Many children don't show up for school ready to learn, according to a new report. File photo

While the gross state product may be on an incline, the median income in Vermont has continued to dive, according to the report. Nearly 1 in 6 Vermont children are poor, and 1 in 3 live in low-income families, the report says. These kids aren't showing up for school ready to learn.

"That has an impact on our education system," said Goldberg. She said low-income kids' success in school is directly tied to systemic inequalities both outside and inside school hallways.

After reviewing state and national data and research, the authors conclude that low-income students, children with disabilities and students of color all score worse on standardized tests than children who aren't in these groups. They are also more likely to be suspended or expelled and less likely to graduate on time and go to or graduate from college.

The data on discipline in Vermont schools revealed "dramatically different levels of suspension and expulsion for low-income students compared to their peers," according to Goldberg. "Our discipline system in the schools is teaching some kids that school is for them and some that it isn't."

Students with disabilities and students of color were two to three times more likely to be suspended or expelled. They were also more likely to be restrained and referred to the police by school staff. National research has shown that children suspended or expelled are more likely to end up in contact with the justice system.

An achievement gap remains for low-income students and students of color, according to an analysis of scores on several standardized tests.

"The gap between students scoring at or above proficiency is comparable across assessment tools," the report says. Reviewers found that the achievement gap between income levels averages 25 percent and the racial gap averages about 18 percent.

The report recognizes policies Vermont lawmakers have put in place recently, such as universal pre-kindergarten and the program called flexible pathways, but it emphasizes that more has to be done to ensure all students have access to these opportunities.

Vermont has one of the highest graduation rates in the country, but more than 1 in 5 low-income students do not finish high school on time, compared with 1 in 25 middle- or upper-income students. The dropout rate is higher for low-income students too: 16 percent as opposed to 8 percent.

In 2014, more than 1,200 students took part in dual enrollment opportunities that allowed them to attend college courses while finishing high school. But just a quarter of those students were low-income, 6 percent were non-native English speakers, and 3 percent were special education students. Middle- and upper-income students were three times more likely to use the program.

Goldberg said more and better data is needed in Vermont to truly be able to understand what is happening. She ticked off specific needs: the number of low-income students and students of color who attend and complete college; a thorough breakdown of school discipline practices in schools; the number of referrals out of schools; and the relationship between kids, the school system and the criminal justice system.

She would also like better data about offerings at community-based schools to better understand how those interventions function and the value of schools in communities that are losing their other institutions.

Goldberg also said that to truly get a complete picture of the achievement gap and what is happening across the state, data from private schools that receive public dollars is needed.

"We need higher quality data. We need data collecting because of a desire to build more equitable schools, to better understand the differences in outcomes between public and private school systems, data disaggregated for race and class — even when working with really small data sets we need to see them and name them," she said.

The report ends with suggestions to reduce inequality in the schools:

Prioritize data collection that focuses on equity.

Expand student-centered learning for all children.

Grow the community schools model that incorporates services like health, after-school and summer programs and free meals.

Increase inclusion in schools by reducing expulsions and eliminating zero-tolerance policies.

Change the culture within schools to help more marginalized populations get involved and work to create a level playing field.

"We really want to emphasize that inequality has negative consequences for all of us, not just for the people at the bottom," said Goldberg. "We see that inequality itself reduces mobility and the health and well-being of everyone in the community. Inequality is something we need to take a close look at if we have hope for our education system to be the great equalizer."


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