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Achievement Gap Persists For Low-Income Students While Competing Philosophies Vie For Influence

Posted: Updated: 06/29/2012 2:04 pm EDT

NEW YORK -- Ana Enriquez, 17, did her homework in a rat-infested South Bronx apartment, where she shared a bed with her mother and lived with five other relatives. She once considered a career selling drugs. Now she studies how they affect the brain and dreams of winning a Nobel Prize.

Janell, also 17, watched former classmates from her tough Washington Heights neighborhood drop out of school and go to jail. But she plans to make a life on the other side of the prison bars, working as a forensic psychologist for the FBI.

Julian, 16, lives in the Bronx projects, where he sleeps in the living room, taking turns with his brother on the couch or the floor. He has also seen people abuse drugs and commit crimes -- and, like Janell and Ana, he's drawn inspiration from those experiences. He wants to start a nonprofit that helps poor kids; but in attending a school that he feels is callous to his troubles at home, he worries about his chances for success.

"I feel like I'm not ever going to make it out of here," he said. "Like I'm not going to college."

Julian, Ana and Janell started high school at about the same time in impoverished New York neighborhoods, but each took a different turn as they journeyed through the public education system.

Julian attends a traditional public high school that relies on often beleaguered and overworked teachers and standardized testing to educate students. Ana is enrolled in what has become a showplace for the "No Excuses" approach to teaching, which favors heavy discipline, charter schools and linking teacher evaluations to student test scores. By contrast, the Salome Ureña de Henriquez campus where Janell studies has adopted what's now called the "Broader Bolder Approach," which contends that poor students need to be surrounded by an array of services -- from adequate nutrition to health care and counseling -- before real learning can take place.

All three students are up against the same challenges that thousands of other low-income kids face every day: Economic and social forces that routinely conspire against their chances of acquiring that most basic building block of success in the United States -- an education. Their situations are emblematic of a fierce, ongoing debate about how best to close the yawning gap that exists between the test scores of rich and poor kids.

These approaches sometimes overlap: No Excuses proponents believe that poverty can affect learning, and Broader Bolder proponents espouse the importance of good teachers. But politics and history forced these two groups to develop separately, and in a post-recession era, the limited availability of philanthropic and government funds often has them at each other's throats. Ultimately, if a school had $1,000 to spend, Broader Bolder advocates would likely put it toward a clinic or a social worker; No Excuses supporters would probably spend the money on recruiting a teacher whose students boast more impressive test scores.

The stakes are high. Almost one-fifth of America's school-age children live below the poverty line, and the achievement gap is growing. While proponents of both philosophies trumpet their respective success stories, there has been little in the way of conclusive data to prove which approach will do a better job of closing that gap.

No Excuses advocates point to high-performing charter school networks like the nationwide Knowledge Is Power Program: Thirty-three percent of KIPP students graduate from college, far higher than the norm for students from low-income backgrounds. But Broader Bolder proponents say schools such as KIPP succeed because they get more money, not because of a fundamental difference in how they educate students. Broader Bolder advocates also counter with studies such as one that the City University of New York conducted that showed an increase in the attendance and test scores of students in Broader Bolder "Community Schools."

The few objective analysts who have studied the two approaches largely agree that, while each could benefit from a little dose of the other, those kids without a lifeline to either face a much tougher road.

Ana and Janell are both relying on these lifelines. No Excuses spawned Democracy Prep, the Harlem charter school where Ana is focusing on biology. Janell, meanwhile, has blossomed under the Broader Bolder approach. But Julian, once an honors student, remains stuck in the cracks of New York's public school system.

Julian: Status Quo

Julian missed three days of school last semester when his mother was evicted. She couldn't afford movers or a U-Haul, so he spent those days helping her carry bags and boxes across the Bronx to their new home in his grandmother's apartment in the projects. During the move, Julian says, his English teacher brushed off his requests for make-up work. When Julian failed the class, she responded to his pleas with a sarcastic "Good luck." It's hard to know why that might have happened, if it did, but the story was one of many he told that seemed to paint a bigger picture.

After a truck hit Julian's math teacher, he says, a substitute took over for the rest of the year. The new teacher seemed to spend more time discussing boxing than math. "Obviously, substitute teachers aren't real," says Julian. "My neighbor was once my substitute teacher. I don't think he spoke any English."

Today, Julian shares his grandmother's living room with three siblings and his mother. Julian's father is out of the picture and provides no child support, but Julian doesn't like to talk about why. He goes to school in the South Bronx, an area that remains one of the poorest in the country, even 30 years after President Jimmy Carter visited the burned-out borough and declared it one of the most sobering examples of the country's "rapid deterioration." The school's facade is new and brightly colored, offering a counterpoint to the abandoned churches and tire shops that surround it. Next door is a building encircled by barbed wire -- a day-care center.

So, why is it hard to teach poor kids like Julian? That's the central question in a debate that will likely shape the future of American public education.

Its roots date back to the early 1990s, when a lawyer named Sandy Kress began looking at standardized test scores in Dallas and found a troubling trend. For decades, the scores of the city's minority and low-income students had been going up. But in the late 1980s, they began to level off. Kress, a former member of Carter's Treasury Department, proposed a solution based on business principles: A school's performance on standardized tests should determine whether teachers get cash or get fired.

Kress' proposal sparked a battle among Dallas educators, but the idea spread. By the time George W. Bush became president, a bipartisan consensus had formed around school accountability, a concept that would become the federal No Child Left Behind law. While the term "accountability" may be ubiquitous in modern education law, it was novel at the time. Governments across the country gave schools money without demanding equity or excellence in return.

Julian got neither equity nor excellence: He didn't have the tools to learn, and he didn't get teachers who helped him excel. One recent weekday, a school librarian snuck a reporter past the security guard at the front desk. Most public schools don't like the media to write about their problems, so it can be hard to arrange an official visit. Julian requested that his last name be omitted from this article and that his school remain unidentified, for fear of retribution against himself and his family. "People don't like us here," he says.

Julian sits in the library, where he often spends his lunch period, helping the librarian check out books for other kids. He's a quiet, reserved 16-year-old, but when he talks about why he likes to spend his time with books, he says things that are more true of life in neighborhoods like the South Bronx than in places where the day-care centers don't have barbed wire around them. "It's a dog-eat-dog world," he says.

"I only got robbed once," he adds, describing the time when "some dude" stole his little sister's game console straight out of his hands outside the school.

For the next hour, Julian details how the school isn't meeting his needs, academically and otherwise. While Julian is quick to accept blame for not working as hard as he thinks he should, he's also frustrated by the things he can't control. One day last year, Julian walked into the library, crying. He'd been kicked out of class because his shoes were the wrong color, according to the dress code. They happened to be the last shoes available at his homeless shelter, and they were a size too big. But his teacher, unaware of his financial situation, gave him detention. This became a pattern, since detentions didn't change the fact that Julian still couldn't afford new shoes. One detention became 20, and the time away from class meant Julian was learning less. "It doesn't matter what you wear, what color your shoes are," he says. "That's not going to hinder your education."

Julian's school is precisely the type of program Kress wanted to fix. After Julian started high school, he was accepted into a special honors program. He came to school every day with a smile and always finished his homework, recalled Nicole, a former history teacher who left the school and called him "brilliant." Julian started his junior year looking forward to college. But the material quickly got tougher, and his school didn't do much to prepare students for that reality.

Things at home have gotten steadily harder, too. When Julian's mother, a school aide, was evicted and had to move in with his grandmother, Julian became so depressed, he almost stopped sleeping. And this was not the first time he and his family had been evicted. They had been evicted from their previous apartment a year earlier, and Julian went to live in a homeless shelter.

Julian is so ashamed of his transitory life that he refuses even to acknowledge that chapter. He does, however, talk about moving into the projects this year with his grandmother. "When I moved in, I was scared I was going to get shot," he said. "I don't sleep so much because it's so loud."

Julian's troubles mirror the concerns some experts had before Bush made Kress' accountability policy the law of the land. A civil rights coalition, Opportunity to Learn, argued in the '90s that accountability stressed excellence while ignoring the system's inherent unfairness to poor and minority kids. Before you can increase expectations, they said, make sure kids are prepared to learn.

But the group had little involvement in the negotiations that turned accountability into No Child Left Behind, which mandated testing of all students in English and math and imposed a series of consequences based on those results. The idea was, if schools and teachers were held accountable for their failures, things would get better, especially for poor kids.

Ten years after its passage, No Child Left Behind's flaws are clear even to its original cheerleaders. Clauses that required free tutoring for underperforming schools spawned fly-by-night tutoring companies, and funds designated to help poorer schools ended up in the coffers of some wealthier schools. Critics also say the law forced schools to narrow their academic focus to the subjects of state tests, to the exclusion of most everything else. "The push is away from everything non-academic," said the librarian at Julian's school.

In January, Julian started to struggle academically. He failed out of his honors courses in science, English and math. Once Julian fell into regular classes, he noticed his teachers cared less. While that lack of concern is Julian's perception, it's one that is shared by his former teacher, Nicole. Regular students, she says, are "completely ignored."

"Some teachers weren't explaining anything to me," says Julian. "That's why I'm in the predicament I'm in now." That's why he's not sure he'll graduate, and that's why he is not as optimistic about his prospects as Ana and Janell are about theirs.

Every day, Julian stares out the window of a city bus on the way to school, a commute that can sometimes be a gauntlet of terror. Once, Julian witnessed a loud argument in which one of the participants pulled out a gun. He thought he was going to be killed. He got out of the path of danger, pondering his mortality.

He says, "I'm either going to die from disease or saving somebody."


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