School Equity Issue Won't Go Away

COMMENT

November 21, 1993|By KEVIN THOMAS

Whenever I write about equity in Howard County schools, I know there are people who say, "There he goes again."

But that kind of thinking is exactly the reason I can't leave this issue alone. It's not a dead horse. It's a thriving one. I'm just beating the thing so it wins the race.

Consider this: Howard County schools are No. 1 in the state, scoring higher than all other jurisdictions on the Maryland Functional Tests. And yet, when you look at a breakdown of those scores on a school-by-school basis, the inequities leap off the page.

Especially at the high school level, those schools with the highest percentage of low-income students consistently fall short of the mark.

As much as I hate to pick on Wilde Lake High School, which has been pummeled enough already, it has the highest percentage of low-income students: 7.2 percent. And as the sun follows the rain, Wilde Lake racked up more "incomplete" grades than any other county high school, failing to meet the statewide standards in mathematics, citizenship and attendance. (Hold on to that thought about attendance. It gets more important as we go on.)

At the middle school level, the disparities are less clear, but exist nonetheless. Only one school, Patuxent Valley Middle, failed to meet the standard in a subject area, in this case mathematics. Also at Patuxent Valley, 8.2 percent of the students come from low-income homes.

The middle school with the highest low-income population is Oakland Mills in Columbia, with 12.6 percent. It fell slightly short of excellent in three categories, receiving a satisfactory in math, writing and attendance.

Contrast that with Dunloggin Middle, referred to as "the Academy" by some educators. Dunloggin's low-income population is 5.1 percent, and the school scored excellent across the board.

For me, the message is that income is a factor regarding education in the middle schools, but the link becomes even more overwhelming at the high school level.

The correlation between achievement and income status is also not as clear at the elementary level. No county elementary school fell below excellent in the categories of promotion and attendance. But the majority of those with low-income populations in the double digits did fall short of excellence in at least one area. Most often that area was attendance. Remember?

There are two notable exceptions: Deep Run and Guilford elementaries, each with more than a tenth of their students eligible for subsidized lunches, scored high in both categories. Whatever the secret is at those two schools, officials should bottle it and pass it on.

Having summarized the charts, let me tackle some myths.

It is not true that low-income students can't learn. But it is true that students from low-income homes need teachers who are creative about the techniques they use, and liberal in terms of the time they can spend on individualized instruction.

With that in mind, it seems inordinately unfair that some schools must bear the responsibility of educating an unfair proportion of low-income students.

It is imperative that an attempt be made to better balance this population between schools, so that students stand a better chance of getting the assistance they need.

Another myth is that low-income is just a euphemism for African-American. One need only look at Howard High and Mayfield Woods Middle to realize that schools with sizable populations of low-income whites fared no better on state tests than other schools where the majority of low-income students are black.

The last myth is that equity alone can solve the problem. It cannot. But it is one tool and it should be used.

Superintendent Michael Hickey says the system is in the process of looking at factors beyond income that may adversely affect achievement. They include time spent on homework, parent expectations and peer group encouragement. As far as income status is concerned, Mr. Hickey says: "There is some correlation there. I'm just not sure what it means . . . You can't say it's causal."

You can't say it's not causal either, however. We all have a lot to learn on this subject.

This country is chock full of urban centers where the perceived threat of associating with people of lower income brackets has caused people to move away in droves. That hasn't happened yet in Howard. But unless we begin taking this issue seriously now, it's going to happen and we will be the worse for it.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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