ZIP Codes Shouldn’t Determine Academic Success


The following was first published in the opinion pages of the Hartford Courant.

As lawmakers and advocates continue to address a wide range of statewide education issues this legislative session, we must remain mindful of a hard truth: For far too many of our students, their academic success is still determined by their ZIP code.

Our urban school districts anchor Connecticut’s achievement gaps. Smaller suburban districts can concentrate resources for a privileged few, while our larger urban school systems are nearly five times larger and have far fewer resources. This is driven, in part, by the state’s over-reliance on property taxes to pay for public education.

More affluent suburban school districts in Connecticut spend on average over $3,000 more per student than our highest-poverty urban school districts. The eight largest urban centers account for 25% of all public school students. Unfortunately, despite decades of reform efforts, far too many of these young people are not academically prepared for post-secondary education or the future workforce.

This reality won’t change this year, but what policies we choose to advance as a state can. As we enter this new era of Connecticut governance, we have an opportunity to improve our school systems and narrow achievement gaps. Instead of complacency, we must do more of what works—and abandon what fails—to ensure ZIP codes do not determine student outcomes by focusing on three areas.
The governor should establish a statewide industry and education advisory council consisting of representatives from state agencies, businesses, the education sector, labor and nonprofits charged with building educational pathways for students to enter industries with the greatest shortage of qualified candidates.

The state should also establish career cluster advisory committees to ensure curricula and standards, as well as work-based learning experiences for specific high-demand industry areas, are informed by employer and educator expertise.

The strength of partnerships between employers and educators is key to ensuring that Connecticut’s students have been justly educated—and that our state will be able to compete in the 21st century economy. The mismatch between educational attainment and readiness for college and career hurts students and is a serious threat to economic renewal in Connecticut.

Lawmakers should prioritize programs that advance the preparation, recruitment, hiring, and retention of high-quality school principals.

We should also learn more from our state’s most effective principals. This will help us to understand the qualities and conditions that can later influence the design of a state-level framework for preparing, evaluating, and supporting principals.

Principal leadership has a significant impact on a school’s capacity to improve student outcomes and is critical to the quality of the culture and climate within a school, which helps or hurts the school’s ability to attract and retain high-quality teachers.

We must have greater insight into our investments in education, with a specific focus on grants provided to those schools and districts most in need (e.g., Alliance District and Commissioner’s Network schools).

Specifically, we must identify investment strategies that have and have not yielded results for students. We can do this by comparing investments to student outcomes for grant recipients in a transparent online format. In instances where student outcomes have improved, we must learn from and scale these successes. When strategies aren’t yielding improved outcomes, we must hold schools and districts accountable for changing their approach.

These priority areas do not eclipse others, including social-emotional supports for students; teacher preparation, recruitment, professional learning and retention; and early childhood care and education. These remain critical to a student’s success. However, in a time of budgetary constraints, it is incumbent upon lawmakers to focus on measures that will move us toward closure of the state’s achievement and opportunity gaps while maximizing resources.

Success should not be determined by ZIP codes. We must prioritize policy that ensures academic excellence for all students in Connecticut, regardless of where they live.

About the author: Shannon Marimón is the executive director of the Connecticut Council for Education Reform.

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