Executive Summary: Recent reports released over the past few months focus on the educational system in Connecticut, highlighting challenges facing the state with the largest achievement gap in the nation between low-income students and the rest of their peers. In this report, we detail income disparities and poverty concentrations, which disproportionately impact minority students, within the Connecticut region. The reports shed light on the current situation and offer concrete suggestions to close the achievement gap, such as a renewed focus on regional equity.

According to a new report from the Connecticut Commission on Educational Achievement (CCEA) released in 2010, Connecticut has the largest achievement gap in the nation. In standardized tests given to 4th and 8th graders, results showed that low-income students in Connecticut performed up to three grade levels behind non-low-income students.[1]

Data on Northeast Region Metro Areas from DiversityData

This achievement gap affects us all.  As the CCEA report suggests, when students’ educations suffer, fewer graduate with the skills to succeed in college and work, state unemployment increases, fewer businesses locate here due to a lack of skilled labor, crime increases as high school dropouts are three times more likely to be incarcerated than graduates.  Lifetime health care costs also rise - to a level currently estimated at $155 million for each class of high school dropouts.[2]

Another 2010 report by DiversityData, a project of the Harvard School of Public Health and Center for Advancing Health entitled “Segregation and Exposure to High-Poverty Schools in Large Metropolitan Areas: 2008-09” takes a look at poverty and income segregation in the 100 largest U.S. metropolitan areas, with some startling findings regarding the state of education throughout the country.  Data from the four major metropolitan areas in Connecticut -- Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford, New Haven-Milford, and Norwich-New London -- were extrapolated from this report and examined more closely along with data from nearby metro areas New York City, Boston, and Providence to give a more relevant picture of the data for the New Haven Region.

Within the Northeast:

  • Although poverty rates in the Northeast are low compared to most other regions of the United States, the greatest racial disparities among U.S. metropolitan areas are found in Bridgeport, Hartford, Boston and New York City.[3] For example, in the Bridgeport, Connecticut, metro area, the average Black student attends a school with a poverty rate over 5 times that of the average White student (see Graph).[4]
  • Poverty rates in Connecticut public primary metropolitan schools are highest in the New Haven metro area (43%), yet still are lower than that of the New York City metro (49%) (see Graph). 
  • In terms of absolute number of students, Connecticut has far fewer poor students in our public primaries than other nearby metropolitan areas (see Graph). Within Metropolitan Areas Nationwide:
  • 43% of White students attend schools with poverty rates of 20% or less, vs. 7% of Black and Hispanic students.[5]
  • 43% of Black and Hispanic students attend schools with poverty rates over 80%, vs. 4% of White students.
  • Areas of highest poverty (determined by participation in free school lunch program) are concentrated in the South and California, not the Northeast. The gallery below contains a selection of charts that illustrate the information provided by the DiversityData report.

Policy Implications

While there is no easy fix to the achievement gaps that exist in our school system, there are a number of ways that we can start addressing the interrelated issues of income disparity, poverty and poor academic outcomes.  First and foremost, it is important to note that populations in poverty in Connecticut are relatively small compared to those of larger cities throughout the country.  In recent Census Bureau surveys, Connecticut has had the lowest or second-lowest poverty rate in the United States as well as one of the lowest rates of child poverty.  This means that our achievement gap, though very wide, is perhaps more manageable (on an absolute numbers basis) in terms of increasing the equality of opportunity for families and children who are being left behind. 

Connecticut has much to build upon: According to Education Week's annual "Quality Counts" report, our state already scores well relative to other states in "funding equity" (sharing costs) for school systems, though groups such as the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding charge that more could be done, particularly in terms of adequate cost sharing, increased support for early childhood resources for low-income children and a reduction in our reliance on local property taxes to fund programs. Both the Connecticut Commission on Educational Achievement and DiversityData reports highlight additional policy steps that could be taken to create change in our schools. CCEA has developed a comprehensive list of steps to take, beginning with demanding accountability, raising expectations, fostering leadership, investing wisely, and aiding our teachers and administrators to turnaround failing schools.[6] Their goal is to largely eliminate the gap that exists in Connecticut within a decade by focusing on these strategies. The statewide education advocacy group ConnCAN, which also has highlighted the need for school system accountability, has additional resources on the achievement gap on its website.

National Data on Metro Areas, from DiversityData Report (2010)

The Diversitydata.org report highlights the relationship between school performance outcomes and the need for more structural changes.  These include enforcing and improving fair housing laws, creating more affordable housing in more affluent areas, reducing zoning restrictions to increase geographic mobility, and improving the quality of poorer neighborhoods through building maintenance, infrastructure, social programs, and crime prevention.[7]

For example, related to DiversityData’s recommendations, in Connecticut only 31 of our 169 municipalities have 10 percent or more of housing classified as affordable, according to the Partnership for Strong Communities, an advocate for affordable housing.  A report released by the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities in 2010 also found that our metro areas, including New Haven, contain concentrated pockets of poverty and low student achievement amid our wealthier and higher-performing suburban areas.

According to DiversityData, students should also be allowed to transfer from lower-performing schools through the No Child Left Behind Act, or attend Magnet schools that would draw diverse students from all different neighborhoods.  The example given of Berkeley CA Unified School District shows success in integration by using a “controlled choice plan” where household income, education levels of adults, and percentage of minority students are taken into account to place students in schools.[8]

Another recent study out of Montgomery County, MD supports this idea.[9] In it, poor students were tracked for seven years beginning in 2001, and researchers found that poorer children randomly assigned to schools with a lower percentage of poor schoolchildren did significantly better on standardized tests, despite these schools receiving less government funding than schools with higher poverty rates. 

Although New Haven already has the largest interdistrict magnet school program in the State of Connecticut, part of a state-funded initiative created in an attempt to reduce the isolation of populations of different incomes, it is unclear whether it is large enough in scope to have a noticeable impact on the achievement gap.  Due to local and state policies, suburban districts do not reciprocate by offering large numbers of placements to students in New Haven, and New Haven is also limited in the number of spaces that it can offer to children from suburban towns.  Although New Haven's magnet schools currently draw several thousand students from over 25 regional towns, placements to schools within the region are generally not done using a "controlled choice plan." In other words, these study’s authors suggest, pouring money at low-performing schools may not be the most effective way to close our achievement gap. 

In addition to making smarter, data-driven investments, school reformers also must create a dialogue around issues such as quality housing, child care, family income, health equity, infrastructure and smart growth.  This would suggest that policymakers incorporate a regional equity focus such as that proposed by Angela Glover Blackwell.  Citing recent research studies, Blackwell argues that regional equity carries the benefit of promoting economic development, for example, by lowering the number of bankruptcies.  Blackwell argues that “equity is a superior growth model,”  and that the best way to strengthen our national economy is through investments “that strengthen all communities, especially the ones that have been left behind for decades.” 

As income inequality, including the "racial wealth gap", continues to expand, researchers have argued that the policies which have contributed to these disparities, such as housing regulations, should now be changed so that they play a role in closing it. If indeed increased equity is a strong driver of economic development, policies to promote this should be able to easily gain the support of a broad range of advocates, including economic development agencies and the business community.

The Movement for Reform in New Haven

The passion for quality education from our citizens and communities is a major positive force that can be harnessed for change.  One local example is New Haven School Change, a school reform program which aims to eliminate the achievement gap, cut the dropout rate in half, and ensure that all high school graduates have the financial means and academic background to succeed in college.[10] At the Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School in New Haven, hundreds turned out for a multi-media public forum on November 30 that revealed how committed our people and institutions are to improving the educational system.[11] While New Haven’s School Change Initiative is still in its early stages, the general consensus of participants at the school reform event was that New Haven would benefit from improved recruitment and evaluation of teachers, a widening of curriculum beyond the English and Math that mirrors standardized tests, opportunities to reform failing schools with new policies, charter schools and/or new administration, and the promise of free college education to successful students. While the challenges are many, the high turnout and dialogue that has begun among parents, teachers, unions, and administrators is a bright spot for the future of New Haven’s schools that has important implications for the entire state. In a speech regarding his campaign platform in New Haven, Governor Malloy stated, “I cannot imagine a more important issue than the education of our children.”[12] Furthermore, by creating a partnership involving school and city officials, plus representatives from community-based organizations such as the Citywide Parent Teacher Organization, Citywide Youth Coalition, and Clifford Beers Guidance Clinic, as well as foundations like the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven and United Way of Greater New Haven, the New Haven School Change Initiative is becoming a collaboration of many vested parties that have the will and resources to create positive change.

One component of local school reform is known as the New Haven Promise. The Promise will provide college funding for all successful high school graduates within the city, regardless of need.  Will Ginsberg, President and CEO of The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, is one of the key partners in the New Haven Promise, which also includes the city, Board of Education, and Yale University. According to Ginsberg, “The Community Foundation has long believed that education is the base on which long-term social progress is built.  For this reason, this promise to New Haven’s students, both current and future, is also a moment of great promise for our city.”[13] Mayor John DeStefano, Jr. addressed New Haven students, “Now this is not a give away program.  You will have to work hard for your grades and stay focused on positive behavior.  But do these two things, and this community is saying to you it will see that you have the resources to compete successfully anywhere.”

Another program of the School Change Initiative, Boost, is being piloted in five New Haven schools for the 2010-2011 school year and is intended to eventually involve all schools in the district. Boost! aims to increase services and support for students by evaluating the needs of each school through assessment and data analysis, then addressing them through after school, health and wellness programs, mentoring, counseling, or parent education activities.   These could be combined with increased outreach to parents within the school system who could benefit from programs designed to support working families, such as job placement.  According to Jack Healy, the President and Chief Executive Officer of United Way of Greater New Haven, closing the achievement gap begins at the policy level and involves the entire community, strong leadership at the state level to increase transparency and funding opportunities, as well as the continuation of early education programs will help lead us in the right direction.[14] An even more influential alliance for change could be created if New Haven's school reformers could strengthen their advocacy connections with those working to increase regional equity.

Moving Forward with Strong Actions

Today, Connecticut’s educational system is at a crossroads. Facing the largest achievement gap between low-income and non-low-income students in the nation, Connecticut must act to address the disparities that exist within its schools and communities.  If not addressed, the clear lack of equal opportunities for some of our communities will carry major long-term costs. Recent reports released by the DiversityData project and the Connecticut Commission on Educational Achievement help clarify the issues facing Connecticut, and outline steps that could create significant improvements in Connecticut’s overall educational outcomes and eliminate the achievement gap.  Local programs such as the New Haven School Change Initiative are beginning to put words into action, and should be combined with parallel statewide and regional efforts to address broader structural issues. These are not easy tasks, but ones that we must undertake in order to create a brighter future for Connecticut’s children.

Note: This article was contributed by Sasha Stein, a Long Island-based urban planning consultant, and edited for publication by our staff. 


[1]Connecticut Commission on Educational Achievement, 2010. www.ctachieve.org. Executive Summary, p. 1. [2]Connecticut Commission on Educational Achievement, 2010. www.ctachieve.org. Executive Summary, p. 3. [3]ibid., p. 12. [4]September 2010. www.diversitydata.org, “Segregation and Exposure to High-Poverty Schools in Large Metropolitan Areas: 2008-09” p. 13. [5]ibid., p. 16. [6]Connecticut Commission on Educational Achievement, 2010. www.ctachieve.org. Executive Summary, pp. 2-7. [7]diversitydata.org; p. 19. [8]diversitydata.org. September 2010. “Segregation and Exposure to High-Poverty Schools in Large Metropolitan Areas: 2008 - 2009. p. 22. [9]Green, Rick. “Poor Kids Do Better In School With Wealthier Kids,” CTnow.com, October 22, 2010. http://articles.courant.com/2010-10-22/news/hc-green-education1022-20101021_1_middle-class-schools-affluent-schools-low-income [10]Newhavenschoolchange.org [11]From the New Haven Independent, Dec. 1, 2010, Bass, Paul. “Where the School Debate Heads Next.” http://newhavenindependent.org/index.php/archives/entry/ravitch_photos/ [12]"As much as jobs and the economy and the state's horrible fiscal condition have rightfully been the focus of this campaign, I cannot imagine a more important issue than the education of our children." Quote from New Haven speech. [13]New Haven Public Schools, message from Superintendent Reginald Mayo, http://www.nhps.net/node/2057 [14]The New Haven Register, Opinion. November 25, 2010. Healy, Jack. “Committed to Closing Gap in Learning.” http://www.nhregister.com/articles/2010/11/25/opinion/doc4cedfe546e9fa786881156.txt