Now that five of the nine members on our state school board have picked Michael Sentence of Massachusetts to be our next state school chief, it’s only natural that we keep an eye on education in the Bay State.  After all, apparently Governor Bentley believes that the only difference in Alabama schools and those in Massachusetts will soon only be the accent of students.

And while it is definitely true that Massachusetts has excellent schools for the most part, as this article in The Atlantic points out, educators there are as perplexed as to how to deal with poverty students as we are.  Why does this matter?  Because we have a much higher rate of poverty students than they do.  In 2012, there were 110,557 Massachusetts students getting free-reduced lunches.  We had 432,265 the same year.  In other words, four times as many.

The Atlantic article came from a panel discussion last spring when Massachusetts educators spoke to an Education Writers Association national seminar.  Here are excerpts from the article:

“The Bay State’s famous successes are juxtaposed with stubborn achievement gaps and concentrations of poverty that have made across-the-board strides all but impossible. Income-based disparities in academic performance have actually grown over the last decade or so, and last year the state’s achievement gap was the third highest in the nation.  (The NAEP achievement gaps between poverty and non-poverty students is less in Alabama than in Massachusetts.)

“On the one hand, these first-place finishes and so forth—which are all based on averages—are great, we’re proud of it, but it should be a pretty short celebration in light of the deep, persistent achievement gaps that look a lot like they did when we set out on this,” said Paul Reville, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

The Massachusetts experiment with transforming public education traces back to 1993, when state leaders decided to set high standards, establish a stringent accountability system aimed at ensuring that students from all backgrounds were making progress, and open its doors to charter schools. And despite some hiccups, it was able to do so largely without all the partisan wrangling and interagency tensions that have notoriously confounded such efforts on a national scale.

“The widespread misconception is that “if you say poverty’s a problem … we’re backing off the issue,” said Hardin Coleman, dean of Boston University School of Education, who also serves as vice-chair on the Boston School Committee, the district’s governing body. Now that the improvement in Massachusetts is slowing down—and achievement gaps are widening—“I think there’s going to be a change away from a significant primary focus on academic-skill acquisition to those other aspects of what children need in terms of their social-emotional learning … being engaged in school, learning more about themselves, having access,” he continued.

“In BPS, we start segregating kids at very young ages,” said Tommy Chang, superintendent of Boston Public Schools, noting that children are separated by ability starting in the fourth grade in ways that often correlate with race and linguistic background. “We have to figure out how we stop doing that at such an early grade level. We are literally tracking kids still.”

“Is it just a coincidence that all the inadequacy in education is aggregated around poor kids or is there something about poverty, which on average is just too strong for the relatively weak intervention for a school to overcome?” Reville asked rhetorically. “That’s one of the problems with our current delivery system: It dismisses or marginalizes or avoids coping with the impact of poverty on the lives of children.”

So the good folks in Massachusetts are beginning to understand what we refuse to acknowledge, improving the performance of poverty students goes way beyond the classroom.

Instead, we bury our heads in the sand and look for band aides when we should be trying to figure out where the blood is coming from.  It’s the typical shortsighted approach politicians usually take.

And if anyone should understand that change does not come quickly it is Governor Bentley.  After all, when he took office in January, 2011 he said he would not accept a pay check until the Alabama unemployment rate reached “full employment.”  As far as I know, he has still not qualified for his check.  As to how tough it is to confront poverty, he might also notice that the poverty rate in Alabama when he took office was higher than the national average.  And today, that gap has gotten even wider.