The real numbers behind the Greenwich test results – (or what the school board does not want you to know)

An excellent editorial in the Greenwich Time today has me thinking about schools at the dawn of the 2009-10 school year. Click here for article

Dunno about you, but I am embarrassed to be a resident of the wealthiest town in the state with a school district ranked No. 41 (out of 195) according to the latest statewide standardized tests. NUMBER 41!

While that’s an improvement over last year when we came in at 44, other Fairfield County towns are racking up much better performance. Westport is No. 1. Nearby Fairfield – with more students (9494) – is ranked 26.

Six out of the 11 elementary schools in Greenwich fell in a ranking of their peer group – Riverside (No. 19 down by 2), Dundee (44 down 14), Old Greenwich (59 down 43), North Street (101 down 39), Parkway (114 down 38), Julian Curtiss (138 down 89). The five showing improvement are: North Mianus (36 up 42), Cos Cob (41 up 19), Glenville (50 up 78), New Lebanon (332 – up 1) and Ham Ave (387 up 5).

Same story among the middle schools – nothing to brag about. Eastern held its No. 10 position. But there was a time in the first part of this decade when Eastern came in consistently the No. 1 middle school in the state year after year. Central is 54 – down 27, and Western is 94, up 20.

Neither the state nor the towns and cities provide information on the actual rankings. You either have to compile them yourself using the annual Connecticut Mastery Test scores for elementary and middle schools or the Connecticut Academic Performance Test for high schools. But there are aggregators who have performed this task through the magic of programming. Click here for one such aggregator

The school board and administrators – even though they won’t blare it out on a megaphone lest they appear ethnically insensitive – will whisper the oft repeated mantra (excuse) that the Greenwich district is much bigger (8960 students) and more diverse than most other monochromatic towns in the county. Granted there is the challenge of the number of non-native English-speaking students exploding in the western part of Greenwich, but how do the numbers square with the declining ranking of the two elementary schools in the part of town that is virtually 100 percent white and Asian (Old Greenwich and Riverside)?

Then there is my favorite topic, Greenwich High School, the misbegotten stepchild of the Greenwich political machine. GHS in my opinion is the single most visible and important public institution in Greenwich. It is either the beacon by which we measure our commitment to our children and community, or a blot symbolizing a wayward culture and broken system. Lately, it’s been the latter – especially under the current school board.

Wouldn’t it be nice for a change if we could brag about GHS’s accomplishments other than its football scores – like its academic standing for a change.

Last year, GHS ranked 26 in the state in its test scores. This was an improvement over 2007-08 when it was ranked 47. But the year before, its rank was 13.

The “realists” will point to the numbers. Yes, yes, 7.5 percent of the GHS students signed up for subsidized meals – a indicator of a diverse economic base (Riverside School, for instance, did not serve a single subsidized meal). Yes, yes, 12.7 percent of the GHS population is of hispanic origin and therefore greatly impacts the reading and writing of English in standardized testing.

I get that.

I would counter with the argument that we have more resources than other towns to deal with these challenges. But we’re parsimonious with those resources. The bottom line: we have a political system that prevents us from achieving ambitious education goals – or even striving for them. More on that later. First, two comparisons:

Farmington High School came in ranked No. 7. Farmington HS has a subsidized lunch ratio of 4.6 percent, 4.6 percent African Americans and 3.1 hispanics.

But the real kick in the teeth: Hall High School in West Hartford, with a 11.4 percent subsidized lunch population, 10.6 percent African American population (GHS has 3.2) and 11.2 percent hispanic, came in at No. 22, beating out GHS by four places. A school with equally daunting statistics, if not more daunting, has no business besting Greenwich.

The motto in Greenwich for its public schools? Good enough

Nearly 20 percent of the secondary students in Greenwich attend private schools, more than any other town in Connecticut. Considering the power base of that constituency, it’s not a surprise then that the “real” job expected of the school board here is to make sure the public schools are “good enough” without going crazy on costs. That is why virtually every school board candidate in Greenwich cites as his or her main attribute their financial acumen and ability to control costs. There are not a lot of big ideas for academic distinction coming out of this group. That’s because this is not their job. They were put into place by a very small group of people – the two local political parties consisting of fewer than 200 persons – and not the electorate. Together with another very small group – the Board of Estimate and Taxation – they form school policies by their control of the purse. The school board here is a fiscal watchdog committee. It is not – in any shape or definition – a group interested in advancing the education of our children in any ground-breaking manner.

All this was fine as long as the world stayed on an even keel. Two profound events occurred to shake the foundation of this long-held and cynical practice: A deep, deep economic recession forcing even the wealthiest of towns to make tough decisions about spending and the explosive influx of – how shall I put it? – “non-traditional” Greenwich residents into the western part of the town. Yet, as you can see from the numbers, other towns are saying we will not allow our children to pay a price, and that public education is core to our community and democracy. Instead, in Greenwich, we’re cutting back on school bus routes and making our kids cross dangerous intersections and taking other silly short cuts.

There is a silver lining: The miserable performance by the schools has exposed the school board in a public light like never before. In short Weissler et al, you’ve been busted. You’ve done your job on helping to keep our taxes extremely low in this recessionary environment. But you’ve done it on the backs of our children during the most formative years of their lives. In their lifetime, they will be asked to compete against China, Korea, Finland, India, and even Russia – all of which are preparing their children better than Greenwich, Connecticut.

And my message to the next school board: Don’t think you can hide. We got your number. And we’re not going away.

Lincoln Millstein