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The War We Have Chosen to Lose

The education front requires reinforcement.

November 04, 2002|Arthur Levine

Imagine if our government conducted the war against terrorism the way it carries out urban school improvement. President Bush would, as he did after Sept. 11, express his personal anger, our national resolve to rebuild, America's commitment to root out the causes of the tragedy. He would declare war.

Then, if he followed the path of urban school reform, the president would say terrorism would not be overcome by throwing money at the problem. For the most part, the United States does not need to spend more; it needs to spend smarter.

Next the president would tell us the war required superb foot soldiers. However, the experienced and qualified soldiers with cushy postings -- let's say the U.S. Embassy in Paris -- would not be sent to Afghanistan. Raw recruits would go, without any training and less pay than soldiers in the attractive postings.

The president would go on to say that good equipment was essential to winning. But times are tough, so the new recruits will have to make do with World War II surplus and simply double their determination. Because the general staff failed to recognize the terrorist menace until it was too late, Bush would ask one of the nation's most successful businessmen -- an individual with a track record in overcoming adversities and building successes -- to lead the troops into war and enforce clear, tough standards for victory.

This is, of course, a ludicrous scenario. But it is exactly what is happening in urban school improvement.

Today, urban public schools are attended principally by low-income and minority children who start school with weaker academic skills and knowledge than their suburban peers. They live in environments that are less supportive of schooling. Yet urban public schools receive lower funding than suburban schools and pay their teachers 20% to 30% less.

They are, as a result, forced to hire growing numbers of people who are unqualified to teach. For instance, a recent study found that 70% of middle-school math teachers in high-minority schools in impoverished areas had neither a major nor a minor in mathematics. Children who most need the best teachers are getting the least able.

Urban public schools have far poorer facilities and plants than suburban schools. They suffer inadequate and often dated curriculum materials compared with suburban schools. After 20 years of a school reform movement in the U.S., with two arguable exceptions -- Houston and San Diego -- no urban school system in the country has ever successfully turned around.

What did happen is that suburban schools, which were far better than urban schools at the beginning of the reform movement, got stronger. And all but low-income children simply left inner-city public schools -- the affluent choosing private schools, the middle class decamping to the suburbs or wrangling spots in magnet or selective public schools or choosing religious schools. Only the poor are really stuck.

The almost inescapable conclusion is that the U.S. does not care about urban schools and the children who attend them. The parents of urban schoolchildren vote at lower rates than the suburban population; higher proportions are immigrants. Of course, if quality of schooling became a litmus issue in voting or the focus of community activism, government might respond better.

The nation's urban public schools will not substantially improve without a sufficient investment. The improvement with the greatest effect on student learning is a well-prepared and experienced teacher. These teachers will not work in inner cities until salaries and incentives are higher than in suburbs, which offer easier working conditions. States, but also Washington, have to invest more heavily in cities than in suburbs if they expect to see real changes. Putting businessmen in charge and installing standards and tests won't win the war either.

Urban public schools need teachers, facilities and curriculum materials. The argument that there is no money doesn't make sense. There is money for tax cuts, money for war, money to bail out faltering industries. How can there be no money for children and schools?


Arthur Levine is president of Teachers College, Columbia University.

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