Commentary

Familiar Chronicles: Assessing the Urban Schools

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From Jan. 7 to June 25, Joseph M. Rice, an educator, visited the school systems of many of our large cities. He had recently studied at two universities renowned for their training in education, and now he wanted to study the effectiveness of our country's educational practices. The school systems' officials apparently didn't realize that Rice was going to shoot straight from the hip in his evaluations, for they took great offense at his report. One of the cities he visited was Philadelphia. The report was not favorable.

Rice found it was absolutely necessary for him to make his own observations of what went on in the Philadelphia schools. "Experience has taught me to place no reliance whatsoever on reports published by school officials, regarding the conditions of these schools," he said.

These reports "are frequently no more than purely political documents and completely misleading." So Joseph Rice tirelessly spent weeks sitting in Philadelphia classrooms throughout the city observing children being taught from the morning bell until the dismissal bell. He randomly selected the classes he wished to observe, so that he would not simply be led to the model classes.

About Philadelphia he said: "The public schools of Philadelphia offer a striking example of the difficulties involved in advancing schools when those in authority use their offices for selfish motives, whether political or other, instead of for the purpose of furthering the welfare of the children entrusted to their care...."

"And these schools show again the evils consequent upon a school system conducted without a responsible head, a circumstance which gives rise to constant conflict among hundreds of irresponsible heads who in struggling against each other for the purpose of preserving their own rights, forget that none of them has any rights; for all rights belong to the children, for whom the schools exist...."

As for the Philadelphia teachers, he found them to be lacking in "energy" and "spirit." He believed this was understandable since the dedicated teachers received "little encouragement or healthful support" from their superiors--the superintendent on down. Without the most competent educational administrators, who could identify successful teaching, how could the quality of teaching not help but decline?

Rice found the parents of Philadelphia as a whole lacking in involvement. Most parents "take absolutely no active interest in their schools." He believed that "if but one parent in a hundred would follow closely the actions of the Board of Education, the superintendent, and the teachers, most of our flagrant educational evils would disappear."

The all-too-common belief that children with culturally disadvantaged backgrounds are capable of little educational progress was rejected by Rice. Although he did recognize that many such children did enter school at a disadvantage that would make it difficult to catch up with the more advantaged, he could see no reason why so many left the system with so few basic skills. He'd seen too many examples of classes and schools containing many "deprived" children who had made considerable progress. The key, he felt, was competent, "scientific" leadership and teaching.

Joseph Rice's visit to the Philadelphia public schools was in 1893. He died in Philadelphia in 1934. After his articles on The Public School Systems of the United States were published, he received a tremendous barrage of criticism from most of the nation's school leaders. They resented some outsider coming into their schools, who had the audacity to write an objective report on what he had seen.

Joseph Rice is now recognized by the educational testing field as a pioneer in his attempts objectively to measure education in the schools--he devised the first standardized test. But in 1895, he was strongly attacked by the National Education Association (NEA), which was then under the control of school administrators.

Yet the NEA had such a difficult time refuting what Rice had to say that it spent most of its time criticizing the most trivial aspects of his report: He was wordy, he was too sarcastic, he used the same word twice in a sentence, and so forth. Worst of all, it mocked him for being "scientific" toward education.

The school systems, rather than listening to the criticisms from the outside world, chose then, and still choose, to create a closed system into which no university, newspaper, or researcher of any kind is welcome to enter to attempt an objective evaluation of its educational programs. Only the system is allowed to administer its own evaluation, and we all know how accurately we tend to rate ourselves. Only after the system collects its own data can the researcher make his interpretation. As a result, although 80 years have passed, many Philadelphians could easily mistake Rice's comments in 1893 for their own thoughts in 1981.

It's too late to have Joseph Rice come to see what's going on in our schools. But if we really wanted to keep the most effective educational programs while dumping the ineffective ones, we could utilize the services of even more sophisticated, objective evaluation procedures than Mr. Rice's first attempts.

For example, here in Philadelphia, Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania have testing departments with such capabilities and they're right within our city boundaries. And there are universities with similarly strong education or educational psychology departments within close reach of most, if not all, urban school systems in the country.

If we sought an evaluation of an even more independent agency, there's always the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J.

Let's open up our system to evaluators who have no self-interest in rosy results, so that we can begin to unravel this political, educational mess we're in.

Vol. 01, Issue 10, Page 23

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