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Mixed Picture Emerges in Report on Urban Schools

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WASHINGTON--The nation's 5.4 million urban schoolchildren appear to be keeping pace "surprisingly well'' academically with their nonurban peers, but they remain plagued by problems related to poor environment, according to a report released here last week by the Council of the Great City Schools.

The report, described as the first to publish extensive data on the progress of urban school districts individually and collectively, says that urban schools actually exceeded the national average in the percentage of graduates they sent on to college during the 1990-91 school year.

Moreover, it says, urban pupils achieve at close to the national averages in mathematics and reading. The percentages of urban teachers who are fully certified in English and secondary math and science are near or above the national averages.

"We think there is enough good news here, on balance, to merit the public's interest and investment in urban public schools,'' Michael D. Casserly, the council's interim executive director, said at a press conference held to release the study.

Mr. Casserly, whose group represents 47 big-city school districts, spent much of the press conference criticizing as "extremely destructive'' the Bush Administration's proposal to give low- and moderate-income parents publicly funded vouchers that could be used at private schools.

When the distinctive needs of urban students are taken into account, their schools appear to be doing about as well as private schools in providing an education, Mr. Casserly said.

Nonetheless, the report, which contains data from 44 of the council's member districts, acknowledges that "urban schools have a long way to go to address problems related to dropouts, building repair and renovation, minority-teacher recruitment, and the achievement levels of African-American and Hispanic students.''

The report cautions against using its detailed statistics on individual districts to make comparisons, noting that districts differed in how they gathered the data they reported.

The document, "National Urban Education Goals, Baseline Indicators 1990-1991,'' was designed to establish standards by which to measure the progress of large-city schools in meeting the goals for urban education developed by the council and 70 other national groups at a "summit'' last year. (See Education Week, Jan. 23, 1991.)

"What this baseline accountability data does is allow us to hold urban school districts accountable to high standards,'' Mr. Casserly said. "We aren't making excuses--we're showing results.''

The council plans to issue follow-up reports with more detailed information on progress toward the goals.

Strategy Forthcoming

In developing the urban-education goals, summit participants drew on, but tailored to city schools, the national education goals established by President Bush and the nation's governors.

The urban goals call for children to enter school ready to learn, to achieve on a par with students from other countries, to graduate from high school at rates comparable to the national average, and to be prepared for college and successful employment.

The goals also call for schools to offer safe, caring learning environments staffed with qualified teachers who reflect the racial characteristics of their students.

Mr. Casserly said the council plans within weeks to convene a national urban-education task force to design a strategy for reaching the goals.

Recent Improvement

The compilation of 1991 data released last week indicates that urban districts already had made significant strides since 1988 in improving annual dropout rates, which decreased in three-fourths of the member districts, and in raising reading and math achievement-test scores, which increased in all elementary grades in more than two-thirds of the districts and in all secondary grades in almost half.

The report also notes that more than half of the incoming 1st graders in 1991 had attended full-day kindergarten, and that another third had attended kindergarten for half-days.

Above-national-average numbers of 11th and 12th graders took Advanced Placement math, science, and English courses that year, the report says.

Virtually all English teachers and 97 percent of secondary-level math and science teachers in the districts studied were fully certified in their subject areas, compared with national rates of about 97 percent in English, 95 percent in math, and 98 percent in science.

The average annual salary for urban teachers, $36,650, was well above the national average, though not by as much as it was 10 years ago.

The report also contains bad news for urban districts, including a median four-year dropout rate that stood at just over 26 percent during the 1990-91 school year.

Moreover, the math and reading achievement-test results of the districts' African-American and Hispanic students continued to lag well behind the national averages.

Just 32.8 percent of African-American and 31.7 percent of Hispanic urban high school students scored above the 50th percentile in reading. Fewer than 37 percent of Asian-American high school students scored above average in reading.

Black and Hispanic students also were underrepresented among students planning to attend college; they were joined by Asian-Americans in being underrepresented in the ranks of urban teachers.

Lack of Funding Blamed

The report blames many of the problems of urban districts on a lack of funding. While dealing with more disadvantaged students, large urban schools were allotted an average of $5,200 per pupil in 1991, compared with $6,073 for suburban schools. That amount was also below the $5,512 national average.

The urban districts also reported about $5 billion in deferred repair and maintenance needs.

Copies of the report can be obtained for $19.95, plus $5 postage and handling, from the Council of the Great City Schools, 1413 K St., N.W., Fourth Floor, Washington, D.C. 20005; (202) 371-0163.

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