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Urban Public Schools: America's Most Effective?

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Two studies released within the past month point unwittingly to progress in one of the country's most maligned public institutions: urban schools. Taken together, these reports--both from the U.S. Census Bureau and unrelated to schooling--indicate a surprising, and largely unnoticed, achievement.

The studies, called "The Black Population in the United States: March 1994 and 1993" and "Characteristics of the Black Population: 1990," describe the status of black America. They contain an unusually detailed analysis of income, education, housing, and employment trends within the nation's African-American population. Much of the data are not encouraging. The median income of black families, for instance, was not significantly different in 1969 than in 1992, about $21,550, while white family income rose 9 percent over the same period, to $39,310.

Good news comes in education, however: The gaps between blacks and whites in both educational achievement and dropout rates have almost evaporated. In 1993, the annual high school dropout rate for blacks was 5 percent compared with 4 percent for whites. Some 73 percent of blacks age 25 and over in 1994 had at least a high school education, against 51 percent in 1980. (See Education Week, 3/1/95.)

These findings are consistent with others: The U.S. Education Department's dropout reports show a steadily closing gap by race--except for Hispanics--in the frequency with which students leave school; and, the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows a similar decline in the educational-achievement spread between African-American and white students.

Nonetheless, this good news does not jibe with the rhetoric spewing from Capitol Hill. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has been especially disparaging in his remarks about urban schools. The immediate target for the venom is the District of Columbia public schools, now caught in a depressing citywide budget crunch. But the perceived quality of the nation's urban public schools appears to be serving as an excuse for the new Congress, hell-bent on cutting federal education funding.

The two Census Bureau reports, however, suggest an almost unthinkable conclusion: Urban public schools, which nearly half of all African-American students attend, may be some of the most effective in the nation.

Closing the historic gaps between whites and blacks in schooling is deeply significant. Part of the credit goes to the inner-city and rural Southern schools most likely to serve African-American students--the teachers, administrators, counselors, board members, and others who clearly have worked smarter and more efficiently building up years of research and skill.

Much of the remaining credit for the closing of the educational gaps between blacks and whites goes to money--especially targeted money provided by the federal government. In large measure, this money has pushed the schooling progress described in the Census reports. Without this federal help to urban schools, the funding gap grows wider and the learning canyon sinks deeper.

Urban public schools are keeping more kids in school and teaching them more efficiently than ever before--against stiffer odds than almost any other kind of school, public or private. The litany of hurdles is now familiar: discrimination, poor housing and nutrition, broken families, crime and drug addiction, teen pregnancy, unemployment, and crushing poverty. Logic dictates that it takes more torque to drive this engine of change than it does a motor hauling a lighter load.

In some ways, urban schools are the last frontier in the democratic ideal--a frontier that is being conquered, not because urban schools say so in their latest press releases, but because the data on larger national trends can lead to no other conclusion.

Data from the Census Bureau reports also beg the question: Why hasn't income, employment, and housing progress paralleled educational achievement for black Americans? Does the answer reside in the private sector's reluctance to include blacks, no matter how well urban schools do their jobs? Are urban public schools actually ahead of the nation in the quest for both excellence and equity?

Urban public schools may not be able to remove all barriers to the American dream, but apparently they are making the playing field more level. It will mean little, however, if urban-school graduates have nowhere to use their knowledge and skills.

There is, of course, no claim here that urban schools do not have their problems, that their progress does not need acceleration, or that educational gaps do not remain. Urban public schools surely have a long road to travel in closing gaps with Hispanic, Asian-American, and immigrant children. But no one is better equipped to make the journey.

The results of the two studies and the conclusions we have drawn here have ramifications for the continuation of federal education programs and the maintenance of affirmative action. They certainly question the motives behind so much trashing of urban schools in conservative political circles. If my logic is correct, it just may be that urban public schools are doing a better job meeting their central mission--unit for unit--than any other institution around.

The new Congress should do so well.

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