The Good Old, Bad Old School Days In Washington

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Not too long ago, I was reading some intriguing observations about the District of Columbia public schools. One told of a "16-year-old junior-high school boy" in a segregated white school who was "unable to read a streetcar sign." Another remarked that students undoubtedly "enter the junior high school with a 3rd-grade reading ability." In a third, a teacher complained of student "promotion to the next grade ... without regard to pupils' attainment of ability to read and understand."

These may seem very familiar criticisms--but they are not attacks on today's schools. They are observations on the Washington public schools of the 1930's and 1940's, the days before desegregation and white flight and all the bad things that are supposed to have happened since.

At the time, Washington was thought to have one of the best of the nation's big-city school systems. Then, after World War II, the capital became the first major city with both a black majority and an overwhelmingly black enrollment (currently 96 percent) in its public schools.

Today, those who bemoan the quality of inner-city schools often point, conveniently, to such demographic changes. As of 1981, all but six of the 28 large central-city school systems represented on the Council of Great City Schools had enrollments that were more than half minority. Eleven were more than 75 percent minority, including Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Memphis, Oakland, and St. Louis.

As a result, it is important for several reasons to recall today those faded commentaries on the Washington schools of the 1930's and 1940's. One reason, of course, is simply to dismiss misguided notions about the "good old days" in the schools; rarely were the days as good as nostalgic adults like to think, and often they were awful. Washington's school system, like those of the nation as a whole, has been struggling with serious problems for most of its history.

More intriguing, though, is that the criticisms of the 1920's, 1930's, and 1940's scarcely ever received public attention. The 16-year-old who couldn't read a sign in 1948 was described in an obscure teachers' journal, not on the front page of the newspaper, so his plight did not cause the kind of outcry that accompanied a similar report in The Washington Post 30 years later.

Before desegregation, in fact, not a single study of the D.C. schools judged their success by student achievement. In 1928, for example, the U.S. Bureau of Efficiency looked at everything in the D.C. schools from teacher salaries to toilets. Everything, that is, except what students learned. It stated unabashedly that "no attempt was made either to rate the teachers at work or to measure results as shown by the accomplishments of children."

Ten years later, Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Advisory Committee on Education never mentioned student achievement in its report on the D.C. schools. In 1949, a 1,000-page survey subordinated student achievement to buildings, budgets, and business services. Although it did note briefly, in a few pages, that junior-high students were significantly behind national norms in language skills and mathematics, the fact was ignored by the press and public.

Only teachers, in their journals and in school-system reports, expressed concern about student incompetence. In 1944, after analyzing the latest test results, for example, a school official complained that "we have with us a problem of pupils inadequately prepared to meet the everyday problems of life, so far as the use of simple arithmetic is concerned."

Desegregation instantly changed the public's focus. As one of the first dual sys- tems to desegregate in 1954, and the only one directly under the control of Congress, Washington's schools found themselves scrutinized by the watchful eye of the national press and under attack by segregationists--on student-achievement grounds. Rep. James Davis of Georgia, for example, chaired a series of notorious hearings, with his final report citing test data that he claimed showed "a wide disparity in mental ability between white and Negro students."

The schools soon began experiencing a huge and rapid increase in total enrollments, with poorer blacks pouring in as middle-class whites exited, moves that would have caused great difficulties in any event. In addition to serious achievement problems inherited from the days of segregation--to say little of inadequate budgets and facilities and an increasingly divided community--the schools' reputation plummeted.

By 1967, a Washington Post editorial summed up the conventional wisdom: "The collapse of public education in Washington is now evident."

That same year, the Passow Report, another weighty study, evaluated every aspect of the system--judging each in terms of student learning. Its first major finding was that the schools demonstrated "a low level of scholastic achievement as measured by performance on standardized tests," not terribly different from what school officials had said among themselves in the 1940's.

Not surprisingly, then, the idea that private schools offered the middle class an increasingly popular alternative to the problem-ridden public schools gained currency. In 1966, for example, the Washington Post reported an increase in private-school enrollment. The article was laced with quotations from parents insisting that the public schools were not what they used to be.

Once again, Washington had led the way. Sixteen years later, with James S. Coleman urging that nonpublic high-school students achieve at higher levels than those in public institutions, and amid a political movement for tuition tax credits, journalists everywhere have jumped into the public-private debate that has for so long provided lively copy for Washington's newspapers.

In fact, as a percentage of all school-age children in the District, nonpublic school enrollments declined steadily after desegregation, from 15.3 percent in 1953 to 9 percent in 1969. In actual numbers, there were 1,500 fewer District school children attending nonpublic schools in 1969 than in 1953. Since 1969, the percentage has risen gradually, by it has not surpassed the 1953 level.

The media also have perpetuated the negative image of the public schools by limiting coverage of private schools to stories about enrollment trends and the lengths parents will go to to get their children into the "right" private school. The press thereby accepts uncritically the notion that private schools are in fact all they claim to be--and all that parents think they are.

For example, although instances of vandalism in public schools receive extensive attention, two major instances of vandalism by students at Washington's prestigious Sidwell Friends School last year went entirely unreported by the media.

The public schools of our big cities bore the brunt of the struggle for racial equality in our society. They were, at best, reluctant agents of change, and there is much to criticize in the way the schools have performed in recent decades. But we must realize that as a result of the upheavals of the civil-rights movement, we now expect much more of our schools than we ever did before.

It is fine for us to measure our schools against an ideal of what they might be. But as the history of Washington's schools shows, we must stop measuring them against an illusion of what we think they once were, or against an image of idyllic private schools that do not exist.

Vol. 02, Issue 17, Page 20-21

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