Schools Are Awful--Aren't They?

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Just before Labor Day, the College Board released a statement indicating that scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test had declined by 2 points in math and verbal areas. The result in the press was a predictable and deafening noise--the clucking of a thousand tongues. American education is beyond redemption. One of the major news magazines used a cover of Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander with the caption, "Can This Man Save the Nation's Schools?" The conventional wisdom is very clear: America's schools are terrible--ALL OF THEM. (Except maybe those touched by the work of reformers like Theodore Sizer, James Comer, and a few others.)

The data supporting this conventional wisdom are very vague. As one who makes a living in demographic studies, I am familiar with data showing "no change" in total school populations while in fact the white student body had declined by 40,000 and minorities had increased by 40,000. Thus, I was curious about the nature of the state data on the S.A.T. and called for a copy of the state distribution. (The College Board is excellent at sharing its numbers.) I found two interesting things.

First, although it varies by state, only 42 percent of high-school seniors take the S.A.T so that the generalizations apply to less than half of the senior class. What of the 50 percent of high-school graduates who don't take the S.A.T.? We know little about them. Are they all academically inferior to the S.A.T.-test takers? (A lot of them have taken the American College Testing Program test, but you can't add S.A.T. and A.C.T. data together, and neither firm would want to do that. The A.C.T. organization seldom makes national pronouncements on the condition of American education based on changes in A.C.T. scores). While the College Board presents an excellent list of cautions in interpreting aggregate test data, including the fact that some states have a very small number of S.A.T.-takers, and the S.A.T. is not a good indicator of anything in those states, those data are nevertheless aggregated to get the national S.A.T. totals. If they are inaccurate as state indicators, how can you add them together and get a legitimate national indicator? (In nine states, fewer than 10 percent of seniors took the S.A.T. in 1991.)

What I was interested in was the S.A.T. averages over a period of time. In that the data were presented for 1981 as well as 1991 in the College Board's Labor Day release, I whipped out my pocket calculator and began looking at changes in S.A.T. scores from 1981 to 1991.

Surprise! Thirty-two states improved their performance on either verbal, math, or both from 1981 to 1991. The national S.A.T. verbal declined in the decade by only 2 points, and the math scores for the nation improved by 8 points during the decade. A number of states with low percentages of S.A.T.-takers had major gains--Alabama, up 46 points in verbal and math; Louisiana, up 39; and Missouri, up 36. (These states also gained in the A.C.T.) Twelve states with low percentages of test-takers improved scores, eight on both verbal and math. But the low percentage of test-takers makes the results less valid, even though the College Board includes them in getting its national totals.

Of the states with a high percentage of S.A.T.-takers, 14 improved both verbal and math scores, 5 improved in math only. Some of these improvements would have to be called extraordinary: South Carolina, up by 52 points, verbal and math combined; the District of Columbia, up by 47 points, verbal and math combined; Hawaii, up 29 points on the combined score; Georgia, up 28 points, combined score; Oregon, up 22 points; New Jersey, 21 points; Maryland, 20 points; North Carolina, 18 points; and Rhode Island, 13 points.

Even California, Texas, and Florida, all high-percentage-of-S.A.T.-takers states with incredible increases in ethnic diversity and youth poverty, managed to improve their S.A.T. math scores over the decade.

Now, if 31 states and the District of Columbia improved their S.A.T. scores in one way or another during the decade, where is the conventional wisdom? If we truly believe that a 1- or 2-point shift in one year on a test taken by less than half of high-school seniors means that the nation's schools are failing, we are in real conceptual difficulty. (Please note that I am not knocking The College Board. They do an excellent job in developing one indicator that should be used with extreme caution at state and national levels.) My issue is the lack of solidity in the conventional wisdom, and the tendency of reporters to accept this wisdom, rather than doing their homework. Where are the cheers for the majority of states that have improved during the decade?

These data actually support a view of mine--most schools in America are better than they were in 1981. Moreover, we can pinpoint the schools that are failing with great accuracy if we wish to. Most Americans now live in the 32 largest metropolitan areas in the nation. The inner cities of these metro areas are mainly in decline, because the money made in these cities is spent in their suburbs, where a huge number of Americans now live and work. (Over 60 percent of America's new jobs in the 1980's were created in suburbs.)

As one example, Hartford, Conn., is surrounded by wealthy suburbs with some of the best schools in the nation. About 100,000 of these suburbanites work in Hartford, bringing home only their paychecks. Among Hartford's 140,000 people, a fifth of the area's population, can be found 90 percent of the welfare cases, two-thirds of the unemployed, and 70 percent of the crime, as well as the highest percentage of hungry children of any U.S. city in a 1991 study, and a very high infant-mortality rate. The federal government has deserted Hartford in most areas of assistance; the Community Development Block Grants have declined by 40 percent since 1977, population loss has been 40,000, job losses around 10,000. Inner-city residents earn about half of what suburban households earn. Suburbs have segregated America by wealth more severely than by race. States are not eager to pick up the gauntlet of inner-city needs dropped by the federal government. How good can Hartford city schools be?

The answer: Chicago and other major metro areas have both the best and the worst schools in the nation. The best are the suburban metropolitan-area public schools; most of the worst are in the cities of Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Hartford, Boston, Washington, and so forth. The only choices for the inner-city leadership are to raise taxes (people will move out) or reduce services (people will move out). State and federal leadership seems to be engaged in a conspiracy of silence on the issue. Suburban residents have paid their dues, they say. Problems of the city are of no concern to them; they moved to the suburbs to escape cities.

If we can target our worst schools so easily, wouldn't it make sense to develop a national strategy for improving them? The answer is no if we believe all schools are failing. This is why the conventional wisdom is so dangerous. It prevents us from seeing the small number of America's school systems that are truly failing, along with all other human services in inner cities, as jobs, money, people, talent, status, and the middle class are sucked out to the suburbs. The "S.A.T.-score decline'' discussion contributes to this unfortunate result. We need, rather, to admit that most of our school failures are in inner-city schools, and proceed to develop a coherent strategy for improving them,just because it is so clearly in the national interest to do so.

Yet, the chances of this happening are small. The federal government would rather blame urban schools than focus attention on them to make them better. (Assigning one "New American School" to each Congressional district is not exactly targeting our support to those schools most in need.) States see increasing political power in the suburbs, and don't want to offend those powerful voting blocs by shifting attention to urban schools. Urban school and community leaders have seen massive increases in service needs while human and fiscal resources have simply moved out of the city. The fundamental error is in the suburban resident who thinks, "As long as I'm not living in downtown Chicago, I don't have to worry about what's going on there. It has no effect on my life." There is no reason to assume that the resident of Fairfield, Conn., has the right to commute to New York City every day and bring that entire money pot back to Connecticut, which (until now) has had no personal-income tax. But how do we equitably ensure that those who profit from the inner city can give something back to it? The answer is not yet clear.

Virtually every day in America, a new study emerges that indicates once again that America's children are worse off than those of any industrial nation, from figures on infant mortality to those of childhood poverty. Yet, there is a curious lack of urgency in the country's response to these facts. If I were to tell you that 40 percent of America's children had been kidnapped by an enemy force and that these children would never become productive adults as the result of being given chemical injections, it would clearly be considered an act of war. But in late September of this year, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies revealed that 40 percent of America's young families with children had incomes below the poverty line, a far higher figure than that of any European nation in the study. The result is the same as the "act of war" scenario. Yet that study came and went with virtually no public debate or concern. What would it take to wake people up?

The only answer is that most people come in time to see the plight of inner-city people as having a direct effect on their futures and those of their children. This is harsh talk, but nothing else seems to work.

Some of the city's violence, drugs, poverty, and guns already is making its way into suburbs. If enough of it does, people in suburbs may see the wisdom in preventing these social cancers from developing in inner cities, simply for their own self-interest. But why does it take so long for people to understand?

Vol. 11, Issue 09, Pages 25, 32

Published in Print: October 30, 1991, as Schools Are Awful--Aren't They ?
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