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BACK-TO-SCHOOL BLUES (PART 1)! We groaned at a string of tired old saws about our urban schoolrooms: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, AUGUST 29, 2005

BACK-TO-SCHOOL BLUES (PART 1): Here in Baltimore, children return to school today. And Bob Herbert, to his credit, discusses their unending bad prospects. “Left Behind, Way Behind,” reads the headline on his Times op-ed column. In the piece, Herbert cites a new study commissioned by two liberal think tanks:
HERBERT (9/29/05): An education task force established by the center and the institute noted the following:

''Young low-income and minority children are more likely to start school without having gained important school readiness skills, such as recognizing letters and counting...By the fourth grade, low-income students read about three grade levels behind non-poor students. Across the nation, only 15 percent of low-income fourth graders achieved proficiency in reading in 2003, compared to 41 percent of non-poor students.”

“How's that for a disturbing passage?” Herbert asks. “Not only is the picture horribly bleak for low-income and minority kids, but we find that only 41 percent of non-poor fourth graders can read proficiently. I respectfully suggest that we may be looking at a crisis here.”

For starters, a note about the concept of “proficiency.” To a large extent, “proficiency” is in the eye of the beholder. That is, researchers can set the standard for “proficiency” wherever they please, producing various results in the process. In the study by this task force, what did fourth-graders have to do to show they were “proficient” in reading? Herbert doesn’t attempt to say. Therefore, when we read that “only 41 percent of non-poor fourth graders can read proficiently,” we don’t really know what is being said. Nor is it clear that the non-poor fourth-graders are really involved in a “crisis.”

Beyond that, the quoted passage might seem a bit puzzling. If most non-poor fourth graders can’t read “proficiently,” then Herbert’s readers might assume that these kids read at third grade level or below. If so, what exactly does it mean when we’re told that “low-income students read about three grade levels behind” that? We haven’t looked at this study yet. But as often happens when mainstream scribes write about public ed, Herbert’s column draws sweeping conclusions on the basis of poorly-parsed data.

On the other hand, Herbert’s column reminded us of what we saw, with our own eyes, during twelve years in the Baltimore schools—a dozen years in which we taught the world’s most deserving children. As we’ve noted before, many low-income kids are already several years below traditional “grade level” in reading by the time they reach fourth or fifth grade. A fair number aren’t really reading at all. And yes, this is an educational disaster—“crisis” barely does it justice. That is why we searched Herbert’s column for advice about what the nation should do. And when we did, our analysts groaned as they saw the same tired “solutions:”

HERBERT: The report makes several recommendations. It says the amount of time that children spend in school should be substantially increased by lengthening the school day and, in some cases, the school year. It calls for the development of voluntary, rigorous national curriculum standards in core subject areas and a consensus on what students should know and be able to do by the time they graduate from high school.

The report also urges, as many have before, that the nation take seriously the daunting (and expensive) task of getting highly qualified teachers into all classrooms. And it suggests that an effort be made to connect schools in low-income areas more closely with the surrounding communities.

For our money, none of those familiar old saws address the leading correctable problems in the nation’s urban schools. But we especially groaned at the recommendation we’ve highlighted. Low-income fourth graders can’t read at all—so we need to make our standards more rigorous! This absurd “solution” to a human disaster has now been pushed by three successive presidents—by Bush, by Clinton and then Bush again. We’ve challenged its groaning illogic each time—and we’ll do so again, all this week.

Poor fourth-grade kids can’t read at all. So we need to set our standards higher! Poor kids are light-years behind the non-poor. So we need to define one set of graduation standards! In our view, such “recommendations” tend to come from people who have never set foot in urban schools—and think tanks funded by both major parties sometimes seem to be full of such people.

TOMORROW—PART 2: Why can’t Calixto read? (For a superlative profile from yesterday’s Post, you know what to do—just click here.)

ALSO TOMORROW: We’ll finish our critique of John Harris’ book in the next several days.