News: Dumbing Down

Money isn't the only inequality in public schools

Mar 7, 2002 at 2:06 pm
Jymi Bolden

Unequal resources, not unequal abilities, hamper poor children's education, according to Catherine Ingram of the Cincinnati School Board.

One day last year a sniper was reported behind Vine Elementary School. In April 2001 the neighborhood broke out in a riot. Inside the school, kids were still trying to learn.

In some Cincinnati Public School classrooms, garbage cans catch water leaking from roofs. Some classes have textbooks that are 10 years old and behind the times.

It's no secret that urban schools face problems that suburban schools don't, according to Kati Haycock, director of The Education Trust. But that's no excuse for expecting less of kids and the people who teach them.

Kids on the move
Schools often act as though poverty means stupidity.

"What's more common is that when schools serve concentrations of poor and minority kids, the temptation is to teach down," Haycock says. "You see instructional strategies that concentrate on low-level stuff and don't really push the kids to increase their thinking skills."

For example, Haycock says, some high school teachers assign students to read To Kill a Mockingbird. But instead of having students write about the book, teachers tell them to draw posters about it.

The Education Trust, which works to bridge the gap between educational opportunities for children, formed in 1991. The non-profit organization aims to increase student achievement, especially in schools serving concentrations of poor and minority kids.

The Education Trust's staff of about 30 in Washington D.C. works with teachers on strategies to improve classroom performance, and uses the information it gains to influence policy-makers.

The Education Trust focuses on the difference teachers can make in student achievement if they have the support and resources they need.

"What we try to do is bring a student's eye view to education reform," Haycock says. "We spend a lot of time on issues related to teachers and teaching."

Why do kids in high poverty areas tend to fall behind their peers in suburban schools? The answer depends on whom you ask.

"Parents on average have lower levels of education themselves — many of them working two or three jobs — fewer books and newspapers in the home," Haycock says. "All that has been documented for a long time. The problem is what do you do about it?"

From 1970 to 1988, the nation saw a significant narrowing of gaps in school progress between rich and poor kids and between white and minority students, according to Haycock. From 1988 to 1990, progress stopped and in the years since it has begun to widen again.

Haycock attributes part of this to a concentration on "old pull-out stuff" — homework and activities from workbooks rather than more hands-on classroom learning.

"Leading up to that time, there had been a real focus in schools on poor kids," she says.

In education, as in most things, Haycock says, what you concentrate and work on is what you excel at.

"When we really focus on something, we make progress," she says. "If you don't, we'll fall back again."

Cincinnati School Board member Harriet Russell wants to ensure Cincinnati keeps making progress.

"I think the things we are doing to close the achievement gap include a reduction in class size in kindergarten through third grade," she says.

The district now has a maximum of 18 kids in each classroom in kindergarten through third-grade, as well as an emphasis on literacy and updated science kits.

"We began to require mandatory summer school for students who did not pass the reading standard for those in the third grade," Russell says.

The district is also trying to find the best teachers, according to Russell.

"Our pay rate is very competitive and we do have an aggressive recruitment program," she says.

But even with a push to attract more teachers and less kids in primary classrooms, the school board can't change some things.

"I think there's a definite achievement gap and it has to do with the reality that we have a high mobility rate of kids," Russell says.

Even if children transfer to different schools within a district, adjustment can be difficult.

"Our teachers have to be prepared to evaluate where each child is when they walk in the door and acclimate them very quickly," Russell says.

Vine Elementary finished the 2000-01 school year with 340 students, according to Principal Greg Hook. Over the course of the year, 800 kids were on the roster.

A 1996 study in Chicago schools showed, "The more often a student moves in elementary school, the further behind that student falls academically," according to Education Week magazine.

The study shows it's not just the movers who are affected, but other students in a classroom, too, as teachers have to spend time helping new students catch up.

"By sixth grade, students who have changed schools four or more times are about a year behind their counterparts who have had more stable school careers," Education Week reported.

Vine Elementary, which serves Mount Auburn and Over-the-Rhine, often has students who come from families on the move even more than that.

"We have some students who move three times in a year," Hook says.

'Absolutely unconscionable'
An "A" student in a high-poverty school, if measured by a common test, would be about a "C" student in a low-poverty school, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Education.

Haycock believes students in schools with concentrations of poverty could achieve more if they were pushed and encouraged, rather than handed watered-down curriculum.

Cincinnati School Board member Catherine Ingram, says funding should be equal for students, whether they attend suburban or urban schools.

"The reality is that a poor child can still achieve as well as one that isn't," Ingram says. "The difference is the resources. I know that given everything equal for these children, there shouldn't be an academic gap."

The residual effects of discrimination and segregation are apparent in urban schools, according to Ingram. Urban sprawl has left cities bare as higher-earning residents — and their taxes — move to suburbs.

"I think that if we had a system that adhered to the same academic expectation (as suburban districts) and gave them the same kind of resources, I assure you the urban districts which are predominantly black would be doing as well as the suburban districts which are predominantly white," Ingram says.

Students don't have to have brand new facilities to learn, but they do have to have a safe, clean place, Ingram says. In Cincinnati, that's a problem.

"Ohio has some of the worst schools in the country," she says. "Cincinnati has some of the worst schools in Ohio."

School buildings were neglected because the funds were not available to maintain them, according to Ingram. When the choice is between fixing a roof or feeding the kids underneath it, she says, the district feeds the kids.

"The school board and the administration for decades were forced to make the hard choices," she says.

In the 1999-2000 school year, Cincinnati Public Schools spent $8,170 per pupil, or $1,113 more than the state average, according to the Ohio Department of Education.

Cincinnati spent $237 less per pupil than the Columbus School district. Cincinnati met six of the 27 standards in the state report card, while Columbus met only five. The Cleveland School district, which met only three of the standards that year, spent $337 less per pupil than Cincinnati.

The Wyoming City School District met all 27 of the state academic standards on the 2001 report card. It spent $8,221 per student. That was only $51 more than Cincinnati, but Wyoming's median household income was $53,923. Cincinnati's was $24,559.

Per-pupil spending doesn't account for all of the disparities between urban and suburban classrooms. Another important measure is household income. In Cincinnati, 65.6 percent of the students were eligible for free and discounted lunches, compared to just 2.7 percent of the students in Wyoming.

"It's absolutely unconscionable to continue investing less in poor kids than in rich kids," Haycock says. "It doesn't make any sense. Quality education costs more if the kids are coming in behind."

Education is the surest long-term anti-poverty strategy, according to Haycock.

"The relationship between education and earnings is phenomenal," she says.

Although Ohio's school funding formula might not be the best, Haycock says other states have even bigger problems.

"You're not the worst of the bunch," she says. "I think that honor goes to New York and then to Illinois. But you're definitely up there."

The staff at The Education Trust has been working with Cincinnati schools for the past couple of years and is encouraged by what it sees.

"It's one of the few places in the country where they come back energized," Haycock says.

One advantage Cincinnati has is the dedication of teachers who choose to make urban education their career. Hook says it's much easier for a teacher to make it in suburbia.

The quality of teaching in urban schools is vital to students.

"In some cases, we're the only chance they have," Hook says. ©