Jewish World Review Nov. 20, 2003/25 Mar-Cheshvan, 5764
Chartering the future
The most troubling example of racial
inequality in America today is the
inner-city school. Civil-rights iniquities
You don't hear the two loudest
ecclesiastical divines, the Revs. Jesse
Jackson and Al Sharpton, complaining
about self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing
teachers whose unions supportthe
cozy status quo. You don't hear the
educationist bureaucrats in the big
cities, who pull down salaries wildly
disproportionate to their talents and
responsibilities, crying for the pain of
what the schools are doing to black
children. White liberals usually don't
want to clean up the wreckage, because
if they did, they wouldn't have
convenient objects to pity to prove
how compassionate they are.
But we're beginning to hear from
educators who have looked closely at
the data and see a consistent pattern
in the awful gap that separates
achieving whites and Asians and failing
blacks and Hispanics. Abigail
Thernstrom and Stephan Thernstrom,
Their argument is not original. How
they arrive at it is. Unequal skills and
knowledge put blacks and Hispanics
behind an 8-ball that neither affirmative
action and multiculturalism nor
increasing school budgets will change.
The Thernstroms conclude that equal
opportunity can be achieved only when
the minority students in the inner cities
reach a higher academic achievement.
"The black high school graduation
rate has more than doubled since
1960," they write in "No Excuses:
Closing the Racial Gap in Learning," a
book that fuses analysis and outrage. (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR)
"And blacks attend college at a rate
that is higher than it was for whites
just two decades ago. But the good
news ends there. The gap in academic
achievement that we see today is
actually worse than it was fifteen years
The problem, the Thernstroms say,
is not the lack of a racial mix in public
schools. Nor is it the amount of money
spent per child or the size of teacher
salaries. What's crucial to enabling
children to learn is an educational
environment that motivates kids to
want to work and study hard. Such an
environment requires teachers who are imaginative and
innovative, whose careers are not governed by rigid union
rules and whose hiring and firing is community based, where
teachers, administrative staff and parents work together.
The best-kept secret in education is that almost all of the
achieving inner-city schools are charter schools, operating
within the public school system. They're financed by the public
and held to public accountability but are freed from the
bureaucratic wrangling that strangled the public system.
Unfortunately, charter schools require a great deal of time
and private energy, and suffer from many of the
shortcomings of voucher programs. They draw money away
from the vested interests.
But they confer extraordinary benefits. Largely
independent of bureaucratic control, they can hire non-union
teachers, choose their own textbooks and exert discretionary
power over their budgets. When a charter school goes bad,
and some have, they're easy to close. Closing a bad public
school is difficult.
Capital City Public Charter School in Washington, which
opened in 2001, exemplifies what a dedicated group of adults
can accomplish for a diverse group of children enrolled in
classes ranging from pre-kindergarten to the eighth grade.
The school is small, and its racially diverse student body is
composed of a majority of low-income families. Parents
choose the school. The staff operates on a theory that
emphasizes project-based instruction to help children meet
rigorous academic standards. They meet them, too.
I observed 7- and 8-year-olds describe a project for
planning a playground. They told me how the models of
climbing bars and see-saws were built to scale, learning how
one inch on a diagram of the tiny climbing bars was the
equivalent of one foot in the real-life playground. They did the
math without notes, explaining complex ideas about how the
length of the chain of the swing required more space than
The children were eager to talk about the concepts to any
adult who would listen. Children at this school show gains
each year. No surprise there. But, of course, this is a young
adventure. What was striking was the enthusiasm and
animation of all the children black and white talking
about their work, expressing the joy of learning with the
enthusiasm of kids thinking they're only talking about fun and
games. This school achieves what elite private schools that
charge tuition of $15,000 a year achieve.
Charter schools are a compromise between the fat and
exhausted public schools and the more controversial
vouchers that enable parents to transfer their children from
bad to good public schools. Schools that don't shape up fail.
Charter schools, like vouchers, are innovative and offer fresh
opportunities for turning around the racial gap in learning.
They're worth trying and watching. They brook no excuses.
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