Thursday, May 13, 2004


All over the country over the past generation, it has become clear that low-income, inner-city and minority children are not doing as well academically as their age peers in the ‘burbs. Their reading and math test scores are significantly worse, their dropout rates are vastly higher, and their college attendance is vastly lower.

Obviously, something was very wrong in what was happening in schools for kids beset by poverty, crime, language barriers, social isolation, dysfunctional families and lingering racism.

Sub-par educational attainment was giving a dual whammy to kids who, more than any others, need to do well in school to do well in life.

Aha! thought the educational bureaucracy. The culprit must be . . . NOT ENOUGH MONEY!

That’s why an ‘’equity lawsuit’’ was filed in Kansas and resulted in a ruling this week that that state’s school financing system is ‘’inadequate and inequitable’’ largely in the way it distributes the $2.77 billion in state aid; needy children aren’t thought to be getting enough.

A similar lawsuit is percolating in Nebraska, filed by the Omaha Public Schools, a handful of OPS parents and students, and a scattering of other districts including Grand Island, Lexington and Sioux City. Ironically, the defendants in these suits are the taxpayers, and the people PAYING to litigate these suits are . . . the taxpayers.

But this is nothing new. ‘’Equity lawsuits’’ have been filed against state school financing systems, far and wide, in recent years. The thought is that it costs more to educate a child from an impoverished background than one whose home has material advantages. Therefore, schools with more poor children enrolled ‘’deserve’’ more money per pupil.

The intent was good: to raise achievement among low-status students. We all want that. Even before the lawsuits, tons and tons and tons more money has flowed into the schools in the name of providing equal opportunity for learning regardless of social class.

Taxpayers funded smaller classrooms, more paraprofessionals, Title I federal programs, at-risk programs, alternative schools, in-school social workers, job apprenticeships, and many more well-intentioned interventions.

And what happened?

Little or nothing.

According to a huge study by Christopher Jencks and colleagues, more money is NOT what will help low-income students do better. School achievement depends substantially on students’ family characteristics. Schools accomplish very little in the way of reducing the achievement gap between students with high and low socioeconomic status, even if they spend substantially more money.

Jencks is author of the books Inequality and Who Gets Ahead, analyzing data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the landmark student Equality of Educational Opportunity by eminent sociologist James Coleman, Project Talent, and many other large studies of U.S. schools.

The Coleman study, published in 1966, is well-known to educators. Its major finding is that schools should zero in on what the child is NOT getting from the home environment, and provide those things.

But educators translated that as the simplistic ‘’spend more money.’’

That’s boneheaded.

What low socioeconomic status kids need are a few simple, common-sense and inexpensive changes in our school systems. These changes will not only erase the achievement gap, but will improve the achievement of their suburban peers, based on the universal principle, ‘’A rising tide lifts all boats.’’

If Nebraska schools would be forced to implement these few changes, we could throw out that horrible lawsuit, save untold millions of tax dollars, prove that we aren’t a racist, classist state, and most of all, help kids of all income levels get the education that will help them live happily ever after.

And here are those changes:

1. Quality curriculum for pre-K through third grade. Only a handful of schools in the state are properly teaching systematic, intensive, explicit phonics, handwriting, spelling and traditional arithmetic skills, for example, but those are what disadvantaged kids particularly need. Proper phonics curriculum is far cheaper than whole-language reading methods, too.

2. Quality instructional methods for those early grades. Only a handful of Nebraska teachers believe in the teacher-centered, directly-instructed, content-rich classroom. Most are using child-centered, process-oriented, hands-on learning approaches, which are so chaotic they basically throw kids from disadvantaged homes to the wolves. The traditional style is much better and cheaper.

3. Differential pay to draw the best teachers into inner-city schools. This could be paid for by RIF’ing unnecessary paraprofessionals and other non-certified staff elsewhere in the district.

4. A return to ability grouping instead of the Politically Correct heterogenous grouping, which keeps low kids low, and holds down the progress of the high-achieving kids, too.

5. Inner-city classrooms may indeed be overloaded with learning and behavior problems, which suggests that the expense of low staff-to-child ratios makes a lot of sense there. But that expense can be counter-balanced with larger ratios in suburban settings that are not so beset by teaching challenges. And the expense of smaller class sizes in inner-city settings will be more than offset in future years when those low socioeconomic status children, who got the right start in the early grades, are easier and cheaper to teach in the higher elementary and secondary grades.

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