Public Schools 'Riddled With Excellence but Rife With Mediocrity'

By Melissa Lauber
Village Life Theme Artist

Math problems, the names of perfect spellers, a list of who had perfect attendance that year, the doodles of students -- it was pretty much what you would expect to find on a school blackboard. With one exception, this particular perfectly preserved blackboard, from Millville, Mass., is 107 years old. Workers discovered it while renovating the town's municipal center.

"It's a most unique and unusual finding," said local historian Margaret Carroll. "One of the most amazing things about this is that the chalk, for some reason, has lasted for over 100 years and the writings are as clear as something written yesterday."

But many educators don't find that at all unusual. It fits American's perceptions about a golden image of public education, they say, which is rife with nostalgia and sepia-tinted memories of a time when girls' pig-tails were dipped into ink wells and chewing gum could land a student in the principal's office.

The facts, they claim, are somewhat different. Up until World War II, students did not assume that college might lie in the their futures. In fact, in the 1940's the average American attended school for only nine years and 20% attended for less than four.

But today, learning has become a state-sponsored right and requirement for all children. In the United States, more than 44 million students attend about 85,000 public school in 14,400 districts, staffed by about 2.5 million teachers at a total national cost exceeding $244 billion a year.

The goal of this massive education machine, the Consortium for Policy Research in Education reported, is to "teach all but severely disabled students to high academic standards -- to provide mastery over the complex subjects of mathematics, science, language arts, writing and history."

It's a Herculean task and America, many claim, is not making the grade.

In 1983, a report entitled "A Nation at Risk," shocked many people when it took aim at deficiencies in the U.S. public school system and reported, "if an unfriendly foreign power had imposed our schools upon us, we would have regarded it as an act of war."

In 1994, the U.S. Department of Education concluded in a report that "there is still reason for concern" and that "data on student proficiency suggest that improvements in recent years have been limited."

Then, in January 1997, the trade journal Education Week dropped a bombshell when it rated schools in the same manner that teachers rate students. American schools, it found in a mammoth study, barely receive a C grade for quality.

"Our public schools are riddled with excellence but rife with mediocrity," concluded the report, "Quality Counts."

The findings in this report, sponsored by Education Week and the Pew Charitable Trust, are based on a detailed statistical analysis of 75 categories on schools in all 50 states, and will be used as a baseline to measure future performance of the education system.

The study was broken down into four main categories: academic standards, standards and assessment, teaching quality and financing.

Among the findings:

  • "Student test scores have inched up, with some real improvements in math and science. But overall, student achievement is about the same, or only slightly better than it was in the early 1970's. Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress indicates that less than half the students in the U.S. can do challenging work at their grade level.

  • "African-American, Hispanic and American Indian students score much lower than white students in every subject in every grade. In schools where more than 30% of the students are poor, 59% of teachers report that they lack sufficient books and other reading resources. By contrast, only 16% of teachers in more affluent schools report such shortages. Also, only one in four students from low income families is placed in a college-preparatory sequence of courses.

  • "Millions of students attend school each day in crumbling facilities, to learn from teachers who have not majored in the subject areas they teach, in schools that are too big for them to be well known.

  • "Many children in our poorest urban and rural areas attend schools that lack even the barest necessities, from up-to-date textbooks to functioning toilets. Some of these school systems spend thousands of dollars less per child than those in the more affluent suburbs."

  • Because of these and other factors, "student achievement is well below a level that can sustain this nation economically and politically.

  • "Despite 15 years of earnest efforts to improve public schools and raise student achievement, states haven't made much progress."

    Where is the hope in this bleak picture?

    The study is quick to point out that the United States does not really have a national system of education. Instead, there are 50 state systems and more than 14,000 school districts.

    "Within this universe there are incredible extremes. New York City -- with more than a million schoolchildren -- is so populous that it would rank 13th nationally in student enrollment if it were a state. In contrast, the entire state of Nebraska has about 1.6 million residents but 662 school districts. More than half of those districts consists of a single elementary school. Given this diversity, a one-size fits-all solution is out of the question," the study said.

    But solutions are being found, especially at the grassroots level. From coast to coast, miracles are happening at schools like Clear View Elementary School in Chula Vista, Ca. and John Holland Elementary School in Boston.

    At these schools, the invaluable worth of each child is recognized in a myriad of innovative programs. Test scores are rising at unprecedented rates and hope is being born.

    These schools are often considered the exceptions, but their existence fuels communities and educators to consider what is possible.

    In addition, clearer more reliable systems of monitoring education's effectiveness in the United States are beginning to be developed which will provide states with mechanisms to chart progress.

    And, most important, school reform in all its many manifestations, is beginning to catch hold, especially in the home as parents discover the truth of national surveys that show that children's academic performance is consistently higher at schools that have high parental involvement.

    According to one study, three factors over which parents exercise authority -- student absenteeism, variety of reading materials in the home and excessive television watching - explain nearly 90 percent of the difference in 8th grade mathematics test scores across 37 states.

    Many have termed parental involvement as the hottest new development in educational reform.

    One of these people is First Lady Hillary Clinton, who said, "to pretend we can meet the challenges of our times without investing in education is the ultimate in denial." It's a sentiment that's catching on as Americans shed their nostalgic sentiments and wonder what words are being written on today's blackboards that will speak to the citizens a century from now.

    For More Information See These Related Sites:  

  • National Education Association
  • American Association of School Administrators
  • Council of the Great City Schools
  • Consortium for Policy Research in Education Finance Center
  • "Finance Reforms Aim to Improve Equity," Wisconsin Center for Education Research
  • National Foundation for the Improvement of Education
  • National PTA
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