Twenty years ago, this country was rocked by a national education report called A Nation at Risk, describing the inadequate preparation our public schools were providing for our children. Two decades after the report's bleak assessment, we have seen little improvement—a lack that is especially glaring in the minority and underserved schools in big cities.
A Nation at Risk assumed that raising expectations would benefit all students. But this did not hold true for children who started school with a skills deficit or who attended schools that could not meet the easier standards in place before A Nation at Risk was issued.
The gap between white and minority fourth graders is as big now as it was then. On the fourth-grade National Assessment of Educational Progress, white fourth graders are still three times more likely than African American and Latino children to be rated proficient in math and reading. Statewide standards-based testing programs did not exist when A Nation at Risk was published, so there are no long-term data. But current results show huge gaps between poor minority children and others.
A Nation at Risk has also failed to improve dropout rates, high school graduation rates, and rates of college enrollment. Today only 50 percent of inner-city high school freshmen graduate four years later. Of those who graduate, only 55 percent are likely to attend college, compared to 65 percent of white students. And once they are in college, black students are 17 percent less likely to graduate.
The recommendations from A Nation at Risk assumed that educators—responding to pressure—would work hard to make a difference in children's learning. These assumptions ignored three facts: first, local school boards are political bodies pursuing many agendas, of which educational effectiveness is only one; second, school districts allow resources to follow political influence, so that poor students end up receiving the least money and the worst facilities; and third, teachers with seniority and other attributes that make them attractive can usually avoid teaching the most disadvantaged children in a school district.
The system needs to change so that schools are free of politics. School boards should have one job: making sure every child is receiving a good education. This means closing bad schools and creating options for students who are not learning.
Schools in the poorest neighborhoods need the freedom to find the best combination of people and technologies for the children they serve, including access to dollars and good teachers. Schools that get the worst of everything are now frozen by rules and contract provisions.
Finally, parents and taxpayers need to know how individual schools are performing, and families must be able to move children from stagnant schools to higher-performing ones.
Twenty years of underperforming schools for those students who can least afford it is inexcusable. High expectations are well and good, but they need to be backed up with the resources and the freedom to change that will make a difference. And nowhere is this truer than in our big-city schools.