Mention the crisis in public education and people quickly start talking about inner city schools -- their crime, crumbling facilities and the disastrously high dropout rates of their predominantly black and Hispanic students.
The assumption is that with the advantages of greater resources and more serene surroundings, kids in suburban school systems are getting a good education. And it's true, suburban schools appear to be more successful. They have less violence and vandalism, well-stocked science labs, up-to-date textbooks and thicker course catalogs. A greater proportion of suburban high school graduates go to college.
But look at the nation's suburban schools up close -- particularly junior highs and high schools -- and it's all too clear that despite their outward trappings of success, they do a poor job of educating many of their students.
One measure of the problem: though suburban schools educate one-quarter of the nation's students, a recent federally-funded study revealed that only 5 percent of the nation's high school seniors are adequately prepared in mathematics to study the subject in college. When rich suburban school systems are producing second-rate results, they are no less part of the nation's education crisis than are their troubled inner city counterparts.
Standards are astonishingly low in many suburban classrooms. One big-spending Florida school district recently responded to newly legislated graduation requirements by drafting a new sequences of science courses that progressed from "introduction to earth/space science" to "earth/space science," "general science" and finally to "physical science" -- four years of science without biology, chemistry or physics.
I visited a suburban high school in Texas where enrollment in introductory chemistry dropped by half and in Algebra II by a third following the implementation of the state's infamous "no-pass, no-play" law in 1985. "They don't want to take the chance of failing the tougher courses and becoming ineligible for extracurriculars," the principal of the school told me.
Do local educators push such students to enroll in tougher courses? Not exactly. Guidance counselors in Texas and other places with no-pass, no-play rules readily acknowledge that they tell students to keep up their grades by taking less-demanding courses.
Large number of kids are simply turned off to learning in many suburban secondary schools. Half of all 11th-graders and two-thirds of 12th-graders have salaried jobs during the school year. According to studies in Austin, Texas, and elsewhere, the highest rates of employment are frequently among affluent students. It is indifference to their education rather than academic failure that seems to motivate many students to work. A junior at a high school north of Seattle that I visited put it bluntly: "Anything for $3.35 an hour; school is a bore."
What might be called a "conspiracy of the least" -- an unwritten, unspoken pledge between students and teachers to put as little energy as possible into their work -- is endemic in inner city secondary schools. But the problem pervades many suburban schools as well. Classes start late. They end early. Teachers lead discussions off the assigned topic, filling time with irrelevant digressions.
In a world history class in a California high school I visited, the lights went out immediately after attendance was taken, and as they did, a student shouted, "Another movie?"
When they aren't trying to waste time, teachers lecture a lot. What's required of students? That they simply sit and listen.
Students in the schools I visited also spend a lot of time working silently at their desks doing workbook exercises, reading textbooks or copying information from blackboards. In a biology class at a Florida high school, kids sat copying definitions from their textbooks to note paper in preparation for a vocabulary quiz. In many classrooms I found students working silently on the next day's "homework" assignment.
Order, not education, seems to be the priority in many suburban classrooms. "It doesn't bother me at all if you are reading something else," a California algebra teacher told two students during a visit I made to his classroom, "but it bothers me when you talk to someone else about it."
At a suburban Texas high school, a student slept head-in-arms at his desk in the front row of a history class. His teacher, who was seated atop a table a few feet away, propped his feet on an unoccupied portion of the student's desk.
"No one really cares if you work or not," a suburban California senior told me. At another well-appointed California high school I visited, it was school policy to allow students with good disciplinary records to go home early one day a week.