THE MSPAP scores are out, and once again the contrast between city and county schools is shocking. For 2001, the composite Baltimore County score was more than double the score of Baltimore City.
That difference in the scores on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program test does not represent a difference in teacher skills, curricula or funding. It represents a difference in who is being taught. The low-performing students are children of poverty. The higher-performing students are mostly middle-class children of comfort.
The higher-performing students of Baltimore County have parents who, generally, are better educated and have higher incomes than the parents of children in city schools. That's the crucial factor in the difference in school performance in general and on standardized tests. Other differences are not nearly as important.
When a school is populated primarily by children of poverty, the culture of poverty becomes the dominant culture in the school. Children bring into the school the values and ways of their hard-pressed parents.
That means, for one thing, that they rarely see reading by adults at home. No one at home reads for enjoyment or to gain information or insight. Whatever reading the child does is the reading required in the classroom, and that's not enough. How can a school filled with children of poverty possibly score well on standardized reading tests?
People who have not spent much time reading often are unaware of the requirements of civility. They're unaware of the methods that have evolved for settling disputes peacefully. When children of poverty constantly see disputes settled by shouting or through the use of violence, that's the way they think disputes get settled. That's why maintaining order is such a preoccupation in poverty schools.
Most educated people know that it's a good idea to do some hard thinking before attempting to satisfy one's appetites. Pleasure usually exacts a price, tomorrow if not today. One needs to consider whether the pleasure is really worth the price. In the culture of poverty, that is rarely done. Children of poverty come to school insufficiently aware of the dangers of instant gratification. That, too, causes problems at school.
Schools that perform poorly are dominated by the culture of poverty. Those schools will never match middle-class schools in academic performance. It's impossible for most poor children to get a good education in schools in which the culture of poverty dominates.
The cure for unsatisfactory performance by schools is to prevent the culture of poverty from taking hold.
The way to do that is to make school assignments on the basis of parental income. A very simple measure can be used. Students who qualify for free school lunches are counted as poor. Poor students must not be concentrated in city schools. If most of the students in city schools are poor, then for the good of the children the city-county boundary must be ignored. The culture of poverty must be diluted.
If school districts could be realigned to cross boundaries, as is done with legislative districts when they are reapportioned, we wouldn't have schools where only 20 percent of the students are reading at grade level.
The legislature reapportions and redraws political districts every 10 years. The same should be done with school districts. The purpose would be to achieve an optimal balance in each school between poor and middle-class children.
If that were done, we would not have problem-plagued schools. The best teachers would not gravitate to the suburbs. The net effect would be that student and school test scores throughout the metropolitan area would go up.
Paul Marx is a retired professor of English at the University of New Haven in Connecticut. He lives in Towson.