The hidden truth about city schools

October 12, 2006|By Karl Alexander

A political season is upon us, charges are flying in TV commercials, and a remarkable amount of the talk is about Baltimore's schools.

No matter whose political plan you favor, some things are beyond dispute: Too many of Baltimore's children are leaving school without diplomas, and too few are achieving at high levels.

Who, or what, is to blame?

Two-thirds of the children who attend Baltimore's public schools are low-income; about 90 percent are African-American. Most families of means abandoned the city schools decades ago, leaving behind the neediest and the least-well-prepared to dominate enrollments. We have a collective obligation to lift up these children so that they, and we, can look forward to a brighter future. But this sort of demographic profile challenges all big-city, high-poverty school systems, not just Baltimore's.

Research by me and my colleagues at the Johns Hopkins University, as well as on the national level, shows that the academic achievement gap across social lines (by family income and race/ethnicity) can be substantially traced to two sources: readiness deficiencies in place when children first start school, and learning differences during the summer months over the elementary school years, when better-off children continue to build their academic skills while most disadvantaged children tread water.

In contrast, and this will surprise many, the school-year progress (achievement gains from fall to spring) registered by low-income and minority youths generally is close to that of their better-off peers. That is to say, "at risk" students like those who dominate Baltimore public schools come close to keeping up during the school year but fall behind during the long summer break when their learning depends on family and neighborhood conditions.

This school-year pattern flies in the face of widely held (if often only whispered) beliefs about the learning abilities of poor and minority youths. It also belies widely held beliefs about the failures of school systems burdened by high-poverty enrollments.

In helping overcome the effects of family disadvantage, Baltimore's public schools are a powerful force in needy children's lives. But the pull of poverty at the family and neighborhood levels also is powerful, and the tug-of-war between the forces of good inside school and those outside forces too often is won by the outside forces.

Maryland's "watch list" of failing schools, and the indicators used to make assignments to it, usefully identifies schools and children in need of help, but it is not useful for apportioning blame. Consider an analogy: It is likely that patient mortality levels and the cost per day of treatment are higher at the Johns Hopkins Hospital than at a typical community hospital. Given that, it would seem odd that patients come in droves from around the world for care at Hopkins. But there are other facts: Hopkins cares for the sickest patients, and the cost of their care is correspondingly higher.

The Baltimore school system likewise "cares for" a disproportionate share of our state's neediest children, but unlike the situation at Hopkins, Baltimore's schools are expected to do so with fewer resources.

Yes, there is a crisis, but in the main it is a societal one. We look to our public schools for solutions, and they struggle mightily to provide them. Is there room for improvement in the Baltimore schools' administration and programming? Absolutely. But there also is much to praise. The school system's successes aren't always obvious, but they are quite real, and it would be nice to see some recognition of that.

Karl Alexander is John Dewey professor of sociology at the Johns Hopkins University. His e-mail is

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