Tomorrow's students

January 04, 2008

Twenty-five years ago, Greek kids were the largest group of non-native speakers in the Baltimore public schools, and most of them were at John Ruhrah Elementary. Baltimore was the only big city in America where Spanish wasn't the principal alternative language. That wasn't because there were so many Greeks here - it's because there were so few Hispanics.

That era has long since passed. Immigrant children are fueling the increase in school enrollment across most of Maryland. In percentage terms, their numbers are growing faster than those of African-Americans. And over the past four years, white enrollment statewide has dropped by 40,000 - it has now reached the point where white children no longer make up a majority of Maryland students, as an article by Liz Bowie in Wednesday's Sun pointed out.

This change poses a sharp challenge to the state's public school systems at a time when they are beset by some disturbing trends. It's well known that the wealth gap in the United States is larger than in other industrialized countries, and is widening. That gap is mirrored in school achievement, according to a 2007 report by the Educational Testing Service. "While our average performance is no better than mediocre, our degree of inequality (the gap between our best and least proficient) is among the highest" in the developed countries, the report found.

Put another way, America's bright and advantaged students are zooming ahead, but children of lesser means and opportunities are stumbling; in some ways, the bottom half is doing worse in school today than the bottom half did a generation ago. And the gap is widening.

In the old manufacturing economy, workers had to have at least a basic level of education. With the disappearance of blue-collar jobs, perhaps the motivation to get schooling is shriveling up as well. But in America's new economy - and in the economy it's likely to have in the future - having a large segment of the population that's poorly educated is just not acceptable. It will be a drag on the whole country.

And this is where immigrant children come in. Most arrive here with plenty of drive, but many lack basic literacy even in their own languages, much less English. Schools are going to have to harness the ambition that is a mark of immigrants, and make sure their children don't fall into a permanent underclass. At the same time, they will have to address the growing inequality that exists among American-born students today. The country has changed, and there's no going back. Leaving children behind is wrong, and it's bad policy, and it will hurt everyone.

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