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Paul Cummins: The Elephant in the Classroom
Posted on Nov 13, 2006
By Paul Cummins
This proliferation of social problems receives lip service, but few realize the impact of these problems upon schools. Consider: a massive infusion of non-English-speaking students—in some schools more than 50 languages are spoken. Consider: in some neighborhoods there are two and three families living in one- or two-bedroom apartments whose conditions afford students no possibility of studying or doing homework. Consider: in many of these neighborhoods gangs rule, and from 3 p.m. to darkness the streets and parks are unsafe. Where then do inner-city children go and what can they do? Consider: in many neighborhoods drug dealing, crime, and violence are daily occurrences; consequently many children come to school frightened, sometimes abused, or physically undernourished. The pitifully understaffed schools are expected to deal with these problems as well as teaching academic skills—and, frequently, all of this is expected to be carried out in overcrowded classrooms.
The implications and requirements that these relatively new social conditions impose on schools are enormous. To make serious improvements would necessitate:
1. in many middle schools and high schools, cutting class size in half, which would necessitate
That would be just a start. Yet each of these requirements would require substantial new funding. There’s that elephant.
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As concerned as Conant and Harrington may have been in 1961-62, matters have worsened since then. Furthermore, studies have demonstrated that inner-city children, rather than the smaller per-pupil funding they receive, actually require more funds in order to compensate for their social deprivation. Bruce D. Baker, a reviewer of several such studies, concludes that children from economically deprived backgrounds would require 35 percent more spending than the average costs, and children with limited English proficiency will require spending around 100 percent above average.7 Anything short of this amount is likely to perpetuate failure.
A recent Rand Corporation study that was commissioned to discover the complex reasons behind California’s underperformance in K-12 education reached several important conclusions.8 First, California’s per-pupil expenditures were third lowest in the nation, as mentioned earlier in this chapter. Reasoning that perhaps one explanation for California’s difficulties could be found in its disproportionate number of immigrants, the Rand economists statistically corrected for this disparity among the states. This time, California’s expenditures came out dead last! But then a completely unexpected result emerged: Texas, with a similarly large minority population, which had languished along with California near the bottom of the per-pupil spending rankings, vaulted to first place when the data was adjusted for minority enrollments. In other words, unlike California, Texas has actually faced up to the challenge of trying to provide a decent education to non-English-speaking children and children of poverty, primarily by means of universal preschool for low-income children. As Rand’s lead economist explained in a recent briefing, this achievement was driven almost entirely by Texas’ business leaders who, to their credit, realized that providing a substandard education to Texas’ low-income and non-English-speaking students would in the long run immensely impair Texas’ economic prospects and its competitiveness. It does not even require an extra helping of the milk of human kindness to see that funding public education adequately is the correct thing; in the case of the Texas business community, even simple self-interest will do.
The consequences attached to failing or succeeding in this gigantic effort are enormous. In a real sense, both our nation’s soul and its essential viability are at stake. If we become a hopelessly and irreversibly two-tiered society with the few very rich flourishing and the many poor living in degraded conditions, we will have shattered the American dream of a democratic, just, and fair society. We will have become an oligarchy-aristocracy-plutocracy, but will no longer be a democracy. How we regard and treat our schools will be a major determinant of what path we choose. We are already well down the road towards oligarchy; it is almost too late to change. Almost.
5 Michael Harrington, “The Other America” (New York, Penguin Books, 1962), p. 3.
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