Two Nations


In 1776 Thomas Jefferson wrote that "all men are created equal." Ten years later he and many of the co-framers of the

Constitution continued to participate in the enslavement of Africans in America. . . . Two nations.

In 1983 the National Commission on Excellence in Education in its report, "A Nation at Risk," declared that "Our goal must be to develop the talents of all to their fullest. Attaining that goal requires that we expect and assist all students to work to the limits of their capabilities." Ten years later our nation's schools represent two realities nearly as discrete as slavery and freedom. . . . Two nations.

Just as Thomas Jefferson could write elegantly about universal rights while holding an entire people outside their purview, so, too, those who seek to improve our schools seem unaware that their elaborate plans to restructure schooling have had very little (positive) impact on those of our students who reside in poor urban districts.

Amid dire warnings of the consequences of our fall from the world's educated elite, "A Nation at Risk" called for more stringent high school graduation requirements, more rigorous and measurable standards, higher admission requirements for four-year colleges, more competent and better-paid teachers and the fiscal support to bring about the proposed reforms.

Ten years later, what are the results? One of the most pervasive changes has been the institution of various new assessments at the local, state and national levels. Indeed, President Clinton's new education plan has as its centerpiece the creation of national standards and assessments.

Emeral Crosby, one of the authors of the original report, recently commented on the progress made on the report's other recommendations. She noted that high school graduation requirements across the country were strengthened as were many admission requirements at universities; that science materials are more plentiful and have gotten better; that the techniques and technologies employed to teach math have improved significantly, and that while in 1981 16 percent of schools used computers for instructional purposes, by 1991 98 percent did so.

What has been the result in the "other nation" -- that comprising urban residents where in some cities up to half the children live below the poverty line? In those districts, the drive to push students to succeed at various versions of minimum standards tests has pressed so hard that real education has all but gone out of the window. Drill after drill on rote learning has supplanted any hope of more rigorous cognitive and aesthetic exploration. This incessant focus on more and more testing suggests that our governmental leaders believe, as one incredulous observer put it, that more X-rays will cure the broken leg.

About half of New York City's students fail to complete high school. (Baltimore is not far behind.) Students drop out in part, they say, because they "cannot face taking those tests again." How has this focus on standards and testing helped these youngsters?

While the numbers of children of color have increased dramatically in urban areas, the more stringent paper and pencil testing for teachers -- instead of teacher assessments which look at teachers' actual ability to teach -- has meant significant reductions in the numbers of teachers of color in many states. And higher college admissions requirements, along with lower amounts of financial assistance, have caused, for the first time in the nation's history, decreases in both the percentages and actual numbers of African-Americans attending college.

While many high school graduation requirements have been "strengthened," what does it mean to require two or three years of science and mathematics in high school when, during their school career, many children in Baltimore and elsewhere have no working science labs? When they must share one science text among 2 or 3 children? When their administrators must place emergency calls into the central office for protractors because a new test calls for their use and there haven't been any in the school for years? Or when computer classes take place in a storage closet, while in a nearby suburban-district high school .. students work in comfortable computer areas equipped with 200 IBMs and a hook-up to Dow Jones to study stock transactions?

There may be more and better science materials, better math techniques and technologies and a veritable explosion in computers somewhere, but not for our children. . . . Two nations.

Most urban districts face greater funding discrepancies than ever, as compared to their county and suburban neighbors. The gap between Baltimore and the counties is now $70,000 per classroom -- at least a million dollars per school. For the counties this translates into more materials, supplies and textbooks, smaller class sizes, better-kept buildings and, with their higher teacher salaries, more selective hiring and lower staff turnover rates. One could easily argue that the greater needs of urban children require greater funding than would be the norm. Yet, they receive so much less. . . . Two nations.

The educational call-to-arms trumpeted in "A Nation at Risk" was heard clearly and responded to -- by one our nations. Yes, for some of us education is improving steadily, if not dramatically. But history speaks loudly, if we will only listen. As the Civil War in the United States, events in today's South Africa and in Los Angeles a year ago make vividly evident, we ignore the "other" nation at the risk of the peril of us all.

Lisa D. Delpit is a senior research associate in the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University.

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