COLLEGE PARK -- Kids who can't learn, teachers who can't teach, schools that are full of criminals, or aspiring criminals -- this is the view of the predominantly black big city schools that prevails in the latitudes of white suburbia.
Coupled with the other news about crime and violence in inner-city neighborhoods, the image of unteachable, violent children, seems to go hand-in-hand with whatever else we've heard about Baltimore.
As collaborators on a recent University of Maryland research project, we visited 30 public high schools in 14 school districts in the Baltimore and Washington areas to survey students about their level of civic engagement.
Hailing from an affluent suburban environment, we were a bit nervous about what we would discover at our inner-city schools. Would the students be disruptive? Could they read? Might our lives be threatened? We had been conditioned by the same stories every other suburbanite has watched countless times on the evening news: gangs, drugs, shootings, disorder, chaos -- the inner city as repository for the nation's "dangerous underclass."
To our surprise and shame, we found that the reality of big city high schools and schoolchildren is quite other than what we had imagined.
The schools were orderly, clean and well-managed. Rules were strictly observed. The classrooms were well-equipped with all the essentials. Several of the schools had undergone impressive renovations and boasted of expanded libraries, new gymnasiums and carpeted classrooms. There were computers, not always the very latest models, but serviceable machines anyone should be happy to own.
Yes, there were cameras and security staff monitoring the hallways, but in the post-Columbine era, cameras and security are found everywhere.
But in terms of facilities and equipment, nothing stands in the way of students learning in one of these schools. The buildings are not brand new and not everything on the inside gleams, but they are far superior to the suburban perception that they are rundown dumps. Every school could benefit from more resources, but in no sense did we get the impression that big city high schools were as hopeless as they are often thought to be.
We realized that the impression of a school building or campus is often falsely based on prejudice toward the children there. Fill one of our inner-city schools with white suburban kids, and there would be far fewer complaints that the place was a juvenile holding cell.
Had we gone to just the better schools in Baltimore? Hardly.
We visited one school that has the worst reputation of any in the entire city. There we met kids who were excited about our work, interested in participating, inquisitive, polite, respectful of the teachers, respectful of us and of each other.
We had been in affluent white schools where the students had been rude and obnoxious throughout our presentation because they weren't impressed by anything. By contrast, the African-American students in these schools were pleased, albeit a bit surprised, that we had come to visit them. Teachers at one Baltimore school informed us that most of the students had never been asked their opinions by white people, never had white people take an interest in them -- testimony to the racial segregation still present in the Baltimore metropolitan area.
Psychologists say that negative stereotypes are usually based on exposure to just a few instances of bad behavior. From a few isolated examples, people typically generalize to an entire class of individuals. Inner-city schools have been negatively stereotyped in just this fashion. Every inner-city school and schoolchild has been stained with a broad brush that really describes very few.
In terms of academic ability, not all of the kids were fast readers, but if we were patient, they could complete our survey. We found students who were as capable and interested in learning as any we had found in the suburbs.
We walked away from our experience with a sense of shame for believing all that we had believed about African-American communities in inner cities. We were amazed that there was such a wide gulf between perception and reality. How had such "enlightened" people been so gullible as to believe the negative hype? We realized that our gullibility stemmed mainly from our lack of exposure, our affluent ignorance stemming from our suburban isolation.
We acknowledge that some of these schools do not have stellar test scores, and perhaps too few of their students graduate and go on to four-year colleges. But we should note, in this connection, that the suburban schools we visited were not problem-free.
In one of our visits to one of the area's most affluent suburbs, children and parents had recently been shaken by the suicide deaths of two female students. In the inner city, suicide is often called a "white man's disease" because it's so uncommon there. And, of course, we know that Columbine, in Littleton, Colo., did not happen in an inner-city black school.
We had never considered ourselves racist before this life-changing experience -- even considering ourselves fashionably "progressive" on issues of race. But upon leaving these schools, we realized that our prior beliefs indicted, tried and convicted us of prejudice.
There is no substitute for exposure to reality. We had gone in conditioned to believe that we would not find anything positive about black schools, and we came out seeing that the kids are what's best about them. Like adolescents everywhere else, they are facing the challenges of growing up, often in less than the best environments.
White suburbia believes that if someone scores less than 1,200 on the SAT, that he or she is somehow to be cast aside as a failure, or destined for jail. These standards have taken over the school assessment world, placing incredible political pressures on administrators and teachers.
Calls for more rounded assessments of achievement are criticized as "lowering expectations." But different expectations are not necessarily lower. And demanding high SAT scores, and little more, out of our affluent suburban youth, may be another way of lowering expectations.
James G. Gimpel is an associate professor of government at the University of Maryland, College Park. Jason E. Schuknecht is a doctoral student at the University of Maryland, College Park. They are fellows in the university's new Center for American Politics and Citizenship.