A Look at Big-City Schools
Children spend many of their waking hours in school. The influence of school can be profound. Yet many parents have but a vague idea of what the schools are like. Awake! therefore surveys the educational scene in four different countries, beginning with the United States.
IN April 1983 a government-sponsored report was released that alarmed parents and educators alike. It was ominously entitled A Nation at Risk. Compiled by a blue-ribbon panel of experts, the report began by saying: “Our Nation is at risk . . . The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.” The evidence:
◼ “Some 23 million American adults are functionally illiterate by the simplest tests of everyday reading, writing, and comprehension.”
◼ “About 13 percent of all 17-year-olds in the United States can be considered functionally illiterate.”
◼ “Average achievement of high [secondary] school students on most standardized tests is now lower than 26 years ago.”
In the wake of this report, U.S. schools have come under close scrutiny. But perhaps nowhere are U.S. educational problems so manifest as in big-city schools. They suffer from a deadly combination of shrinking budgets and swelling classrooms. Low salaries, classroom violence, and huge student dropout rates discourage and even chase away many competent teachers. Some families react to all of this by placing their children in private or suburban schools.*
Nevertheless, books and articles about urban school problems do not give the whole picture. So with the aid of a friend who works as an educational supervisor, an Awake! reporter decided to take a firsthand look at some schools. He reports the following:
An Educational Panorama
“We are standing outside one of the largest elementary schools in the city. Dozens of truant youths defiantly ‘hang out’ on the school grounds. ‘They can’t afford to hire enough school attendants to round these kids up,’ explains my friend and host.
“The school bears the earmarks of urban decay. We check in at the principal’s office and talk above the deafening din of voices, typewriters, and ringing phones. The principal looks tired and haggard, and it is only 10:00 a.m. He is courteous, and off we go to look in on our first classroom.
“There we find an energetic young man who shows what a good teacher can do. ‘Which would you like to learn about?’ he asks his students. ‘An animal with his tongue in his nose, a walking tree in Florida, or a bird that can’t fly?’ The intrigued students opt for the first, anteaters. They eagerly open their textbooks for some routine reading comprehension exercises. However, their teacher has made them want to learn.
“Urban schools are studies in contrast. We now visit a school that, although old, is spotlessly clean and orderly. No youths are ‘hanging out.’ The hallways are quiet. ‘This school has a good principal,’ explains my host.
“Unfortunately, even effective administrators face enormous problems. Bureaucratic red tape that busies teachers with filling out forms instead of teaching. Laws that obstruct school discipline. Teachers who fear for their own emotional and physical survival. Students who refuse to study, but who demand diplomas. Money diverted from books and equipment to pay the sky-high costs of vandalism. It is remarkable that big-city schools do as well as they do!”
Fortunately, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching says: “We believe . . . that American public education is beginning to improve.” There is only one way, however, to find out what your child’s school is like: Take a look yourself.
Private-school enrollment has increased 60 percent since 1955.
[Blurb on page 4]
“The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity.”—A Nation at Risk.
[Box on page 3]
Problems Afflicting U.S. Schools
“Many traditional and rigorous courses have been replaced with fare best described as educational entertainment.”—The Literacy Hoax, by Paul Copperman.
“The problem of drug use is so pervasive . . . Schools have become an extension of the streets as far as crime is concerned.”—Professor Lewis Ciminillo, Indiana University Northwest.
“The nation’s school population has changed radically in the past 15 years, with large increases in the number of children from broken homes and those living in poverty.”—The Express, Easton, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.
There “has been an alarming decline in the quality of teachers.”—U.S.News & World Report.
“Student discipline, including problems of truancy and drug usage, is the most pressing issue facing the Denver Board of Education.”—Rocky Mountain News.
“Student possession of knives and guns [is] widespread, and 100 students signed a petition asking for a metal detector at the door.”—The New York Times.