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The War We Have Chosen to Lose (full text)

Arthur Levine comments on the failure of the government to provide adequate schooling for all children.

The War We Have Chosen to Lose

By President Arthur Levine

Imagine if our government conducted the war against terrorism the way we carry out urban school improvement. Here is what would have happened.

 

Immediately after the terrorist attacks, President Bush would, as he did, express his personal anger, our national resolve to rebuild, America's commitment to root out the causes of this tragedy, and declare war on terrorism.

 

Then, if he followed the path of urban school reform, the President would say terrorism will not be overcome by throwing money at the problem. For the most part, America does not need to spend more; it needs to spend smarter.

 

Next the President would tell us the war on terrorism requires a superb military force. Our best-prepared soldiers will, of course, need to remain in the capitols of our closest allies- London, Paris, and Tokyo. So we will be forced to quickly recruit a million new soldiers for the war on terrorism. Because of the urgency of the mobilization, we will not have the time to give many of them the training we traditionally give or expect of soldiers, but the nation should take heart in the fact that the new recruits will be smart, patriotic, and committed to the war against terrorism. They will learn to be soldiers on the battlefield. Also we will pay them 20-30% less than their peers stationed in the richest nations in the world, owing to the recent tax cut and weak economy.

 

The President would go on to say that armaments and equipment are essential to winning this war. Unfortunately, much of the latest technology will continue to be deployed with our current troop force. So it will be necessary to augment what weaponry is available with World War II surplus. These are the armaments with which "the greatest generation" decisively won a global war. We will win this new war not because of the date on our weapons, but because of the determination of our people.

 

President Bush would add that he is unwilling to send a general to lead this military campaign because the general staff failed to recognize the terrorist menace facing our country until it was too late. So he is asking one of the nation's most successful businessmen to lead our troops into war, an individual with a superb track record in overcoming adversities and building successes.

 

Finally, the President might say he is tired of the rhetoric that has historically been associated with American wars. In Viet Nam, it deeply divided our country. So he is setting clear standards or outcomes that the progress of the war will be measured against and standardized tests will regularly be administered and the scores made public to let the public know precisely how well we are doing and to assure military accountability.

 

This is, of course, a ludicrous scenario. Anyone who followed it would be thought a fool or worse. But it is exactly what we are doing in urban school improvement.

 

Today urban public schools are attended principally by low income and minority children who start school with weaker academic skills and knowledge than their suburban peers. They also live in environments that are less supportive of schooling than their suburban peers. Yet,

1. Urban public schools receive lower funding than suburban schools
2. Urban public schools pay their teachers 20-30% less than suburban schools. As a result, they are forced to hire a growing number of teachers who are unqualified to teach. For instance, a recent study found that 70% of middle school math teachers in high minority and poverty schools had neither a major, nor a minor in mathematics. This assures that the children who need the best teachers in the country are getting the least able.
3. Urban public schools have far poorer facilities and plants than suburban schools
4.Urban public schools have inadequate quantities, poorer quality and often badly dated curriculum materials compared with suburban schools.


The bottom line is that after 20 years of a school reform movement in the United States, with arguable two exceptions, no urban school system in the United States has ever been successfully turned around. The gap in academic achievement between blacks/Hispanics and whites is stagnant. We have are not making progress in serving poor, urban children.

 

What we have managed to do over the same period is to strengthen America's suburban schools, which were far better than urban schools at the beginning of the reform movement. And we have enabled all, but low income populations to leave our inner city public schools. The affluent are able to send their children to private schools. The middle class has a series of options. They can move to the suburbs. They can send their children to magnet or selective public schools. With strong consumer skills, they can scout out the best public elementary schools in their city (every city has some good schools) and then move to the suburbs for middle school, where the urban choices are far worse. Or they can choose lower cost private schools, usually Catholic or other religious. It is only the poor who are really stuck in failing inner city public schools.

 

The almost inescapable conclusion is that American does not care about urban public schools and the children who attend them. We are choosing to lose the war against failing urban public schools. And we have been able to get away with it because the parents of urban school children vote at lower rates than the suburban population; higher proportions are immigrants. And the parents for many understandable reasons have not taken to the streets and said, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more. These schools are not good enough for my children." If it became known that the quality of schooling was the litmus issue in voting or community activism in inner city communities, one might expect a better response from government.

 

America's urban public schools will not be substantially improved unless our country makes the major investment to improve them. I am not talking about merely equalizing funding between the suburbs and the cities and I am not talking about throwing money at the problem of urban public education. Here is a small example of what it is necessary.. Research shows clearly that the factor with the greatest impact on increasing student learning is a well-prepared and experienced teacher. We will not get these teachers to work in inner cities until salaries and incentives are actually higher than those in the suburbs, which are also offering their teachers easier and better working conditions. What I am saying is that principally our states, but also Washington are going to have to invest more heavily in the cities than the suburbs if they expect to see real changes. Until then, we will continue to do what we have been doing- triage: small improvements, creating a few more good schools.

 

Putting businessmen in charge of our schools and mandating standards and tests won't win the war either. Urban public schools need money, teachers, facilities, and curriculum materials if our urban school heads, regardless of their backgrounds, are to lead and our children are to achieve the new standards and it is essential that they do.

 

The argument that there is no money just doesn't make sense.. We find money for tax cuts. We find money for wars when necessary. We find money to bail out ailing industries. We find money to combat natural disasters. How can there be no money for our children and their schools? It is time to express our personal anger at the condition of the urban public schools, commit to rooting out the causes of this national tragedy, and resolve to rebuild.

Published Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2002

The War We Have Chosen to Lose (full text)

The War We Have Chosen to Lose

By President Arthur Levine

Imagine if our government conducted the war against terrorism the way we carry out urban school improvement. Here is what would have happened.

 

Immediately after the terrorist attacks, President Bush would, as he did, express his personal anger, our national resolve to rebuild, America's commitment to root out the causes of this tragedy, and declare war on terrorism.

 

Then, if he followed the path of urban school reform, the President would say terrorism will not be overcome by throwing money at the problem. For the most part, America does not need to spend more; it needs to spend smarter.

 

Next the President would tell us the war on terrorism requires a superb military force. Our best-prepared soldiers will, of course, need to remain in the capitols of our closest allies- London, Paris, and Tokyo. So we will be forced to quickly recruit a million new soldiers for the war on terrorism. Because of the urgency of the mobilization, we will not have the time to give many of them the training we traditionally give or expect of soldiers, but the nation should take heart in the fact that the new recruits will be smart, patriotic, and committed to the war against terrorism. They will learn to be soldiers on the battlefield. Also we will pay them 20-30% less than their peers stationed in the richest nations in the world, owing to the recent tax cut and weak economy.

 

The President would go on to say that armaments and equipment are essential to winning this war. Unfortunately, much of the latest technology will continue to be deployed with our current troop force. So it will be necessary to augment what weaponry is available with World War II surplus. These are the armaments with which "the greatest generation" decisively won a global war. We will win this new war not because of the date on our weapons, but because of the determination of our people.

 

President Bush would add that he is unwilling to send a general to lead this military campaign because the general staff failed to recognize the terrorist menace facing our country until it was too late. So he is asking one of the nation's most successful businessmen to lead our troops into war, an individual with a superb track record in overcoming adversities and building successes.

 

Finally, the President might say he is tired of the rhetoric that has historically been associated with American wars. In Viet Nam, it deeply divided our country. So he is setting clear standards or outcomes that the progress of the war will be measured against and standardized tests will regularly be administered and the scores made public to let the public know precisely how well we are doing and to assure military accountability.

 

This is, of course, a ludicrous scenario. Anyone who followed it would be thought a fool or worse. But it is exactly what we are doing in urban school improvement.

 

Today urban public schools are attended principally by low income and minority children who start school with weaker academic skills and knowledge than their suburban peers. They also live in environments that are less supportive of schooling than their suburban peers. Yet,

1. Urban public schools receive lower funding than suburban schools
2. Urban public schools pay their teachers 20-30% less than suburban schools. As a result, they are forced to hire a growing number of teachers who are unqualified to teach. For instance, a recent study found that 70% of middle school math teachers in high minority and poverty schools had neither a major, nor a minor in mathematics. This assures that the children who need the best teachers in the country are getting the least able.
3. Urban public schools have far poorer facilities and plants than suburban schools
4.Urban public schools have inadequate quantities, poorer quality and often badly dated curriculum materials compared with suburban schools.


The bottom line is that after 20 years of a school reform movement in the United States, with arguable two exceptions, no urban school system in the United States has ever been successfully turned around. The gap in academic achievement between blacks/Hispanics and whites is stagnant. We have are not making progress in serving poor, urban children.

 

What we have managed to do over the same period is to strengthen America's suburban schools, which were far better than urban schools at the beginning of the reform movement. And we have enabled all, but low income populations to leave our inner city public schools. The affluent are able to send their children to private schools. The middle class has a series of options. They can move to the suburbs. They can send their children to magnet or selective public schools. With strong consumer skills, they can scout out the best public elementary schools in their city (every city has some good schools) and then move to the suburbs for middle school, where the urban choices are far worse. Or they can choose lower cost private schools, usually Catholic or other religious. It is only the poor who are really stuck in failing inner city public schools.

 

The almost inescapable conclusion is that American does not care about urban public schools and the children who attend them. We are choosing to lose the war against failing urban public schools. And we have been able to get away with it because the parents of urban school children vote at lower rates than the suburban population; higher proportions are immigrants. And the parents for many understandable reasons have not taken to the streets and said, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more. These schools are not good enough for my children." If it became known that the quality of schooling was the litmus issue in voting or community activism in inner city communities, one might expect a better response from government.

 

America's urban public schools will not be substantially improved unless our country makes the major investment to improve them. I am not talking about merely equalizing funding between the suburbs and the cities and I am not talking about throwing money at the problem of urban public education. Here is a small example of what it is necessary.. Research shows clearly that the factor with the greatest impact on increasing student learning is a well-prepared and experienced teacher. We will not get these teachers to work in inner cities until salaries and incentives are actually higher than those in the suburbs, which are also offering their teachers easier and better working conditions. What I am saying is that principally our states, but also Washington are going to have to invest more heavily in the cities than the suburbs if they expect to see real changes. Until then, we will continue to do what we have been doing- triage: small improvements, creating a few more good schools.

 

Putting businessmen in charge of our schools and mandating standards and tests won't win the war either. Urban public schools need money, teachers, facilities, and curriculum materials if our urban school heads, regardless of their backgrounds, are to lead and our children are to achieve the new standards and it is essential that they do.

 

The argument that there is no money just doesn't make sense.. We find money for tax cuts. We find money for wars when necessary. We find money to bail out ailing industries. We find money to combat natural disasters. How can there be no money for our children and their schools? It is time to express our personal anger at the condition of the urban public schools, commit to rooting out the causes of this national tragedy, and resolve to rebuild.

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