TOPICS > Education

Lagging Behind: American Public Education

August 28, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT
Loading the player...
Elizabeth Farnsworth examines two studies that point to weaknesses in American public education.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: A new U.S. Department of Education report card monitoring student achievement across 30 years has found that the gap between whites and blacks in reading, mathematics, and science remains significant and in some cases is growing. A separate report issued today on the effect of school vouchers in three cities found test scores much improved among African American students who used vouchers to move from public to private schools. For more on these studies we turn now to Michael Nettles, Professor of Education at the University of Michigan, and vice chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which administers the study for the nation’s report card; Chester Finn; President of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, an education policy think tank in Washington; Kati Haycock director of the Education Trust, an independent nonprofit organization that works to improve student achievement; and Paul Peterson, a professor of government studies at Harvard University. He led the school voucher study released today. Thank you all for being with us.

Michael Nettles, first the national test. Who takes it? Who gives it?

MICHAEL NETTLES: Well, the test is taken by 17, 13 and 9-year-olds, a representative sample of the nation’s students in public and private schools. And what it basically shows is that children at those age groups are performing better today than they were 30 years ago. So that’s good news, especially in math and science. The other good news is the gap between blacks and whites have narrowed over that period of time. The disappointing news is that the gaps have widened between blacks and whites since 1988.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Give us more information about the gaps. Examples.

MICHAEL NETTLES: Well, in 1980, for example, let’s go back to the beginning. In 1971, there was a 52 point difference between the performance of African-Americans and whites in mathematics. Those narrowed to about 20-point difference in 1988. But since 1988, the gap has gone back to a 32-point difference. So it is halfway between where it was in 1971, and in 1988.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But it is quite serious, isn’t it? Tell me, is this right, I read for black 17-year-olds, the average scores in reading and math are the same as for 13-year-old white pupils. Is that true?

MICHAEL NETTLES: Well, that’s one interpretation because these are on the same scale. So that what it suggests is that African-Americans are reading below white 17-year-olds, African-Americans who are 17-year-olds are reading closer to the 13-year-olds than they are to 17-year-old whites.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And the gap remains large for the children of college-educated parents too?

MICHAEL NETTLES: Yes. In fact, the gap between African-Americans and whites among parents, children of parents who graduated from college are wider than they are for non-college graduates. What this suggests is that college – but let me make another point. The children of African-Americans whose parents went to college performed better than children of African-Americans who did not. What this suggests is that college does have a benefit, but it is a differential benefit between blacks and whites. And it has a greater benefit for whites than blacks, say in such matters as income and occupational attainment.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Nettles, why is this happen something does your study give you any insight into that?

MICHAEL NETTLES: Well, some of the performance improvements of African-Americans over the past 30 years is due to their increase in performance at lower levels of skill. For example, in mathematics, the vast majority of children are not able to perform one step problems, but when it becomes, when it comes to more complex tasks, like using fractions, decimals and even more complex uses of mathematics, children are having a great deal more difficulty. We have seen a lot of the gaps eliminated at the lower levels performance in each of the subject areas of reading, math and science. But it is now higher standards and more expectations of, for performance of more complex tasks are needed.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So, basically you are saying that low expectations would be one explanation for why this is happening.

MICHAEL NETTLES: Yes, that’s one. Another is lower quality schools. The African-Americans in the nation in general are attending schools that are not at of the same quality on average as their white counterparts — higher rates of teachers teaching science and math, for example, who are not certified in those subjects, or higher rates of absenteeism among teachers, lower quality schools in general. So that may be having a significant impact on these differences.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Chester Finn, what’s your reaction to this study?

CHESTER FINN: Well, the big news is how flat these scores are over 30 years. There are blips up; there are blips down. There’s some narrowing of gaps. There’s some widening of gaps. If you look at this in the big picture, it is pretty flat from the ’70s across the ’80s and across the ’90s. That says to me our efforts at education reform in this country as a whole have not got much traction — at least not for the country as a whole. We see promising results in particular places — in one state or one city. And we see reforms that we have high hopes for. But to take this kind of giant barometer of kids across the country as a whole, they are not doing very much better now than they were doing 10 and 20 and 30 years ago, and the changes along the way are not nearly as significant as the lack of progress that was have made so far in our reform efforts.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So what do you think causes the gap?

CHESTER FINN: I think that the black/white gap in particular, which has been with us for a very long time, is partly indeed the result of inferior schools. It is partly the result of less well-educated parents. It is partly the result of lower expectations. There’s a whole litany of things, I’m afraid that things we do not well for white kids but we do them worse for African-American kids and the upshot is that what Lyndon Johnson set out to do in 1965, which was to close the rich/poor achievement gap, it has not happened yet.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay, I’ll be back to you on maybe what should be done about. Kati Haycock, what’s your reaction to the study?

KATI HAYCOCK: I think the most important news is a powerful reminder that we actually made significant progress as a nation during the ’70s and ’80s in raising achievement among poor and minority children and in narrowing gaps between groups. In about an 18-year period, the gap between white and black kids nationally was cut in half. The gap between white and Latino youngsters which was smaller to begin with declined by one third. So we did, in fact, make real progress and there’s a real reminder of that in the data in this report. The saddest reminder there though is that in the ’90s that progress literally stopped dead in its tracks and since that time, the gaps have widened again. Mike made it very clear and this is true for Latinos as well as African-Americans – by the way — that at age 17 their schools in mathematics and in language arts are virtually identical to those of white students at age 13.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And do you point to the same passage for this gap?

KATI HAYCOCK: I point primarily to school-related causes. There is no question that all of us as parents can help our kids to score better on these tests and to perform better in schools by reading, by turning the television off and so on. So there are things that parents can do. But when you look very closely at the differences in the quality of education received by African-American and Latino youngsters and poor youngsters of all races, you can hardly come away thinking that we have got a fair system. They are taught by more than their share of teachers, who are teaching out of field who are brand new, who are not well trained. They are more likely to be in watered down courses. The expectations for these children are terribly low. It is hardly surprising they don’t do so well on tests.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Paul Peterson, respond to that study and tell us about your study.

PAUL PETERSON: Well, what we have found is that if children go to a private school, and have a set of teachers and a school environment in that setting, within two years, they close the gap by about one third. So, what was done, the progress that Kati is talking about in the ’80s was achieved in the three cities we studied in the two-year time for those students who got a voucher and went to a private school. This is only the African-American students, I hasten to add. We did not see any gains for the other students, from other ethnic backgrounds. But we did see that black students can learn. And we also found out some reasons why.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay, before you tell us why, what three cities and just describe your study a little bit.

PAUL PETERSON: The three cities are New York City, Washington, and Dayton , Ohio. And what we did is we looked at a group of students who won a lottery to go to private school. They got a voucher to go. And then we had the group who did not win the lottery. So the two groups of students are exactly alike. We take the family background and the initial ability of the child out of the equation, and what we find is, this is the effect of schooling. And we asked the parent a bunch of questions about the school, and the ones who got to go to private school told us that there is much less of a discipline problem in the private schools. There is a lot more communication with the family: Higher expectations, more homework demand of the students and the schools are smaller. So these are some pretty basic things that seem to make a big difference for black Americans, didn’t make such a big difference for the others.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So if you put these two studies together, would it be fair to say that would you say vouchers would be one answer to the gap problem?

PAUL PETERSON: Well, it looks as if it is able to close the gap when it is really difficult to find anything else that able to close the gap. I would also say, this is just three studies, it is not time to change American education overnight. But it is time to explore this as an avenue that might bring about some bigger changes.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay, Kati Haycock, respond to that, please.

KATI HAYCOCK: Well, I have got my doubts, frankly. If you look carefully at the research that Dr. Peterson and his colleagues just accomplished, what you realize is that, you’ve got test data for only about half of the kids in the sample. Secondly, the numbers of kids participating in the voucher program in DC, in particular, which is where they supposedly got the largest gains, actually diminished significantly between year one and year two, presumably going back to the public schools. You have to ask yourself, are six or seven points of gain significant, when you only have half of the kids even being tested, can we really be sure of these results, and I think as he indicated himself, it is not so sure here.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Let me just let Mr. Peterson respond to that quickly.

PAUL PETERSON: Well, you know, the students that we follow are pretty much a cross section of those who applied. The lottery was the way we chose who got in and is the comparison group. And you follow as many as you can bring back in. But there’s no sign that we didn’t get a pretty typical group of students. I doubt if any of these results, we would get very similar results in three different sites using three different research teams gathering the data, and when you get back, you say there is something going on here.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Chester Finn, what’s your response to that?

CHESTER FINN: Well, the Little Foundation I’m involved with is helping to support the program in Dayton, Ohio. And as an investor in that program, of course, I was pretty pleased to see these kinds of positive results for the three quarters of the children who have benefited from the program in Dayton who are, in fact, African-American. This was encouraging. As Kati said, I think we’re not prepared to leap into some kind of universal public policy change on the basis of this. But this is a pretty promising suggestion that giving kids the chance to go to different schools, better schools is a pretty good way to narrow the achievement gap. And I hope we’re able to do that for a whole lot more kids in this country over the next few years.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Kati Haycock, I interrupted you. You want to say something now?

KATI HAYCOCK: Well, I think it is important that we be clear about what we’re talking about here. What we’re talking about is very, very modest gains on a small number of kids. We have no idea whether that’s an accurate representation. We have known for a very long time that comparable kids do slightly better in private schools than they do in public — but only slightly — and certainly not nearly as well as their counterpart do in other countries. So to suggest that putting even all of our kids in private schools is somehow a panacea for what ails us as a country is simply nonsense. Both public and private school children in this country do far less well in mathematics and in language arts than their counterparts in other countries.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Michael Nettles, when you take the study that you led or that you were chairman of, and you look at this new study what kind of conclusion dose you draw?

MICHAEL NETTLES: Well, I was delighted to see the study. I think that some of the attributes that Professor Peterson talks about that he observed in the schools, such as high expectations, focus on homework, high-quality interaction between teachers and parents, are attributes that we ought to learn from. And when they are aspects of the study that I would like to see improved. For example, some of the students in Dayton had a public school as a choice. And I would like to see how those students actually performed after wining the lottery. It is also interesting to find out what kind of inspiration people get from wining the lottery versus losing the lottery. So, those are aspects of the study that I think we would like to see continued –


MICHAEL NETTLES: — continue examining. But there is no doubt we need to have all sorts of ideas and solutions for this enormous gap between blacks and whites, in achievement in this country. And if choice is one of those, then we should spend a good bit more time learning more about it and trying to give people the option.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, thank you all four very much for being with us.