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Lessons—And So Just What Good Were the Good Old Days?

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These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.

[THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES ON February 2, 2000]

And So Just What Good Were the Good Old Days?

By Richard Rothstein

It’s only right for governors, presidential candidates and mayors to demand that schools improve. In a democracy, elected leaders should hold public schools accountable. But if politicians don’t properly inform themselves about complex educational problems, they risk making decisions by cliché.

A case in point is the recent State of the State speech by New York’s governor, George E. Pataki. Explaining his demands for reform, the governor said, “At the turn of the last century, New York’s schools provided immigrant children and native New Yorkers alike with a first-rate education,” whereas today “some students are forced to settle for less.”

Those words may have struck many as harmless hyperbole. But allusions to a nonexistent golden age can be harmful, by masking the challenges schools actually face.

In the first decades of the 20th century, there was a yawning achievement gap between immigrants and the American-born. Even immigrant Jews, whom many now consider yesteryear’s “model minority,” did worse in school than immigrants do today. Schools took years to lift the children of immigrants up to achievement levels we now take for granted.

According to a 1911 federal report, 80 percent of native white seventh graders of that period in cities like Boston, Chicago and New York made it into eighth grade the next year. But a smaller proportion of Russian Jewish immigrant children, and many fewer Southern Italian immigrants, did so. After eighth grade, Southern Italians made it to high school at only half the rate of their native peers. (For purposes of the report, children were considered immigrants if they or their fathers were foreign-born.)

Twenty years later, things weren’t much better. By the end of the 1920’s, Italian immigrant high school students were still graduating at only one-quarter the rate of nonimmigrants. This was a much bigger native-immigrant gap than today’s.

Immigrant Jews performed less well than native whites, but better than immigrant Italians. That was no surprise. Then as now, achievement had a lot to do with families’ economic status. In 1910, 1 in 3 Southern Italian adult men in American big cities, and almost no Russian Jews, were unskilled laborers. In contrast, 1 in 3 Russian Jews, and very few Southern Italians, were merchants. As a result, Russian Jewish immigrants averaged about 20 percent more family income than Southern Italian immigrants.

Social promotion was hardly the norm back then. The term “retarded,” for children deemed to have limited ability, comes from the early-20th-century practice of holding back (retarding) those who read below grade level. A 1909 study found that in New York City, Italian-born elementary students were held back twice as frequently as American-born children. Jewish and Irish students were also retained unusually often.

Once denied promotion, many were quick to drop out. The immigrant challenge was so daunting that New York City started a special education program to address it. A 1921 survey found Italian children greatly overrepresented in these separate classes for slow learners.

Standardized exams seemed to confirm immigrants’ inferiority. About this time, I.Q. tests became common. In 1919, the median I.Q. score of Italian 10-year-olds in New York City was 84; for native-born whites, it was 109. But when only those students whose fathers were unskilled or semiskilled laborers were compared, Italian and native I.Q.’s were nearly identical.

Progress was slow, and assimilation rates for subsequent generations varied by ethnicity. It seems that Jews typically adapted to schools and became fully fluent in English more quickly than other immigrant groups. Italians seemed to do so more quickly than Greeks.

But of immigrant children themselves, even Jews were mostly unsuccessful. The 1911 report found that about half of all Jewish immigrant children around the country were held back in school. (Jews from Poland did particularly poorly; two-thirds were held back.) The historian Irving Howe reviewed New York school documents from 1910 to 1914 and said he had become “impatient with later sentimentalists” who exaggerated how much Jewish immigrant children “burned with zeal” for their studies. The academically successful were a minority.

Is this relevant to today’s problems? Yes, because we need reminding that the past provides models of very limited value. Americans now do a better (and more nearly equal) job of educating immigrant children than did Americans of earlier eras. (Incidentally, Western Europe has no better results for its Algerian or Turkish immigrant children.)

Our education debates could benefit from greater humility. We should aspire for greater success in educating immigrants, but nobody has sure answers for how to achieve it. If reform-minded politicians think better schools are simply a matter of turning back the clock, we’ve got big disappointments ahead.

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