Commentary | Education

Lessons—Failed Schools? The Meaning Is Unclear

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


Failed schools? The meaning is unclear

By Richard Rothstein

The Supreme Court ruled last week, in a case involving Cleveland schools, that public money in the form of vouchers could subsidize the tuition of students who choose to attend religious schools. It was only partly a legal judgment that such aid does not violate the separation of church and state. What propelled the court was also a policy conclusion that vouchers may be a way to rescue children from failing public schools.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist said that his majority ruling was “not an endorsement of religious schooling,” but only a means “to assist poor children in failed schools.” Justice David H. Souter, in dissent, acknowledged that if ever there was reason to support religious schools, Cleveland’s failed public schools would provide it.

But nobody really knows how to identify failing schools, the justices included. Policy makers have been so anxious to punish school failure that they have worried too little about defining what failure is.

Typically, a failing school is deemed one with low scores. By this measure, Cleveland schools do fail, prompting parents to seek radical alternatives.

But while low scores can result from failed schools, they can also have other causes. Poor performance can also result from parents who do not read to young children or otherwise support learning at home. It can result from inadequate exposure to art and music. It can result from insecurity bred of violent surroundings, from emotional stress in broken families or from parents suffering severe economic hardship. In combination, these factors almost ensure failure.

How can policy makers distinguish schools that fail because of low expectations, poor teaching and disorderly classrooms from those that seem to fail because of social and economic pressure?

Cleveland vouchers highlight the problem. The State of Ohio commissioned studies to evaluate the program. If Cleveland schools were truly failing, then public school students who used vouchers at successful private schools should have higher scores than comparable students remaining in public schools.

But if voucher students did as poorly as comparable public school students, then Cleveland’s public school “failure” is likely attributable less to what public schools do than to obstacles all schools, public and private, face in educating disadvantaged children.

The studies were conducted by Kim K. Metcalf of Indiana University, and reviewed by outside experts, including supporters and opponents of vouchers.

In his most recent report, Dr. Metcalf compared students who got vouchers with public school students who wanted vouchers but did not get them because there were too few to go around. The two groups had no significant differences in scores.

When voucher students were compared with public school students who did not apply for vouchers, voucher students did better in language arts (like grammar) but not in math or other reading skills. The voucher students’ language scores were only slightly higher.

Susan Tave Zelman, Ohio’s superintendent of public instruction, concluded: “We don’t see anything one way or another from these studies on the academic results of vouchers. The lack of dramatic results is neither a negative nor positive judgment on the program.”

Meanwhile, state test data show how complex definitions of failure can be. Cleveland, where 80 percent of students are from low-income families, certainly seems to be failing; most students are not proficient in most subjects.

Like many other urban areas, Cleveland is surrounded by suburbs with growing minority populations. Most people would think that these districts succeed because their overall scores are still above standard. But minority students’ average scores are much lower, and the gap between white and black students in these “successful” districts is comparable to the gap in “failing” Cleveland schools.

Ohio permits Cleveland students to transfer not only to private schools, but also to public schools in these suburbs. But no suburb would take any Cleveland students. Officials at suburban schools that already had some poor students recognized that if they added too many more, their schools could be termed “failing” even if instruction remained adequate.

Of course, many Cleveland schools may fail because they do not rise to the challenge of educating disadvantaged students. Others may be more successful, although their test scores are still low. Roman Catholic schools in Cleveland, which accept most of the voucher students, may be in either category. We simply can’t tell them apart because scores are low in both cases.

When Supreme Court justices thought they found a way for urban students to escape failing schools, they ventured into an area beyond their judicial expertise. They should not be blamed. The expertise is pretty scarce, no matter where you look.

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