A new study calls for more parental choice in schooling to address a widening and persistently large “literacy gap” that divides two “separate and unequal school systems” in New York state–a largely successful one serving mostly white pupils and another, mostly unsuccessful, one serving minorities. Reading test scores from 1990 to 1996 show that poor readers are concentrated in public schools whose enrollments are more than 80 percent black, Hispanic, Asian, or American Indian.
By sharp contrast–and spending much less per pupil–students attending high-minority non-public schools consistently outperform those in high-minority public schools, scoring 19 points above the public school average in the third grade and 11 points above in sixth grade.
While more than 90 percent of the pupils in New York’s predominantly white suburban schools exceeded the state’s minimum competency reading standard on the 1996 third- and sixth-grade tests, nearly half of the third-grade students in high-minority public schools scored below that minimum level–meaning they could not read even the simplest material. More schooling provides little improvement; more than 40 percent of sixth-graders in high-minority public schools still failed to meet their grade standard.
Eighty percent of sixth-graders in high-minority public schools could not read well enough on their own to fully comprehend a typical sixth-grade textbook, according to the March 1998 report, Separate and Unequal: The Reading Gap in New York’s Elementary Schools, published by the Public Policy Institute, a research affiliate of the Business Council of New York State.
“It is shameful to leave such a large group of children so far behind,” writes the Rev. Floyd H. Flake in the report’s preface. Acknowledging that some high-minority public and non-public schools do succeed, Floyd adds, “We need the rest of the schools to stop making excuses for their failures–and start matching the results of those schools that do succeed.”
That’s what the state Education Department attempted to do in 1990, when it began intensifying its efforts to identify and correct the reading problem in high-minority public schools. But since 1990, reading test scores in those schools have fallen even further. The percentage of pupils reading above the minimum competency level dropping by six points between 1990 and 1996.
Flake proposes forcing the necessary reforms by issuing school vouchers, using them as a direct challenge to “a bureaucratic school system” where “officials believe they have a right to force minority kids to stay in schools that are not educating them.” The Separate and Unequal report also supports expanded school choice for parents.
“Vouchers may not solve all the problems,” admits Flake, a former U.S. Congressman who is pastor of Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church in Jamaica, New York. “But they at least give hope to many beleaguered children and parents, while providing wholesome competition to the public system–forcing it to expedite necessary reforms that guarantee every child a good education.”
As well as recommending a broader choice of educational options for parents, the report also recommends using high-minority schools with superior reading scores as models for success; more phonics instruction; more class time for reading; a greater commitment to testing; incentives linked to school performance; and more reading remediation programs.
George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].
For more information …
The March 1998 report, Separate and Unequal: The Reading Gap in New York’s Elementary Schools, is available from The Public Policy Institute, 152 Washington Avenue, Albany, NY 12210-2289; phone 518/465-7511; or from the Web site of The Business Council of New York State at http://www.bcnys.org.