The Dark Side of Suburban School Achievement

Published January 1, 2000

In early November, parents in many New York communities were shocked to discover that buying an expensive home in an exclusive suburb hadn’t guaranteed a good education for their children in the local public schools.

Instead of reading about how inner-city students were failing state tests, they found that one of five of their own suburban eighth-graders had failed to meet state standards in math, according to the New York State Education Department.

The New York state math test, administered for the first time during the past school year, is based on a new math curriculum, established in 1998, for kindergarten through eighth grade. The results of the new test, released on November 5, revealed that millions of New York state students are unprepared for high school work: 38 percent of students statewide, ranging from 90 percent in Rochester, 77 percent in New York City, 59 percent in Suffolk County’s East Hampton District, to 20 percent in Rye, Mamaroneck, and Great Neck.

While public school apologists frequently blame the poor academic performance of inner-city students on low expectations and the students’ home environments, these are not significant factors in most suburbs. Although some New York school officials suggested that rote learning and a shortage of qualified teachers were part of the problem, Education Commissioner Richard C. Mills laid the blame on the curriculum taught in the schools.

“If you don’t like the results, what do you do?” he asked New York Times reporter Anemona Hartocollis. “First of all you look at what is actually taught in every school in every classroom.”

That was exactly what a group of concerned parents did in the 1980s and early 1990s in the K-12 public schools in another privileged community: Princeton, New Jersey.

While the 3,000-student Princeton Regional Schools had an excellent reputation, with 85 percent of its graduates attending college and some of the highest SAT scores in the state, many parents became concerned that the word “curriculum” appeared to be unwelcome there. In fact, school officials told parents that curriculum was not very important, that “one size does not fit all,” and that they were catering to the children’s individual needs and fostering self-esteem.

“It was hard to find out what was being taught in a given classroom,” writes Dr. Chiara R. Nappi in the October 1999 Fordham Foundation report, Why Charter Schools: The Princeton Story. Decisions about curriculum, she says, “were completely in the teachers’ hands.”

As a result, some children were left with serious learning gaps as they progressed from grade to grade. However, in a community like Princeton, many parents were capable of helping their children at home and making up these deficits on an ongoing basis. By the time these youngsters got to high school, they were ready to take advanced placement and accelerated courses.

But not all parents could make up the deficit, and many students–particularly those who were socioeconomically disadvantaged or minority–fell behind more and more each year as the learning deficit accumulated. By the time these youngsters reached high school, they needed remedial instruction. Many parents believed this outcome was a result of the school system’s unstructured and unambitious curriculum, so a group of them set out to change the system so that it would help all students achieve at a high level.

“Yet ten years of effort got nowhere,” writes Nappi, who is a theoretical physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study.

The parents tried a variety of strategies to change the public school system from within, but without success. They worked directly with teachers and principals, submitted petitions to the Board of Education, worked through the local PTO, got themselves elected to the Board of Education, and even earned a majority of the seats on the Board.

But parents in the community were divided over the kind of education that public schools should provide. Moreover, the teacher union used local control to protect the status quo. Thus, even when a majority of like-minded reformers was elected to the school board, the local teacher union was able to resist curriculum reform by insisting that such decisions should be made by professional educators.

Then, some of the parents received a charter from the state. Their school opened in September 1997 and appears to be remarkably successful, drawing its students from all segments of the community.

The Princeton public schools have since begun to make their curriculum more rigorous.

“Charter schools offer a new kind of local control,” says Nappi. “Instead of forcing all groups in town to accept a single sort of school, they allow a multiplicity of communities to form around shared visions of what a good school can be and what sort of education is best for children.”

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.

For more information …

The October 1999 report by Chiara R. Nappi, Why Charter Schools? The Princeton Story, is published by The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and is available from the Foundation at 1627 K Street NW #600, Washington, DC 20006, phone 202/223-5452. The report also is available at the Foundation’s Web site at