July 9, 2008

The Obscenity of the School Gap


THE ALLEGED, and denied, pregnancy pact by as many as 17 girls at Gloucester (Mass.) High School is as good a case as any to illustrate the importance of good public schools. Bungling politicians and the media's pernicious exploitation of girls below the age of consent is for another column. The deeper lesson I take from this affair is that, on its own, civilization doesn't replicate itself. Every teenage child is an unmarked slate that vastly different things can be written upon.

In a multicultural society there is the particular risk that out of fear of imposing one group's values on another, or on the whole, schools teach no values at all. Students are bereft of guidance. We need to remember ithat "replicating civilization" never stops. If, as it did, the teenage-pregnancy rate went down for a decade, it means little or nothing to girls who are 16 today, unless we teach them.

The same applies to English, history, math, science, ethical behavior, sportsmanship, drug and alcohol use and everything else we expect public schools to instruct young minds about. If schools fail their students for a single year, individuals are affected for the rest of their lives. If a school fails for five years a culture of failure infects the school, and this debased form of civilization does tend to replicate itself.

Twelve percent of American high schools produce half of the more than 1 million dropouts every year. The names and addresses of these 2,000 high schools are known. Yet in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and almost everywhere else in the United States, fixing them is not treated as an emergency. As a former teacher and coach, I naturally gravitate to young people in Providence -- on College Hill, in downtown and on Elmwood Avenue, between Broad Street and Roger Williams Park.

Politicians like to rail about "the widening gap between rich and poor in the United States." In fact, the gap has widened statistically because the wealth of the top quintile (20 percent) has taken off in the last 25 years. In this decade all quintiles have done better and there has been free movement of individuals to higher quintiles.

So at least until the economic storm clouds of the last year, we have all been doing better. It's just that the rich have been doing much better. Those who object to that don't understand that curing it would be worse than the disease. True "trickle-down economics" would be the misery of reduced national wealth if we tried to reduce the income gap by taxing the rich down to our level. (The only problem I have with the very rich is their almost uniformly poor taste in architecture.)

Where the gap between what are better called the privileged and the unprivileged really is a travesty is in educational opportunity. On College Hill, most Brown students (and not just the rich ones) are on a march to dramatically productive lives. They will cure diseases, end wars, save rain forests and help raise up sub-Saharan Africa.

In downtown, waiters and waitresses attending Johnson & Wales and other good colleges are working their way up to careers as architects, lawyers and restaurateurs. This is the salt of the earth.

On Elmwood Avenue, the foreclosure boom has arrived. At 2 a.m. prostitutes openly solicit, and drug dealers in cars make transactions by cell phone. High-school dropouts in their 20s take advantage of the low rents, but they only work sporadically. They consume huge quantities of alcohol, and in many cases, of drugs. Looking north toward downtown Providence, one sees the new luxury Residences at the Westin tower in sunlight, three miles away.

This disparity has mainly to do with the gap in educational opportunity. It predicts future income, but it is the education gap, not the income gap, that is obscene. I was going to devote this column to a detailed analysis of Massachusetts Governor Patrick's 50- point Readiness Project for education. At a glance, it has four points I like and 46 that are bureaucratic bunkum, shifts of power to the state, pilot programs with no urgency, or unrealistic proposals that would cost billions.

Washington, D.C., has some of the worst public schools in America, but since June 12, 2007, has had what may be the most dynamic chancellor in the country, 38-year-old Michelle Rhee. (Mayor Adrian Fenty upgraded her title from superintendent when he hired her.)

I recently heard Chancellor Rhee speak in Boston. Her English has a hint of Valley-girl speech, about which I'm a snob. But in one who is brilliant, principled and young it makes me sanguine about the future of the country.

Ms. Rhee speaks plainly: There are two basic problems in the D.C. schools: 1) No accountability. 2) The interest of adults always takes precedence over the interest of children, who have no voice. There are two solutions: 1) Good leadership. 2) Great teachers.

Chancellor Rhee has closed schools, fired principals and put job- protected incompetents on paid leave. "I'd rather pay them $40,000 to do no harm than pay them $40,000 to do harm!" Mayor Fenty has said that only he may say no to her. I fear that conventional "initiatives" like Governor Patrick's will take 40 years to turn any one school around. We'll see, but I'm betting Michelle Rhee does it in four.

David A. Mittell Jr. is a member of The Journal's editorial board.

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