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SOS--Save Our Schools

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SOS--Save Our Schools

Stephen H. Unger

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November 25, 2013

From Little Red Schoolhouse
Little Red Schoolhouse
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The public school has always been a fundamental part of American culture. The "Little Red Schoolhouse", often a one-room affair with pupils of all grades taught by one teacher, has been credited with the high literacy rate enjoyed by the rural population that was a cornerstone of American democracy during the nineteenth century.

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Early in the twentieth century, public schools in cities such as New York were instrumental in making Americans out of the children of impoverished immigrants. At least in New York, many such children learned to speak, read and write in English, and received good basic educations. The best products of the public schools were able to acquire first-rate college educations at the tuition-free City College of New York (CCNY). A stellar example, Jonas Salk, conqueror of polio, was a child of low income, uneducated immigrants. He graduated from Townsend Harris, one of New York City's elite public high schools, and continued his education at CCNY.

But, despite its beneficial effects for the great majority of Americans, the public school system has come increasingly under fire over the past several decades. What is the basis for these attacks? To what extent, if any, are they justified? What needs to be done in response?


A major point about American schools that must be clearly acknowledged before any general discussion, is the great variability of schools and school systems. I can testify to this, as, I am sure, can many readers, just on the basis of my own experience, as well as the experience of family members, friends and acquaintances. In NY City, I attended an excellent junior high school in the Bronx for one term, and then, as a result of a family move to Manhattan, had to spend three  semesters in a nightmarish junior high school school. I escaped after the eighth grade to go to Brooklyn Tech, another elite NYC high school. (New York City has nine elite high schools, perhaps the best known being The Bronx High School of Science, Stuyvesant, and The High School of Music & Art.) There are other good New York high schools, but, sadly, many others are of poor quality.

Looking elsewhere in the nation, the school systems in Berkeley, CA, and Falls Church, VA (population about 12,500) are excellent. In Bergen County, NJ there are excellent school systems in Ridgewood and Tenafly. The Bergen County Academies, in Hackensack, is a nationally renowned public high school open to all Bergen County students on a competitive basis.

On the other hand, the Paterson, NJ (population about 145,000, mostly low-income people) school system has a very bad reputation. Before considering how good or bad our schools are, and what could be done to make them better, let's consider what factors affect how well students do in school.

What does it take to get low grades?

The quality of a school can be judged from data on how students in that school perform on various standard exams, how many graduate from high school, and how many are admitted to good colleges. But maybe not.

The problem is that many factors other than school quality can affect student performance. Intelligence is obviously one important element, but there are many others. Let's look at a few.

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A major factor is parental income [1]. Children in low income families are likely to be handicapped in a number of ways. Their parents, usually poorly educated themselves, are seldom good role models, are unlikely to inspire them to work hard, or to help them with their studies. Very few of these children start their schooling with some initial reading skills, or even the kind of eagerness to learn to read that often comes from having had stories read to them by parents. Many, whose families live in cramped quarters, do not have adequate places at home where they can study and do homework in peace. Bad eating habits and poor nutrition further hinder their ability to concentrate on schoolwork. Alcohol and drug abuse cause further problems.  

An important factor undermining motivation is peer pressure. Particularly among boys, there may be a widely shared attitude in some groups that doing well scholastically is not "cool". Good students may be mocked by classmates. This attitude encourages many students to neglect their studies, and to treat exams frivolously, including IQ tests. This can be a problem in all income brackets, but is most serious at the low end.

Problems accumulate. A student who, in the lowest grades, falls behind in reading is going to have increasing trouble in just about every subject. Mathematics is a subject in which each topic is a building block for subsequent topics. So early failures in comprehension are hard to overcome. This also leads to later difficulties in  science courses. Some high school students from poor families have part time jobs that reduce the time and energy that they can devote to school work. 

The effect of all these factors is that schools with a large proportion of children from poor families are likely to look relatively bad in terms of student academic performance, no matter how good the teachers and administrators are. Some racial or ethnic groups are over-represented in the lowest income brackets. 

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I am an engineer. My degrees are in electrical engineering and my work has been in the digital systems area, mainly digital logic, but also computer organization, software and theory. I am a Professor, Emeritus, Computer Science and Electrical (more...)

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