• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The School Mess

Toward Creating a Model School System: A Study of the Washington, D.C. Public Schools

by A. Harry Passow. and Others
Teachers College, Columbia, 593 pp., $5.00

A white school administrator in the District of Columbia unwittingly provided a clue to the pathology of urban education. She was talking frankly about the “two language” problem of a school population that is 91 percent Negro. Yes, she agreed, Negro children speak a dialect whose consistency we ought, in some measure, to respect. “But then,” she said, warming to her subject, “there is the problem of getting jobs. For example, take the young man who goes to the store for a job. A lady comes out of the store with a package, and he goes up to her and says, ‘Lady, kin ah kerryer packsh furya?” Well, she isn’t quite sure what he has said, and his tone has put her off as well, and so she says, ‘No, thank you.’ And the boy doesn’t get the job.” The sight of black children educated to haul packages for ladies is a common and haunting one: you see them at Washington’s supermarkets any day in the week. Nothing so shapes the education these children are given as the ideas people hold about the purposes of that education.

No more extensive catalogue of the failure of urban education has been provided than a recent study of Washington, D.C.’s public schools. The Passow Report grew out of pressure from citizens’ groups in the District for a plan to change the faltering school system. The former Superintendent of Schools, Carl Hansen, was under considerable personal attack by some members of the school board and by civil rights groups; and, with the Board, he was the defendant in a federal suit, brought by a Negro, Julius Hobson, attacking discrimination against Negro children in general and, in particular, the “track system,” a rigid form of ability grouping instituted by the Superintendent. Hansen agreed to a study, at least in part it would seem, as a delaying tactic, and proposed for the job the National Education Association, a group often accused of being a company union since its huge membership includes school administrators as well as teachers. But liberal groups did not trust the notion of educators passing judgment on their local colleagues—the NEA’S national office is in Washington. Through the efforts primarily of the D.C. Citizens for Better Public Education, whose current chairman is Mrs. Gilbert A. Harrison, they sought out Columbia University’s Teachers College and, in June, 1966, helped to arrange a $250,000 contract for the year’s study.

Those forces working to reform the schools clearly wanted the prestige of Columbia and of “research findings” to substantiate the patent defects that everyone had long observed in the system. White parents had been fleeing Washington since World War II—only 55 percent of the children in Washington’s schools were white when school desegregation was ordered. Negro parents able to afford it had been sending their children to private schools in increasing numbers. It was only a matter of time before Washington’s schools “served” only those, black and poor, who could not escape them.

Meanwhile, however, Julius Hobson’s federal suit against the school system was heard before Judge J. Skelly Wright, the architect of desegregation in New Orleans. In June 1967, on the day before Passow’s preliminary findings were released, Judge Wright handed down his ruling—and thoroughly upstaged the Report. Judge Wright found that the Superintendent and the Board “unconstitutionally deprive the District’s Negro and poor public school children of their right to equal educational opportunity with the District’s white and more affluent public school children.” He attacked segregation of students and faculty, unequal distribution of funds among predominantly white and black schools, and the “track” system. Tracking, said Wright, condemned black and poor children, on the basis of inappropriate aptitude tests, to a “blue collar” education in lower tracks distinctly unequal to that provided white children in upper tracks. Many Negro schools had no honors track and few white schools had the “basic,” or lowest, track. Wright ordered an end to tracking, decreed that children be transferred to relieve overcrowding and to achieve maximum desegregation, and asked the schools to prepare a plan for integrating their faculties and instituting equal services to Negro and white students. Hansen, faced with a sharp judicial condemnation of his regime and forbidden by the Board to appeal in his capacity as Superintendent, resigned; Congressmen talked about providing for election of the School Board instead of having it appointed by the federal District Court judges. It appeared that a new educational day might be dawning in Washington, what with the force of the Wright decision, the possibility of local democracy, and the details and proposals of the Passow Report.

As Judge Wright’s decision delighted the militants who had brought suit, so the Passow Report has pleased its liberal sponsors. Its pages, however unreadable for the most part, honestly document enormous failure at all levels by all participants in the system. Thirty-three task force chairmen and a staff of more than a hundred reported to Passow their observations of the schools and the communities around them, the administrative offices, even their interviews with Congressional committeemen. With professional shrewdness, they examined the administrative hierarchy, the curriculum, books and equipment, population shifts, attendance, teachers’ education and background, and more besides. The endlessly detailed Report, probably put together too hastily by Passow, is a disorganized compendium of all findings: the divisions are arbitrary and everything is given equal importance; there is no real direction—only a hope that Washington will become a model to the nation.

But from the mass of statistics, surveys, and observations, two images emerge. First, an image of administrative quagmire: the system is an irrational accretion of conflicting provinces and traditional loyalties, too understaffed in most areas to do a job well, yet too large to be responsive to classroom needs. Passow charts the breakdown of communication between lower echelons and policy-makers: principals, for example, are almost never consulted about staff appointments to their schools, nor teachers about curriculum materials and aids they need in class. On the other hand, curriculum policy is handed down in bare outline and without real guidance for teachers, with the result that they generally offer to students the shell of a program: reading, for instance, is taught as if it were a matter of breaking some mysterious code, rather than as a useful tool for gaining understanding and enjoyment; and unused and misunderstood science and mathematics equipment lines the bookshelves.

Beyond the bureaucracy’s bungling—indeed, seemingly remote from it—one sees a second image, that of students who are not learning. Passow’s statistics bear out what everyone already knew from experience: that segregated Negro children in Washington, as in every city, perform abysmally by all “achievement” measures. Of eleven high schools in the District that Passow examined, one is 93 percent white, another 60 percent black, the rest between 84 percent and 100 percent black. Test scores for the white school show its students performing among the top 10 percent in the country. Scores in the predominantly black schools are generally in the lowest third, with the integrated school always ahead of the segregated ones; and in math, mostly in the lowest tenth. Achievement tests are, indeed, misleading in many respects, organized so that middle-class students will normally do better; but the fact remains that most of the students in the nation’s capital do not perform in reading, writing, and arithmetic at anything close to national norms, grade levels, or any standards that can get them good jobs. A third cannot really read well enough to pass civil service examinations. As a result, Passow tells us, private employers in the District and federal personnel officials accuse one another of having skimmed the cream of the high school graduates. Meanwhile, knowing how dull and useless school is for them, between 40 and 50 percent of the students drop out.

The reaction of these dropouts is probably healthy and appropriate. Passow’s analysis of administrative breakdown, of an inept curriculum and low morale, would, no doubt, be enough, were the Washington schools guilty merely of failing to teach skills or encourage curiosity, adventure, enthusiasm, pride. But in fact occasionally the impression is of a school system only too successful. “Children in the elementary schools visited by this task force,” says the Report, “were having abundant opportunities to overlearn passive conformity.” Students who drop out may well be rejecting not only the failure of the schools to teach them skills; they may be rejecting what the schools do teach. The Report is worth quoting in this regard, though it is as well to note that these quotations appear only in the sections describing instruction in the elementary schools and in English.

When the teacher has all the ideas, gives all the directions, handles all the materials, and admonishes the children to sit still and not talk—if they do not rebel or withdraw completely—most children respond with an unquestioning acceptance of the teacher’s rulings on all matters. For instance, “a child was not allowed to color his Hallowe’en pumpkin green, even though the teacher had just read a poem referring to the green of a pumpkin when it was small.”

The child spent most of his day paying the closest possible attention to his teacher, following her directions, responding to her questions, and obeying her rules. The children were not encouraged to talk to one another, either formally or informally—indeed, the principal technical criticism the observers had of the language program was that it did not seem to deal with speech. And the sad fact is that in spite of all this, the children don’t really learn to read….

The children sang when instructed to do so, chorused responses when given recognized signals, and worked on written assignments, copying exercises from the chalkboard. The children spent most of the day writing at their desks, rarely speaking except in chorus. No one argued, disagreed, or questioned anything. At no time when I was in the room did any child ask a question.

It is entirely in keeping with the elementary program just described that almost every Negro boy in Washington’s high schools must participate in a “cadet corps” whose first objective is “to inculcate habits of orderliness and precision, to instill discipline and thereby respect for constituted authority….” It is no accident that in high schools with large white enrollments the voluntary nature of the cadet program is explained to students—and a quarter or fewer of the students join—while five of the predominantly black high schools have 100 percent enrollment. Only a rare statistic like this one, or an occasional comment catches the inner character of the Washington school system: “The teachers act as if warmth and sensitivity to individual feelings were somehow in conflict with the intellectual purposes of school instruction.” What is taught in a school, after all, cannot be fully expressed in administrative or even academic language. It is conveyed by the nature and atmosphere of its classrooms, the attitudes of teachers and students toward one another and toward learning. Washington’s school system ignores the lives of its students, offers them an irrelevant curriculum, emphasizes correcting their speech, appearance, habits, personalities, from kindergarten on, works mostly by close-order drill, permits students to spend more time on cadet corps than on English or math, guards instructional materials from student use. It is a system that treats “the child as a ‘piece of children’ rather than as an individual human being.” It teaches him that he is unimportant, stupid, dirty; it teaches him to despair and hate; it teaches him to quit. It does not teach him to function with intelligence and power.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print