There is good news and bad news about the current state of public education in the United States. Both, however, offer lessons that are instructive in the long run.

The bad news is that there is once again a huge gap between test scores of black and white students. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the gap between whites and blacks, which had shrunk considerably during the 1980s, ballooned during the 1990s and now echo figures from the 1970s. Tests indicate that the average black 17-year-old students now reads only as well as the average white 13-year-old.

There’s no suggestion that the gap is fueled by a difference in intelligence levels between races. The problem, almost all educators agree, is one of schools, and schooling, specifically the expectations much of modern society might have for black children. There is evidence that some school districts seem to have — inadvertently or not — lower goals for black students regardless of class. As a result, some black students are placed, or elect to be in, classes that are less difficult. It’s also possible that some black students choose not to perform well academically because of peer pressure. Whatever the cause, the gap in scores is troubling and steps must be taken to remedy it.

On the flip side, there is good news from California that has ramifications for communities around the country. Many school systems, including several in the Chattanooga area, are dealing with a heavy influx of Spanish-speaking students. There has been much debate about the best way to teach students whose first language is not English. Recent scores in California show that Spanish-speaking children who were instructed in English scored extremely well on state-mandated tests.

In fact, reading and other test scores rose dramatically when those students were immersed in English-speaking classes. The results are so startling that those who once advocated biligual education and its gradual introduction to a new language have been forced to re-examine their stand. It is possible,
it appears, to teach all students in much the same manner without harming those slowed by language barriers. The “cold turkey” approach to teaching students who speak a foreign language is educationally effective. American schools have a long tradition of moving the children of immigrants into the English-speaking mainstream. The California tests show that is still true.

News about the widening gap in black and white test scores is certainly disheartening. California’s success with English immersion for Spanish-speaking students is enlightening. But the reports — good and bad — can be used to improve schools. That’s the benefit of sharing news of both failures and successes around the country.



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