Citizens for Effective Schools

Fixing Urban Schools: Has No Child Left Behind helped minority students?

CQ Researcher, Volume 17, April 27, 2007
Excerpts reprinted with permission from CQ Press, a division of Congressional Quarterly Inc.

by Marcia Clemmitt

African-American and Hispanic students – largely in urban schools – lag far behind white students, who mostly attend middle-class suburban schools.  Critics argue that when Congress reauthorizes the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), it must retarget the legislation to help urban schools tackle tough problems, such as encouraging the best teachers to enter and remain in high-poverty schools, rather than focusing on tests and sanctions….

And while some critics complain that NCLB gave the federal government too much say over education – traditionally a state and local matter – “there needs to be a strong federal role for these kids” in low-income urban schools “because they have been left behind,” says Gary Ratner, a public-interest lawyer who is founding executive director of the advocacy group Citizens for Effective Schools.  “States and localities have not stepped up.”

Now NCLB “has got the country’s attention,” and when Congress reauthorizes the law, “the federal role can be redirected to focus on Title I schools” – those serving a large proportion of disadvantaged students – “and do more of the things that professional educators support,” Ratner says….

Today, around the country, “we do have shining examples” of schools that succeed at urban education, says Timothy Knowles, executive director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Urban School Improvement and a former deputy school superintendent of Boston.

Ratner, of Citizens for Effective Schools, agrees.  “I spent time in an elementary school in Chicago a few years ago where all the teachers were teaching reading,” even at the upper grades, equipping students with the vocabulary and comprehension skills needed for future academic work, he says.  “They had a good principal, and they were showing that it can be done….”

Two Tracks

In the economy of the early 20th century … there remained little need for most students to learn more than basic reading and writing, so the failure of poor urban schools to produce many graduates wasn’t seen as a problem.

In current debates over U.S. education, ”people aren’t looking at education historically” and therefore expect American schools to do things they were never designed to do, says Ratner of Citizens for Effective Schools.

“We consciously decided to have a two-track system,” he says.  In the early 20th century, education experts generally agreed that “in the industrial age there are lots of immigrants and poor people, and most are going to work on the assembly line, so how about if we create an academic track and a general/vocational track” mostly for the poor?

The school system that we have “was never set up to educate all students to the levels of proficiency now being asked for,” Ratner says….