- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 23, 2003

Big-city schools flush with money and small class sizes still have a majority of children in most grades who are not proficient in reading and mathematics, a report says.
Eight of the nation's 10 top-spending, inner-city school systems, including the District's, have made marginal improvements in the achievement gap between whites and minorities during the past two decades, according to the report, issued by the Council of the Great City Schools.
But the literacy and mathematics achievement gaps in all cities remains wide. Most black and Hispanic children score in the bottom half or quarter on periodic tests from grades four through 11, according to the report.
Big-city schools have twice as many black, Hispanic and Asian students as other systems, and almost twice as many live in poverty and are from families whose primary language is not English, Michael Casserly, the council's executive director, said in the report.
"And they operate in political and financial environments that are more complex, contentious, and competitive than those of smaller systems," he said.
The report, titled "Beating the Odds: A City-by-City Analysis of Student Performance and Achievement Gaps on State Assessments," shows that the nation's 59 big-city school systems spent an average of $6,835 per student in the 2001-02 school year, while other schools typically spent $6,508. Teachers in big-city schools had an average of 17.1 pupils per class, about one more child than the national average.
But Newark, N.J., schools which spend the most per student, $12,654, and have 12.4 students per teacher had 46 percent of its eighth-graders proficient in reading and 31 percent proficient in mathematics.
Reading achievement for Newark's 42,150 students, predominantly from families in poverty, drops dramatically from fourth grade, where 65 percent tested as proficient, the report shows.
The same situation exists in the District, which spends $9,650 per child and has 13.5 students per teacher.
Just more than half the District's first-graders tested as proficient in reading and mathematics in 2002, but the number dropped steadily for later grades.
By sixth grade less than 30 percent of students tested as proficient in reading and math, and in 11th grade 15 percent tested as proficient in reading and 9 percent in math.
The report shows the same achievement problems in all top-spending inner-city school systems with high numbers of black and Hispanic students.
In Minneapolis, where 52.5 percent of eighth-graders tested as proficient in reading, a breakdown shows that 85 percent of white students were proficient, while 40 percent of blacks and 38 percent of Hispanic students were shown to be literate.
Reid Lyon, a National Institutes of Health child-development researcher and President Bush's chief reading adviser, said the achievement problems stem mainly from children not being taught with scientifically based phonics reading methods required under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Mr. Lyon said the damage to society and the economy is shown by the "substantial gaps in performance in the states between racial and ethnic groups, and between kids from low-income families and more advantaged families.
"And what that tells us is that we have a long way to go. We still are leaving behind many children who we've left behind for years, and it propagates a cycle of failure."
The president's reading adviser said student illiteracy in later grades stems primarily from a "flawed" word-memorization reading method called "whole language" or "sight reading" used in many schools.
Research at the National Institutes of Health has demonstrated that "it takes good power in phonemic awareness and phonics.
"Those two are absolutely nonnegotiable. You can't learn to read without them," he said.
Then children must be taught to apply those skills rapidly, which is called "fluency."
Even then, some children still cannot comprehend reading material "because they're not focusing and asking themselves questions as they read for meaning and relating things to their own life, and so forth," he said.

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