Ghosts in the D.C. school woes

A frequent and, in my opinion often logical, criticism of this website is that we tend to stretch logic while seeking out the religion "ghosts" that we believe are hidden between the lines in important stories in the mainstream press. Stop and think about this for a minute.

Sometimes we have to do a bit of stretching, a bit of creative connecting of the dots, in order to see the religion-news angles. After all, we are trying to point out connections that other people are not seeing. We see them. That's why we do what we do. In particular, that's why I've been pounding my head on the newsroom wall for 30-plus years, talking about the need for improved coverage on this beat.

So, here I go again. However, let me state right up front that I am talking about a ghost that I have seen talented professionals miss several times in newsrooms in which I have worked.

The Washington Post ran an A1 news story today that has absolutely no religion in it whatsoever. The headline on this report -- a local story, but with national implications -- was depressing, in part because it could have been written last year, or the previous decade, or the decade before that. It proclaimed: "Progress slows in closing achievement gaps in D.C. schools." Here's the top of this story, which focuses on a major issue of social justice in this nation:

After two years of progress, Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's effort to narrow the vast achievement gap separating white and African American students in D.C. public schools has stalled, an analysis of 2010 test score data shows. ...

Data that Rhee released this week show that the difference in the percentages of white and black students who score at proficiency levels on the annual D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System tests had narrowed from 2007 to this year. The most significant improvement was in secondary schools, where the spread in math achievement dropped more than more 18 percentage points, from 70 to 51.4 percent. But year-to-year results show that progress has slowed markedly. After narrowing from 2007 to last year, the gap in secondary math proficiency widened by slightly less than 2 percentage points. Secondary reading scores show the same flattening trajectory.

The District's struggle to close academic divides based on race and ethnicity is playing out in school systems across the country, where progress has also stagnated.

A key element of the story is its relentless attempt to frame this story completely in elements of race and, between the lines, political clout. That is understandable. In addition to look at the gap between black and white, the study also included statistics about trends among Hispanic students. The numbers were depressing there, too.

So you read and you read and the story gets more and more frustrating. I cannot imagine how painful this must be for people who have devoted their lives to fighting for this cause.

At the very end of the report, another theme makes a brief appearance:

Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, said that although good schools and good teachers can make a difference in the lives of poor children, the persistence of the achievement gaps may also suggest that there is a limit to their reach.

"Part of this hitting the wall may be the troubling fact that we may need to somehow attack family poverty before we see greater progress in closing achievement," Fuller said.

Without a doubt, poverty plays a hellish role in this drama. Thus, it may help to ask, "What has been the most consistent cause of urban poverty in recent generations?"

So here is my leap of logic. On two different occasions I have been in newsrooms that attempted to research large news projects linked to the welfare of young people and, in particular, discovering what makes them successful in the classroom and in life. Both times, I learned about these project after work had already begun to frame the issues, develop the survey materials and even lay out the day-to-day flow of the coverage.

After all, I was the religion reporter. The key elements were sure to be race, politics and money. Correct?

In both cases, I noted that -- when the survey numbers came in -- they would find that, at the very top of the list of factors predicting success (and, thus, factors that in their absence would help predict failure) would be (a) whether the students came from intact homes, especially homes containing a father, and (b) whether the students were active in positive, constructive activities outside the home -- especially if those activities were rooted in religious congregations or organizations.

Why did I make these observations?

During my studies in American history I had been exposed to the writings of that great leader in the Democratic Party, Daniel Patrick Moynihan -- especially his controversial 1965 report "The Negro Family: The Case For National Action (text here)," for the United States Department of Labor.

As it turned out, family structure turned out to be directly linked to poverty -- a fact that is so obvious now that people hardly argue about the subject these days. Yes, I know that discussing this topic raises troubling moral and even religious questions. That's the point.

Still, in these studies of the Washington, D.C., schools, has anyone factored family structure into the equation alongside the race factor? How do African-American and Hispanic students fare when they are from intact homes, in contrast to the numbers seen in homes that are broken or in homes in which marriages never formed in the first place?

In the studies I have seen in the past, students have fared better when they are reared in homes strong in religious faith (and, of course, reading). Were researchers allowed to ask about this?

In Denver, I once asked an editor if anyone thought to compare the success of Hispanic students in public schools with those in religious private schools, when taking into account issues of family structure and income. In other words, how did a child from a single-parent, low-income home fare in a public school in comparison with a child from the exact same background who was attending a Catholic school in the same neighborhood.

The editor's response was a classic. That would not be a fair comparison, he stressed, because the mothers (since most single parents are female) who sacrificed and worked and scrapped to enable their children to attend the parish school would almost certainly be much more committed to the welfare of their children than the other mothers. They would also might have the advantage of having their religious faith as a motivation, helping them promote more discipline in the home. This would help them work in cooperation with their teachers and school administrators, too. They might have been educated in Catholic schools, themselves.

Precisely. As it turned out, the overwhelming majority of the region's most successful Hispanic leaders (from single-parent homes, as well as homes with two parents) in a variety of fields came from Catholic schools. This factor received little coverage in the package, since no one had thought to include it. The religion factor did not fit into a news template that was based on, yes, race, politics and money.

Can you see the ghosts?

Like the Berkeley professor said, good schools and good teachers are important. But there are other factors at play in the classrooms of many American schools. However, to look for these factors one must be willing to admit that they might exist in the first place.

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