Zack Hutchins
Director of Communications

For Release — Tuesday, March 10, 1998


Separate and UnequalALBANY— Public elementary schools in New York State with high minority populations lag far behind other schools in teaching kids to read, a new study by The Public Policy Institute of New York State shows.

The study — Separate and Unequal: The Reading Gap in New York's Elementary Schools — is the first comprehensive statistical analysis of how well New York's high-minority schools teach reading, "the most basic of the three R's." It was released in printed form and published on the World Wide Web today by the Institute, which is the research affiliate of The Business Council of New York State, Inc.

"Our analysis of state reading test scores from 1990 through 1996 confirms the persistence in New York of two separate and unequal school systems — one serving mostly white pupils, the other mostly minorities," the report said.

"The two systems are separated not by laws of segregation, but by a large and growing literacy gap that has dangerous economic as well as social implications for the Empire State."

The report says, however, that there is no reason to accept this poor performance. A number of high-minority schools, including both public and non-public schools, are doing well at teaching reading--demonstrating that the others can do so, as well.

The report includes a preface by Rev. Floyd H. Flake, pastor of Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church in Jamaica, Queens, and former member of Congress. "This report contains clear-cut, statistical proof of something that many of us have known in our hearts for years: far too many of our public schools are utterly failing to give poor and minority children the education they need if they are to have a chance to succeed in the 21st Century," Rev. Flake wrote. "We need (the failing schools) to stop making excuses for their failures — and start matching the results of those schools that do succeed," he added.

The key statistics on reading in high-minority schools

For nearly 20 years, New York has tested reading skills of virtually all third- and sixth-grade students under the state's Pupil Evaluation Program (PEP). In both grades, students' reading is compared to two standards, minimum competency and "mastery" (which basically means the ability to read a grade-level textbook without assistance).

Separate and Unequal is an analysis of the state Education Department's statewide data base of test scores for all public and non-public schools for seven years between 1989-90, the earliest school year for which data are available, and 1995-96, the latest year for which statewide test scores had been reported as of September 1997.

The report noted that, in the six years analyzed, performance of high-minority schools actually worsened somewhat. For example, the number of pupils reading above minimum competency in high-minority schools dropped by six percentage points in both grades 3 and 6 between 1990 and 1996. In addition, the number of high-minority schools in which more than half of students failed to reach minimum competency had a sizeable increase.

The worst-performing high-minority public schools are concentrated in New York City, the report noted. "If New York City's schools could match the performance of high-minority public schools elsewhere in the state or of the high-minority non-public schools within the city's own borders, roughly 10,000 more children every year would leave third grade equipped with at least basic reading skills," Separate & Unequal concluded.

The report notes that under Commissioner Richard Mills, the Education Department has been "more forthright than ever" in acknowledging the problem and in pressing for higher standards. The Institute's report was based on the data used for the "school report cards" that Commissioner Mills has published for all schools in the state.

The state's efforts to redress the problems of low-performing schools include a "Registration Review" process — "a form of intensive care for the system's educational basket cases," as the report puts it. But although 139 schools have been cited under this process since 1989, only 40 have improved enough to get off the list.

Some causes for optimism

Despite these findings, Separate and Unequal noted that there is hope in the reading performance of students in some public and non-public high-minority schools.

"Non-public schools with high-minority enrollments consistently outperform high-minority public schools in reading performance even though the non-publics spend much less per pupil," the report noted. "The percentage scoring above the minimum in New York's high-minority non-public schools is 19 points above the public school average in the third grade and 11 points above the public school average in the sixth grade."

Key recommendations in Separate & Unequal

Higher reading standards already being imposed on schools by the Board of Regents, although necessary, will not be sufficient, the report concluded. The report advances a number of specific suggestions to improve the teaching of reading:

"It the public schools do not begin producing better results, it is clear that parents, particularly in the poorly served minority communities, would like the chance to take matters into their own hands," Separate & Unequal noted.

"Politicians and educational policymakers have stubbornly resisted the idea of expanded school choice, including choice of non-public schools. But at some point, New York will have to confront the question of whether the state has a right to force minority kids to stay in schools that don't perform and don't improve."

"For all their eagerness to fight off choice, educators will eventually have to confront the fact that it is the system's manifest failures that lie behind the pressure for this kind of change," the report concluded. "It will be increasingly hard to deny the concerns of parents who want to find a way for their children to get out of rotten schools. And it will become increasingly hard to justify a policy of denying kids a way out of schools that don't perform and don't improve."