Reports that 88% of California's 6,700
elementary, middle and high schools failed to meet the state's
Academic Performance Index (API) goals stirred new calls for
reform. Yet, the results conceal even more troubling issues.
As the "new economy" spawns unprecedented disparities
in wealth, social class increasingly determines academic achievement.
Public schools cannot hope to improve unless the markedly unbalanced,
socially divisive economic-development patterns transforming
society are also corrected.
At first blush, the API rankings, which are based on last year's
Stanford 9 test results, appear to be more about ethnicity than
economics. Statistically, school ratings most closely correlate
with the ratio of white and Latino students, the two groups
that make up more than 82% of the K-12 population. API scores
increase sharply as the proportion of white students rises,
but fall as the ratio of Latinos grows.
But closer inspection shows that such ethnic data reflect the
growing socioeconomic divide between white and Latino populations.
White students tend to come from wealthier families with a long
histories of education and economic achievement. Most Latinos
are recent immigrants. Many are just beginning the multigenerational
struggle for advancement.
API results are profoundly shaped by these facts. Surveys used
to compute the rankings show that nearly 70% of the parents
of Latino students have a high-school education or less; just
30% attended college. In contrast, 80% of all white pupils have
a parent with at least some college experience. Half of all
Latino elementary students have limited English proficiency,
compared with just 2% of white pupils. About 65% qualify for
subsidized student lunches versus 19% for white students.
These socioeconomic differentials translate into hugely disparate
academic outcomes. The average API for socially disadvantaged
students--those qualifying for subsidized lunches or whose parents
didn't graduate from high school--was 499, a staggering 118
points below the statewide average. Combined reading and math
test scores for 4th-grade Latinos whose parents didn't attend
college were about 50 points lower than for students from families
with such experience. Language-challenged or poorer Latinos
and whites scored from 30-50 points worse than their counterparts
with better English skills and higher family incomes.
Why do affluent students from well-educated families typically
do better? Wealthier children face far fewer pressures to work
during school or to quit before graduation to earn a living.
Better- educated parents understand schoolwork and thus are
able to help with homework.
Numerous studies also show that education spending is skewed
in favor of wealthier communities. API rankings markedly drop,
for example, as a school's percentage of noncredentialed teachers
rises. Students from poorer families are far more likely to
be taught by such teachers. A greater proportion of socially
disadvantaged and Latino pupils are shoehorned into year-round
schools, whose average API was 22 points lower than for more
In the past, balanced economic development allowed America
to accommodate similar wealth and education disparities. Early
19th-century European immigrants, for example, were absorbed
by, and later controlled, many of the country's once-flourishing
manufacturing industries. As their economic status rose, their
children and grandchildren became progressively better educated,
eventually shifting into white-collar service and professional
Recent immigrants have generally followed this pattern. But
during the 1990s, California's political and economic climate,
as in many other regions, shifted in favor of white-collar,
cyber-economic development. Urban policies neglected, if not
shunned, other forms of economic growth, including inner-city
school construction, on which the state's aspiring working classes
historically depended. Influential politicians from privileged
coastal and Bay Area enclaves resisted legislation making it
easier to redevelop former industrial sites throughout immigrant-rich
communities. Eventually, almost all the state's critical urban
revitalization needs were subordinated to environmental and
other new-economy concerns.
The California economy sharply changed course. During 1990-99,
the state generated 1.6 million jobs, a 13% growth rate far
below the national norm. Only 23% of this expansion occurred
in socially diverse cities--Los Angeles, San Francisco and San
Jose--and Orange County, by far the most anemic urban growth
in California history. More than 65% of all new jobs were divided
among very high-end professional and extremely low-wage personal
service employment; 120,000 manufacturing positions evaporated
from the state.
Working-class wages stagnated relative to those of elite, white-collar
occupations. The personal incomes of security and commodity
brokers in California, for example, rose three times faster
in 1993-1997 (the latest years for which data are available)
than in the state's manufacturing and construction sectors.
While dot-com fluff filled the news, California generated far
fewer of the manufacturing, construction and trade employment
opportunities so critical to its blue-collar communities than
All this comes at a time when academic performance is touted
as the foundation of financial success. Yet, the economic prerequisites
for rising academic attainment from generation to generation
are being eroded in California. New-economy wealth disparities
are generating an increasingly intractable education and social
There is, however, another possibility. For several years,
Texas, a state with similar education demographics, has outperformed
California in academic testing. The biggest difference is that
Texas' Latinos do far better as a group than in California.
In recent national reading tests, for example, white Texas eighth-graders
scored just four points higher than white California students,
but Latinos scored 13 points higher. About 66% of Texas' Latinos
met basic reading standards, compared with 48% in California,
the largest disparity of any group.
One reason why Texas does well is its greater proportion of
native-born Latinos. Another may be the state's supposedly tougher
academic standards. Perhaps the most crucial, however, is Texas'
incomparably more equitable and robust economic development.
In the last decade, Texas grew nearly 2.5 times faster than
California, producing nearly 500,000 more jobs from a much smaller
base. Services accounted for 41% of all Texas new employment,
much less than in California. The state's blue-collar manufacturing
and construction sectors added more than 274,000 new positions
versus just 39,000 in California. Per-capita personal incomes
rose much faster in Texas than in California in every major
employment category except financial services.
Texas' core urban communities, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Houston and
San Antonio, absorbed 63% of the state's total growth, nearly
three times the proportion of new jobs generated in California's
major urban communities. Even Austin, the Texas city cherished
by new-economy elites, produced about as many new construction
and manufacturing jobs as service positions.
Texas' experience raises difficult questions. If California's
economic imbalance continues to worsen, most of the popular
nostrums for improving public schools will almost certainly
fail. Already, the API figures show that reducing class size,
a widely touted solution for poor student performance, had no
discernible effect on academic achievement scores. Economic
status simply overwhelms classroom innovation.
Should present trends continue, moreover, California will have
to invent a mechanism for assuring working-class social mobility.
Previously, education achievement and broad-based, multisector
economic development went hand in hand. Today, the "old
economy" is scorned in the belief that time has passed
it by. Consequently, an entire generation who once relied on
its expansion to improve their lives may be stranded.
Perhaps this can't be helped. Maybe Texas is just an economic
anachronism that the United States will soon outgrow. That still
leaves the riddle of how aspiring classes will compete in a
world in which academic achievement is paramount but that lacks
the material prerequisites for doing so. As California's sobering
API data demonstrate, it is this gulf, much more than computer
or Internet access, that defines the true digital divide we
must somehow bridge.