George Weber, author of controversial 1971 education study, dies at 86

George Weber, 86, an education researcher who asserted in a controversial 1971 study that the low reading skills of disadvantaged children in inner-city schools were the fault of the schools themselves, not the children or their backgrounds, died Nov. 14 at his home in Alexandria.

He had complications from lung cancer, according to his son, Donald Weber.

(Family photo/FAMILY PHOTO) - George Weber, who wrote an important paper on education in the 1970s, died Nov. 14. He was 86 years old.

Mr. Weber, a former associate director of the nonprofit Council for Basic Education, was the author of the publication “Inner-City Children Can Be Taught to Read: Four Successful Schools,” which caused a flurry of attention at the time.

The study came at a time of burgeoning controversy over the perceived failures of urban public school systems to educate the children of urban poverty — a controversy that remains unresolved and still simmering 40 years later.

Many educators tended to blame the adverse social conditions from which their students came, and they still do. Parents tended to blame the schools, and they still do.

Mr. Weber found that, despite poverty and social chaos in their neighborhoods and in many of their homes, children could become proficient readers if their public schools offered encouragement.

To support these findings, he offered as examples four public elementary schools, two in Manhattan, one in Los Angeles and one in Kansas City, Mo. All four schools had predominantly minority enrollments, two mainly black, one Puerto Rican and one Mexican American.

Most of the students were from low-income families, and the vast majority qualified for free-lunch programs. Yet third-graders in all four of the schools were reading at or above grade level, according to tests designed by Mr. Weber.

In such schools, he wrote in his report, most people, including school officials, tended to believe that “low achievement is all that can be expected.”

But Mr. Weber argued that the success of the four schools in his study “shows that the failure in beginning reading typical of inner-city schools is the fault not of the children or their backgrounds, but of the schools.”

There were eight factors contributing to the success of the four schools he studied, Mr. Weber said. They were strong leadership, high expectations, a good atmosphere, strong emphasis on reading, additional personnel, use of phonics, individualization and careful evaluation of pupil progress.

Writing in The Washington Post, columnist William Raspberry observed in 1971 that “the trouble with Weber’s analysis is that it may be too general to be used as a blueprint. Countless principals of unsuccessful schools will insist they are already employing Weber’s eight ‘success factors.’ ”

In 2000, the Baltimore Sun took a second look at the four schools that Mr. Weber had chosen for his study.

“None was able to sustain excellence through the 30 years,” the newspaper reported.

As for Mr. Weber’s eight success factors of 1971, “You could say the same things today and hardly miss a beat,” Christopher Cross, the former president of the Maryland Board of Education, told the Sun.

George Henry Weber was born May 25, 1925, in Cincinnati. He was a 1947 graduate of the University of Cincinnati, where he also received a master’s degree in economics in 1948. He then served two years in the Army before moving to the Washington area in 1951 to join the staff of the National Security Council.

From 1963 until his retirement in 1978, he was associate director of the Council for Basic Education, an organization formed in 1956 as a counter force to what was then perceived as a shift in educational emphasis from intellectual development to social development.

He was a past board president of Burgundy Farm Country Day School in Alexandria. In retirement he was a volunteer with Goodwill Industries and Friends of the Duncan branch of the Alexandria Public Library.

Survivors include his wife of 57 years, Isabelle Pearson Weber of Alexandria; a son, Donald Weber of Arlington; and two grandchildren.

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