Thirty-one years after the Supreme Court desegregated schools, the problem of unequal educational opportunities for blacks has reemerged as a national disgrace, educators and black leaders say.
But this time, no one believes the problem -- spotlighted by recent announcements from several Washington area school officials that blacks are lagging far behind whites on standardized test scores -- can be solved by judicial decree.
"It's not going to be done with a stroke of the pen," said Chester E. Finn Jr., an assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Education. The problem is a complex one, he said, rooted in family structure, poverty and subtle discrimination.
Compounding those problems, he said, is the nation's public school system, which Finn calls "one of the most ponderous, inert and conservative institutions in America."
Although a few school systems, among them Cleveland and Philadelphia, have shown that blacks can perform as well as whites in individual schools, Finn said far too many schools have failed in responding to recognized student disadvantages: "They tend not to change their ways. They tend not to look at one another."
In 1982, the College Entrance Examination Board released for the first time data showing the median scores of black students, on a scale of 800 points, were 200 points below those of whites on the Scholastic Aptitude Test.
Since then, one school district after another in the Washington area, including Fairfax, Alexandria, Prince George's County and Arlington, have released test scores showing blacks trailing whites by 20 to 48 percentile points.
"We are disappointed that more has not been done," said Glenwood P. Roane, president of the Fairfax NAACP. Roane said this problem has obviously been around for a long time, but school officials have not been giving it "the sense of urgency [they] should have."
These new revelations now raise several questions among parents and educators: Why did some schools wait so long to reveal the disparity? What caused such a gap, and what is being done to close it?
In the cross fire of accusations and heated discussion, some blacksare blaming whites for ignoring the problem while some white leaders are pointing the finger at black leaders, saying they shied away from the touchy issue.
"Black leaders and civil rights leaders have not encouraged people to look at this," Finn said. "Why? Ask them. Only now are they willing to talk openly and seriously about out-of-wedlock birth and that has been a problem for a long time, too."
Finn said educators hesitated publicly to document disparities in the scores because they believed they would be criticized by black leaders for broadcasting what could be construed as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Beverly Cole, the NAACP national education director, totally disagrees with Finn. She said blacks have not been silent.
It's the public that hasn't been listening, she said -- that is, until now, after national studies have shown slippage in the scores of white students.
"We have been talking about declining achievement rates and the miseducation of our children for a long time," Cole said.
But not until the highly publicized 1983 Nation at Risk report warned parents, employers and officials that all students' scores had declined did the public care enough to pay attention to the black achievement problem, she said.
Cole said some blacks feel publicizing lagging test scores discourages students and incites racist accusations but that many believe airing the problem is the only way to correct it, despite the risk of racist remarks. "Those who are going to say blacks are intellectually inferior, because of the scores, are going to say it anyway," she said.
James M. Patton, director of teacher education for the Virginia Department of Education, said that the scores "can play into the hands of people who are racists," and added that he is uncertain that announcing the disparities is a positive step. "Only the results will tell," he said. Why the Delay?
Discussions after the release of the racial score breakdowns highlight one of the reasons school officials delayed releasing the scores: They feared being called racist.
After the protests that followed the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision, according to some educators, three decades had to pass before black students' scores could be rationally discussed.
Others say the motivation to see such headlines as "Blacks Score Below Whites," was neither concern nor caution. They say predominantly white school administrators wanted it known blacks were pulling down test score averages because in this era of intense public school scrutiny, hirings and firings often hinge on test score improvement.
Still others maintain that the delay in announcing test score disparities was caused by people who failed until recently to see the far-reaching ramifications of an undereducated, increasing minority population.
"We're now ready to talk about it because we have become mutually dependent. By the year 2000, one of every three Americans will be nonwhite," said Harold L. Hodgkinson, a senior fellow at the policy-shaping Institute for Educational Leadership.
Concern about the drain that millions of undereducated people will have on unemployment and Social Security benefits, pushed this problem to the front, Hodgkinson said. Why the Gap?
Books, articles and educated discussion on this issue say the gap between blacks' and white students' scores cannot be explained simply.
In "On Equality of Educational Opportunity," a 1972 book resulting from a Harvard University seminar, the gap was explained by family background and education, cultural motivation, teacher expectations, economic well-being, neighborhood influence and peers.
The answer, the book asserted, is not found solely in school, or home, or community, but in all three.
"It's a socio-economic issue," said Hodgkinson. "It's a problem of access to information, books," better curriculum, high-caliber teachers and other educational advantages that more affluent children can afford.
The 1985 College Board report titled, "Equality and Excellence: The Educational Status of Black Americans," begins by listing black economic statistics:
*In 1982, 49 percent of all black children lived with one parent.
*In the same year, nearly half of all black children aged 18 and under lived in households below the poverty level.
*Unemployment rates for black men and women in virtually all age categories have increased fairly steadily since 1965. In 1982-83, about one out of every five blacks in the labor market was unemployed, with much higher rates for teen-agers and young adults.
"Some kids have never seen a book or a magazine around the house; some have never been read to," said Thomas A. Shannon, executive director of the National School Boards Association. "It's an individual problem that must be attacked in an individual way." What Is Being Done?
Because the causes of disparities in scores between races are many and deeply rooted, the remedies must be varied and slowly implemented, officials say.
"There is no simple, fast solution," said Fairfax County School Superintendent Robert R. Spillane. Inch by inch it can be licked, Spillane said. This year Fairfax began a $2.1 million program that adds 21 teachers, a summer program, a Head Start program for preschool children and grants for individual projects.
Alexandria School Superintendent Robert Peebles said he will begin meeting regularly with black leaders and other community activists to enlist their help in providing role models, tutorial support and motivation for schoolchildren.
Prince George's County has allocated $2.8 million for several programs aimed at reducing the size of classes, increasing staff, intensifying instruction for poor performers and constantly monitoring progress in skills that are difficult to master.
In the District of Columbia, a back-to-basics curriculum is being emphasized and teachers are being instructed to encourage, praise and bolster students' self-esteem.
"No one ever expected our kids to do as well as they are now," said Alfred Tutela, the superintendent of Cleveland schools. The Cleveland schools implemented a $12 million reading program in 1980 that has been praised for raising black achievement levels. "In 1980, one grade was reading better than the national average; now 10 grades are," Tutela said.
"What's the secret?" Tutela asked. "The same thing that makes for any good management: strong leaders, teamwork, a clear mission, academically oriented objectives and constantly measured success."
"These kids can learn just like anybody else," Tutela said of the many poor black children who make up the 75,000-student Cleveland school enrollment. "You just have to give some of them a little more help."