Urban schools in America are in bad shape, says Donna E. Shalala, president of Hunter College of the City University of New York. She sees it in the dropout rate in New York City, which hovers around 40 percent and reportedly is as high as 70 percent in minority communities. Dr. Shalala also points to the number of Hunter students unprepared for higher education; 10 percent of the college's academic budget is spent on remedial programs.
Yet her urban pupils -- at least 40 percent come from poor families, and most are the first in the family to attend college -- have ``the kind of drive immigrants did at the turn of the century,'' Shalala says. There is enormous pride that they have made it this far, and a thirst for knowledge that she does not often find in the suburbs.
She says there isn't an urban school district in the country that is not doing interesting and innovative things. But the lack of financial resources and rigid bureaucracies have prevented these programs from being widely implemented.
The increased emphasis on education reform at the federal and state level is good news, says Shalala, who was an assistant secretary at the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development in the Carter administration. But she says that unless this talk is taken farther than the bully pulpit, it will spell disaster for cities.
``I have a dream where the secretary of education is testifying before Congress, asking for more funding,'' Shalala says. ``On the right is the secretary of state and on the left is the defense secretary. To the side is the US treasurer. All four argue that the survival of the nation depends on the willingness to support education. That's the kind of clout education needs.''
Shalala, who, some believe, would not object to going back to Washington in a Democratic administration, is optimistic.
``We have a survival instinct, and we can't survive if we continue to have large numbers of dropouts,'' says Shalala. ``We either pay up front [in education] or at the end [for jails and increased social programs]. I'd rather pay up front.''
Studies show that increased spending for education in the 1960s has made a difference, she says. But she emphasizes that government should continue its role in providing research and development in education.
She notes that corporate executives on a commission that studied education for the Committee for Economic Development were surprised at the lack of research and development in education.
``Given what we spend on education, we need an evaluation of what works,'' Shalala says. A good example, she says, is the intensive study in Michigan of early childhood education.
In urban areas, teachers need to be better paid, and the career needs to be ``reprofessionalized.'' That also includes better working conditions and a stronger role in system government.
Management at the local schools must be strengthened and streamlined, and principals given more say. Cut the size of schools, she urges. In a big city, a high school with 3,000 or 4,000 is a mistake.
She also says urban schools should put new emphasis on early childhood education, starting as young as age three. Reading needs to be stressed, because children fall behind at an early age.
Part of the dilemma in city schools has been that persons in positions of power do not send their children to public schools.
``No one wants to experiment with their own kids,'' Shalala says. And so public schools need a new political constituency, including business and government, both of whom will end up paying for poorly educated young people. And it means taking concrete steps to improve education right now, she adds.