If you listen to local school-reform activists, the October 9 elections for positions on some 500 local school councils were a triumph of school reform.

More than 5,000 candidates ran for about 4,000 positions, and at least 160,000 people voted. But if you listen to urbanologist Gary Orfield, the whole enterprise was a fraud.

Orfield, who taught political science at the University of Chicago before moving to a new position at Harvard this September, is too diplomatic to use such frank language. But even though some of his best friends are school reformers, and he thinks many of their goals–particularly greater parental involvement–are noble, Orfield just can’t get behind the local reform movement. Chicago-style school reform doesn’t address what Orfield sees as the real problem with the Chicago public school system: the huge concentration of poor children in the inner city.

“I am not attacking reform–good grief, my wife was on a local school council,” says Orfield. “But if you think you can work out an equitable solution to larger societal inequities just by giving parents the right to sit on a council, you’re wrong.”

That is also the central conclusion of the controversial foreword Orfield has written to a study recently completed by U. of C. student Peter Scheirer. The study, entitled “Poverty, Not Bureaucracy: Poverty, Segregation, and Inequality in Metropolitan Chicago Schools,” examines the relationship between poverty and performance on standardized mathematical achievement tests.

According to Scheirer and Orfield, in any given school, city or suburban, average test scores decline as the percentage of students from low-income households increases. In fact, Chicago’s low-income students perform as well as or even better than their suburban counterparts.

“I’m not saying that poor students can’t learn–indeed, quite the opposite is true,” says Orfield. “The study shows that students from low-income families can learn much easier if they are not concentrated in one school.”

What’s radical about the report isn’t Scheirer’s findings so much as Orfield’s analysis of them. In his foreword, Orfield breaks from other academics–most of whom have been obsequious in their adulation of reformers–and argues that Chicago-style reform is rooted in misguided social policies. Instead of tinkering with school politics, Orfield concludes, reformers would be better off advocating a city-suburban desegregation plan, or at least a massive redistribution of resources.

According to Orfield, if the school system itself were to blame for the poor performance of low-income students, the study would have shown a big difference in how city students perform compared to suburban students. And, says Orfield, “there was not. This suggests that much more attention should be devoted to social and economic conditions and much less to issues of school organization. . . . The dominant tendency in recent school reform has accepted a preposterous assumption–that within a society with profound and deepening inequalities individual schools have the capacity to transform outcomes fundamentally on a very large scale. When this does not happen, we blame the schools, their administrators, and the teachers. At its worst, this approach totally removes responsibility from the rest of the society and heaps additional criticism on educators already overwhelmed with the problems of concentrated poverty.”

Such statements are heresy to most school reformers, who dismiss as condescending the notion that poor students would benefit from sharing classrooms with the well-to-do. They maintain that if Chicago’s teachers and administrators weren’t so incompetent and corrupt the system’s low-income students would score as well as the rich kids in the suburbs do.

The school reform law of 1988 addressed this perceived problem by putting each school under the control of a locally elected council of parents, teachers, and community representatives. Reformers contend that if low rates of achievement persist it’s because all the lousy teachers and administrators have yet to be eliminated from the system.

“Orfield’s study is one of the most poorly done pieces of research I’ve ever seen,” says Don Moore, executive director of Designs for Change, a proreform school watchdog group. “He caricatures what reformers believe. He sets us up as straw men to be knocked down so he could advance his argument. For one thing, we don’t think that suburban schools are great. If test scores for low-income suburban students are low, it’s because suburban teachers and administrators are making the same mistakes as Chicago ones. There’s a great deal of evidence that schools in low-income areas can work if they are properly run and if teachers believe that kids can learn.”

At the heart of all the fuss is Peter Scheirer’s 24-page report, filled with charts and graphs that reveal a wall of economic and ethnic segregation between Chicago and its suburbs.

While 82 percent of the students in Chicago’s public schools are black or Hispanic and over 75 percent come from low-income families, only 18 percent of students in suburban schools are black or Hispanic and 12.5 percent are low-income.

As for the low-income black and Hispanic kids who do live in the suburbs, most of them are concentrated in a handful of schools. The average suburban minority student (for the purposes of the study Orfield has used “minority” as a synonym for “black or Hispanic”) attends a school that is at least 52 percent minority and 33 percent low-income. The average white suburbanite attends a school that is only 11 percent minority and 8 percent low-income. Orfield and Scheirer contend that the results of this segregation can be measured in performance on standardized test scores for math.

“We chose to use these standardized tests not because we believe they reveal a student’s ability to learn,” says Scheirer, “but because all students take them and their results can be compared.”

In the average suburban school, 68 percent of students scored above the national mean; in Chicago, only 33 percent of students scored above the national mean.

However, the study reveals that as the number of low-income students in a suburban school increases, its test scores fall. Conversely, test scores rise in those city schools with a higher number of middle- or upper-class kids. But in city and suburban schools with the same number of low-income students, test scores are virtually identical.

“The relationship between poverty and low achievement does not imply that income leads directly to achievement,” Orfield writes. “Concentrated poverty is systematically related to concentrations of many other kinds of problems in the environment of the students and the teachers in low-income schools. The differences start even before birth and affect students in many ways. Children of low-income mothers, for example, are much more likely to have been born without appropriate prenatal care and nutrition and to be developmentally disabled at birth. In high-poverty areas they are much more likely to live with chronic untreated health problems, to experience violence and abuse, to have no stable place to live and go to school because the family cannot regularly pay rent, and to have no quiet place to study or do homework. . . . The neighborhood which shapes the society of the school is much more likely to be one where teen pregnancy and gangs or crime are endemic.”

The remedy Orfield proposes is integration. Aside from building more low-income housing in the suburbs, he suggests that inner-city children be allowed an opportunity to attend the finest suburban schools–as is the case in other metropolitan areas, such as Saint Louis, Milwaukee, and Indianapolis. Orfield writes, “Desegregation and inter-district choice plans that would make access by poor minority children to more effective middle-class schools deserve attention.”

Not surprisingly, most of Chicago’s school reformers dismiss such ideas as naive and unrealistic because of the opposition to be expected from suburbanites.

“I don’t disagree with Orfield’s long-term philosophy of how society should be organized,” says Moore. “But the implication of his belief is that there is absolutely nothing that can be done on the south side or west side of Chicago short of waiting for this broad economic integration that might not ever come. I’m sorry, but we’re not going to wait for Gary Orfield’s millennium and not do what we can to improve the city’s schools.”

The result of this attitude, Orfield predicts, is that the metropolitan-wide inequities will remain.

“It’s comforting to believe that all of our problems are caused by teachers and bureaucrats and that you can change the world with a new set of laws,” he says. “But essentially all we have done with school reform is to create the expectation that if we bring a bunch of low-income parents together some kind of miracle will occur. Frankly, I don’t want to have to depend on miracles.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.