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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Urban Ed: Lots of Problems, Not a Lot of Solutions

By Jonathan A. Plucker — April 06, 2012 3 min read
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Note: Jonathan Plucker, a professor at Indiana University and the director of the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy, is guest-posting this week.

I appreciate having the opportunity to pinch-hit for Rick this week, and thank you to everyone who sent comments and feedback during the week. As we head into the weekend, I thought we’d take a lighter approach and look more closely at a recent book on urban education.

If you’re anything like me, you have no shortage of books piling up on your desk about America’s urban school problems. They seem to cluster into two broad categories: the boy-are-things-truly-horrible genre and the things-were-horrible-but-we-turned-them-around genre. I’ve grown a little tired of both types of books, in part because (1) we know things are not good and (2) most of the turnaround lit doesn’t generalize well to other settings (often within the same urban areas).

So you can imagine my reaction when I was sent an advance copy of Matthew Tully’s Searching for Hope: Life at a Failing School in the Heart of America (Indiana University Press). Yet Searching for Hope is the best book I’ve read about urban education in years, certainly one of the best I’ve ever read.

Tully is a columnist for the Indianapolis Star and spent an entire school year in Manuel High School, a depressingly typical school in a poor neighborhood, with all the normal problems faced by struggling urban schools in poor neighborhoods. Tully was given nearly unlimited access to the school and its educators and students, and he wrote frequent columns for the newspaper throughout the 2009-2010 school year, and the book is pulled from those columns and experiences.

He walked the halls, sat in on meetings, observed classrooms and, perhaps most important of all, talked, talked, and talked some more. The brutal honesty of these conversations is often unsettling, but that made them all the more powerful for me. Tully draws the reader into his experience quickly, and it’s hard not to get caught up in his observations as he works his way through the school year. I found myself disappointed at the apathy and defeatism of some educators; discouraged by the relentless, debilitating poverty and dysfunction in the school and local community; and sincerely moved by the efforts of several members of the community to change kids’ lives. The book is a brisk read and pulls absolutely no punches, yet I also found the observations to be fair and, even at his most critical, not mean-spirited. If you can read this book and not tear up--two chapters in particular contain the most moving stories I’ve read--you have ice in your veins.

However, we can say similar things about other education books, and I’ve given lots of thought to why this book is so different. Part of it is the author’s unique perspective: although Matt has covered education throughout his career, his experience in Manual High School still comes across as an informed outsider’s perspective. He is critical when he needs to be critical, and the reader shares in his astonishment when he stumbles across pockets of excellence when he least expects them. Many of his observations are small but insightful, and he doesn’t come across as either an educator or a relentless critic of schools.

But another part of why the book works is probably due to Matt’s combination of the two genres mentioned earlier. He definitely points out the dire situation in urban schools, but he also identifies pockets of excellence and optimism that other writers seem to miss. He deals with potential solutions but certainly doesn’t wear rose-colored glasses. I was fortunate to hear Matt talk about the book recently, and when he came to the end of his brief talk and began to discuss solutions...he let out a deep sigh. He noted that there are no easy solutions, and wisely noted that it’s even difficult to come up with potential solutions. Indeed.

All of that said, the aspect of the book that is perhaps most important is that people care. Tully recounts the immediate, positive response whenever, for example, he mentioned a particular student who didn’t have enough to eat each day, bags of food would be dropped off at the school the next day. Those reactions--relatively small community responses to desperate needs--gave me perhaps the greatest sense of hope. People do care about these apparently hopeless situations, and perhaps these small acts can help tide us over while we struggle to find the big solutions to the overwhelming problems of urban poverty and education.

--Jonathan Plucker

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.