There Are No Top-Down Answers To Improving Urban Schools

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Whatever the future of public education in the United States, it is clear, for better or worse, that urban education will get there first. Declining enrollments, prolonged and frequent teachers' strikes, federal economic policies that starve the cities, and an aging urban population on fixed incomes directly threaten the quality of education offered to urban youth.

We witness a separate and unequal school system, rooted in race and class divisions, that contradicts our commitment to democratic education. The present headlong rush to a dual-school system, one private for those of means and one public for the poor, undermines the spirit of democratic life.

It is the public school and only the public school that has the social responsibility for developing and maintaining the democratic ideal. Today many urban schools are arenas of despair, not totally of their own making and not totally without hope.

Solutions that deal only with finances and vouchers, political power and politics, ignore the subtle issues of creating better school environments for learning, teaching, and administering. Implicit in the current crisis are important educational issues.

Learning, the development of one's intelligence, must be the first item on the agenda for the reform of urban schools. We must demand that teachers and administrators become mature learners who enhance the learning, not only of students, but of each other.

We must move away from the dominance of one textbook in academic subjects. For example, science, a laboratory study, is mired in the single-textbook method. We must move toward a classroom discourse in speaking and writing that relates more to the analysis and use of ideas and not to isolated facts alone.

We must move away from the factory and assembly-line models of education. As John I. Goodlad has written, the results of this mechanical model are doomed to "failure and disappointment."

But to improve urban schools, we must go further.


Urban school systems must be radically decentralized. The critical importance of the individual school has been too long ignored. The quality of the school is determined by the quality of the instructional and administrative processes that provide learning experiences for students and staff.

Administrators and faculty must be held accountable for the quality of education in their schools. Within the broad policy of a particular school district, administrators and faculty must be delegated the power to make decisions regarding personnel, curriculum and teaching, and administrative procedures that directly affect the quality of life in that school.

Large, centralized school bureaucracies must be dismantled. System-wide functions should concern those specific local, state, and federal regulations regarding payroll, affirmative action, and purchasing. Close-to-the-action initiatives and responsibility are essential if principals and teachers are to develop the sense of mission, purpose, and unity that is the hallmark of a good school.

Each school should have its own budget within an allocation set by the board. By making principals and teachers responsible for that budget, we will have a built-in incentive for the school staff to define their problems and to test solutions that improve learning. Too often principals and teachers are caught in a no man's land surrounded by unions, the public, and the central administration.

The testing-out of grassroots solutions to school problems is a practical process whereby principals and teachers slowly, over several years, improve the quality of the one school they know best. There is no top-down answer to the quality of education.


Schooling must be more democratic. Democratic schools gradually become a focal point for dialogue about educational needs and ideas. This dialogue must take place at the local level among administrators, teachers, parents, and the children. Learning is a necessity of life for all humans as they test ideas in practice that offer promises of improving learning, morale, and democratic living.

We are aware that the preceding may appear to be impractical to some people who know "real schools." But cynicism has also delivered more despair than hope. The practical has not been too practical after all. Better schools are more likely to be achieved by de-centralization than by the centralized bureaucracies that currently exist.

Teachers will have to do hard thinking about what they really want. Do they want a larger professional role in school governance and instructional policy? They will have to decide what policies they will pursue in revitalizing the schools. More narrow financial ends are too often pursued.

If schools are worth saving, teacher organizations, as well as school boards and administrators, must view education from the perspective of the larger good as well as from their legitimate but much more narrow special interests.

Smaller Schools

Establish and cherish smaller schools. The environment is more likely to be human in scale. Things are simpler; it is easier to maintain the intellectual order required for learning. Urban schools of three to four thousand students, patrolled by police, are not conducive to excellent schools.

If what we say is true, intelligence and concern for learning must surmount rigid bureaucratic structures and selfish union work rules that weigh heavily on our collective necks.

Vol. 01, Issue 17, Page 24

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