Public Will, POlitical Context, And Public Education

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When opinion polls report increasing loss of faith in American public education, the public's perception of the failure of city schools is often the primary cause. Yet city schools are doing better than at any time since urban public systems were reorganized on factory models in the early 20th century. Most urban school systems graduate at least half their entering students, and significant numbers of those graduates (perhaps 30 percent?) leave with more than 8th-grade basic skills, which means they can gain admission to college, matriculate without having to take remedial courses, and have a decent shot at graduating from college with reasonable employment prospects within four or five years.

It is the great majority of "other" students, the 70 percent of graduates with less than 8th-grade skills, or the 50 percent who fail to graduate at all, whose needs city schools aren't meeting and have never managed to meet. Yet in past decades, when these students dropped out or graduated with inadequate skills, there were jobs with futures in the industrial economy, the service sector, even the armed forces. Today those jobs are gone, and exiting school without a diploma and skills too often involves a one-way ticket to the underground economy, early pregnancy, drug dependency, and incarceration.

In the current debate about the effectiveness of American public education, many experts point to varieties of evidence, such as the narrowing of the achievement gap between African-American and white students, to argue that public schools are improving. But as reformers we cannot respond to the increasing disenchantment with public education by defending its achievements because we are so deeply involved in trying to counteract its failures. In the recent past, we were the chief critics of urban public education; our research and studies developed much of the data and analyses opponents of public education now use to attack it. The difference is that while we want the political space, resources, authority, and time to improve public schooling, opponents want to destroy it through privatization, vouchers, and other schemes to replace public control with market forces.

Our difficult task is to fight for the preservation of public education by insisting on the necessity to transform it. Yet the reforms we're committed to won't produce results quickly. We can point to successful schools but not to successful urban school systems, and the need to transform schools "one at a time" intensifies the difficulties of systemic improvement. Moreover, we are facing several national trends that complicate our task:

  • In an economy hostile to cities, the growing urban tax burden is increasingly resisted by the great majority of city taxpayers whose children are not in public schools, while most state legislatures are dominated by rural-suburban coalitions that resist adequate funding for city school systems. Unless equity-funding suits or other strategies succeed in breaking these stalemates, urban schools will be denied even minimal resources. In such permanent fiscal crises, sustaining steady reform becomes exceedingly difficult.
  • As cities polarize by race and class and more-advantaged families buy out of public education, urban schools are increasingly perceived as settings for other people's children. Levels of racism less acceptable in the recent past are now openly articulated to blame the failures of public education on the limited capacities of other people's children, thereby justifying the refusal to adequately fund, hold accountable, or improve public education.
  • The real and supposed failures of public schooling are increasingly defined as one of the central failures of the public sector and government in general by aggressive, confident, and popular right-wing ideologues employing effective media strategies to argue for private-sector, market-driven solutions to education.

Combating all these trends requires fighting for the principle of public education as a critical contributor to the possibility of American democracy; fighting for the necessity to transform public education to make it effective for all our children; and fighting for our definitions of reform as well as the time, space, and resources to carry them out. Alternatively put, we have to argue for the democratizing, integrative, pluralist, and socializing roles of public education while simultaneously fighting for the scale of transformation necessary to carry out these roles successfully.

It is a difficult task, requiring the development of new strategies. But our practice has produced some indications about how urban education, as democratic education, might be improved.

  • Small schools are safer, more integrative, more pluralist, and more academically effective.
  • Schools whose governance is more participatory build a base of democratic practice and are more academically effective.
  • Decentralizing authority and resources from central administrations to schools improves local democratic capacity and academic effectiveness.
  • Linking schools to their communities integrates home and school cultures and improves academic outcomes.

Such arguments are only a start, especially when we have only limited examples and even more limited evidence of effectiveness. Yet given the consistent failure of urban school systems with half to three-quarters of their students, such evidence of success can be quite powerful, especially for the urban constituencies, primarily constituencies of color, that reformers must engage with to link school reform to the broader struggles to revitalize cities.

Vol. 14, Issue 36, Page 48

Published in Print: May 31, 1995, as Public Will, POlitical Context, And Public Education
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