Brownout at School | The Nation


Brownout at School

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Why should this be so--and what might be done to improve things? In trying to answer that question, Jeffrey Henig and his colleagues (two of the four authors are African-American and two are white) have studied the history of school reform in four black-led cities: the District of Columbia, Baltimore, Detroit and Atlanta. To understand the particular relevance of race as an element of urban policy-making, they have compared these cities with seven other communities where blacks are a minority.

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David L. Kirp
David L. Kirp, professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author of The Sandbox...

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Although the authors wear the armamentarium of scholarship relatively lightly--the prose contains only a modicum of jargon--they have plainly done their homework. They have reviewed thousands of news clips and official reports, conducted scores of interviews and surveyed a wide array of influential actors. This methodological meticulousness gives some reason for confidence. It also guards against simple, formulaic conclusions. Although the authors are plainly sympathetic to the aspirations of the reformers, they have checked their dreams at the door. That they do not shy away from telling inconvenient truths--accounts of energy-sapping power plays within the black leadership, self-serving behavior on the part of black ministers, corruption within the school system--gives greater credence to their account.

In the politics of school reform, race matters--a fact that should come as a surprise only to policy-makers who pretend otherwise. Alliances that cross racial lines are essential to secure better schools, since badly needed resources lie outside the African-American community; still, the legacy of white domination and interracial distrust affects attitudes within the black community as well as relationships that cross racial lines. But race is not the only thing that matters. Rather, it is part of a larger narrative about the difficulty of achieving the species of school reform that will endure beyond the term of a reform-minded superintendent.

Whatever their skin color, all parties in the education system are concerned about maintaining their turf, their power base. That's understandable, for no one wants to be on the short end of the reform stick. Yet unless ways can be found to go beyond those responses--unless it is possible to convince teachers, for instance, that giving schools the authority to shape their own identity does not threaten their livelihood--little of consequence will happen to improve the lives of children.

Each of these cities has tried to remake its public schools, several on more than one occasion, but ultimately each has failed. That fact gives these accounts the feel of public tragedies, visions proffered and demolished. A new superintendent arrives and is hailed, sometimes literally, as a savior, but his or her best efforts are eventually thwarted. A seemingly sensible strategy for giving schools more authority to design programs that fit the needs of the students is agreed on; educators, parents and outsiders invest time and energy in fleshing out the idea; then, for extraneous political reasons, the effort is derailed.

Examples abound. For the better part of a decade, Atlanta seemed to be a model urban district. Under a widely respected superintendent, test scores improved; parents turned out for meetings; downtown interests made real contributions. But when the superintendent departed, amid charges that the improvement in achievement scores was chimerical, the school board with which he was identified was ousted and the reform failed. Baltimore tried a version of systemic reform, bringing in an outside firm to run some of its schools. The experiment was widely hailed, but the unions were antagonists from the outset, and the effort collapsed when students' test scores didn't improve. In Detroit a reform-minded school board and a nationally renowned superintendent recruited from outside the system promised to decentralize power, turning every public school into an "empowered" school. However, union opposition to the pace of change--as well as to alterations in the contract--effectively killed the idea.

These sad histories teach lessons in humility when one contemplates redesigning an institution as complex, and as context-specific, as an urban school system. It's tempting to point fingers, especially at the teachers' unions, which in almost all these instances array themselves against reform. Yet it is futile to contemplate a policy end- run around the unions since, time and again, they have shown they know how to mobilize effective opposition. To complain about union truculence also fails to reckon with the intricate connections, the deep personal loyalties that link teachers, ministers and activists. These groups need to be heard in an ongoing conversation about making the schools better.

Community participation, vital for building schools that work, is hard to sustain not because parents are uninterested but because there are so many competing demands for their allegiance. Business elites, who bring knowledge and resources to the table, regularly acknowledge their stake in public schooling, yet they become frustrated when they realize that schools, unlike factories, cannot be remade quickly. Politicians embrace and then abandon policies to advance their careers, often scuttling reform initiatives in the process; but in rethinking urban education, politics cannot be wished or willed away. Courts and legislatures intervene on occasion, declaring low-performing districts to be bankrupt and taking them over, for instance, or privileging the claims of disabled children, but these outsiders cannot impose their will--at least not for long.

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