Brownout at School | The Nation


Brownout at School

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Contrary to the conventional wisdom, big-city school districts are not bereft of new ideas. They are neither unwilling nor unable to change. The problem is quite the reverse. Too many ideas compete for attention: Change the leadership; change the instructional program; change the structure. But there is no magic bullet, no cure-all.

About the Author

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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In an era partial to quick fixes, attention focuses on the dramatic gesture: the Clinton Administration's promise to close the digital divide in America's schoolhouses, as if proficiency on the Internet mattered more than the reading or math or health divides; or Bill Gates's decision to invest a billion dollars in science and math scholarships for minority students. Just as the topic of race and schooling has fallen out of favor, the strategies that The Color of School Reform proffers will almost certainly fail to catch the attention of the politicians.

Improving city schools, Henig and his colleagues contend, necessarily involves building trust where suspicion has habitually resided. This means developing civic capacity among all the parties--parents and teachers, business interests and politicians--who have a stake in the enterprise. It means nurturing a commitment to steady work over the long haul; doing good in the minute particular.

That is easier said than done. Not only is it simpler to advocate civic capacity than to achieve it; as well, public responsibility frequently collides with private interests. When polled, most Americans report that they favor equal opportunity and diversity, but they opt for suburban schools or private schools if they have the chance. They believe that education should be valued as a public good, but they care more about securing their own children's future than promoting the social well-being of the commonwealth.

For those concerned about the fate of cities like Detroit and Baltimore, there are promising signs, including something of an economic renaissance as well as a turn to policies and politics that transcend racial lines. Still, human development, which is the mission of schools, is far harder to accomplish than economic development. Patience is the necessary virtue, but this is not a patient time and we are not a patient people.

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