Brownout at School

Brownout at School

The Color of School Reform represents the kind of scholarship that by rights should influence the design of smart policy.


The Color of School Reform represents the kind of scholarship that by rights should influence the design of smart policy. But this is a book out of its time, a Rip Van Winkle-ish narrative. The vexing and vital question it confronts–why, nearly fifty years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, so many black inner-city children get an education that’s separate and unequal–has almost disappeared from the public conversation about education. When the talk is about school reform, race is the invisible topic.

For almost two decades, an extraordinarily long time in policy annals, education has occupied center stage in the domestic arena. Cold war scare tactics–the Reagan-era warning, delivered by a presidential commission in A Nation at Risk, that “a rising tide of mediocrity threatens our very future”–launched the issue. Fear that an undereducated generation would cause the United States to lose the economic cold war has kept it in the limelight.

“Excellence” and “standards,” not equity, have been the animating themes. For some, including those who crafted President Clinton’s initiatives, systemic reform of the public schools is what’s needed. That means revamping every aspect of education, from how teachers are trained to how textbooks are selected, from the content of the curriculum to the ways knowledge is tested, in order to make public education accountable and to improve student performance. Under the banner of systemic reform, almost every state has established standards, benchmarks specifying what students are expected to know, and most states have developed tests to measure students’ performance. Woeful test results have recently pushed some states to relax their standards, but the appeal of standards themselves remains strong.

On the other side are those who insist that systemic reform doesn’t go far enough, that the public schools are a bankrupt institution. Parents know best: A new education marketplace is needed, enabling families to choose the school and the type of education they want for their children. One way to deliver choice is through vouchers, which let parents shop for schools. Two cities, Milwaukee and Cleveland, already offer vouchers for poor, low-achieving children, and the state of Florida is about to follow suit. The fact that vouchers can be used to attend church-run schools has prompted constitutional challenge (a successful challenge at this point in Cleveland); but if, as anticipated in many quarters, the Supreme Court gives the green light, voucher schemes will be implemented in many other locales. Charter schools, publicly financed and regulated but privately run, represent another strategy for promoting choice. That approach has taken off in a big way: In less than a decade, charter schools have been authorized in more than thirty states.

Remarkably, race has not been a topic in this conversation. The aspiration to equalize educational opportunity for black children is rarely voiced. If the subject of equity is broached at all, it is framed in terms of class, not race. Now and again a Jonathan Kozol surfaces with a cri de coeur about the appalling state of inner-city education. Policy-makers momentarily profess to be dismayed, then move on to other matters.

Integration, which used to be treated as the defining characteristic of equal opportunity, is fast becoming history. Judges in many school districts, among them those of Charlotte and Boston, ancient battlegrounds in the war for racial fairness, have restored local school boards’ authority to assign students. It’s time to move on, these judges are saying, and the predictable result has been greater racial isolation in urban public schools. Charter schools can reinforce the pattern of segregation by appealing to niche markets, and vouchers are likely to have the same effect.

Meanwhile, in mainly black cities, African-Americans have taken the political and administrative reins of government. The often-expressed hope among black citizens is that this shift in leadership means better schools, because black politicians and school officials better understand their children’s needs and care more about their fate. Acting on this belief, African-American leaders in Atlanta and elsewhere have been willing to sacrifice integration in order to gain control over the schools.

The results have not come close to matching the hopes; changing the racial guard has not led to real educational reform.

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.

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.

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.

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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