by Richard Rothstein
Economic Policy Institute, 2004, 210 pp., $17.95
American education is a huge industry. About fifty million young people attend schools from kindergarten to twelfth grade, 90 percent of them in public institutions. Another twelve million go to colleges, again a high percentage public. The total annual government investment in this system is more than six hundred billion dollars, but that does not include private spending on tuition, books, supplies, preschools, and the time parents invest in school activities. The total bill may be close to a trillion dollars per year.
No surprise, then, that the condition of education has long been high on the list of American concerns. More recently, as baby boomers’ children began competing for college places, and the global economy and increased income inequality drove up the value of a college education, the stakes on doing well in school have shot up, and with them, the focus on educational “quality,” usually measured as how well students perform on tests. International tests put the United States relatively lower in reading and especially math compared to European and Asian “competitors,” adding to the general sense that our schools are not doing as well as they should for average American children.
Yet, what is fascinating about the politics of education since the 1980s is that it has focused so much on the performance of the poorest Americans, particularly inner-city African Americans. Conservative academics pushing vouchers and other “market solutions” to “failing” public schools concentrate almost entirely on minorities in large cities-simultaneously producing an extensive literature on the “black-white achievement gap.” Even more general reforms, such as school accountability, redefined by the Bush administration as No Child Left Behind, apply to all schools but also mainly affect low-scoring schools in low-income communities.
Conservatives have found in low-achieving blacks the perfect club with which to beat public education. If schools are really as bad as conservative think tanks such as the Hoover Institution and Heritage Foundation claim, why not go after the mass of America’s suburban schools, which cater mainly to white, Asian, and upwardly mobile Hispanic and black students? The problem with that strategy is that the families sending their children to such schools are generally satisfied with them. So the poor performance of students in inner-city schools is made to represent the “failure” of American public education as a whole.
This is the political context for Richard Rothstein’s important book Class and Schools. In the interest of full di...
For just $19.95 a year, get access to new issues and decades' worth of archives on our site.
Print + Online
For $35 a year, get new issues delivered to your door and access to our full online archives.