Whenever I speak to a group about education issues, I begin with a quick straw poll that asks, Do you think your grandparents got a better education than their parents? Your parents a better education than their parents? You a better education that your parents? Your children a better education than you?
All the groups vote overwhelmingly that their grandparents got a better education than their great-grandparents, their parents got a better education than their grandparents, and their own education was better than their parents’. But when groups assess the quality of their children’s education, the progression ends; inevitably, more than half the room says that their children are receiving a worse education than they did.
What forces have shaped this mistaken perception of the deterioration of public education? I should say deterioration of urban public education, because poll after poll assures us that suburban and small-town parents and citizens are quite content with the quality of their public schools. Conservatives have turned this widespread discontent with urban education into a full-scale attack on what they call the public education monopoly, and they have made urban districts the focus of the struggle for the survival of American public education. Last spring, for example, the New York City schools chancellor attempted to turn over the management of five failing schools to the for-profit Edison Corporation. The grassroots defeat of this measure is just the opening round of what promises to be a drawn-out privatization war in New York City. In order to rebuild public will and restore our city schools so that they can effectively educate all our students, it is necessary to look at why we have so demonized urban public education, and what we might do about it.
IRONICALLY, radical advocacy for schooling reform may well have prepared some of the ground for conservative efforts to delegitimate public education. A fierce attack on the failures of urban education was launched during the 1960s by radicals, not conservatives. (Consider the early works of Herbert Kohl, Jonathan Kozol, John Hold, and Ivan Illich).
These early assaults on the core assumptions of traditional American curriculum content, instructional methods, and school organization did not assume that we had produced better outcomes for urban students in some golden past. Instead, they argued that urban schools had never effectively educated most of America’s poor students and children of color, and the dismal academic outcomes in urban districts demonstrated that we didn’t know how to educate the so-called minority students who were becoming majorities in most urban systems. The radical attacks were designed to puncture the aura of complacency, denial, and low expectations that shielded urban principals, superintendents, and school boards and to argue for the investment of the resources, public will, and sustained commitment necessary to im...
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