Richard Rothstein Replies

Richard Rothstein Replies

Allen Graubard notes my claim that the alliance between so-called progressive school reformers and conservative critics who dominate our public education debates serves only the latter’s purposes. As the growing strength of voucher plans and for-profit contractors (such as Chris Whittle’s Edison Project) attest, political support for public education has weakened; “progressive” attacks on “traditional” schools have contributed to this loss of credibility. Further, I have contended that the “school choice” programs supported by Graubard and others, while ostensibly designed to create opportunities for quality innovation and incentives to excel, will, if expanded, inevitably lead to greater race and class segregation of American schooling. The history and logic of choice programs make clear that the effect, intended or otherwise, of school choice programs is to encourage parents and teachers to choose to associate with people like themselves.

I and others (whom Graubard terms “revisionists”) have complained that the attacks on public education mounted by both “progressives” and “conservatives” have obscured a dramatic accomplishment of the last quarter century: impressive attainment gains of minority youth, and considerable narrowing of academic achievement gaps between white and minority students, especially African-Americans. I conclude that those who wish to continue (and perhaps accelerate) these results would do well to cease attacks on public schools and instead support reforms that seem to have been effective, directing more resources for reduced class sizes and other compensatory programs to schools serving minority students. Finally, I assert that those who wish for a more egalitarian society cannot burden the schools with major responsibility for this goal, notwithstanding schools’ contributions to it. If (as is the case) the fastest growing occupations in the American workforce are in unskilled retail and service sectors, we do not escape these trends simply by training everyone to be a software designer. Rather, we should devote somewhat less political energy to demands that we provide for everyone an advanced education, and more attention to improving the relative wages, benefits, working conditions, and living standards of retail and service workers and their families.

Graubard finds this set of propositions contradictory to “revisionist” analyses with which I associated myself a quarter century ago. Then, revisionists emphasized the extent to which schools assisted in the reproduction of an inegalitarian social structure by “tracking” students from poor and minority families to occupy subordinate occupational roles. Although the primary emphasis of these earlier studies was correct—that schools cannot themselves be expected to create an egalitarian social and occupational structure and that, so long as inequality persists, it would be politically inconceivable in a democracy fo...

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