The Criticism of Urban Schools
Stanley William Rothstein
The criticism of urban schools in more recent times has been noted by both the right and the left in American politics. This general agreement that something is wrong with our educational system has given birth to new political explanations that rediscovered the old problems of a nonacademic teaching staff. overcrowding, watered-down curricula, and legions of student failures. But political tendencies looking for explanations of social inequities among schooling's practices missed the point again. These conditions have existed since the beginning of the common school era and continue to exist because of one overriding reason: they work. Since the 1970s the steadily decreasing test scores of students have been cited as evidence of a deeper malaise; but these scores merely reflected a trend in student failures going back at least to the 1890s, when the schools first began to publish such statistics in a vain attempt to get more money from the states. The themes of schooling have been couched in terms like democracy and citizenship, even as its practices were overly concerned with producing dronelike workers for the factories and bureaucracies of mass society.
If the schools have been able to maintain themselves and expand in their present forms, it is because they have benefited from the direct and indirect support of business and political interests. On one hand, the states have consistently underfunded the public school systems since their inception; and they have been questioned by the most wealthy, conservative elements in government and industry. On the other, the federal government has done little more than pay lip service to educational funding needs while calling for a reform of today's practices.
The understandings of schooling's plight under these circumstances have been plagued with political effects. They are similar in content to struggles that occurred during earlier periods, when reform of the schools was also deemed a dire necessity for national salvation. An idealist, humanist perspective was adopted by Horace Mann in the early 1840s, when he assured business leaders