A Modest Proposal for Urban Schools

By Lewis, Anne C. | Phi Delta Kappan, September 1996 | Go to article overview

A Modest Proposal for Urban Schools


Lewis, Anne C., Phi Delta Kappan


The time has come to close down some of our largest urban districts and start all over. From one end of the country to another, the struggles of governors, legislators, mayors, and educators to make sense of and give direction to our troubled urban school districts have become steadily more difficult.

In Hartford, Connecticut, the school board is literally begging for solutions, and the mayor wants to take over the school system. If the trend toward state takeovers in New Jersey continues, the state department of education will soon be running every major urban district in the state. After four years of frustrating negotiations with the Baltimore school district over its inefficient management and poor student relations, Maryland's governor and general assembly now want to take control and reorganize the system. A congressional budget resolution bogged down last spring over proposals to institute a voucher system in the District of Columbia, where student achievement levels continue to place the District near the bottom of the list of the nation's big-city school systems.

The mayor of Chicago recently assumed greater control of that city's schools and has expected greater accountability. In Los Angeles there are demands to break up the unified school system, while in New York City the new chancellor managed to stave off the possibility of more drastic action by taking direct control of the worst schools himself.

Other urban leaders are concerned about their schools as well. At a meeting on education problems, held in Denver last spring, big-city mayors issued a document that seriously considered city takeovers of failing school districts.

Probably none of these remedies will get the mayors what they want: an influx of young urban parents with enough skills and knowledge to contribute to a brighter future for their cities. While charter schools, magnet schools, or vouchers might help some students and some schools, they do not get near the core problem - a malfunctioning school system in which educators are not able to make a difference for young people. Changing governance structures just rearranges the deck chairs on a sinking ship. If simply putting the mayor in charge is the solution, then why is the Baltimore school system still so troubled? In that city the mayor appoints all of the members of the school board and thus, in effect, selects the superintendent. If state takeovers are the remedy for the ills of urban schools, then why hasn't student achievement in Patterson or Trenton exhibited any significant improvement since New Jersey's takeover of these districts?

These and similar efforts to reform urban education - sincere though they be - have almost no chance of working because they are quick fixes for systems that no longer work for poor children and their families. Despite promises of greater accountability, state and city political leaders are mostly tinkering around the edges of urban school reform. They offer little hope of turning in a better long-term performance than those from whom they wish to wrest control. And here are a number of reasons why this is so.

* These well-meaning leaders still treat urban school systems as isolated operations - disconnected from all the other services and educative influences on the lives of children. Granted, the mission of schools is a fairly narrow one, but they are only one piece of the complex puzzle that must be put together if the problems of urban children are to be solved. School systems cannot ignore their interdependence with health services, social supports, recreation services, public libraries, the juvenile justice system, employment training, and economic development efforts. Unless the schools work closely with these other systems, they will inevitably fail. Moreover, the continuing isolation of schools allows teachers and administrators - justifiably - to blame factors other than themselves for the lack of student success. …

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