The Color of School Reform: Race, Politics, and the Challenge of Urban Education

By Jeffrey R. Henig; Richard C. Hula et al. | Go to book overview
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Civic Capacity, Race, and Education in
Black-Led Cities

BLUNT ATTACKS on the quality of American public education mask a more pernicious problem. While many schools are delivering a mediocre product that sells their students short, for some children, especially those living in large central cities with high minority populations and heavy concentrations of the poor, the tale is much more tragic. Broad economic changes are putting a higher and higher premium on educational attainment, yet these students languish in decrepit school buildings where many of the teachers lack the skills and training they should have, the resources to meet their special challenges, and/or the enthusiasm and faith that might once have led them to consider education their mission and not simply their job. Urban school districts are twice as likely as nonurban districts to hire uncertified teachers, and more than three out of four students in high-poverty schools within urban districts fail to score at even “basic” reading levels on national tests.1

Schools and teachers are not responsible for the economic and family problems that are the sources of the deepest indignities afflicting many inner-city children. Yet schools, historically, are the public institution that we have most relied upon to heal the wounds imposed by inequalities in more private spheres. Sensitive portrayals, such as those by Jonathan Kozol and Jean Anyon, make palpable the human costs when our schools succumb to those same inequalities.2 If the measure of a society is how well it takes care of its neediest,3 the condition and performance of our inner-city schools are unlikely to earn us a passing grade.

The continued erosion of inner-city education is more troubling and perplexing in the context of the expectation, which some have held, that political and demographic changes well under way would set the stage for positive reforms. From the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s, rapid racial change

“Quality Counts '98,” Education Week special report (January 1998).
Jonathan Kozol, Savage Inequalities (New York: Crown, 1991); Jean Anyon, Ghetto Schooling: A Political Economy of Urban Educational Reform (New York: Teachers College Press, 1997).
The allusion is to Pearl S. Buck, who put it this way: “The test of a civilization is in the way it cares for its helpless members” In My Several Worlds (New York: Day, 1954).


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