Schools Betrayed: Roots of Failure in Inner-City Education

Schools Betrayed: Roots of Failure in Inner-City Education

Schools Betrayed: Roots of Failure in Inner-City Education

Schools Betrayed: Roots of Failure in Inner-City Education


The problems commonly associated with inner-city schools were not nearly as pervasive a century ago, when black children in most northern cities attended school alongside white children. In Schools Betrayed, her innovative history of race and urban education, Kathryn M. Neckerman tells the story of how and why these schools came to serve black children so much worse than their white counterparts.

Focusing on Chicago public schools between 1900 and 1960, Neckerman compares the circumstances of blacks and white immigrants, groups that had similarly little wealth and status yet came to gain vastly different benefits from their education. Their divergent educational outcomes, she contends, stemmed from Chicago officials' decision to deal with rising African American migration by segregating schools and denying black students equal resources. And it deepened, she shows, because of techniques for managing academic failure that only reinforced inequality. Ultimately, these tactics eroded the legitimacy of the schools in Chicago's black community, leaving educators unable to help their most disadvantaged students.

Schools Betrayed will be required reading for anyone who cares about urban education.


Recent education reforms take aim at racial and class inequality in public schools by demanding that they raise all children to a common standard of achievement. There is an admirable impulse here. For too long, low-income and minority students have received a substandard education. Fixing urban schools has become more critical now with recent changes in the job market. In our society, the educated stand on one side of a widening economic gap, the uneducated on the other. At a time when it is difficult to find a good job without a college degree, more than half of inner-city youth do not even graduate from high school. Those who do graduate are ill equipped to compete in the global economy. Poor schooling condemns them to permanent economic marginality.

Yet when we demand that schools reach a common standard of achievement, we are trying to do a new thing with an old institution. Urban schools were never designed to produce equality of achievement. If there was a standard of equity, it was simply that school funding and resources should be distributed fairly—and even that standard was seldom met. When an institution is created with one purpose in mind, it is not easy to redirect it. Educators talk of reinventing urban schools: indeed, in every city there are exciting experiments with governance change or school choice or new curricula. But these innovations are usually short lived, just as a tree branch, pulled aside, springs back to its old position when released.

We have not taken seriously the staying power of institutions such as the urban schools. An institution is more than a rulebook and an organization chart. It has stability. In part, this stability is political: an institution creates constituencies who benefit from it and have a stake in defending it. An institution's stability is also cognitive: beliefs and . . .

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