Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Reinventing Urban Public Education

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Reinventing Urban Public Education

Article excerpt

Nobody is content with the state of urban public schools, least of all the people who work in them. When asked to envision the kind of school they want, teachers describe much more orderly, focused, and collaborative working environments than they currently encounter. Principals, superintendents, school board members, and teacher union leaders each claim that they could do their work more effectively if they had less interference from the others. All agree that they would prefer a system that valued professional initiative.

Gridlock, a metaphor often used to characterize national government, also applies to decision making in big city school systems. As at the national level, gridlock in school systems leads to waste, confusion, and mediocrity. Tragically, "the enemy is us." If we want public schools to respect the rights and values of a diverse population but also want to make the most of individual students' and teachers' talents and initiative, we must find new ways to govern schools.

There are urban public schools that provide rigorous instruction and help students succeed despite poverty and social turmoil. But these schools are nearly always exempted from the rules and restrictions that govern the vast majority of public schools. They have foundation grants, high-energy principals who can terrorize or circumvent the central office, or special support from businesses. Schools that gain great reputations are admired and publicized, but school systems seldom try to reproduce them. The annual spectacle of parents camping in lines overnight to enroll children in popular magnet schools epitomizes this problem. School systems can create good schools, but few see it as their job to duplicate successes or to create for all schools the conditions that have enabled some schools to succeed.

Some observers have suggested that the governance problems of urban public schools cannot be solved - that all decisions about education should be put into private hands. Others, however, have shown that privatization alone cannot protect children from possible harm or neglect at the hands of those who would educate them.(1) Vouchers, tuition tax credits, and other forms of government support for private schools do not eliminate the need for society to decide how much will be spent on education and what experiences schools must provide if they are to be eligible for public support.

To date, all the efforts to reform the governance of public education have been piecemeal. Choice plans say how parents can get their hands on the resources to demand better public schools, but not how public or private agencies will marshal these resources to provide them. Charter schools reduce the burden of regulation on a few schools but leave the vast majority of schools under the existing governance system. Site-based management changes decision making at the school level, but it does not change the mission and powers of the central office, and it does little to reduce the constraints imposed by federal and state regulations, categorical program requirements, and union contracts. School board reforms urge an end to micromanagement, but they do not relieve members of the need to resolve complaints and conflicts by making new policies that constrain all schools. So-called systemic reforms try to "align" the different parts of public education, via mandated goals, tests, curriculum frameworks, and teacher certification methods, but do nothing to eliminate the political and contractual constraints that create fragmented, unresponsive schools in the first place.

None of these reform efforts offers a complete alternative to the existing governance system. Because they leave its core intact - the commitment to governing public schools via politically negotiated rules that apply to all schools - they are much more likely to be transformed by the system than to transform it.

There is a true alternative form of governance for public education. …

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