Education under Siege: The Conservative, Liberal and Radical Debate over Schooling

By Stanley Aronowitz; Henry Giroux | Go to book overview

FOUR

The Literacy Crisis: A Critique and Alternative

A DECADE AGO, American education seemed on the verge of a renaissance commensurate to the era of progressivism of the 1920s and 1930s. Practical innovations dotted the landscape; experimentalism from Montessori to free schools, often student controlled, succeeded in forcing a modicum of school reform in the public sector from the outside. At the beginning of the 1970s, education officials in cities and towns throughout the country had decided that it was necessary to create alternative elementary and secondary schools within the established order. The motivating power for starting these programs was by no means altruistic or a far-sightedness by educational professionals. They were simply persuaded, either by the example of successful projects outside the system or the eloquence of educational planners and critics, that certain problems of the schools could at least be ameliorated, if not solved by educational innovations.

Building on the example of the community-controlled districts in New York elementary and junior high schools, big city Boards of Education moved into the new decade with plans to encourage neighborhoods and educators to begin experiments in alternative high schools as well. In most cities, the conservative Boards felt their backs to the wall: enrollments were exploding, but school attendance was dropping among many segments of the cities’ high school population. The metaphor of siege was widely employed to describe the atmosphere in the schools with teachers steadily losing ground to more confident young guerilla warriors. Employers and colleges complained that applicants lacked the needed skills to perform jobs or do “college” work. These skills deficits were defined as literacy as well as good work habits.

The legitimacy of schools as educational institutions was challenged by low attendance and plummeting test scores, an all too familiar theme in the 1980s. Parents, especially those from minority communities and the remaining white middle classes in the cities, began demanding educational changes, the content of which remained unspecified. Neil Postman, George Dennison, Jonathan Kozol and other “radical”

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