What Needs to Be Done?
Stanley William Rothstein
Equal educational opportunity is one of the most fashionable slogans of our time and one that is most misunderstood. At first glance, nothing appears more popular than these appeals for greater equity in the schooling of the working and immigrant families of the United States. Dare anyone raise a voice against these democratic values? Yet the schools continue to select children into tracks that lead to universities or the lower levels of work in our society. "Something is wrong," say those who have studied these things. "Our children should be doing better." This is because these people fail to look behind the clever slogans to the realities of school life in a competitive, industrial ethos. Evidently those who call for equalization of opportunity are unaware of the history and primary tasks of educational systems.
In fact, it is no secret that there have been, and continue to be, two separate educational systems in the United States. The fight to eliminate racial and socioeconomic segregation flares up, now and then, then dies down as people get used to things being "the way they have always been." What the latest calls for affirmative action and equity in schooling are up against is the unequal and competitive value system that is embedded in modern capitalist society.
Educational systems must change from agents of the state into genuine centers of individual renewal. But this idea runs counter to the goals of the state and the history of urban schooling as it has developed in the last 300 years. The possibility of reforming urban schools and creating oases for children has been a fantasy from the start. It has fallen victim to the realities of uncertain labor markets and the need for new workers as old ones wear out. The very idea of equal opportunity for all students was declared to be unsound by no less an educational authority than Woodrow Wilson. As president of Princeton in the early years of this century, he wrote that America needed to educate only a tiny fraction of its population. The rest were to be trained to do the work their betters demanded of them. The theory of leveling the class differences among Americans