School Reform As If Politics and Race Matter
STUDENTS OF AMERICAN education have long recognized the various roles played by schools in serving the national interest. They act as venues for socializing our youth into dominant norms, preparing future citizens to serve as informed voters and political actors, and training future workers in the skills and habits that our economy requires. However, schools are most often seen as vehicles of individual advancement. Few symbols are quite as powerful as education's potential role in promoting social and economic mobility. Indeed, this prescription is often offered as a broad strategy for disadvantaged populations. Minority communities are routinely advised to invest in education as a means to improve their status. In all social classes parents admonish their children to work hard in school so that they might be more successful in later life.
Given this widespread belief in the power of education, it is hardly surprising that many in the African-American community were eager first for meaningful participation and then control over urban schools. Within the AfricanAmerican community there was a general sense that white-dominated school systems were inattentive and poorly equipped to deal with the needs of minority youth. There was an almost naive faith that if African Americans could assume positions of authority within and outside the classrooms, then what had often been a hostile environment for minority children would now be restructured to better meet their needs. Underlying this anticipation was continued belief in the central role of schools. At issue was not so much the potential value of education—which was taken for granted among both blacks and whites—but rather how schooling was actually being provided to African-American children under the existing regime.
Atlanta, Baltimore, Detroit, and Washington provide dramatic illustrations of the disappointment that followed the assumption of power by African Americans in local education. Inconsistencies and inadequacies among the available measures of educational performance make it impossible to offer precise comparisons across school districts. And, it is especially difficult to make clear-headed assessments of school performance that take into account the known fact that it is much more difficult to succeed when children come to school already depleted in many ways due to the socioeconomic conditions in their families and communities. Although some might wish to argue that these schools are doing as well as they can under the circumstances, it is