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April 1, 2010

Book Review / Book Review

Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There Are No Bad Schools in Raleigh by Gerald Grant

My brother, a political scientist, informs me of a debate in his field: Many political scientists insist that "policy follows culture," meaning people establish laws and social arrangements based on their cultural values. Others believe that "culture follows policy," meaning official policies transform both how a particular group of people views the world and the group's values and traditions.

I thought of this debate as I read Hope and Despair in the American City. The book presents a convincing analysis of why school integration policies limited to city boundaries do little to lift the prospects of poor urban blacks. Only policies such as the one carried out in Raleigh, North Carolina, which purposely merge city and suburban school districts, adequately improve education for poor kids. Grant's narrative— describing how different approaches in Syracuse, New York, and Raleigh led to not only dramatically different public school landscapes but also different community belief systems—lends support to the "culture follows policy" crowd.

There's an ironic timeliness to the publication of this book. Raleigh's decades-old "economic desegregation" system, which Grant describes glowingly, is now in danger of being dismantled. Opponents of economic desegregation gained a majority on Raleigh's Wake County School Board in an election last fall. In February, Superintendent Del Burns abruptly resigned, many believe in protest of the new board majority's intention to reverse the county's economic desegregation. This reversal would be quite a loss, if Grant's portrayal of Wake County schools is accurate. The county has across-the-board high test scores and has significantly shrunk the black-white achievement gap.

Grant's chapters on Raleigh take the reader inside the decision-making process that led to stellar classrooms in all parts of Raleigh. He also takes us inside some of those classrooms to show how Raleigh's teachers learned to make instruction more engaging and inclusive.

In 1976, Raleigh voluntarily merged its city and county schools. Throughout the 1980s, Superintendent Walter Marks aggressively made sure that district schools stayed integrated both racially and socioeconomically. Marks turned 27 city schools into lavishly resourced magnets that would attract suburban families, and he expanded two-way busing. Parents did seek out these magnets, but the county also committed to reassigning kids as needed to maintain a healthy balance of rich and poor in every classroom. To a great extent, parents could choose their child's school, but if any school approached more than 40 percent low-income students, the district would assign and bus some suburban students into city schools and vice versa.

This policy, Grant writes, "guaranteed that all schools in Wake County would have a core of middle class students who would establish a floor of positive expectations and create student networks across class lines" (pp. 105–106). Thus, the school experience brought new kinds of social capital to impoverished kids—and the presence of parents with clout ensured that neither the teaching nor the facilities in city schools would slide toward substandard.

Grant contrasts Wake County's approach with the way integration was engineered in Syracuse. Syracuse made schools within city limits as racially balanced as possible, but left the predominantly white outer ring of suburban districts untouched. The results were disastrous—as both test scores and Grant's own experience raising his family in an urban Syracuse neighborhood indicate. In the 1970s and 1980s, city neighborhoods deteriorated in infrastructure and social stability. Whites fled, but zoning and banking policies closed off suburban options to most nonwhite families. "The result of these policies," Grant laments, "was to create an invisible wall between cities and suburbs. On one side of the wall were greater and greater concentrations of the poor and minorities—those with the greatest needs and a smaller tax base to provide resources" (p. 136).

The power of Grant's chapters on Syracuse stems from his personal connection and his storytelling skill. Grant, who is white, grew up in Syracuse and moved his family back in the 1970s. His children attended city schools, and he taught at a Syracuse high school for two years. He saw firsthand why busing low-income minority kids into formerly all-white city schools didn't significantly change prospects for these students. Teachers were unprepared to instruct a diverse group, minority kids were disproportionately placed into "a dead-end track of diluted classwork" (p. 51), and racial tensions turned violent. The situation stabilized in the 1980s, but then urban poverty deepened and the middle class continued to flee. Schools and student achievement deteriorated.

Syracuse was typical of how northern cities handled integration, as Grant details in the chapter "A Tragic Decision." Such cities often poured money into improving city schools with little result, because they didn't prioritize breaking down walls between city and suburb. The "tragic decision" Grant refers to is a 1974 Supreme Court ruling striking down a Detroit desegregation plan that would have merged urban and suburban districts. Lower courts had consistently found that such factors as school site selection and attendance zones created de facto segregation and had upheld the need for aggressive measures to dissolve that segregation.

One reason for the Supreme Court's reversal, Grant details, was that President Nixon had taken great pains to appoint justices who would oppose busing. The 5-4 ruling, Grant writes, "sealed the fate of cities in the North. Arguably, more than any other single factor, the Detroit ruling ensured that black and poor children in cities like Syracuse would continue to be segregated" (p. 145).

Despite the recent changes in Wake County, Grant's book ends with hope. He mentions other cities—Charlotte, Nashville, Knoxville, Chattanooga, and Louisville—that have implemented socioeconomic desegregation. And to promote socioeconomic diversity nationwide, he suggests offering children in the worst urban schools vouchers to "buy themselves a seat" in a better, suburban school. Grant notes that pushing for diversity in public schools is about more than closing achievement gaps: "The goal is to provide more opportunities for people to freely associate across racial, ethnic, and economic lines" (p. 184). If education policy can drive the culture we create among our citizens, we should look carefully at the fruit of our policies.

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