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May 1, 1994
Vol. 51
No. 8

City Schools Under Attack

    Too many critics argue that the problems of city schools are not solvable, obscuring the fact that we often know what needs to be done to improve our urban schools.

      In the not too distant past, city schools were considered the flagships of American public education. No more. The conventional wisdom today is that public education in our urban areas is a disastrous failure.
      Since the publication of A Nation at Risk (1983), it has become difficult to be taken seriously in educational policy discussions without first proclaiming that public education is in crisis. To be sure, we have plenty of problems to be concerned about. Unfortunately, the problems that get emphasized in the popular press are more likely to be indicators of the prevailing political orthodoxy than a measure of their fundamental importance.
      Take, for example, the question of whether or not U.S. students in public schools are succeeding or failing in comparison with students in other industrial countries. To a conservative critic like Diane Ravitch, whose views have been widely reported over the decades, the data seem clear: our students (and thus our schools) are not doing well.
      To the contrary, argues David Berliner (1993), the data are anything but clear. Berliner reasons that because the relative amount of money spent by the U.S. on K–12 education is less than the amount spent by many of our international competitors, and given the inequitable way in which American education funds are apportioned, U.S. schools are achieving remarkable results.
      Berliner's affirmation of the success of American public education is supported by a recent Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development report. According to William Celis III: Contrary to the grim portrait often painted of American education ... compared with other industrialized nations, the United States does a reasonably good job of educating its citizens and preparing them for work (1993).
      The way to interpret international comparisons of student achievement is not the only subject under debate. From reading achievement to preparation for the world of work; from content knowledge to the ability to reason—almost any conclusion brings a swift rebuttal. The public discussion of education policy is now commonly conducted within a framework of hotly contested arguments.
      It would be tempting to conclude that a lack of knowledge or a disagreement over how to interpret the data prevents us from formulating and carrying out significant reforms in city school systems. The fact is, however, that we also know and agree about a lot.
      We know, for example, that adequate health care and nutrition, preschool education, and the involvement of nurturing adults go a long way toward helping prepare children for school success. We also know that children have different learning styles and that no single teaching method makes sense for every child. And we know that schools work best when a collegial environment encourages people to respond to changing circumstances.
      Despite what we know, we seem unable to act. Perhaps this is because finding the will to act is complicated by contradictory beliefs. (For example, the overwhelming majority of parents report that their child's school is doing an excellent job—at the same time, significant numbers believe that public schools are in crisis.)
      Or perhaps we are immobilized because school reform—especially city school reform—often presents a challenge to racial and class prejudices. Perhaps the growing gap between those who attend public schools in cities and those who pay for them overwhelms us. Perhaps for all of these reasons and more, the current political construction of urban school reform has not yielded satisfactory systemic changes and thus has helped feed the popular perception that public education in the United States is a failed enterprise.
      Critics of public education have embraced the idea that the problems of city schools may not be solvable. They argue that the whole idea of public education as we have constructed it in this country has outlived its usefulness. A Nation at Risk has become the grandparent of the voucher and privatization movements.
      In my view, public education is less in crisis than under attack. The attack has become part of a general assault on the very conception of the public sphere as a central aspect of our common existence. To be sure, many city schools are in need of improvement (not to mention roofs that don't leak, toilets that don't back up, clean classrooms, up-to-date teaching materials, and so on).
      At their heart, however, the problems of city schools are the result of our failure to place school reform inside of a broader vision of social and economic justice and our unwillingness to engage in the kind of political activity necessary to realize that vision. Without such an animating purpose, we are doomed to endlessly discuss the latest piecemeal reform, debate the latest (real) but not central problem, and watch as our public schools are abandoned by people who believe they cannot be saved.
      Plenty of people work hard in city schools and have more success than their circumstances would seem to allow. Their good work, however, will never be enough without our help. And if they don't succeed, ultimately none of us will.

      Berliner, D. C. (April 1993). “Mythology and the American System of Education.” Phi Delta Kappan 74, 8: 633–640.

      Celis, W., III. (December 9, 1993). “International Report Card Shows U.S. Schools Work.” New York Times: A1, A26.

      National Commission on Excellence in Education. (1983). A Nation At Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. Washington, D.C.: NCEE.

      Alex Molnar has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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