Review #120 Nov/Dec 2001

Power, Race, and School Reform

The Color of School Reform: Race, Politics and the Challenge of Urban Education, by Jeffrey R. Henig, Richard C. Hula, Marion Orr, and Desiree S. Pedescleaux. Princeton University Press, 1999. […]

The Color of School Reform: Race, Politics and the Challenge of Urban Education, by Jeffrey R. Henig, Richard C. Hula, Marion Orr, and Desiree S. Pedescleaux. Princeton University Press, 1999. 320 pp. $18.95, paper.

There was, at one time, optimism that having a majority of African-American teachers, administrators, and policymakers would vastly improve the education of inner-city African-American children. The Color of School Reform is four political scientists’ attempt to figure out why that hasn’t worked. They studied the intersection of racial politics and school reform in four “black-led” cities: Atlanta, Baltimore, Detroit, and the District of Columbia.

The authors argue that school reform has overemphasized curricular innovation and organizational form at the expense of civic capacity and political leadership. In each city, they found reform efforts frequently arose then collapsed, partially because the complex role of race undermined black leadership in a few ways. First, public authority does not guarantee access to private resources, usually controlled by white economic elites. Second, local authorities must interact with external actors at the state and national levels, who remain predominantly white. Finally, issues of race divide the African-American community itself.

From my experience working extensively in all of the book’s featured cities, The Color of School Reform gets the major issues right: the interplay of the cities’ power groups and the centrality of race, beyond social class, in political struggles. But the authors also fall down in a few places. Their understanding of the relationships and structures within the African-American community is weak and over-simplified, and they don’t question the assumptions underlying some terms, particularly “black-led” cities and school systems.

White political office holders tend to rely upon a wealthy white business community. But black-led cities do not have an equally powerful or wealthy black business community, and so African-American office holders are often linked to the same predominantly white business community. The authors recognize the potential for a white minority to retain economic power, but they don’t recognize the direct political dependence of African-American officeholders on them.

The authors also skip the question of the relationship between now-black-led cities and their surrounding communities. Did the former power brokers leave during white flight? If so, did they actually shed their influence in city matters? The authors are aware of this complex of forces but have collected little information about it.

The meaning of “leadership” is further confounded when governors, mayors, courts, or state departments of education take over school districts, or when non-black-led commercial vendors, which target inner-city schools, take charge of the education of the lowest-performing students.

Finally, it is misleading to examine only black-led school systems. Doing so implies that the horror stories about nepotism, mismanagement, and favoritism the book details are unique to African-American communities, even as the authors claim the contrary. The book’s analysis should be extended to large urban school systems where white superintendents recently replaced African-Americans, such as San Diego, Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York.

The Color of School Reform paints a clear picture of typical school reform efforts. They generally involve casts of thousands in hearings and advisory groups. Community leaders may work for months to reach a consensus on what they want school leaders to implement. Research shows that the quality of teaching is the main force accounting for high achievement, but reformers often neglect to work with them at all. All the advisors, committees, and partnerships in the world will yield few results if teachers and school leaders are not on board.

While there are times when school systems simply will not move on their own and outside pressure is called for, outside micromanagement of a large school system is impractical and destructive. It would have been helpful to hear more about what roles the coalitions, advisory committees, courts, unions, and community groups played in the successful cases of school improvement, such as the Brazosport School District in Texas, or about the work of former New York and Atlanta school superintendent J. Jerome Harris, who was curiously omitted from the study’s list of superintendents.

The Color of School Reform could have gone the next step with its critiques and shifted focus from “school reform” to “high achievement.” “School reform” is ambiguous and can mean almost anything. Changes in testing, charter schools, privatization, and “accountability measures,” among others, may represent change but not produce high achievement.

Nor is it clear that “reform” is required for success. In many successful schools and some districts, the old forms are simply better led, with competent leadership and quality control. The book could have helped make this distinction by covering the substantial literature on what actually makes schools succeed. Michael Schmoker, in Results: The Keys to Continuous School Improvement, and The Education Trust in Washington, DC, both document the power of ordinary but well-executed school services in high-poverty areas. Knowing that old and new forms can be successful frees us to attend to political reform; the casts of thousands could refocus on pressuring for excellent leadership and adequate resources.

The most basic political problem with urban education is still the problem of will. Research on urban schools must confront this question, for no reform or restructuring can overcome lack of will or malevolent intent. Beneath the surface of our rhetoric about educating all children is a profound lack of will to “do whatever it takes” to successfully educate poor children and children of color.

There is much research to support this. Barbara Sizemore’s research on high-achieving schools for low-income African-American children shows that outstanding educators who overcome the traditional obstacles tend to be “in trouble with their supervisors” for being “non-team players.” In a recent Phi Delta Kappan article, “Only for My Child,” Alfie Kohn describes how middle-class parents undermine school reform. David Berliner and M. Biddle, in The Manufactured Crisis, document a deliberate, malevolent and propagandistic strategy to destroy public schools. Lisa Delpit, in Other People’s Children, shows how many teachers behave in subtle yet pervasively negative ways toward their inner-city students. In Savage Inequalities, Jonathan Kozol depicts how we have tolerated neglect and abuse of our poorest children. Years ago, the Phi Delta Kappan carried a story showing that the more successful federally sponsored programs were, the less likely they were to be continued when funding ceased.

The authors of The Color of School Reform have done innovative, non-traditional, necessary and excellent work. I have suggested areas that need additional exploration, but the work is useful, and I will be using it in my own teaching.


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