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The Promise of City Schools

Robert Wood

8 Believe in urban education? In big-city schools? Now, when public education is routinely written off by the media, from Cronkite to Chancellor, Newsweek to Time? How quixotic.

Why do I continue to believe in Boston public education -- after being fired halfway through a four-year reform effort and watching another year of crisis after crisis? In ten short months there has been a bus strike; a budget that was out of control, then magically balanced, now reportedly out of control again; one school committee member convicted and jailed for extortion, another indicted and awaiting trial; the recent firing of one out of every five teachers; and-the sporadic intervention of federal and state courts just to keep the schools open through June. How many marbles does one have to lose to sustain belief in the face of all this?

Indeed, the case against urban public education seems overwhelming. From Boston and Pittsburg, through Cleveland and St. Louis to Los Angeles, big-city schools are commonly judged to be in disarray. Their costs have exploded -- up more than 25 percent in constant dollars in the last decade -- while enrollments have plummeted. Under federal and state court orders to desegregate, "forced" busing stirs angry political resentment. New tasks -- peacekeeping, bilingual education, special needs education -- demoralize teachers and encourage more aggressive unions. Parents counter-organize and agitate for community control, protesting a rigid middle-class bureaucracy. Test scores slide or when they do not, seem increasingly irrelevant. Old facilities age, new ones disintegrate under student abuse.

So the call goes out, as in last spring's Boston Citizens' Seminar, to shut the schools down, as President Donald Monan of Boston College suggested, or to contract them out, as President John Silber of Boston University recommended. At best, big-city schools seem destined to drift toward caretaker status, serving the poor and disadvantaged while the private and suburban schools skim off the able -- those able to pay.

Nonetheless, if urban public education is allowed to continue to drift and deteriorate, if new reforms in program and structure are not introduced, if urban political, civic and business leadership look the other way, the losses to the young, to the community and to education in general will be at least severe and quite probably devastating.

Moreover, when properly conducted, urban education offers five innate advantages not replicable in more serene suburban and private-school settings. Their realization is essential if a sizeable number of the next generation of Americans are to be adequately prepared to deal with life as they are likely to find it.

First, there are the educational benefits of size and scale. In contrast to the large comprehensive high schools of the suburbs, the big-city public schools can offer a wide variety of programs and curricula. If individual schools focus on special themes and skills, students can choose which of a number of courses to pursue. The popular term for this concept is "magnet school ": at the elementary level, say, one school might be oriented to basic skills, another to language and culture; at the secondary level, one might specialize in the fine arts, another in health careers or computer sciences, a third in industrial arts, and so on. Boston's "examination schools," for example, clearly aim to prepare students for college. Its occupation resource center teaches them high-technology skills, and its Madison Park High School focuses on the performing arts. With more than a hundred elementary and middle schools and eighteen high schools in the area, the individual student can choose from among an array of programs simply not available in smaller systems.

Second, there is the urban setting. Rich, diverse in activities, architecture, and people, the city offers supplementary educational facilities that cannot be found elsewhere. The Cultural Collaborative in Boston, for example, is a consortium of museums and enterprises deeply involved with the public schools. Their staff prepares students in the class room before and after field trips and supports and encourages teachers as well. The city itself becomes a laboratory for all sorts of programs -- e.g., mock trials with real judges that draw hundreds of students to Fanueil Hall, performances with the Boston, Symphony Orchestra, direct meetings with government people in a program called Political Discovery, and so on.

Then, there is the heterogeneity of students themselves, who differ in terms of race, aspiration, and family background. City schools still provide the day-by-day experience in pluralism that suburban and private schools have long since abandoned, and which is essential to a functioning democracy. These experiences do not necessarily guarantee the brotherhood or sisterhood of mankind, but they do make possible realistic understanding of diverse perspectives and attitudes at an early age. The alternative is the kind of ugly, unreasoned confrontation we see too frequently in adult life.

Fourth, economic common sense indicates that the economy's major shortage, now and for the foreseeable future, is human resources, the availability of appropriately skilled persons for the private sector's most urgent requirements. It is not the number of college graduates, even in business administration, on which the competitive posture of the United States depends. It is the presence of effectively trained people in the new sectors of the economy -- and here urban public schools offer a wealth of untapped talent, a broad base of human abilities that is now too often wasted.

Finally, the future of the city is itself at stake. If the country is not simply to "go with the flow," from city to suburb to hinterland, from Northeast and Midwest to Southwest and Farwest, abandoning the human and physical investments of the past, we must develop determined strategies for the preservation and restoration of older cities. Here again schools are the key. To hold young families, to attract new ones disillusioned with the suburbs, quality schools can and must be restored. All the Prudential Centers, Quincy Markets, Copley Squares of Boston will not suffice to keep a diverse and energetic people living here.

Taken together, these five aspects of public urban education constitute a powerful argument for revival of big-city schools. But truly effective schools do not come naturally, and the reform of present systems will not be easily achieved. For Boston, as for most cities, school reform must come in three parts. There must be new governing structures that ensure accountability and stability, replace political management with professional management, permit strong executive leadership, and require effective budget and personnel systems. We also need decentralized operations that encourage school-based leadership, and active informed parent participation. Finally there must be support from community and private leadership and recognition of the critical functions the schools perform.

With these modest reforms, cities can achieve stability and grow stronger. But without public schools of quality, neither cities nor the people in them have much hope for a good life.

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