The Promise of City Schools
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
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