In Diane Ravitch’s new book (The Death and Life of the Great American School System), she tells of her recent switch from championing school reforms (testing, accountability, and choice) as a federal policymaker, educational historian, and pundit to rejecting these policies. Ravitch’s turnaround got me thinking about what I had believed earlier in my career and believe now fifty years later.
I began teaching high school in 1955 filled with the passion to teach history to youth and help them find their niche in the world while making a better society. At that time, I believed wholeheartedly in words taken from John Dewey’s “Pedagogic Creed” (1897): “… education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform.”
And I tried to practice those utopian words in my teaching in Cleveland (OH) and Washington, D.C. between the early 1960s and mid-1970s. While in retrospect I could easily call this faith in the power of teaching and schooling to make a better life and society naïve, I do not. That passionate idealism about teaching and the role that schooling plays in a democratic, market-driven society gave meaning and drive to those long days working as a teacher, getting married, starting a family, and taking university classes at night.
That confident belief in the power of schools to reform society took me to Washington, D.C. in 1963 to teach Peace Corps returnees how to become teachers at Cardozo High School. I stayed nearly a decade in D.C. teaching and administering school-site and district programs aimed at turning around schools in a largely black city, a virtual billboard for severe inequalities.
I worked in programs that trained young teachers to teach in low-performing schools, programs that organized residents in impoverished neighborhoods to improve their community, programs that created alternative schools and district-wide professional development programs for teachers and administrators. While well intentioned federal and D.C. policymakers attacked the accumulated neglect that had piled up in schools over decades, they adopted these reform-driven programs haphazardly without much grasp of how to implement them in schools and classrooms.
I have few regrets for what I and many other like-minded individuals did during those years. I take pride in the many teachers and students who participated in these reforms who were rescued from deadly, mismanaged schools, and ill-taught classrooms. But the fact remains that by the mid-1970s, with a few notable exceptions, most of these urban school reforms others and I had worked in had become no more than graffiti written in snow. And the social inequalities that we had hoped to reduce, persisted.
After leaving D.C., my subsequent work as a superintendent, high school teacher, professor, and researcher into the history of school reform led me to see that the relationship between public schools, reform, and society was far more entangled than I had thought. Most important, I came to understand that the U.S. has a three-tiered system of schooling based upon performance and socioeconomic status.
Top-tier schools—about 10 percent of all U.S. schools–such as selective urban high schools in New York, Boston, and San Francisco and schools in mostly affluent suburbs such as New Trier High School (IL), Beverly Hills (CA), Scarsdale (NY) meet or exceed national and state curriculum standards. They head lists of high-scoring districts in their respective states. These schools send nearly all of their graduates to four-year colleges and universities.
Second-tier schools—about 50 percent of all schools often located in inner-ring suburbs (e.g., T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, VA) often meet state standards and send most of their graduating classes to college. But, on occasion, they slip in and out of compliance with federal and state accountability rules, get dinged, and continue on their way as second-tier schools.
Then there is the third tier of schools located in big cities such as D.C., Philadelphia, Detroit, St. Louis, Atlanta, and rural areas where largely poor and minority families live. Most schools in these cities are low-performing and frequently on the brink of being closed. Occasionally, a stellar principal and staff will lift a school into the second tier but that is uncommon.
Such a three-tier system in the U.S., I concluded, maintains social stability (and inequalities) yet, and this is a mighty large “yet,” good teachers and schools even in the lowest tier of schools can promote positive intellectual, behavioral, and social change in many children and youth .
The irony, of course, is that current policymakers from President Obama through local school board presidents and superintendents still mime John Dewey’s words and act as if schools can, indeed, reform society. Knowledge gained from decades of experience as a teacher, administrator, and researcher have made me allergic to utopian rhetoric about the role of schools in society. I have become skeptical of anyone spouting words about schools being in the vanguard of social reform.
Yet, I must also say that those very same experiences have tempered but not dissolved my early idealism. I still believe that content-smart and classroom-wise teachers who know their students well can make significant differences in individual students’ lives even if collectively they cannot cure societal ills.