A few years ago, Richard Elmore asked me to write a piece about how my ideas have changed over the years. Daily experience in schools as a teacher, administrator, and researcher (and the reflections and writing that I did about those experiences) altered key ideas I had about the nature of reform and how reform worked its way into districts, schools, and classrooms. He included my piece in a book called I Used to Think… And Now I Think (Harvard Education Press, 2011). I have divided the piece into two parts. Part 1 follows.
I used to think that public schools were vehicles for reforming society. And now I think that while good teachers and schools can promote positive intellectual, behavioral, and social change in individual children and youth, schools are (and have been) ineffectual in altering social inequalities.
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 working toward 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) through the early 1960s. While in retrospect I could easily call this faith in the power of teaching and schooling to make a better life and society naïve or unrealistic, I refuse to do so because that passionate idealism, that innocence, about the complex and conflicted roles that schooling plays in a democratic, market-driven society gave meaning and drive to the long days I worked as a teacher, getting married, starting a family, and taking university classes at night toward a masters degree in history.
That confident belief in the power of schools to reform society took me to Washington, D.C. in 1963 (I arrived on the day of the civil rights March on Washington) to teach returned Peace Corps volunteers 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 taught history to students in two high schools. I worked in programs that trained energetic young teachers to work 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 the 1960s. 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 early 1970s, with a few notable exceptions, most of these urban school reforms I and others had worked in had become no more than graffiti written in snow. And the social inequalities that we had hoped to reduce, persisted.
Since the early 1970s, a succession of superintendents and elected school boards have descended upon the D.C. public schools determined to fundamentally change that benighted district. Even after reforms aimed at the governance, curriculum, instruction, and organization of schools were adopted, even after the glories of parental choice, charter schools, and market competition have been championed as cure-alls for urban district ills—after decades of unrelenting geysers of reforms, schooling in D.C.—now under mayoral control–and most other urban districts remain educational disaster zones and a blight on a democratic society.
After leaving D.C., my work as a superintendent, professor, and researcher into the history of school reform and teaching led me to see that the relationship between public schools, reform, and society was far more entangled than I had thought. 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 white suburbs such as New Trier High School (IL), San Ramon Valley (CA), Montgomery County (MD) 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; Menlo-Atherton High School in Menlo Park, CA) 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 reprimanded, 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 large numbers of poor and minority families live. Most schools in these cities are low-performing and frequently on the brink of being shut down because they are on federal and state lists of failing schools. Occasionally, a stellar principal and staff will lift a school into the second tier but staying there is uncommon.
Such a three-tier system in the U.S., schools cannot remedy national economic, social, and political problems or dissolve persistent inequities. Schools in these tiers cannot be the vanguard for social reform—ever. Public schools, I concluded, are (and have been) institutions for maintaining social stability (and inequalities) yet, and this is a mighty large “yet,” good teachers and schools can promote positive intellectual, behavioral, and social change in many children and youth even in the lowest tier of schools.
The irony, of course, is that many 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. In President Obama’s 2010 State of the union speech, for example, he said, “in the 21st century, the best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education.”
So nearly a half-century of experience in schools and the sustained research I have done have made me allergic to utopian rhetoric. Both my experience and research have changed my mind about the role of schools in society. I have become skeptical of anyone spouting words about schools being in the vanguard of social reform—even from a President I admire. Yet, I must confess that in my heart, I still believe that content-smart and classroom-smart teachers who know their students well can make significant differences in their students’ lives even if they cannot cure societal ills.