"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Friday, March 22, 2013

Urban Schools: Failure by Design

GUEST POST: John Harris Loflin, Education-Community Action Team

Urban schools are not broken: Moving to a 21st century vision of urban education

The crisis is not about education at all. It’s about power.
                                                                          ~ James Baldwin

The idea that the Indianapolis Public School System (IPS) is broken and needs fixing is the basis for the current local school reform debate. (See Indy Star 03.16.12, “A broken system” by Kelly Bentley.) This assertion leaves unchallenged facts showing wealthier communities have better educational opportunities than low-income. It doesn’t make sense then to compare schools across these communities and then pronounce IPS as failing.

Urban schools produce academic failure at alarming rates. Yet, this happens inside a system designed to essentially predetermine winners and losers: one set of schools has the resources that ensure success and another set of schools does not. Thus, the “failure” of urban schools is a success. Urban schools like IPS are not broken; they are doing exactly what they are designed to do.

Here’s the question: has our public school system ever attempted to realize the purported mission to educate all children equally and effectively? The obvious answer is no. Reality reveals decades of fiscal, political, and structural policies which deliberately undercut and demean urban public schools. 
This doesn’t excuse poor academic outcomes in many urban schools, but suggests the need to move past 20th century ideas based on “fixing failure.”

According to The Art of Critical Pedagogy, on which most of this letter is based, there are two reasons why school failure in urban districts continues.

1. The Politics of Failure: Perpetual urban school failure is tolerated because deep down our nation subscribes to the belief that someone must fail in school.  Here, failure results from the inferiority of the student, the family, or her/his culture and community. Indeed, this deficit-model of students is built into most schools through the existence of a largely unchallenged system of grading and testing which by its very design requires failure for some.

2. The Economics of Failure: Public schools are America’s socio-economic sorting machine--where economic futures are cast and people are sorted into their future roles. In short, some people must fill the least desirable places in society. It’s important they feel they deserve to be in those positions or, basically, that there is a formal mechanism (urban schools) to justify their place there.

In effect, the high-stakes nature of this sorting process plays itself out behind the talk of opportunity and the myth of school-based meritocracy suggesting all students compete under similar rules with equal opportunity. Still, in the game of education, some families/students have high levels of social, political, economic capital. This guarantees an unfair competition and producing the same unequal outcomes.

To change public education, citizens must challenge the myth of meritocracy and the hype about “opportunity.” The few exceptional urban students who combine fortitude and fortune to succeed in under-resourced schools play an important role in this myth making, confirming for the public that opportunity exists for anyone who wants it bad enough. This opens the door for others to say the reason some fail is simply because they and their families do not care about education or they haven’t worked hard enough. This is, of course, untrue.

The stratified nature of our current society creates a “social pyramid” with no room at the top for everyone. This requires people to be sorted, and schools are the “mechanism” used to resolve this messy social “conundrum.”

The fact that "opportunity" exists (currently defined as all children having access to public schools) helps maintain the story of a democratic and meritocratic society where competition churns the cream to the top, ultimately benefiting society as a whole by rewarding the most deserving.  Still, those benefiting most from this sorting process look, talk, think, and act most like those who already have power.

This is inequality by design and well documented. Our IPS plays a role in the perpetuation of this rigged social lottery: the nation's poorest are the most likely to be denied access to a quality education and blamed (directly or indirectly) for their academic "failure." Thus, with consistency, IPS disproportionately produces the citizens who will hold the least desirable and least mobile socio-economic positions and these positions will be mainly occupied by residents emerging from the district’s poorest communities.

If IPS is criticized as broken, then these failures mean IPS is in fact successful at enabling the results it’s designed to produce. We can’t call schools designed to fail "broken.”

John Harris Loflin
Education-Community Action Team


  1. Teachers are under growing pressure to produce testable results to justify their pay. Therefore, teachers with more influence and or seniority maneuver themselves into upper-class neighborhoods, where they can claim credit for the predictable success of students there. More inequality follows.

    We need to pay more attention to some kind of GINI index which shows the relative equity of funding and staff quality among schools in the same district, city, state, etc.

  2. Anonymous11:22 PM

    In 1970, Indiana unified the governing of Indianapolis and surrounding areas under a common system called "Unigov". Unigov was first proposed by Richard Lugar, which provided one government for all of Marion county. But in a compromise, many towns and townships were allowed to keep their own school systems. One wonders how Indianapolis Public Schools would have fared if IPS had been consolidated with all schools in the county instead of being isolated and segregated from its surrounding township school systems.