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In Search of Uncommon Schools: Charter School Reform in Historical Perspective (Part 2) - Resisting Common Associations

by Amy Stuart Wells - November 02, 2000

An examination of the historical evidence suggesting that resistance to the content of the common school has always been strong

Amy Stuart Wells:

Resisting common associations. There is evidence of strong resistance on the part of upper and middle-class families to broader association with poor children families predating the creation of common schools. In fact, we know that in Boston and other cities the dream of the common school had died practically before it was ever born. There in the capital of the state that was the birthplace of the common school movement, establishment of intermediate schools, or schools of special instruction in 1938 initiated a process whereby educators in response to growing diversity among the students targeted specific groups of children for segregated instruction. These included the single sex schools and those solely intended for children of African descent.

According to historian Robert Osgood, by 1900, age, culture, and linguistic background, social class, and quote unquote, abnormality, all constituted conditions on which school officials rationalized ignoring or abandoning much of the fundamental common school ideology. Osgood writes the growth of these segregated settings, in both number and importance, provided a vivid portrait of how changing social and educational conditions and priorities eroded the underpinnings of the common school movement, contributing to remarkable differentiation in organization and curriculum that came to characterize the public schools in the United States (Osgood, 1997, p. 378).

Indeed, in the report by the U.S. Commissioner of Education in 1896, the report states that in Massachusetts the current influence for a series of years seems to be against the common school. The old British habit of sharp distinctions in society was still powerful. And the wealthy and educated class seemed more and more inclined to withdraw their own children from the common herd into private and denominational seminaries (Mayo, 1896-97, p. 718).

Thus in a trend that seems to have started well before the vision of common schools, parents with money and power to flee the public system, or flee diverse public schools have consistently and systematically avoided association with poor students. More often than not these divisions have often also broken down along racial lines.

Educators and school officials, although they were reportedly more conflicted about these issues, often accommodated these parents in the way that they set zones and district boundaries.

This effort on the part of wealthy and/or white parents, in particular, to disassociate with children, their children with poor children, and children of color had led to the self-fulfillment of prophecy of less challenging schools and curriculum for more disadvantaged students. Meanwhile the stratification and segregation both across and within schools has only intensified and become more complicated. Osgood (1997, p. 396) notes, for instance, that within the first 20 years of the 20th century, Boston school officials had institutionalized the ultimate failure of the common school ideal. Large numbers of students were siphoned off into special English only classes for immigrants, others found eventual placement in prevocational centers first established in 1907 for those students mostly with immigrant background thought to belong to the distinctly motor or practically minded types.

Long-term struggle for common schools eventually solidified a guiding assumption in Boston that "a common education for all was neither possible nor practical in such a diverse, efficiency-oriented school system. Consequently, a city considered the primary center for advancing the common school ideal, in fact, exposed many of its shortcomings and contradictions, ironically helping to explain why it failed to realize the fondest ambitions of its most ardent supporters..." (Osgood, 1997, p. 398

The rise of the comprehensive high school, the secondary level of the common school, brought with it similar promises of association across different ethnic and social groups. But the common comprehensive high school was also a breeding ground for the more differentiated and segregated curriculum.

Like Mann calling for common schools, James Bryant Conant (1959) contended that as instruments of democracy, large public high schools must bring together all the country’s adolescents to experience a core of civic education, respectful social relations, and community solidarity. Conant argued that by giving students in all walks of life access to common comprehensive high schools, the educational system would fulfill the American promise of equality of opportunity.

Interestingly enough, Conant’s espousal of the egalitarian and community-building functions of high schools did not dampen his enthusiasm for a highly differentiated curriculum structure whereby students would be sorted according to courses and programs according to their "performance, inclinations, and ambitions." He defined equal opportunity as an assignment to one’s proper spot within a differentiated curriculum. Thus Conant’s comprehensive high schools were only part common schools because they provided through their grouping and differentiated curriculum vastly uncommon educational experiences.

Conant’s comprehensive high school reaffirmed both Mann’s call for common schools, and the belief in the fairness of differentiation. However, he reworked these ideas to incorporate mid-twentieth century sensibilities. His vision reflected, for instance, the need for larger and more efficient educational institutions. It also reflected the growing faith of measuring innate ability and the Cold War focus on individual liberty, free markets, and merit based competition.

Furthermore, these efforts to create common and comprehensive schools were still taking place behind the veil of racial segregation. And of course, the backdrop to such segregation was the highly segregated housing patterns perpetuated by massive migration of white middle-class families to the suburbs after World War II, an issue also of association.

Therefore, I would argue that the judicial and political effort to racially desegregate schools between the 1940’s and the 1980’s was in some way the boldest common school movement of all. It might seem that way if we look at a few simple statistics which show that in 1963, 98% of black students in the South were enrolled in all-black schools, and by 1980 that number had been reduced to 23% (Orfield, 1983).

Still we know that even this effort to create more common schools was short-lived. First following the Brown decision, school districts, white parents and local leaders strongly resisted efforts to desegregate their schools. In our book on the St. Louis school desegregation case, Bob Crain and I point out that the St. Louis public schools went to extremes avoiding desegregating students until ordered to do so by a federal judge. Such resistance took the form of intact bussing in which black students were bussed to all-white schools, but white and black students never saw each other because they arrived at different times, entered the schools through different doors, and were never on the playground or in the lunchroom together. (See Wells and Crain, 1997). Thus on the surface, St. Louis had desegregated their schools shortly after the Supreme Court’s Brown ruling, but there was virtually no association between black and white students.

Indeed it took until the late 1960’s and early 70’s when two important Supreme Court rulings ordered school districts to compile a desegregation remedy for any large scale desegregation to occur. Thus from the early 70’s to the mid 1980’s when the first court ordered plan was dismantled in Norford, Virginia, the reign of school desegregation court orders to try and recreate common schools was rather brief in the face of more than a hundred years of systematic segregation of public schools.

Furthermore, when compelled legally to comply with these segregation orders, white parents and educators continued to resist forced association across racial lines. Either through white flight or resegregation within schools, some white students managed to experience court ordered desegregation with relatively little mixing with black and Latino students. In my current research on the history of school desegregation in six cities, I’m documenting the ways in which white and wealthy liberals would only go along so far in supporting desegregation orders as long as they could maintain fairly separate and unequal classes within the desegregated schools.

The current trend in school districts across the country is to dismantle court ordered desegregation of any kind, even the choice oriented models, and return to segregated neighborhood public schools. Court cases challenging school desegregation orders are often brought by white students who are denied access to neighborhood schools or special magnet or exam schools because of race.

Thus these efforts represent yet another form of resistance on the part of more privileged parents against policies and programs designed to make common schools more common, although now increasingly these white and wealthy parents are joined by African-American and Latino parents in calling for an end to school desegregation. After years of frustration with efforts to desegregate schools, after bearing the burden of bussing for so long and watching white students flee schools that were considered good enough for their children, African-American parents and activists have grown weary of the effort to force association through school desegregation policy. In addition, state and local school boards are often using powerful incentives to make resegregation more appealing to blacks.

Gary Orfield’s data shows that by the early 1990’s, the segregation level for African-Americans was on the rise and for the first time reverted back to the level that it had been prior to the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in 1971. Meanwhile Latino students, the fastest growing minority group in the country, are the most segregated group of students in the country.

Indeed, a special report by the Columbus Dispatch in Columbus, Ohio, where court ordered desegregation had been dismantled four years ago, showed that despite pledges by district officials that schools would not reflect inequalities among neighborhoods, the elementary schools there were again divided by race, income, student achievement, teacher experience, and resources.

Thus I think that the struggle to create schools that are common to rich and poor African-American, Latino, white, Asian students has been resisted at every turn, particularly, but not always, by those families that have more social, economic, and political power in the current system. And I do not mean to imply that this resistance simply takes the form of strategic acts of racist or classist individuals operating within a vacuum. Rather there are powerful institutional and social structural forces that propel all of us in the direction of uncommon schools and classrooms. Whether it is intense racial segregation, college admissions processes that place so much emphasis on certain courses, as well as the prestige of each high school, or a highly unequal capitalistic economic system that legitimizes growing inequality even in time of prosperity, these forces also assure that those who gain access to the most elite and exclusive of the uncommon schools will ultimately reap the rewards of the stratification and thus will not struggle to dismantle it. Thus we should not be surprised if parents and students use charter school reform to exacerbate such uncommonness.

I’m going to talk a little about resistance in terms of assimilation and schools as sites of cultural struggle, and then I’m going to relate this all to charter schools. Just as people with prestige and power are resisting association with the less privileged, there’s an ongoing resistance among more marginalized and oppressed groups against the common school movement’s goals of assimilation and indoctrination into a narrow understanding of morality, patriotism and valued knowledge. This leads to what Nancy Frasier (1997) refers to as the politics of recognition, a frustration on the part of some parents and students to not having their culture and heritage recognized and to assist them to find merit and achievement in ways that reward students with more highly valued cultural capital.

This resistance, like that against association, has also existed since the early days of the common school movement. Indeed many educational historians have documented resistance on the part of Catholic parents and church leaders to the blatantly Protestant curriculum of morality. Kaestle (1984) also notes that there were other religious dissenters, including Norwegian Lutherans in Minnesota.

As the face of the nation’s school population changed, and African-American students were provided access to the public schools, the curriculum of schools changed very little. Kaestle (1984, p. 108) noted that up until the 1960’s things had, for the most part remained the same. "American history was still an unfolding of democracy and a demonstration of the nation’s unique destiny. Civics teachers avoided controversy, and parents supported school teachers’ efforts to teach children discipline, the rewards of hard work and respect for adults and the responsibilities of citizenship.

Kaestle (1984, p. 109) noted what he refers to as the cosmopolitan era of 1960 to 1980 where the potential for the reality of cultural pluralism was made by educators. He noted that "The virtues of manliness, competitive individualism, standard English, future orientation, and Anglo-Saxon superiority could no longer be taken for granted."

Yet other authors’ see Kaestle’s view of this so-called cosmopolitan era is overly optimistic. For instance, writing in the same year as Kaestle, Asa Hilliard (1984) argues that historical oppression and neglect of cultural minority groups have culminated in a wide variety of demands for equity and justice in the common schools, including school desegregation, bilingual education, affirmative action, and multicultural education. Hilliard (1984, p. 170) argues that "systematic attention must be given to the repair of those things that education has been utilized to damage or destroy historically. Where the identities of ethnic groups have been systematically crushed, suppressed, and distorted, the full resources of educational systems must repair those devastating conditions. Where, in the past, educational systems have themselves been the carriers of falsehoods that have distorted and denied the expanse of diverse cultural groups, including that of the majority, calculated and systematic remedial work on the curriculum is essential."

From this perspective we see that resistance against assimilationist aims of the common school is very much tied to the rise of what some social theorists call identity politics, and the proliferation of localized social movements that reflect the struggle of marginalized people for greater cultural recognition, and a rejection of the meta-marriages of cultural identity related to national identity. It is the politics of difference that has always been part of the dissension within the common school reform, but one that has gained recognition and visibility since the civil right era in particular.


Conant, J.B. (1959). The American High School Today: A First Report to Interested Citizens. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Fraser, N. (1997). Justice Interruptus. New York: Routledge.

Hilliard, A.G. III (1984). Democratizing the common school in a multicultural society. Education and Urban Society, 16, 262-273.

Kaestle, C.F. (1984). "Moral education and common schools in America: A historian’s view. Journal of Moral Education, 13, 101-111.

Mayo, A.D. (1896-1897). Report of the Commissioner of Education. Washington, DC: United States Bureau of Education.

Orfield, G. (1983). Public School Desegregation in the United States, 1968-1980. Washington, DC: Joint Center for Policy Studies.

Osgood, R.L. (1997). Undermining the common school idea: Intermediate schools and ungraded classes in Boston, 1838-1900. History of Education Quarterly, 37, 378-398.

Wells, A.S. and R.L. Crain (1997). Stepping Over the Color Line: African American Students in White Suburban Schools. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 02, 2000
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10631, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 2:17:12 AM

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