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Schools Betrayed: Roots of Failure in Inner-City Education

reviewed by Annis N. Brown - November 08, 2007

coverTitle: Schools Betrayed: Roots of Failure in Inner-City Education
Author(s): Kathryn M. Neckerman
Publisher: University of Chicago Press, Chicago
ISBN: 0226569608, Pages: 250, Year: 2007
Search for book at Amazon.com

Have we betrayed inner-city schools?  Kathryn Neckerman seems to think so.  In Schools Betrayed, she embarks on an expedition through the history of Chicago’s public schools (CPS), and provides insight into the failures of schooling in the city.  During this excavation, Neckerman traces school policy in Chicago from the Common School Movement to the Post WWII era and asserts that the current failure of urban education was not serendipitously manifested – but haphazardly constructed.  In this mixed method study, Neckerman borrows from the fields of history, economics, and public policy to present a holistic treasure of findings.  However, Neckerman leans heavily on her home field of sociology as she embarks on a groundbreaking comparison of the specific educational histories of non-Jewish immigrants and African Americans in Chicago throughout the text.  

Neckerman begins by delving into the link between schooling and the economy in Chicago at the beginning of the twentieth century.  From 1901 to 1935, the proportion of Chicago’s youth enrolled in high school surged from 4.5 percent to 30.1 percent.  As the student population soared, the national economy plummeted in the grips of the Great Depression.  Yet, unlike other northern cities (Cleveland, Detroit, St. Louis) Chicago had a diversified market economy.  Like its northern neighbors, the city initially suffered from manufacturing cuts, but was soon able to compensate with revenue from other sectors.  It is in this market analysis that Neckerman seeks to debunk the fallacy that the troubles of inner-city schooling arose out of a lack of funding and an influx of needy students.  Instead, she discovers that “after 1935 school expenditures rose substantially, doubling by 1960” (p.19).  In addition to per pupil spending, class-sizes were reduced and teacher salaries were increased.  In the midst of this thriving financial environment, contrary to common belief, the racial achievement gap in Chicago was born.

Next, Neckerman delves into the reasons why the racial achievement gap in Chicago began and why it persists.  Since its founding, Chicago was an immigrant city and by 1920 one-third of its population consisted of first or second-generation immigrants.  During the 1920s and 30s the city experienced a sharp rise in its African American population as many migrated from the south.  By 1960, 40 percent of the students enrolled in elementary schools were African American.   Blacks and immigrants dealt with a great deal of discrimination in the labor markets and in school.  Though both groups began the struggle for equal opportunity in a similar spot, they attained different outcomes.   One reason that Neckerman posits can be found in the examination of the white and blue-collar labor markets.  Whereas some immigrants found that ethnic barriers could be circumvented with subtle subterfuge, such as name changes – blacks faced a rigid color line, “As late as 1960 Chicago employment bureaus reported that 98 percent of their white collar workers job orders specified no black applicants” (p.38).  As second-generation immigrants and their children began to assimilate into American culture their job opportunities widened in both the private and public sectors.  Job opportunities improved for African Americans as well, though they were still relegated to manual labor positions and excluded from participation in labor unions.  This foray into the climate of economic prospects for the city’s primary inhabitants is helpful in constructing an inclusive history of failure in Chicago’s public schools.

The next few chapters of the book serve to unite economic history with the realities of cultural communities and segregation.  Immigrants and blacks in Chicago from 1900 to 1920 resided in ethnic enclaves that were further divided by class.  Both communities valued education and touted its merits in various community publications and organizations.  However, as immigrant populations began to gain power through labor unions, the Roman Catholic Church and the Democratic machine, their influence and status in the city rose.  This power gave immigrants the ability to dismantle stereotypes.  African Americans did not have access to the same cross-cultural power structures.  Thus, education held the onus of class and social status elevation and “educational credentials became coinage in the black community’s social contests, as well as a weapon against racism” (p.79).  However, as residential segregation intensified, and the man-made barriers of expressways and high-rise public housing projects drew bold racial lines across school districts, it became clear that the trading capital for blacks was in jeopardy.  By 1940, three-quarters of all black elementary schools were put on double shifts with truncated schedules, while only one white school in the city was put on this schedule.  Neckerman also points out that there was no black representation on the school board to present their viewpoint.  In 1958, “about 8 percent of non-black students attended elementary schools that were more than 10 percent black” (p.105).  This statistic included immigrant populations.  

In the final third of the book, the author delves into the classrooms.  Neckerman examines the vocational movement, remedial education and overall classroom dynamics of Chicago schools of the time period.  It is in these chapters that the author seems most at home.  Using the disciplinary lenses of history and sociology, she escorts the reader into the schools.  Chicago Public Schools embraced the vocational education movement at the turn of the twentieth century and by the first quarter of the century nearly 60 percent of the high school diplomas granted were vocational. With this shift came further stratification of Chicago’s vocational schools. One set of schools prepared white students to pass college-entrance exams, while the vocational schools served a predominately black student body. Fierce student protests, riots, and staff acquiescence kept them that way.  Failing schools were left to blacks.  Attempts at school-wide and individual student remediation fell short and were often halted by the same circumstances that created the school failure.  As Neckerman moves out of the hallways and schoolyards into the individual classrooms, she uncovers roots of what Ogbu and Fordham (1981) coined “oppositional culture”.  Here, she examines the issues of authority and engagement in the classroom through perceptions of black and immigrant students.  Teachers and administrators perceived black students as difficult, and they needed to be put in line with school culture.  Immigrant students experienced cultural clashes in school near the beginning of the century, but as more Catholic and immigrant teachers were hired tensions eased. Neckerman believes that the perceptions and treatment of black students throughout the history of CPS led to an oppositional culture toward schooling that belied the cultural currency that it was believed to possess.

Neckerman’s history of inner-city school failure in Chicago from 1900-1960 is limited by her attempts to cross many broad disciplines.  She acknowledges this limitation in her preface; nonetheless, her construction of models giving economic value to educational capital leaves the economic neophyte in want of further explanation.  Additionally, some of her attempts at retelling history lack the refined attention to detail of a historian.  The sociological approach taken in the final chapters does not catapult one back into history as other works in the field do.  These limitations are solely disciplinary and raise the question of the possibility of multi-disciplinary mastery from an author with a single specialized background.

Schools Betrayed sets out to upend assumptions about inner-city schools that blame the contemporary victims – and it does just that.  Neckerman crafts a thorough analysis of the history of Chicago school policies that have led to the current fate of its schools.  Within this analysis, she also presents a sophisticated comparative model of the experiences of black and immigrant city residents. Her fluid methodology leads the reader to serious consideration of her theory of school failure, “The history of Chicago’s inner-city schools is a story of damage done by ordinary people taking the path of least resistance” (p.175).   If Neckerman is correct in her stance, it is time for us all to acquiesce no longer.


Fordham, S. & Ogbu, J. (1986). Black students school success: Coping with the burden of 'acting White'. Urban Review, 18, 176-206.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 08, 2007
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14743, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 3:11:07 AM

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About the Author
  • Annis Brown
    Michigan State University
    E-mail Author
    ANNIS N. BROWN is a doctoral student in the Curriculum, Teaching, and Educational Policy program at Michigan State University. Her research interests lie in the historical and contemporary implementation of urban educational policy and critical pedagogy. She serves as the graduate student representative for Division L of the American Educational Research Association. She was also the Training and Support Coordinator for The New York City Teaching Fellows and previously taught middle school in the South Bronx.
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