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From “Cultural Deprivation” to Cultural Capital: The Roots and Continued Relevance of Compensatory Education


by John Spencer — 2012

This article is a case study of compensatory education as it was developed and implemented by an innovative urban school principal in the early 1960s. I argue that while the compensatory education movement was often marred by pejorative-sounding language and inegalitarian ideas, especially as it was shaped and expanded by policy makers and district administrators, it also had roots in the work of school-based educators such as Marcus Foster, who approached it as a mechanism for raising academic achievement in urban schools. Foster won acclaim in the 1960s for his work as a principal and superintendent, only to be assassinated in 1973 by the Symbionese Liberation Army as a protest against an allegedly racist school system. I focus here on his tenure as principal of the Dunbar Elementary School in North Philadelphia from 1958 to 1963. Under Foster’s leadership, Dunbar participated in the Ford Foundation’s Great Cities School Improvement Program, which helped shape compensatory education approaches taken in the federal War on Poverty and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. Even as it quickly became a centerpiece of federal policy, compensatory education was denounced by some critics for blaming low achievement on the alleged “cultural deprivation” of students and families rather than on the schools themselves. I suggest that the Dunbar School’s pilot project bridged this divide between “blaming the victim” and “blaming schools.” As practiced in such schools, compensatory education confronted both home and school factors in an effort to raise academic achievement for all urban students. In doing so, this brand of compensatory education anticipated subsequent research on the importance of the “cultural capital” that students bring from home and the quality of the teaching, curriculum, and support they receive once they arrive at school. I conclude by suggesting that, from a historical perspective, the most significant problem with compensatory education was not its emphasis on social and economic disadvantages among some students, but the fact that policy makers promised too much for it as a solution to those and other urban problems. I also suggest that this tendency is evident once again in current enthusiasm for the Knowledge Is Power Program, the Harlem Children’s Zone, and other charter school movements that share some common characteristics with the compensatory programs of the 1960s. As some policy makers and pundits point to these movements as solutions for achievement gaps, racial inequality, and poverty, it is instructive to revisit both the strengths and the limitations of the compensatory education movement of the 1960s.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 114 Number 6, 2012, p. 1-41
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16693, Date Accessed: 10/31/2014 8:22:07 PM

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About the Author
  • John Spencer
    Ursinus College
    E-mail Author
    JOHN SPENCER is Associate Professor of Education at Ursinus College. He is the author of In the Crossfire: Marcus Foster and the Troubled History of American School Reform and other publications on education policy and the history of urban school reform. He worked for five years as a high school and middle school history teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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