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Ghetto Schooling: A Political Economy of Urban Educational Reform

reviewed by Joel Spring - 2000

coverTitle: Ghetto Schooling: A Political Economy of Urban Educational Reform
Author(s): Jean Anyon. New York: Teachers College Press, 1997. $18.95. 240 pp.
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807736627 , Pages: 240 pp., Year: 1997
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Weaving together insider scenes of ghetto schools, descriptions of so-called school reform efforts, and a troubling history of the rise and fall of an urban school system, Jean Anyon provides a complex portrait of the educational problems of low-income city residents. Shaking off the conceit of most educators that they hold the golden keys to the promised land of economic and social redemption, Anyon reveals the enormity of the inner-city problems that determine the fate of school children. Anyon’s list of interrelated problems include ghettoization of the poor by federal, state, and local policies; disappearance of manufacturing jobs by changes in global economics; historical neglect of the poor; discriminatory state revenue and spending policies; segregation and discrimination; lack of adequate medical care; dysfunctional family lives; incompetent or distressed teachers; blundering and unqualified school administrators; political patronage; and school reform that serves the interests of the reformers and not the interests of the intended beneficiaries.

In my mind, all of these problems can be captured in one single phrase—child abuse. Federal, state, and local governments and many citizens are, quite simply, guilty of child abuse and neglect. Jean Anyon has captured the story of America’s denial of children’s rights.

Although writing about Newark, New Jersey, Jean Anyon’s story could be about any manufacturing center that has undergone economic decline with the dispersal of jobs and middle-class families to suburbs and, in the case of manufacturing jobs, to foreign countries, while leaving behind a low-income population and an eroded tax base. Anyon’s tale begins in the 1990s at Marcy Elementary School in the center of Newark. Built in 1861, the school now houses a student population of 500 with all but three students being eligible for free lunch and public assistance. Facing extreme poverty, chaotic lives, abuse, chronic health problems, and neglect, these children act out their distress and anger in the classrooms and hallways of Marcy. Besieged by constant noise and administrative disruptions, teachers try to deal with multiple problems presented by children who have difficulty staying awake; who are acting out their anger and frustrations; who are hindered by complex learning problems; and, who, quite naturally given their lives, have more important concerns than school work. Distraught by their inability to deal with multiple discipline and learning problems, teachers add to the cacophony of the classroom and school by shrieking at the children.

How did this happen? Anyon traces the story from the rise of the Newark schools as educational models in the nineteenth century to their steady decline from the 1930s to the present. Similar to existing problems, the causes of the decline were multiple. One cause was school segregation, which followed rural and poor Southern blacks as they migrated north in search of jobs, better housing, and better schooling. Denied schooling by law during slavery and later forced to attend segregated schools that were underfinanced and poorly equipped, African Americans arrived in cities like Newark with the hope of improving their children’s educational opportunities. However, they were greeted with scorn and contempt by teachers and school administrators, and by de facto segregation. During the 1930s, there was a decline in the financing of urban school systems, which was later exacerbated by middle-class flight to the suburbs. In the 1950s, federal housing policies ensured the ghettoization of the poor and the segregation of African Americans. Compounding the problem, state tax policies favored suburban over urban schools. In the 1950s and 1960s, inner-city populations rose up against these policies with civil rights demands and, eventually, armed warfare in the streets. The federal government initiated action in the 1960s with war-on-poverty programs. These programs provided some improvement until they were scaled back by the conservative restoration of the 1970s and 1980s.

One of Jean Anyon’s many critical insights is that urban schools serving low-income families began their decline in the 1930s and not the 1960s. Conservative historians like to blame the rebellions of the 1960s and 1970s and these historians have created a nostalgia for some golden period of urban schooling when the urban poor were happily engaged in school activities and knuckled down to study. As Anyon demonstrates, this is pure mythology.

The unfortunate consequence of this mythology is a current so-called reform agenda by the conservative establishment that claims that getting tough with standards and tests will return schools to some imagined educational Eden. Testing is certainly a strange solution for problems that are rooted in history and economic conditions. Jean Anyon offers her own solutions that sweep across the entire spectrum of educational, social, and economic conditions. These solutions include state tax reform, greater federal support of city schools, jobs, health care, teacher and administrator training, instructional improvements, and revitalization of cities.

Personally, I think an important aspect of the issue is exemplified by the United States’ being one of only two countries, the other being Somalia, to not ratify the 1989 United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Convention, besides guaranteeing the right to education, requires that “States/Parties recognize the right of every child to a standard of living adequate for the child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development.”1

Gripped by the false assumption that U.S. wealth is a result of free-market capitalism, the conservative establishment of both the Democratic and Republican parties is unwilling to commit the government to truly ending child abuse and neglect. Tests, free-market choice plans, and charter schools are the solutions offered by these self-proclaimed free-market ideologists to problems resulting from economic and social conditions. However, the present problems, as Jean Anyon so clearly demonstrates, are a result of a combination of government economic intervention and the misdeeds of capitalism. Government created the current conditions by legalizing slavery and later segregation; creating housing segregation through federal housing and highway policies; and enacting tax policies that helped factories leave cities and supported inequality in school expenditures. Guilty of child abuse and neglect, federal, state, and local governments should be held accountable for their violation of the international Convention on the Rights of the Child.

JOEL SPRING teaches at the New School University. His most recent book is The Universal Rights to Education. (Lawrence Erlbaum, 2000). He is currently completing a book on equality and the universal right to education.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 102 Number 5, 2000, p. 942-944
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10624, Date Accessed: 5/24/2022 4:45:52 PM

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About the Author
  • Joel Spring
    New School University
    Joel Spring teaches at the New School University. His most recent book is The Universal Rights to Education. (Lawrence Erlbaum, 2000). He is currently completing a book on equality and the universal right to education.
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