Challenges of Urban Education: Sociological Perspectives for the Next Century
reviewed by John L. Rury - 2002
Title: Challenges of Urban Education: Sociological Perspectives for the Next Century
Author(s): Karen A. McClafferty(ed.)
Publisher: State University of New York Press, Albany
ISBN: 0791444341, Pages: 384, Year: 2000
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The term "sociology" has come to represent both a formal academic discipline and something of a residual category for writers engaged in more imaginative social analysis and commentary. Consequently, it features an unusually wide purview. This is certainly evident in the field of education, where an expansive range of studies and other publications are described as sociological. The diversity of viewpoints and methods embraced by scholars who work in this broadly conceived field is reflected in the most recent volume to emerge from the editorial collaboration of Carlos Alberto Torres and Theodore Mitchell, joined in this instance by Karen McClafferty (and the subject of this review). In this respect, the book is similar to their earlier SUNY volume on "emerging perspectives" in the sociology of education. It embraces many of the disparate elements that coexist in a sprawling academic terrain.
Although the book’s title suggests that it deals with urban education, in fact only about half the chapters are explicitly concerned with schools or educational issues in cities. The others touch on a wide range of topics, extending from questions of interpretation, perspective and methodology to discussion of broad educational policy issues. Some of the essays feature empirical analysis of data about schooling, while others are commentary on the state of sociological inquiry or other issues related to education. Several have been published earlier. These varied offerings are grouped in three general sections, each featuring a broad thematic focus. While this provides a measure of coherence, the book nonetheless is plagued by problems in consistency. The wide range of topics touched upon, along with considerable variability in style and quality, make it difficult to discern underlying themes or arguments that could tie the collection together.
Some of the chapters in this volume are cast on a high theoretical plain, particularly those in the opening section. Essays by Michael Apple and Geoff Whitty consider the state of sociological writing about education. Both are critical of post-modernist perspectives in the field, suggesting that more conventional empirical research about educational policy and related questions may be necessary to address a range of questions. Raymond Morrow considers methodological issues, arguing that the quantitative-qualitative divide in the field has handicapped critical social research on education.
Chapters in the other sections are more concerned with policy issues, such as Amy Stuart Wells’ essay comparing U.S. charter schools and British grant-maintained schools or Roslyn Mickelson’s examination of corporate influence in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. Still others are empirical investigations of problems in city schools, ranging from matters of student discipline to the implications of demographic change for educational planning. These stand in rather stark contrast to the opening essays both in tone and substance, representing an altogether different tradition in the sociological study of education.
The remaining chapters are difficult to classify. Peter McLaren offers a lengthy discussion of hip-hop music that, while quite engaging, presents no empirical links whatever to education or the lived experiences of urban youth. The book closes with a series of personal accounts and interviews, representing a variety of perspectives on contemporary problems in urban schooling and reform. One of these, featuring several former urban school superintendents, betrays the preoccupation of school leaders with the vagaries of local politics. Theirs is a world seemingly quite divorced from the concerns of academics, especially those interested in such global and historical questions as ideology, power and social status. While these issues certainly are germane to the experiences they describe, connections to the more theoretical construction of these matters are rather tenuous.
While one might say that this book covers the waterfront as it concerns recent work in the sociology of urban education, it is also fair to say that it leaves much territory uncharted. There is little mention of the rich body of empirical work being done today by such mainstream sociologists as Karl Alexander, Tony Bryk or Annette Lareau and their many co-authors and associates, all of whom are busy investigating urban education. Despite its broad title and ambitious purview, this volume presents a rather thin slice of new sociological work on city schools and children. While its diverse offerings often are quite interesting and valuable, in that case, it hardly presents the last word on this fascinating and rapidly evolving field of scholarship.