City Schools: Lessons from New York
reviewed by Karen R. Seashore Louis - 2002
Title: City Schools: Lessons from New York
Author(s): Diane Ravitch & Joseph P. Viteritti (eds.)
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore
ISBN: 0801863414, Pages: 416, Year: 2000
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I admit it -- I'm a New York City junkie even though I live in Minneapolis. I read the New York Times daily (always looking for school news, of course), and substantially agree with this volume’s editors that "the problems of education in New York City are the problems of education in urban America writ large." (p. 2). The size of New York City’s school enrollment and its historical position as the system that has, more or less successfully, assimilated waves of immigrants for over a century means that it is of interest even to non-residents who have no special place in their heart for the Big Apple. For people who are interested in reforming urban education, the role of New York as a source of lessons, both bad (as documented in David Rogers (1969) classic analysis of a bureaucracy gone awry) or good (the many case studies that have been published about District 4's small schools of choice) is unquestioned. Not surprisingly, given my predispositions, I looked forward to reading this book.
The book fails, however, to deliver on the promise of its subtitle, which implies that we will finally have some reflections about the meaning of the wealth of research on the New York City schools. My first disappointment came early in the volume, when I began to wonder what audience was intended. The editor's introduction presents a justification for the focus on a single city, and promises that the diverse group of contributors will shed light on new and existing knowledge. It also highlights a number of themes that unite the disparate chapters: schools as families, schools as places of excellent professional practice, and the use of community resources to create excellence (pp 13-14). Unfortunately, none of these themes are particularly visible in the book: although a careful reader may interpolate among the several excellent chapters, finding them requires serious detective work. In addition, although diversity of authors creates an interesting mix of perspectives, the extremely brief overview of the volume does not give a hint as to why these authors and their topics were chosen for inclusion. Since there is no chapter at the end that draws topics and observations together, the book seems more like an unedited book or a proceedings from a conversational conference than a coherent volume.
Is this a book that is intended largely for New Yorkers, or is it relevant to others interested in urban schooling? Many of the chapters are written from a rather parochial perspective, and describe the issues facing New York without making a serious effort to discuss what is unique about the situation in New York, and what might have implications for other cities. This does not mean that a reader who is familiar with other journalistic or scholarly work on urban schools will not find much to think about in some of these contributions. The chapter by Stephen Brumberg on the emerging crisis in staffing the city's schools is well known to urban school superintendents, but is still news to most educational researchers and all but a handful of policy makers. Christine Rossell's analysis of the implementation and effects of bilingual education in New York have implications for many smaller cities that are, for the first time, faced with large numbers of immigrant children. (It might surprise a New Yorker to know that there is a school in Minneapolis that has a student population that includes more than 30% recent Somali immigrants.) Pearl Kane's chapter comparing the governance procedures for charter and "charter-like" schools describes a situation that may or may not be comparable to other districts' experiences with school-based management--but the similarities to and differences from other settings is not clear. In other words, some chapters provide interesting but incomplete evidence for more comprehensive lessons.
Is the book for generalists and knowledgeable lay readers, or for a scholarly audience? This question arises in the first section of the book, entitled "Education in the City." The first contribution, by Tobier, summarizes his extensive research on the demographics of the city’s school-age population, complete with scholarly footnotes and tables. Hemphill’s second chapter on schools of excellence in New York is very well written, but journalistic in style. I confronted this question many times as I read further.
The section on the city's private schools suggests an emphasis on the knowledgeable layman. Hill and Ceilio place their study of NYC Catholic schools in the context of the wealth of other studies that have been conducted using national data bases, but don’t add a great deal to the understanding of the "Catholic school effect" beyond that provided by, for example, Bryk, Lee, and Holland (1993). The description of the variety of Jewish day schools is quite general, but of particular interest is the distinction that Marvin Schick makes between the more modern and more traditional schools--and, the association that this had both with social class and student performance on the state's standardized tests. Unfortunately, this discussion is limited, and the implications for expanding Jewish day school education remain unexplored. Gail Foster's chapter on established and emerging private schools for African America children is a fascinating, if brief, overview of community efforts to provide unique educational experiences based on a distinctive curriculum that incorporates cultural studies. As she points out, these schools are minimally documented, and deserve more treatment. None of these chapters appear to be addressed to an audience that is already familiar with the variety of autonomous educational alternatives that exist in a complex city.
In contrast, a number of chapters are apparently written for an audience that is familiar with both the details of research on the topic in question, and also the particular databases and methods that are used. The last section on school choice, for example, contains three chapters: Tesche, Schneider, Roche and Marschall conduct a secondary analysis of existing district data to examine the effects of school choice in District 4 on student achievement; Peterson and Howell provide the results of an evaluation of the School Choice Scholarships Foundation Program, while Nechyba and Heise model the effects of providing financing for students to attend private schools. All three are very interesting contributions, but require an understanding of previous research and debate on each of the topics, and an understanding of statistics, regression analysis and effect size. Each of the chapters provides provocative and new analyses, but unlike the other sections of the book the authors all take the stance that their data support the extension of choice and vouchers. Although they are extensively footnoted regarding scholars whose data suggest opposite conclusions, the section is flawed by the presence of a singular point of view--a feature that is not characteristic of the rest of the book, and therefore strikes a discordant note. Each of these chapters could also be subjected to a more elaborate methodological and conceptual critique, but this is outside of the scope of this review.
In summary, all chapters of this book will be interesting to some readers, but few readers will be interested in all of them. Although this is not uncommon in an edited book, the diversity present in this volume is greater than usual. The absence of an editorial voice to create coherence clearly undermines the book’s usefulness, no matter what the audience. Nevertheless, any significant contribution to our understanding of city school systems is welcome, and I will keep my copy on my shelf rather than giving it away.
Bryk, A., Lee, V. & Holland, P.(1993) Catholic schools and the common good. Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press,
Rogers, D. (1969) 110 Livingston Street.: politics and bureaucracy in the New York City School System. New York, Vintage Books.