Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

Legal Rights, Local Wrongs: When Community Control Collides with Educational Equity

reviewed by Arthur Wise - 2002

coverTitle: Legal Rights, Local Wrongs: When Community Control Collides with Educational Equity
Author(s): Kevin G. Welner
Publisher: State University of New York Press, Albany
ISBN: 0791451275, Pages: 384, Year: 2001
Search for book at Amazon.com

Legal Rights, Local Wrongs: When Community Control Collides with Educational Equity by Kevin G. Welner discusses judicial efforts to induce the detracking of students in public schools.  Welner approaches the subject as an unabashed advocate of detracking who is fully prepared to use the judiciary to promote his belief in this promising but controversial educational practice.  He does not gladly suffer those who stand in the way.  The book should be read by those who are committed to the advancement of detracking.  It is a very good brief and a study of court cases concerned with detracking, their consequences, and their aftermath.  It is also a very good case study of the promise and limitations of judicial intervention as a means of educational change.  As a case study, it suffers from the often fatal limitation of that methodology, namely, it may or may not be generalizable to other problems and circumstances. 


The title over promises, suggesting that the book covers more territory than it does.  It is not about all or even a few legal rights and local wrongs, not even educational ones.  It is not about community control in any general sense nor is it about educational equity, except as it is compromised by tracking.  Therefore, the reader who expects to learn about how judicial efforts to promote desegregation, integration, school finance reform, or other education solutions have fared will be disappointed.  Welner has every right to focus on detracking, but he or his publisher bear some responsibility for a title that is reasonably descriptive.  A more serious problem with the book, though, is that Welner maintains throughout that, as tracking has fared, so might other efforts to right local wrongs through judicial intervention.  Maybe or maybe not.


The book highlights the difficulties of bringing about change in schools, especially in an area which apparently challenges the children of the educated class.  “I choose this phrase – in opposition to the “uneducated” or “less educated” class because, in my opinion, it better describes the polarization of interests we see affecting school policies and practices.  In the past, we have spoken about  “the rich” and “the poor” as representing the polarization of the parent and taxpayer populations affecting school policy.  And we have spoken about “upper”, “lower” and “middle” class parents.  Today differences in parental attitude toward schooling seem polarized around parents’ level of education. 


The more educated a parent, the more discriminating a consumer of education he or she is.  The less educated the parent, the less discriminating he or she is likely to be.  Educated parents tend to see tracking as disadvantaging their children, whereas less educated parents may be more willing to accept what the school offers.  Often, of course, race has determined the level of education that parents have received.  In the case of tracking, the effects of the education of the parents gets played out in the education of their children.


The school districts examined in this book are districts with a history of racial desegregation followed by resegregation of the races through tracking.  The author defines “tracking” or “ability grouping” as “any and all between-class grouping practices (e.g., arrangements that sort students into different classrooms for either all or part of the day) that have the following characteristics: (a) a process by which educators judge students’ intellectual abilities or past achievement, or predict their future accomplishments, and use these judgments as at least part of the basis of class placement; and (b) differentiation of the curriculum and instruction to which students in different classrooms are exposed” (p. 5-6).  The solution to the “tracking problem” is  “detracking” defined as “treatment of less powerful people and groups in ways that confer benefits equal to those obtained by more powerful people and groups” (p. 8).


Detracking is an “equity-minded reform,” with equity described as the equal treatment of the children of the educated and uneducated classes.  Though tracking has appeal to many educators and parents, most educational research finds that it has negative consequences for those in the lowest tracks.  Tracking tends to “…institutionalize lower academic expectations for those students enrolled in lower tracks.  Additional concerns include arbitrariness and inconsistency of placements, poor quality of curriculum in low-track classes, affective damage to students, and tracking’s use as a means of second-generation segregation” (p. 9).


It is the last point that raises the specter of racial discrimination.  Detracking is to bring benefits to students who would otherwise be in low-track classes.  Detracking, according to research cited by the author, does not disadvantage high ability students.


The four cases reviewed in the book illustrate two lessons:


  • “court orders or other mandates are sometimes necessary to make an environment receptive to detracking”
  • “these mandates, while making change possible, are not sufficient by themselves to push forward long-lasting, successful reform. Detracking is essentially a social change, requiring broad-based transformations in the way schools and communities think about students and instruction” (p. 14). 


This, the author concludes, should lead to “a rehabilitation of top-town mandates as policy tools” (p. 15).


Welner struggles to develop the rudiments of a new theory of change.  He finds that the educational change literature falls very short of helping him to explain the experience of his four detracking case studies.  The RAND change agent studies of the 1970’s and subsequent work on the “learning organization” place extreme emphasis on the importance of local agents initiating and owning change and innovation.  What happens when local agents fail to live up to moral, legal or constitutional ideas?  The technical process of school reform falls short when local agents do not recognize or do not wish to recognize the discriminating impact of policies and practices.


An external intervention is required.  Thus, in this case, tracking serves the interests of some educators, some parents, and some students.  Because the students who are disadvantaged by the policy and their parents (and perhaps their teachers) are less powerful than the controlling school interest, nothing will change without external intervention.  With this conclusion I agree.  When the problem is one of inequitable distribution of educational resources, local agents will not be able to break the status quo. Generally only court orders from above will alter local majoritarian interests.  Almost by definition, majority interest and political power will be immune to change from minority interest and powerlessness.  Within limits, courts can alter the “zone of mediation” within which local actors can operate.  Still, as this book reveals, there are limits.


To cite other arenas, desegregation can be ordered by central authority only to be subsequently replaced by tracking.  School finance equalization can be ordered by state courts, only to be subverted by state legislatures that struggle to restore as much of the status quo as is judicially allowable.  State laws demand that all children be taught by certified teachers, yet the law is subverted in the districts that serve the children of the less educated.  The sad result is that the educated class, in preserving its interests, will take steps that happen to result in less good education for the children of the less educated class.


Welner hopes for “third-order change” to result from central mandates.  He considers third-order changes to be those that “seek to reform educators’ and community members’ core normative beliefs about such matters as race, class, intelligence, and educability.” (p. 239) The case studies provide some evidence that third order changes can occur as the result of court ordered detracking.  Changes in practices did occur.  However, as with all case studies – whether this book is seen as one case study of a court-ordered practice or as four case studies of detracking--there remain questions of cause and effect and generalizability of the findings.  Affirmation of the third order change hypothesis will need to be tested in the harsh reality of the public education system which always promises equity and regularly delivers something less.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 104 Number 5, 2002, p. 972-975
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10903, Date Accessed: 12/6/2021 9:16:43 AM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Article Tools
Related Articles

Related Discussion
Post a Comment | Read All

About the Author
  • Arthur Wise
    E-mail Author
    ARTHUR WISE is president of NCATE (National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education) in Washington, D.C. During his career, he has worked toward teacher quality and professionalism, school finance reform, and the advancement of educational research.
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue