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The Elusive Ideal: Equal Educational Opportunity and the Federal Role in Boston's Public Schools, 1950-1985

reviewed by Christopher Stapel - 2006

coverTitle: The Elusive Ideal: Equal Educational Opportunity and the Federal Role in Boston's Public Schools, 1950-1985
Author(s): Adam R. Nelson
Publisher: University of Chicago Press, Chicago
ISBN: 0226571904, Pages: 2005, Year: 332
Search for book at Amazon.com

As the federal government’s role in closing achievement gaps grows increasingly salient, so, too, does the level of conflict between federal, state, and local policy.  The strain of this conflict is felt by the policymakers, teachers, and school leaders who work to deliver equal educations to students of diverse ability levels, language proficiencies, racial groups, and social classes.  All of these stakeholders should take comfort, though, in knowing that this strain has been felt by many before them.  In light of this history, I find that Adam Nelson’s case study, The Elusive Ideal: Equal Educational Opportunity and the Federal Role in Boston’s Public Schools, 1950–1985, informs the contemporary practice of all who undertake the crucial task of equalizing educational opportunities.

The delicate intersections of multitiered educational policies, like those described in The Elusive Ideal, perpetually shape the Boston Public Schools’ (BPS) campaign to close achievement gaps.  In recent years the policy climate in Boston has undergone tremendous change.  Just over three years ago, the long-term vision of the state’s accountability system came to fruition as all graduating students were required to pass a high-stakes exam.  In anticipation of this event the BPS aligned all curricular and instructional strategies across ability groups with existing state learning frameworks.  However, in 2002 voters passed a referendum mandating immersion-only education for English language learners, essentially eliminating all other methods of second-language instruction.  Additionally, the No Child Left Behind Act tightened the existing standards-based measures already required of Massachusetts schools.  These events led to a costly retooling of local policy and practice in Boston at a time when the state’s Supreme Judicial Court ruled that current state funding levels did not need to be increased.  Such are glimpses of the present context of schooling in Boston; glimpses, as The Elusive Ideal describes, that are not dissimilar to ones of local school leaders of decades past.

Nelson acknowledges that The Elusive Ideal is not just “another book about the busing crisis” (p. ix) of the 1970s, but rather a comprehensive examination of broader inequalities that have plagued Boston, and other urban centers, for decades.  As he begins to examine “how well-intentioned policies at the local, state, and federal level could work at cross-purposes with one another” (p. xvi), he identifies Boston’s first move toward expanding educational equality as the introduction of services for special education students.  In the 1950s local policy endorsed isolated classrooms for students with learning disabilities, but a 1960 act of the state legislature supported the integration of disabled students.  To achieve the politically unstable goal of closing the gap between students with and without learning disabilities local school leaders sought federal grant monies to provide isolated special education services.  This shielded the district from adhering to state inclusion requirements and also protected it from a looming economic crisis stemming from inadequacies in state school aid.  Energized by the effectiveness of federal aid to fund special education programs, the school department soon turned to federal grant money to serve out-of-school students and school construction projects.  Not surprisingly, however, as more attention was paid to out-of-school students—primarily immigrant students and students of color—questions arose about the quality of educational services they received.  Of course, these questions about the intersection of race, language, and special education needs continue to trouble policymakers and practitioners today.    

In 1963 a transition occurred in Boston’s superintendency.  The new superintendent was excited by the prospect of increased federal assistance for the Boston Public Schools.  Recognizing that disabled students were not the only underserved students in the city, he sought federal assistance to serve students in poverty.  Knowing that the funding was earmarked for students with disabilities, the school department sought to show that poverty itself was a disability.  The city proceeded with that argument and secured funds for its most underserved schools.  As per district special education policy, the school system quickly placed low-performing students in poverty into isolated special education classrooms.  Officials claimed that isolation was the most effective way to provide compensatory education for students “disabled” by poverty.  Ironically, as these events unfolded, state officials were urging the racial integration of schools.  The isolated compensatory education strategy of the BPS and the prevailing push for racial integration by state lawmakers were strictly opposed.  In fact, the city risked losing state funds if they continued to pursue federal money to maintain isolated classrooms.  

Though federal precedent regarding students of color was one of integration, the Supreme Court had ruled by the mid-1970s that bilingual students possessed a civil right to an isolated multilingual education.  Because this policy was counter to race-based integration policies, policies strongly opposed in Boston, and because state accountability was virtually absent in terms of racial integration, local school policy continued to endorse segregated schools.  Special education was receiving continued attention in the 1970s as well.  A sweeping state law—Chapter 766—not only committed funds for special education placement, but also aimed to improve diagnostic procedures that were believed to fuel racial imbalance in special education populations.  Because the law prioritized special education about regular education, districts across Massachusetts had incentives to expand special education placements.  While homogeneous suburban districts did this with few problems, a move in Boston to increase special education enrollments led to further issues of racial imbalance.   

The events of the previous decade eventually led to the widely known 1974 decision of Judge Arthur Garrity who found that the Boston Public Schools ”knowingly carried out a systematic program of segregation” (p. 142) that resulted in unequal educational outcomes across racial groups.  Of course, the decision begs the question still resonating in education circles of whether inputs or outputs—that is, integration itself or academic results—are the marks of educational equality.  The prospect of implementing an extensive busing program (that could not be financed by federal funds) and maintaining costly programs for bilingual and special education students threatened the economic state of the district.  With fiscals ills conflated by a costly war in Vietnam, rapid inflation, and rising interest rates, the BPS required more funds to operate.  To cope with the problem, the school committee (a) increased property taxes and (b) reclassified special education populations to maximize the state’s committed 766 funds.  These actions led many resource-rich families to leave the city for the neighboring suburbs and for voters—most of whom in Boston did not have children in the public schools—to pass a proposition capping local property tax rates.  Families who remained in Boston began to demand increased accountability from the specialized programs they were funding.  What followed was the initiation of a standardized accountability testing system in Boston.  The system was meant not only to measure the progress of the entire student population, but also the appropriateness of special education placements; adequate academic performance, it was believed, was evidence of an appropriate placement.  The infant testing system identified low performers and directed funds for compensatory education appropriately.  The exploitation of the system that “rewarded” low performing schools quickly led to a shift in policy that sent state money to schools making academic progress and away from those not meeting academic expectations.  On the whole, “the public asked schools to produce superior results with fewer resources” (p. 209).  The task of doing more with less seemed insurmountable.  Recognizing the urgency of the situation, a committed group of representatives from industry, higher education, and labor entered into the groundbreaking Boston Compact.  So ends Nelson’s The Elusive Ideal and begins a hopeful, encouraging chapter in Boston schooling.

In the spirit of the familiar cliché, “history repeats itself,” this historical study truly informs the current practice of policymakers and practitioners.  As a Boston educator, I was struck by the parallels between today’s conversations of equality and achievement gaps and those of three decades ago.  This book provides a sobering reminder that the contentious issues of special education inclusion, bilingual education, compensatory education, school funding, and accountability policy have gone relatively unresolved for over a half century.  Nelson, to his credit, though, does make sense of these timely issues and of how they relate to one another.  His case study is clear and accessible to most audiences, but grows quite repetitive.  While on one hand, the repetition helps the reader understand some subtle and tedious issues, it also lengthens a tedious and subtle read.  Nonetheless, this book is absolutely required reading for anyone shaping policy in the Boston Public schools and is surely recommended for urban school reformers at large.

Indeed, in The Elusive Ideal, Nelson makes a noble effort at answering tough questions of education equality.  In the end, we are left with the same questions that puzzle today’s policymakers: Is equality measured in educational inputs or academic outputs?  How does one most efficiently navigate conflicting state, federal, and local policies?  What is the best way to measure educational outcomes?  To what extent do services for at-risk subgroups counterbalance one another?  How should state and federal compensatory education funds be distributed?  Nelson compares this work of education reform to a Rubric’s cube—just as you think you are making progress you look at the underside of your work and are reminded of your shortcomings.  He speculates that this book “has filled in two or three sides of the puzzle” (p. 254).  I anticipate that it will greatly inform the practice of those working to fill in the rest.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 5, 2006, p. 881-885
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12132, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 1:43:33 AM

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About the Author
  • Christopher Stapel
    Boston Community Leadership Academy
    E-mail Author
    CHRISTOPHER STAPEL is a mathematics teacher and advisor at the Boston Community Leadership Academy, a pilot high school of the Boston Public Schools. He holds an Ed.M. in Education Policy and Management from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is currently constructing a toolkit and resource manual for organizations serving rural sexual minority youth. In addition to urban education reform, his research interests include college access for rural students, gay and lesbian issues in education, and race and class inequality.
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