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Multiethnic Moments: The Politics of Urban Education Reform

reviewed by Donald Earl Collins - January 19, 2007

coverTitle: Multiethnic Moments: The Politics of Urban Education Reform
Author(s): Susan E. Clarke, Rodney E. Hero, Mara S. Sidney, Luis R. Fraga & Bari A. Erlichson
Publisher: Temple University Press, Philadelphia
ISBN: 1592135366 , Pages: 264, Year: 2006
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Political scientists Susan E. Clarke, Rodney E. Hero, Mara S. Sidney, Luis R. Fraga, and Bari A. Erlichson have done an admirable job in giving readers a road map for understanding how historical trends, power relations, and racial and ethnic demographic changes have influenced the trajectory of urban education reform in four cities: Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Boston. The authors’ analyses of these forces and their influence on education reform comes with a caveat. In the Methods appendix, Clarke et al. (2006) state that their “conceptual focus was on the political coalitions and dynamics in which education policymaking is embedded and the different types of civic arrangements associated with various reform efforts” (p. 187).

These were the goals of their original project, the National Science Foundation’s Civic Capacity grant and project to assess the civic capacities of communities to address education reform issues. Eleven cities were part of the original grant and project that ran from 1993 to 1995, but the authors chose to cover four cities as part of Multiethnic Moments. For them, Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Boston all represented multiethnic cities at a particular historical moment in their life cycle. This was a moment between the end of court-ordered desegregation, the rapid population growth of Latinos and Asians, and a window of opportunity to address vexing issues in K-12 education. Clarke et al. give no false hope regarding this “moment”—which occurred during the 1980s and 1990s—as this window of education reform opportunities “did not lead to greater responsiveness to new multiethnic school constituencies” (p. 2).

The story the authors tell is one of overlooked opportunities based on notions like “two-tiered pluralism” and the correlation between educational achievement and political influence. Clarke et al. show that historical forces and a lack of political influence left Latinos and Asians without much of a voice in education reform and blacks with a slight overrepresentation in this arena. The Brown v. Board of Education decision (1954) and the subsequent Civil Rights Movement enabled blacks to break through the barrier between first-tier and second-tier pluralism, putting them somewhat on par with middle-class whites on desegregation and education reform. This led to an overrepresentation of blacks engaged in education reform during the 1980s and 1990s and left Latinos and Asians underrepresented despite the rapid growth of Asians and the even greater growth of Latinos in the public schools (p.113).

The heart of Multiethnic Moments is the chapters on interests, ideas, and institutions involved in education reform. In the case of all four cities, the authors found that even in cases of shared interests and ideas (e.g., vouchers, charter schools, and magnet schools), the perspectives on, the approaches for, and the political influences of all four racial/ethnic groups could be quite different.

Through data analysis and text analysis (by use of NUD*IST software), Clarke et al. illustrate what education reform meant to the various racial/ethnic groups in the four cities. The “[r]espondents’ use of the diversity frame complicates grounds for collective action…Groups perceived race as permeating education problems and politics in different ways, leading us to predict that any multiethnic coalition would be unstable” (p. 141). Institutions, particularly the courts, had given limited political influence to blacks and especially Latinos and Asians in terms of addressing their school reform interests and ideas except around desegregation and bilingual education. Furthermore, once the courts were no longer involved in desegregating schools in three of the four cities (Denver, San Francisco, and Boston), the opportunity arose for each city’s educational infrastructure to revert to their pre-desegregation ways of doing business (p. 160-169).

For anyone involved in education reform at any level, this data and these analyses should not be surprising, given recent reforms around decentralization, accountability, and standardized testing, most notably in the form of NCLB. What is most disappointing, though, is the authors’ conclusion, based on all of their analyses, that “substantial changes would be needed in the following areas: the minority groups’ resources, cohesion, articulation, coalition formation, and other things; the creation of…policy solutions responsive to multiethnic concerns, but also resonating with broad values and wider audiences” (p. 186).

This conclusion is disappointing because it tells the reader nothing about how to make multiethnic cities work politically in terms of education reform or, for that matter, the components of multiethnic coalitions that could work to combine interests, ideas, and institutions so that all the various constituencies benefit from school reform. Clarke et al. all but dismiss the role of nonprofit organizations in building partnerships or in education reform in general. The “ability of…racial and ethnic minority groups to sustain their participation in these partnerships becomes problematic” because of nonprofits’ competing interests, particularly financial self-interest (p. 82). The authors argue that even in cases where partnerships made a concerted effort to include blacks, Latinos, and Asians in decision-making processes for education reform in the four cities, competing interests eventually led to exclusion.

This is a weak argument from an otherwise solid work. It exposes the authors’ lack of expertise on the nonprofit sector. Clarke et al. group committees, community-wide compacts, community and private foundations, and national nonprofit organizations together without making distinctions between them. For example, the authors group the Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the James Irvine Foundation as three nonprofits working on education reform in San Francisco. One is a coalition, another a national level nonprofit and social justice organization, and the third one of the largest private foundations in the U.S. None are what experts in the field term community-based organizations (CBOs), many of which are grassroots in nature and work within their communities to include voices of racial and ethnic groups in the conversation on education reform (Light 2006; Vaca 2004; Wilson 2001).

While the authors are correct to list the potential pitfalls of partnership development for those with the least political influence (Ostrower, 2005), the assumption here is that all nonprofit organizations have a limited relationship with communities of color. The reader cannot accept this assumption at face value, given the authors’ inability to address key differences between a private foundation and a CBO and why one would have more trouble representing groups of color than the other. The near complete reliance on a political science approach to this multifaceted issue, one that therefore requires a multidisciplinary approach, contributes to the limited scope of analyses in Multiethnic Moments and the authors’ inability to address their work’s implications.

Ultimately, the question is not whether the authors should have gone beyond the mission of their original research project. The question is whether they should have addressed the implications of their work before concluding Multiethnic Moments with such a broad conclusion, so broad that it approaches naiveté. It leaves readers, including this one, wanting for much more on this topic.


Light, P. C. (2006). Reshaping social entrepreneurship. Stanford Social Innovation Review, 4(3), 47-51.

Ostrower, F. (2005). The reality underneath the buzz of partnerships: The potentials and pitfalls of partnering. Stanford Social Innovation Review, 3(1), 34-41.

Vaca, N. C. (2004). The presumed alliance: The unspoken conflict between Latinos and blacks and what it means for America. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Wilson, W. J. (1999). The bridge over the racial divide: Rising inequality and coalition politics. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 19, 2007
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12931, Date Accessed: 12/2/2021 11:14:31 PM

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About the Author
  • Donald Collins
    Academy for Educational Development
    E-mail Author
    DONALD EARL COLLINS is a freelance writer who has written on the topic of multiculturalism and African American identity for more than a decade. He has published articles in Black Issues in Higher Education, Gannett Suburban Newspapers, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, History of Education Quarterly, The Washington Post, Radical Society, and Academe. His book Fear of a ‘‘Black’’ America (2004) focuses on multiculturalism, fear, and the African American experience. Outside of his work as a writer, Donald Collins possesses a combination of academic and nonprofit management experience. He is the Deputy Director of Partnerships for College Access and Success with the Center for School and Community Services at Academy for Educational Development in Washington, DC. He had previously served as Assistant Director of the New Voices Fellowship Program at AED, a program for emerging leaders in the social justice field. Dr. Collins has also taught as an adjunct professor in African American History and American Education Reform at Carnegie Mellon University, Duquesne University, and George Washington University. Dr. Collins has a Ph.D. in History from Carnegie Mellon University.
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