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Rethinking “Rethinking Compensatory Education”

by Wayne J. Urban - 2012

This article appreciates and critiques the contributions to the special issue of the TCR on compensatory education. I argue that compensatory education neglected desegregation as a legitimate policy option and that these articles do not counter than neglect.

There are not that many good professional reasons to ask me to comment on a series of excellent essays like those contributed to this issue of Teachers College Record. Barbara Beatty is a long-time colleague and friend, one with whom I have shared many delightful sessions at professional meetings, usually those of the History of Education Society. When she asked me to respond to these essays, it was hard to say no to her. She is an excellent scholar and a persuasive colleague. Further, I have known John Rury for many years and am deeply respectful of him and his work. I have come to know John Spencer in the last five or so years, and Carlos Blanton in the last two years. My respect for them and their work is also quite high. While I don’t know Edward Zigler, I have long been aware of his book on Head Start and his involvement in that program. In short, this is an all-star cast. I can only hope that my remarks carry the same weight as those of the contributors to this journal issue and add a bit to their analyses.

The histories of early childhood education, of preschool education, of African American or Mexican American education, of special education, or of cultural approaches to education are not areas or topics in which I have specialized.1 The reason I was asked to contribute to this collection, I think, is because of an essay I published a few years ago in an issue of Paedagogica Historica.2 That essay discussed the development of a 1962 document on the “disadvantaged” in American education by the Educational Policies Commission (EPC), a blue ribbon policy group developed in the 1930s by the National Education Association and the American Association of School Administrators. It was cited in all but one of the essays herein, and I was asked by the author of that essay to comment on his chapter before publication, likely because of my earlier essay. My interest in the National Education Association is long-standing, and my interest in its EPC is intense and almost as long-standing. My essay discussed the ways that the EPC came to undertake its report on the education of the “disadvantaged” American, and the issues it addressed and did not address in the preparation and publication of this report. It is these issues that overlap with much of what is discussed in this issue of Teachers College Record.

Let me begin this commentary, then, by recapitulating the argument in my own essay and then seeing how it applies or does not apply to the ideas of the authors of these articles. In “What’s in a Name,” I argued that the EPC’s document on the education of the disadvantaged American was an attempt by a group representing the American educational profession to comment on an issue of immense importance to American education and American educators in a way that would garner the thoughtful attention of educated readers, including politicians and policy makers, for its ideas. In this effort, it failed, at least as judged by the leader of the EPC, who noted that it did not garner the readership that he expected.3

More important for purposes of this analysis, I argued that the EPC deviated from its initial purpose, which was to produce a document on desegregation in education, and chose instead to discuss the issue of the educationally “disadvantaged” American child. This deviation was undertaken largely for reasons internal to the makeup of the EPC; its major leaders in the discussion of the issue were two northern big city school superintendents who did not see desegregation as an issue relevant to their school systems. For these superintendents, and the other members of the EPC, desegregation was a legal issue important only to the southern and border states in which segregation had been legally mandated in education. This was, most generously, a shortsighted reading of the situation, as would become clear in ensuing years when desegregation outside the South became a focus in educational discussions. At worst, it was a racist reaction, one that refused to consider that affluent white people were at the center of the educational discrimination experienced by African Americans, Mexican Americans, and working-class and below white Americans in the nation’s Northeast and Midwest, as well as in the South.

The issue of desegregation and race lurks in the background of most of these essays, though it is foregrounded in Carlos Blanton’s article on George Sanchez.4 Before discussing Blanton on Sanchez, however, I would like to consider briefly the other essays in the volume, from the point of view of what they argued and the relevance of their arguments to the issue of school desegregation and the white privilege that has underlain the opposition to it since the 1950s.

Barbara Beatty’s discussion of three relatively successful compensatory education programs from the 1960s and early 1970s shows that developmental psychologists and non–developmentally oriented scholar/educators such as Siegfried Englemann and Carl Bereiter developed successful compensatory programs for educating disadvantaged children in this era.5 She also shows that Arthur Jensen basically ignored or otherwise relativized these programs in making his argument in the Harvard Educational Review that genetic factors were of prime importance in accounting for poor school achievement among African Americans and other minority groups.

In her introduction to her own and the other essays, Beatty discussed the Coleman report at some length and stressed that it made a powerful case for desegregation as a tool to raise the achievement of minority and lower class children.6 Beatty’s educational success stories in her other essay, however, did not consider desegregation as an option for addressing differential educational achievement.7 The reasons for this are likely that the authors of the successful programs were developmental or educational researchers who took the makeup of classrooms in poverty racked schools as it stood, and they developed procedures to improve school achievement within those classrooms, or classrooms very much like them, rather than rearrange them through policies such as desegregation. One might summarize the situation by saying that desegregation was a policy option that was ignored by researchers who chose to study how to improve achievement within the classroom realities that most schools and students inhabited. In this aspect, these authors shared the assumption that things would not likely change substantially in the nation’s poorest achieving classrooms with the members of the EPC in 1962. While it is a stretch to label their intent racist, except for Jensen, it is less of a stretch to argue that the impact of their work was to reinforce the racism of white educational actors who sought to distance white students from black and other minority students in all settings at all costs.

John Spencer’s account of the actions in Philadelphia by Marcus Foster and several likeminded African Americans highlights another group of successful educational interventions in poorly achieving minority urban schools, not by researchers or scholars, but by minority educators themselves who sought to establish productive links between schools and minority parents and communities and to use those links to significantly raise educational morale among students in those schools, thereby raising educational achievement.8 As Spencer also notes, Foster and his allies made changes within schools and reached out to parents, as did other members of the Great Cities School Improvement Program funded by the Ford Foundation. Spencer also notes the condescension of many involved in the foundation effort toward those they were seeking to help, but he exempts Foster, justifiably by my reading, from this indictment. Foster’s emphasis on out-of-school activities with parents and other community leaders marks the most distinctive aspect of his program, one that took the de facto segregation that characterized the Philadelphia schools, and those of most northern cities, as a given. Within that given, Foster stressed policies geared toward family involvement in schools, an involvement that was successful in a number of cases and stands alongside the research interventions of Beatty’s three scholars as success stories. Foster’s actions also share with those of the researchers an avoidance of considering desegregation as a response to the situation.

In their essay, Sylvia Martinez and John Rury discuss the language in which educational interventions such as those of the researchers Beatty discusses and those of activists such as Marcus Foster were described.9 Martinez and Rury chart the evolution of descriptions of groups of children who did not succeed in school from the label of being culturally deprived to that of being at risk. This process took more than two decades and involved a series of published books, research articles, and policy statements that used the various terms, most often to describe urban African American students and, eventually, to describe Mexican American students as well. While Martinez and Rury note that the term “culturally deprived” eventually came to be seen as the negative label that it had been intended to be by many of its users from the beginning, they are less negative, though not uncritical, about terms like “culturally different” and “at risk,” which are less loaded than their predecessors. Similarly, more recent discussions of the issues of group low performance in schools have relied on even less ostensibly loaded terms such as “cultural capital.” Yet whatever the terminology used to explain low performance, such as “cultural capital” and the equally recent “achievement gap,” the discussions are all subject to the charge of using “perfumed” language to discuss a phenomenon that none of them really grapples with effectively. That is, as things stand now, we have used a number of terms to describe research interventions and educational activist interventions in the schools that have helped numerous urban minority youth to achieve in school, but we have little in the way of generalizable policies or programs to use to build on those earlier successes and point the way to success in the future.

Martinez and Rury make another important point when they note that the dispute over labeling of children in school through terms such as “culturally deprived,” “disadvantaged,” and others has accompanied, perhaps even aided or abetted, the ignoring of important social science or policy research that speaks to the problem of group underachievement in schools. Here they note the Moynihan report on the black family, which, after a brief period of discussion, was relegated to insignificance because of its perceived denigration of the black family. Recent scholarly writing, such as that of William Julius Wilson, has revived the discussion of issues within the black—or other class or cultural minority—family that relate to underperformance of the children of these families in schools. This could lead us in turn back to Spencer’s discussion of Marcus Foster and his successful interventions with parents in Philadelphia, but Foster’s success, whatever its explanation, has not proved to be enough to be feasible in larger program settings.

Carlos Blanton’s essay described the career and work of George Sanchez, educational scholar and critic of the situation of Mexican American children in schools, particularly in Texas, in the middle decades of the 20th century. Sanchez was older than almost all the researchers or activists discussed in the other essays, but this does not obviate his importance. Blanton shows that from the time of his arrival on the education scene as a teacher in Texas in the 1920s through the 1960s, when compensatory education approaches were flourishing and Sanchez was nearing the end of his career, the activist Mexican American scholar identified social and government neglect of Mexican American children as the major obstacle to their educational achievement. Further, as Texas educators began to identify language deficiency as the means by which Mexican American children were segregated from other children in Texas schools, he initiated an unstinting battle against that segregation, one that he would pursue to the end of his career. Sanchez was not oblivious to nondesegregationist-oriented interventions such as bilingual education programs that developed in the 1960s, as long as they could be encompassed within his antisegregationist framework. If, on the other hand, bilingual education, or any other policy, offered itself as a substitute for desegregation for Mexican American children, Sanchez could be counted on to be in opposition.

There is much to admire in Sanchez, as described by Blanton. He had a grasp of the situation that Mexican Americans encountered in Texas schools and in schools in other western and southwestern states such as California. More important, opposing segregation said nothing about any deficiencies, deficits, deprivations, disadvantages, or any other label or euphemism that could be, and very often was, applied to Mexican American families and children. While at times Blanton sees Sanchez as having gone overboard in his devotion to fighting segregation, even in the wake of the political uses of a counter policy such as bilingualism, he also sympathetically discusses the reasons for Sanchez’s pursuit of desegregation as an issue of educational equity and social justice. Sanchez was not a lawyer, nor was he a legal scholar. But he was a passionate advocate of what he saw as the simplest, most effective, and fairest solution to the problem of the educational underachievement of Mexican American children in school.

This brings me, then, to the point that I made earlier in this essay. Whatever version of compensatory education was attempted, whatever concepts or labels it used, whatever research was conducted under its auspices, whatever activist interventions into families and schools it countenanced, one thing these efforts aided and abetted was the facilitation of the larger American legal and policy decision not to desegregate the nation’s schools, a decision made crucial by the favorable climate for desegregation efforts instigated by the Brown decision of 1954. Addressing segregation as a policy solution to educational underachievement gained considerable traction after the publication of the Coleman report in 1966, as Barbara Beatty noted in her introduction to these essays.10 Yet desegregation was largely silenced by the educational discourse sparked by the various compensatory education efforts even though it was a very controversial issue as various cases wound their way through the federal and other courts in the 1960s and 1970s. Treating segregation as a legal issue, as shown earlier here, allowed it to go unaddressed in most of the country, while the legal battle over southern desegregation played itself out in the courts. But desegregation is more than a legal issue; it was, and is, a moral issue, an issue of fairness in educational arrangements, an issue of professional ethics for educators. All these latter aspects were dodged by the debates over compensatory education waged in the 1960s.

As we consider the issues of underachievement in schools by various groups of students in contemporary times, I’d like to highlight two instances of authors in this issue suggesting current educational innovations for discussion. The first is Edward Zigler’s desire to see contemporary public schools do a better job of coordination of the external factors of children living in poverty.11 This reaching out from the school to the community has some subtle but real echoes of Marcus Foster’s work with families of children in his school. Yet John Spencer, author of the Foster article, chooses instead to suggest that contemporary educational reforms such as charter schools or the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) are in the Foster mold. I am inclined to see Zigler as the better contemporary symbol of Foster’s work than either KIPP or charter schools. This is because Zigler is more oriented to factors outside the school and less inclined to see solutions as occurring simply with institutional changes within schools. Charter schools simply say that an institutional reorganization of public schools will yield positive results, an assumption that is, at best, modestly supported by educational research.12 KIPP sees solutions in severely raising academic expectations for students in urban schools, a strategy that does not necessarily seem to depend on a KIPP approach.

Whatever contemporary conclusions or recommendations are drawn by going back to the earlier compensatory programs, they should not be allowed again to obscure the significance of desegregation as an alternative policy response to wide-ranging educational underachievement. I don’t mean to say that desegregation is an easy solution to the problems of educational underachievement, nor do I mean to say that desegregation is immune to issues of bias and discrimination in its implementation. In fact, many, if not most, desegregation plans seem to put more burdens on the minority students who are the presumed beneficiaries of the plans than on the majority students who also participate. Desegregation thus does not escape the charge of continuing white privilege in its conception, or in its implementation. I do mean to say, however, that desegregation, in spite of its imperfections, and they are large, is a legitimate response to the problems of educational underachievement. Legitimacy, however, does not mean practicality, and the retreat from desegregation on the legal frontier by the United States Supreme Court and lower federal courts makes it less practical. Recent plans that stress class over race, however, economic background over racial composition, give at least some promise of overcoming the legal obstacles to implementation.

Whether one chooses a contemporary version of compensatory education, a contemporary version of desegregation, or a combination of these two approaches or some other permutation or combination, the obstinacy of white privilege, or of the privilege of wealthy Americans, most of whom happen to be white, should not be overlooked. In the second decade of the 21st century, the increasing inequality in income, and in the political power of those who have this income, cannot be overlooked. Optimism about educational improvement that would bridge achievement gaps between poor and nonpoor, or any other social change, is questionable in the current political climate. Social justice seems considerably more distant from implementation in 2011 than it did in the 1950s and 1960s. Let’s not let this change go unnoticed or not commented on as we consider the relationship between past and present.


1. While I have published a biography of Horace Mann Bond, noted black scholar, that work was first and foremost a biography of an educational historian, though an educational historian who was a leading African American educator and scholar. See Wayne Urban, Black Scholar: Horace Mann Bond, 1904-1972 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992)

2. Wayne Urban, “What’s in a Name: Education and the Disadvantaged American (1962),” Paedagogica Historica 45 (2009): 251–64.

3. Ibid.

4. Carlos Kevin Blanton, “A Legacy of Neglect: George I. Sánchez, Mexican American Education, and the Ideal of Integration, 1940–1970,” in “Rethinking Compensatory Education: Historical Perspectives on Race, Class, Culture, Language, and the Discourse of the ‘Disadvantaged Child,’” ed. Barbara Beatty, special issue, Teachers College Record 114, no. 6.

5. Barbara Beatty, “The Debate over the Young ‘Disadvantaged Child’: Preschool Intervention, Developmental Psychology, and Compensatory Education in the 1960s and Early 1970s,” in “Rethinking Compensatory Education: Historical Perspectives on Race, Class, Culture, Language, and the Discourse of the ‘Disadvantaged Child,’” ed. Barbara Beatty, special issue, Teachers College Record 114, no. 6.

6. Barbara Beatty,  introduction to “Rethinking Compensatory Education: Historical Perspectives on Race, Class, Culture, Language, and the Discourse of the ‘Disadvantaged Child,’” ed. Barbara Beatty, special issue, Teachers College Record 114, no. 6.; Sylvia L. M. Martinez  and John L. Rury, “From ‘Culturally Deprived’ to ‘At Risk’: The Politics of Popular Expression and Educational Inequality in the United States, 1960–1985,” in “Rethinking Compensatory Education: Historical Perspectives on Race, Class, Culture, Language, and the Discourse of the ‘Disadvantaged Child,’” ed. Barbara Beatty, special issue, Teachers College Record 114, no. 6.

7. Beatty, “The Debate Over the Young ‘Disadvantaged Child.’”

8. John P. Spencer, “From ‘Cultural Deprivation’ to Cultural Capital: The Roots and Continued Relevance of Compensatory Education,” in “Rethinking Compensatory Education: Historical Perspectives on Race, Class, Culture, Language, and the Discourse of the ‘Disadvantaged Child,’” ed. Barbara Beatty, special issue, Teachers College Record 114, no. 6.

9. Martinez and Rury, “From ‘Culturally Deprived’ to ‘At Risk.’”

10. Beatty,  introduction to “Rethinking Compensatory Education.”

11. Barbara Beatty and Edward Zigler, “Reliving the History of Compensatory Education: Policy Tensions, Bureaucracy, and the Politicized Role of Science in the Evolution of Head Start,” in “Rethinking Compensatory Education: Historical Perspectives on Race, Class, Culture, Language, and the Discourse of the ‘Disadvantaged Child,’” ed. Barbara Beatty, special issue, Teachers College Record 114, no. 6.

12. See Diane Ravitch’s discussion of the research on charter schools in The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (New York: Basic Books, 2010).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 114 Number 6, 2012, p. 1-8
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16697, Date Accessed: 1/21/2022 9:24:48 PM

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About the Author
  • Wayne Urban
    University of Alabama
    WAYNE URBAN, Paul W. Bryant Professor of Education, University of Alabama, is the author of American Education: A History and other publications on the history of American education, African American education, teacher unions, and the National Education Association.
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