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Dismantled: The Breakup of an Urban School System: Detroit, 19802016

reviewed by Justin A. Coles - April 15, 2021

coverTitle: Dismantled: The Breakup of an Urban School System: Detroit, 19802016
Author(s): Leanne Kang
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807763837, Pages: 144, Year: 2020
Search for book at Amazon.com

Leanne Kang, author of Dismantled: The Breakup of an Urban School System: Detroit, 1980-2016, intended this book to be for all educational stakeholders (e.g., “parents, community activists, concerned citizens, policymakers, researchers, and so on,” p. 5) who are interested in understanding the history behind and legacies of contemporary urban education reform efforts that led to the dismantling of the Detroit Public Schools (DPS). Through the dual historical perspectives of special interest groups battling for political control of DPS and schooling—educational policy, specifically—institutionalizing and reproducing social inequality and racism, Kang speaks to those who both do policy and those for whom policy is done as a way to help all actors make sense of how battles over school governance that do not center communities can lead to the crumbling of an entire system. It becomes clear from Kang that reform cannot be enacted through a top-down approach.

In the introductory chapter, readers are introduced to Clarence Houston, a former student of Kang, current Detroit charter school teacher, and Finney High School graduate. Clarence shares insights with Kang about his time at Finney, which really help to illuminate the underlying tension that frames the book in its entirety: educational reformers were disconnected from the lived experiences, needs, and desires of Detroiters—a majority Black citizenry.

Finney High School had been a great place to learn, with warm and caring teachers who made sure kids were on track both in and out of the classroom. In particular, the teachers who were Black men made the greatest impression on Clarence, serving as his role models (p. 1).

Despite Clarence’s admiration for his high school, Finney closed while he was in graduate school, and we quickly learn that such school closures would be ushering in an unstoppable governance change—a move from school board governance to a market-based regime—that took root decades prior. Through her historical analysis, which situates the dismantling of DPS in a larger history of U.S. schooling, Kang invites us all to interrogate the politics of (educational) power at the intersection of race, urban reform, and governance. Given the accessibility of the book (not riddled in policy and reform jargon), I would argue that this book is also designed for those outside urban reform circles in that it really provides a macro- and micro-level examination of what happens when profits are prioritized over people, particularly in the context of entrenched racism.

In Dismantled, readers are taken through a comprehensive timeline that details key policies (e.g., Proposal A and standards-based reform), politicians (e.g., Rick Snyder and John Engler), social–political contexts (e.g., a historical legacy of racism), outside actors (e.g., emergency managers, Betsy DeVos, and Foundations), and hazardous schooling conditions, all of which played a unique role in the dismantling of DPS. In particular, the passage of Proposal A in 1994 under the governorship of John Engler, who advocated for public schooling that relied on market forces, “set off a steady stream of parents and students leaving DPS for charters or schools of choice, forcing more than 200 DPS schools to close” (p. 62). Engler’s pivotal role in the dismantling process, outlined in “Our Kids Deserve Better: New Schools for a New Century,” had three major steps: 1) the state would fund schools, 2) dollars would follow students, and 3) the power of the teachers union would be reduced. Kang works to frame Proposal A, and the larger context of reform battles during this time, as a targeted assault against DPS. Proposal A allowed for market-driven, outside actors such as Betsy DeVos (the DeVos family invested over $200 million into reform) to more boldly engage in a systemic infiltration of DPS. For those who might not understand how an entire school system can crumble, Kang unearths how a quarter century of reform actually worked to disrupt DPS with surgical-like precision.

Policies are often viewed as distinct, having no connection to each other, but readers come to understand that DPS was subjected to a political calculus where the goal from the beginning was to disband local governance and power without input from local actors. In response to the DeVos regime’s rescue plan for DPS winning over the legislature, Senator Morris Hood of Detroit stated:

You damn cowards to even take up this legislation before us and our community and not even have one Detroiter in the room to help negotiate this. These are kids I have to look at every day, but you want to make decisions about their life and tell them what kind of life they’re going to have (p. 69).

As Kang shares through the voice of Senator Hood and many other Detroiters, the majority of them Black, it becomes clear that the urban reform that disrupted DPS was corrupted by a deep racial history of devaluing Black educational leadership and Black communities. Race and racism were inextricably bound with every aspect of reform. All of the major reform and policy outlined in this book was disconnected from Detroiters on the ground, and most notably disconnected from the interests of students like Clarence.

Kang’s thorough historical case study, situated within historical methods and urban regime analysis, speaks directly to the ways a turn to market forces in public education catalyzes a social mobility (competition) approach to schooling. In an educational market based on competition, it became clear that wealthy districts remained wealthy and DPS, a mostly Black district, lost critical revenue it did not have room to lose. As Kang noted, “further privatizing the public sphere in crisis situations is disconcerting when such social experimentations occur at the expense of Black lives” (p. 89). The concept of social experimentation works to capture the overarching cautionary tale I believe Kang wishes to communicate with readers: Urban education reform cannot ignore the entrenched nature of racism in U.S. society, which is bound up with (disaster) capitalism. The unchecked and unpoliced power that allowed mainly white, Republican politicians and elite outsiders to launch decades of experimental legislation was seen as the saving grace for Black Detroiters. Kang makes sure the readers understand the role racism played in the dismantling of Detroit, which is amplified by the ways community members routinely protested the actions of the state even though they were outright ignored and/or undermined. Each chapter of Dismantled pulls the reader deeper into the battle of school reform in DPS, while really expanding understandings of the ways national politics linked to race and policy directly inform state and city politics.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 15, 2021
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23674, Date Accessed: 5/14/2021 3:45:13 AM

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About the Author
  • Justin Coles
    Fordham University
    E-mail Author
    JUSTIN A. COLES, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the division of Curriculum and Teaching at Fordham University, Graduate School of Education in Manhattan, NYC. His multidisciplinary research agenda draws from critical race studies, urban education, language & literacy, and Black studies to inform racial justice-centered educator preparation. He is published in the Journal of Teacher Education, Urban Education, the Journal of Negro Education, The High School Journal, Curriculum Inquiry, Race Ethnicity and Education, Equity & Excellence in Education, the Journal of Language & Literacy in Education, and the International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education.
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