Management & Labor

The School-Renewal Fallacy

"If all who are engaged in the profession of education were willing to state the facts instead of making greater promises than they can possibly fulfill, they would not be in such bad repute with the lay public."
by | November 2002

"If all who are engaged in the profession of education were willing to state the facts instead of making greater promises than they can possibly fulfill, they would not be in such bad repute with the lay public."

A politician made that remark, but as you may have suspected, not a recent one. Isocrates said it in Athens in the 4th century B.C., warning against Sophists who collected large fees to enlighten the city's young people, then failed to deliver the goods.

Isocrates was a pretty good campaigner in his day, but I'm glad he isn't running this year. He'd be woefully out of step. All over the country, opposing candidates for state and local office are dueling over which one cares most deeply about the failings of the school system, and promising to devote every waking hour to its renewal.

In Memphis this summer, the main difference between two candidates for mayor of Shelby County seemed to be that one vowed to be the education mayor, while the other styled himself the "champion of education." This was despite the fact that the office they were running for has virtually no jurisdiction over any aspect of the issue.

When the November election results are tallied, the country will have, by my count, more than 40 "education governors," plus hundreds of "education mayors," all of them committed to building a school system second to none. Maybe even first to none.

In choosing this approach, they will be following the lead of some of the more notably successful candidates of the past few years-- candidates such as Gray Davis, who won the California governorship in 1998 (and seems certain to win again this year) vowing solemnly that "my first, second and third priority is education." Or Michael Bloomberg, who wanted to run for mayor of New York City as the candidate of the "Education Party," and took office this year on a pledge (which he fulfilled in July) to take personal control of the schools.

What's so harmful, one might ask, about big promises to fix the school system? It's hyperbolic, but politics is about hyperbole, after all, and at least this promise is aimed at helping children, who deserve all the help we can give them. Why not accept it as well-intended idealism and leave it at that.

I'm no match for Isocrates on this issue, but if he were here, he'd say that the first thing to do is state the facts. From the viewpoint of a proven non-expert, and begging indulgence for my usual oversimplification, the facts would seem to be these:

We don't so much have bad schools in this country as we have uneven schools. The system in much of suburban and small-town America is functioning pretty well. Urban public school systems are a disaster. And enormous disparities of achievement continue to exist among diverse racial, ethnic and socio-economic categories. We all know this.

We also know, if we stop to think a minute, that it is true in every metropolitan area. All of them--from New York to California--are plagued by dysfunctional inner-city schools. This ought to provide an important clue to the nature of the problem. If the underlying problem were poorly trained teachers, or incompetent bureaucracies, or evil unions, as most of the "education mayors" and "education governors" seem to think, then this wouldn't be the case. Some of the school systems would have solved their management problems by now and would be turning in test scores comparable to those in the suburbs. We might find, let's say, that inner-city schools were excellent in Philadelphia and St. Louis, but weak in Cleveland and Detroit. Or the other way around. But after nearly 20 years of experimentation, there would be considerable variation.

In reality, there isn't. In every area of the country, school performance simply tracks demographics. If you know the ethnic, economic and racial composition of a community, you can predict the test scores. You don't need to know who the principals are, or how the unions work, or even much about the curriculum. I don't say this is a good thing; it's just a fact.

And it suggests something important about the "fix schools or bust" generation of candidates and officeholders. They are taking a complex societal problem and treating it as a local issue. It can't be that. If it were, it wouldn't be the same everywhere.

To say that dysfunctional schools are a societal problem doesn't mean we shouldn't work at solving it, just as we work on spouse abuse and drug addiction and teenage pregnancy. It's merely to warn that the mayor who takes office vowing a radical transformation in outcomes is vowing to solve a problem he really doesn't know how to solve.

If the worst problem created by the school fixers turns out to be the problem of inflated hopes, they will have done a modest amount of damage, at least to the cause of public confidence in the efficacy of policy solutions. But there's another, possibly more dangerous side effect to this whole crusade. It's the notion that, until the schools are fixed, cities can't be healthy again.

I've heard this argument numerous times over the past decade. I'm sure you've heard it, too. It holds that all the downtown retail, all the entertainment, all the lofts being built in old warehouse buildings--none of it will amount to a meaningful urban revival unless middle-class families come back to the central city to live. And these families won't come back until the schools improve.

There's obviously a grain of truth in this argument. If your definition of urban revival is persuading middle-class families to move back in from the suburbs, it's going to be a difficult sell without radical educational transformation.

But it's an argument that succeeds only by ignoring an obvious fact: Cities are already coming back--with or without the help of the public schools. You can't visit Boston or Chicago or San Francisco these days without noticing it. All those cities grew in population in the 1990s after decades of decline.

In Chicago, a middle-class renewal is spreading northwest from the central city so fast the demographers can hardly keep track of it. San Francisco's once-grimy South of Market district became the hot Bay Area neighborhood of the 1990s and is holding on despite the damage caused by the dot-com recession. Boston neighborhoods that were down at the heels five years ago are acquiring 24-hour street life and substantially increased housing prices. Even Atlanta is seeing a development boom in its Midtown corridor, fueled by the horrors of the daily automobile commute from suburban Cobb and Gwinnett counties. And predictions of Manhattan's economic demise after last September 11 turned out to be wildly inaccurate. People want to live in Manhattan as much as they ever did--even right in the shadow of the terrorist destruction.

Many people want that. Not everybody. The struggling young family with two less-than-secure office jobs and three small children is not about to leave the suburbs, now or anytime soon. The inner-city revival of the past five years has been generated by other people: singles, couples without children, couples whose children are still infants or toddlers, empty-nesters whose time in suburbia is done. They may not be the majority in any metropolitan area, but cities are discovering that there are more than enough of them to keep a downtown lively, and remake the adjoining neighborhoods as well.

Civic-minded as these newcomers may be, they are not primarily interested in schools. They care about public safety, transportation, retail commerce--the functions and services that have the most impact on their everyday lives.

One might expect a mayoral candidate serious about downtown revival to notice this and focus on the improvements that the current residents most want: He might promise to be the "transportation mayor," or the "retail revival mayor," as Boston's Thomas Menino has done successfully in recent years. By placing lopsided emphasis on the condition of the schools, candidates are ignoring the concerns of people who already live in the city in order to woo those who show no signs of wanting to be there.

This is not to argue that politicians would be wise to start running for office on a platform of "Put Children Last." It is merely to argue that, in most places, good inner-city schools are likely to arrive as one of the later phases of urban revival. The real sequence goes more like this: First the streets have to be safe, and kept that way. Then there has to be commerce--stores, restaurants, coffee houses, theaters. Then there has to be efficient public transportation to get people to work and back. At that point, a few adventurous families will start moving in. And finally, if all goes well, there will be a critical mass of families sufficient to improve the schools. It will come as the end of the process, not the beginning. Very few cities, if any, have reached that point. But that is how it will work--not with a transformation decreed by a mayor promising to work miracles.

"If four years from now, reading scores and math scores aren't significantly better," Bloomberg declared early in his term, "then I will look in the mirror and say that I have failed." Should that happen, however, it would be more accurate to say simply that he overpromised.

And if it happens, it will not mean that New York is a bad city, or one to avoid living in. It will mean that New York is an exciting and stimulating place that continues to confront the same deep-seated problems of schooling and society that all American cities confront.

Not just American cities, either, or just cities of the present time. Fourth-century Athens had its non-performing schools, too, as Isocrates makes clear, and yet we recognize it as a golden moment in the history of civilization. Maybe New York's leaders should try to model their own conduct after those who governed Athens. Sooner or later, the schools might follow along.

Alan Ehrenhalt
Alan Ehrenhalt  |  Contributing Editor  | 

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