On the crisis of public education

If you regularly keep up on education issues or the latest documentary releases or are an all-around movie aficionado, you’ve likely seen this compelling and emotional preview for the much-talked-about documentary Waiting for Superman, which is directed by An Inconvenient Truth‘s Davis Guggenheim and opens nationwide in October.

What you might not have heard is that the movie also has a print companion. School Library Journal has compiled this information along with a list of wonderful new books that also delve into the problems with the U.S. public school system and how it can be, could be, or should be reformed. Included in this list is UMP’s Organizing for Educational Justice: The Campaign for Public School Reform in the South Bronx, by Michael B. Fabricant (Minnesota 2010). Here are a few snippets from the book’s introduction:


The crisis of public education has been systematically documented by both the media and the academy during the past half century. As the problem of failing schools and students has persisted, the strategies for addressing this breakdown have clustered around three approaches: market initiatives intended to stimulate competition, standards as a spur for accountability, and community organizing as a tool for creating the necessary parent power to leverage both a redistribution of resources and influence that tilts to poor communities of color. These approaches, however, have generated dramatically different levels of resources and legitimacy. Equally important, the political economic context that in large part accounts for this crisis is all but ignored.

In the past ten years, poor parents increasingly dissatisfied with the performance of public schools in their communities have begun to develop organizing campaigns to create pressure for needed change. The emergence of community organizing as a strategy for changing schools and improving learning culture is only fifteen years old. Yet research by the Institute for Education and Social Policy (IESP) in New York City indicates that the work has proliferated across the country to sixty-six groups involved in issues ranging from school safety to quality of classroom instruction. These groups are located in a number of cities including, but not limited to, Los Angeles, San Antonio, Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York City. Mediratta, Fruchter, and
Lewis note that “when combined with groups identified through other studies at least 200 community groups are currently engaged across the country in specific organizing campaigns for better local public schools” (3).

A premise of these campaigns is that public officials must be held accountable by the communities they serve if schools are to be improved. The organizing is intended to both publicize the poor performance of local schools while fighting to make certain the public investment necessary to change those conditions is made. Schools in these communities share common problems of crumbling facilities, overcrowded classrooms, shortages of qualified teachers, high turnover of principals, and very low achievement levels. Organizing has taken place where these conditions are most intolerable. To enforce such perspective, parent power sufficient to challenge policy decision making must be developed. In general, parent groups are too weak to unilaterally build a campaign around complex school-based issues. Organizers and advocates for parent involvement have indicated that the most effective groups, such as the Parent Action Committee (PAC) of the Mount Eden section of the Bronx, have built a base outside the school through relationships with community-based organizations. Eric Zachary, an organizer at the Institute for Education and Social Policy, and Shola Olatoye suggest, in Community Organizing for School Improvement in the South Bronx, that a proposition being advanced by parent groups is that building “parent power in low income communities can be a viable alternative to free market solutions (like vouchers, tax credits, charter schools) for holding public schools

Importantly, some part of the call of parent groups is for a more just distribution of resources to low-income schools. As Jonathan Kozol noted in Shame of the Nation, it is clear that the “resources devoted to public schooling have never been distributed equitably; instead the resource distribution has always been highly correlated with the class and racial composition of local communities.” These discrepant funding patterns largely explain the lack of adequate educational preparation of low-income students of color. Critically, money matters for poor and minority students. But money alone will not solve the problem of low student achievement. Zachary and Olatoye note that Connell indicates in The Midnight Hour that both money and targeted investment are essential to improving the quality of education, “and neither will happen without the other” (2). Conservatives have consistently failed to acknowledge the importance of increased strategic investments in public education.

Zachary and Olatoye have indicated that the challenge for progressive activists and scholars in and outside the academy is to present a “compelling paradigm of how to transform schools so that all children receive a high quality education” (2). This must be done without defending the generally poor performance and practices of inner-city low-income schools. Such a progressive paradigm must trace the failure of public schools and offer as a potential corrective the political will to make certain that investments are made and programming implemented that have the potential to transform learning and achievement. A number of local communities have determined that the struggle to change conditions in local public schools that produce and reproduce failure will not come from policy makers but rather from the neighborhoods in which the schools are located. Parent education organizing represents to date the most powerful assertion of a communal will to transform the learning and achievement cultures of local public schools. That assertion when combined with strategic organizing is a ray of hope for altering the policy discourse regarding public schools.

As noted, the discourse on education reform has been monopolized by politically conservative policy makers and bureaucratic technicians emphasizing privatization and high-stakes testing. Missing from this discourse are the politics and expertise of parents who live daily with the failures of public education. Parents have the least complicated motives for improving public education: the success of their children. In the absence of parent-led initiatives to reform public education, the prospects for fundamental improvement are likely dim. Present policy direction promises to transform public education into ever-more-degraded testing centers, offering students an increasingly static and dead-end education.

The broad context for this Bronx organizing initiative is the largest school system in the nation. As the IESP has suggested, it serves largely poor (75 percent), black (72 percent), and Latino (13 percent) students with limited English proficiency. It is a school system where half of high school students fail to graduate. Perhaps most important, the New York City public school system has been undergoing a significant restructuring of financing, school units, and educational standards as well as policies under Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The primary purpose of this book is to describe and learn from a unique, parent-led organizing campaign in New York City. The Community Collaborative to Improve District 9 schools (CC9), a parent-led consortium of six neighborhood-based agencies in the South Mid-Bronx, is unique for two reasons. First, having started as a small group of parents who discovered that their children’s elementary school reading achievement was among the lowest in the city, the collaborative grew until it attained the power to bring the reforms it demanded to scale: in 2005, New York City applied the reforms CC9 had sought to one hundred low-performing elementary schools. The CC9 campaign for lead teachers, as Anne Bastian notes in Making a Difference, is the most significant policy reform achieved by a parent-led collaborative in New York City in several generations. The effort illustrates how a community initiative shifted relationships of power between three major stakeholders: low-income parents, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), and the Department of Education (DOE). Recent data developed by the Academy for Educational Development in fall 2006 suggest the reforms have contributed to improvements in student reading and test scores. CC9’s success demonstrates that parent-led initiatives are perhaps the best hope for promoting the increased investment and targeted reform necessary to improve student achievement.


More about Organizing for Educational Justice: follow the link for the book’s table of contents and to find out what others are saying about the book.

One thought on “On the crisis of public education

  1. I've said it before, and thoroughly believe that you cannot force teachers to do a good job, nor students to learn. It simply must come from the bottom up, as mandates only intensify the problem. That being said, reward for teachers who's students excel (financial or otherwise) is probably the most rational way to promote academic excellence. –Dr. Oz

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