City Education on the Verge of Revolution

Decentralization, Community Involvement Are the Trend

A member of New York State's Board of Regents leaned across his desk last week and spoke of education in the ghettoes of New York City. "The present system has not produced the quality of education those youngsters need," he said. "When that happens, you've got to do something. Something has got to change."

The educator asked to remain anonymous, but his opinion was far from revolutionary. In recent years growing numbers of educators and academics have concluded that core-city school systems across the country are failures. Seeking new answers to city school problems, they have started a "dialogue" which is fast growing to a near unanimous roar for decentralizing urban schools.

Plans for decentralization are legion. Theodore R. Sizer, Dean of Harvard's School of Education, would give principals authority over hiring, budget control, and curriculum. Others advocate greater autonomy for school boards where they exist, or for district superintendents where boards do not exist.

Marilyn Gittell, an associate professor of political science at the City University of New York, has prepared an extensive study advocating the division of New York City into five separate borough systems. Still others call for establishing educational parks, vast autonomous centers of education where whole districts would be educated under one roof. "We're all interested in decentralization," says Walter L. Hill, a tall sunburnt architect and lecturer on Education and Urban Planning at the Ed School. "It's the vogue."

Beneath the vogue and the flurry of proposals lies a common assumption: the failings of school systems in today's core cities are the failings of over centralization--the failings of bureaucracy and central planning. Bureaucracy, its vested interests committed to the status quo, has blocked serious attempts at adjusting to the growing size and changing composition of postwar cities. According to Gittell's study, New York City has lost 800,000 middle class whites and gained 700,000 Negroes and Puerto Ricans during the last decade. Yet, says Gittell, "New York City has not witnessed any meaningful change in curriculum, administrative structure, teaching recruitment, appointment and training, or general organization in the last three decades."

Meanwhile, central planning, a natural corollary of bureaucracy, has hindered flexibility within existing structures. Curriculum planners prescribe identical course programs for nizing the rigidities of the present urbs, regardless of relative academic levels or availability of textbooks.

Many administrators, while recognizing the regidities of the present system, see no way around the evils of centralization. Pointing to big business, they contend that any organization large enough to educate massive urban populations will be bureaucratized and centrally controlled. Still, more and more experts are pointing out that education is unique. "Big education," says Sizer, "is not comparable to big businesses as the product of schools is not--or should not be--a mass product ... The first and toughest management problem is the protection and nurturing ... of human individuality, and this is difficult to do--impossible to do--from the top in large school systems."

What is more, professionalism has made school system bureaucracies even more resistant to change than many types of centralized administration. Instead of just using professionals, Americans have stood in awe of them. With free rein from parents, threatened educators have had simply to cry out in order to raise massive public opposition to any external pressure. Thus insulated, bureaucracies have proliferated free of the outside influences which counteract normal hierarchic inflexibilities.

The city halls and ed schools around the country have long been aware of these problems. As early as 1961, the staff of New York City's Board of Education (a policy-making institution outside the formal school system) prepared a comprehensive plan for decentralizing New York's schools. But public support was lacking. The aura of the professional still gripped those with a voice in politics. And few among those who advocated change seem to have realized how serious the situation was. Then the force for change came where it had to come--from the ghettoes.

Civil rights has probably done more than any other movement to prod core-city education to change. It has challenged the professional bureaucracy with its demands for desegration of ghetto schools, and the inability of school systems to meet those demands effectively has placed the inadequacies of bureaucracy and central planning squarely before the public eye. In New York City the bureaucracy, supported by small pressure groups, has repeatedly frustrated attempts by the Board of Education to integrate ghetto schools. Throughout the country, school superintendents, who traditionally rise through the hierarchy, have shown themselves unable to master the logistics and public relations of integration policy. As one former member of New York's Board of Education put it, "To be a superintendent in New York City, or Chicago, or Washington, really calls for a group of talents unrelated to the training you get in education."

Because of the prominence of integration in revealing the problems of core-city education, many plans for reform have aimed at desegregation as a primary goal. One recent proposal seeks to combat the exodus of whites from core cities by expanding school systems to include white suburbs. Proponents of such "metropolitan" school districts contend that larger systems would open better suburban schools to Negro and Puerto Rican students and would provide the numbers of whites needed to achieve integration.

But most reformers feel that integration is only part of a larger problem to improve city education through restructuring school systems. They feel the arithmetic of the white exit to the suburbs makes total integration impossible. Thus they are seeking ways to maximize integration--both racial and socio-economic--and at the same time ensure "quality segregated education" where integration is unfeasible.

"We're asking what a school should be," says Hill. "Integration is a vehicle. It's very important. I don't want to belittle it. But it's something the nation is willing to focus on." Integration has opened the way to revolutionary change in urban education.

In the context of that revolution, experts have proposed decentralization as more than a defense against over-centralization. Decentralization asserts a positive concept of education. It aims specifically at grounding education in the life of the community--giving parents and their communities a larger role in the education of their children.

Community participation is not itself a revolutionary concept in American education. In pre-urban times, according to Sizer, the extended family had primary responsibility for educating its offspring. Later the community and the school-teacher divided that responsibility, but with the coming of urbanization and industrialization, parents and community increasingly surrendered their children's education to professionals. This development contributed to the hazards of bureaucracy, but also encouraged the separation of education from life outside the school's walls.