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"Even the Best Schools Can't Do It Alone,"

by Wendy D. Puriefoy At a time when the No Child Left Behind Act all but monopolizes the debate on school reform, Richard Rothstein raises important points that underscore the broader context of public education—a context that deserves to be taken seriously now more than ever. To be sure, schools will benefit when policymakers and communities pay attention to the role that race and class disparities play in shaping the all-too-predictable patterns of academic achievement.September/October 2004 issue of Poverty & Race

At a time when the No Child Left Behind Act all but monopolizes the debate on school reform, Richard Rothstein raises important points that underscore the broader context of public education—a context that deserves to be taken seriously now more than ever. To be sure, schools will benefit when policymakers and communities pay attention to the role that race and class disparities play in shaping the all-too-predictable patterns of academic achievement.

Unfortunately, Rothstein uses his astute observations about the manifestations of these disparities to suggest that the causes of the achievement gap are personal or cultural, rather than deeply systemic. In its focus on the victims of the system rather than the system itself, Rothstein’s scrutiny smacks of the old “cultural deprivation” accounts of unequal success rates, the idea that we can somehow explain away the achievement gap by finding fault with the lifestyles of those who end up on the wrong end of it. The trouble with this line of thinking is that it often discourages comprehensive, systemic reform in favor of “reforming” those who would benefit from it. If we are serious about creating lasting and effective reforms, we must look for problems within schools, not pathologize children and families.

Rothstein’s analysis represents a particular barrier to comprehensive reform because it fails to rise above a set of superficial choices, reinforcing a rhetorical dichotomy that plays directly into the hands of those for whom supporting public education is not a priority. The fallacy of this dichotomy becomes clear when we realize that solving social disparities and improving public education are not competing aims, but two parts of the same large one. Suggesting that we can either reform schools or address inequalities in health care, housing, wealth and parental attention presents us with a set of false choices that all of us and underprivileged communities in particular have a vested interest in reconciling. The danger of ignoring school-based variables in favor of child-based variables is that it can have the flavor of resigning underprivileged communities to a fate, instead of engaging them and others to take an active, participatory role in the function of local schools. In other words, the problem is not, as Rothstein claims in his title, that “Even the Best Schools Can’t Close the Race Achievement Gap.” The reality is that Even The Best Schools Can’t Do It Alone.

Public schools rely on public involvement. Nonprofit organizations like local education funds play a vital role in fostering both awareness of, and responsibility for, education issues at the local level. When we engage communities in generating assets and ideas for public education, we help dispel the myth that a scarcity of resources forces us to choose between preparing our children at home and in our communities or educating them in the classroom.

Of course, this is not an easy process. The first step towards building broader support for public education is seeing public education as a broader issue, and at their best, Richard Rothstein’s observations help us to do just that. But contrary to their author’s implications, the observations are relevant to school reform not because they expose its limits, but because they expand its potential. Only when we fully recognize the relationship between community health, economic vitality and academic achievement can we work towards solutions equal to the complexities of the task. Such a commitment to a shared public education may well be the first step towards a coherent new vision ensuring that every child can benefit from a quality education.

Wendy D. Puriefoy is Executive Director of the Public Education Network. wpuriefoy@PublicEducation.org
 
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