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June 17, 2016 6:36 PM   Subscribe

When did public schools become "bad"? And did the quality actually change, or are statements about the inferiority of public education the racist shibboleths I've come to assume that they are?

Right now I'm reading Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth Of Other Suns, which is a (mostly oral) history of the Great Migration and the conditions that led to it. It talks a lot about school quality, and raised some questions I had never considered before. Which got me wondering:

When did upwardly mobile people start sneering at urban public school districts, or assuming that attending a public school was innately worse than being privately educated? When did the conservative assaults on public education funding and the Evangelical Christian love of homeschooling crank up? Because I'm suddenly starting to think it hasn't always been the case. Also, was there a real degradation in the quality of public education during this time, or is it only (white, middle class) people's attitudes that changed?

Definitely looking for factual resources such as books or articles on this, rather than anecdotal accounts. Sources written for a general or academic audience are both fine.
posted by Sara C. to Education (19 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
 
A Nation at Risk is one answer to your question. Not necessarily the report itself, but the response to the report.
posted by xyzzy at 8:07 PM on June 17, 2016


Are you interested in one particular region of the country?
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 8:38 PM on June 17, 2016


William J Reese's research might be of interest to you. His book America's Public Schools: From Common School to No Child Left Behind (Google Books excerpts) looks at how the expectations of what public schools are supposed to accomplish have changed since the 19th century. One of his main arguments is that, as a high school diploma has become more necessary to get a good job, parents put increasing amounts of pressure on public schools to enable their children's financial success. And since schools are easy scapegoats for politicians and other policy makers, they can bear the brunt of the blame for a variety of economic woes.

This 2011 NEA report, Starving America's Public Schools, shows how states are increasingly redirecting public school funding to private and charter schools, as well as for-profit interests like testing companies. So these "solutions" to failing public schools actually contribute to their decline.

Basically, the people in charge suck massive amounts of ass, and public education is a convenient butt monkey.
posted by bibliowench at 9:00 PM on June 17, 2016 [5 favorites]


[Poster is clear that she is "Definitely looking for factual resources such as books or articles on this" and not random thoughts or anecdotes.]
posted by Eyebrows McGee (staff) at 9:53 PM on June 17, 2016 [1 favorite]


School performance may more reflect demographic migration and segregation: Brookings
posted by MikeFitz at 10:19 PM on June 17, 2016


Here's a list of documentaries about various problems schools in the U.S. and articles about each one.

And here's a book from 1988 called Savage Inequalities about the widening gap between rich and poor schools in the U.S. I think that the effects of that ever-widening gap between rich and poor people in the U.S. are partially responsible for the change in attitude about public schools. In the 19th century in the U.S., reformers started the public school movement in the 1840's and towards the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, there were a lot of movements that worked towards lessening economic inequality. There were trust-busters and strong unions, and the socialist party reached its peak in America. We've sort of given up on that fight in the last 100 years.
posted by colfax at 3:13 AM on June 18, 2016 [3 favorites]


And here's a book from 1988 called Savage Inequalities about the widening gap between rich and poor schools in the U.S.

Jonathan Kozol is definitely the author I was going to suggest as well.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:25 AM on June 18, 2016 [2 favorites]


I'd also definitely be into primary sources, or just facts about when certain things started happening. When was the first private school voucher program proposed? Are there key articles in Time or Newsweek about America's Failing Schools that hadn't appeared before? Is "busing" a good keyword for information about this? I realize I'm basically asking for a historian to pop up in the thread and should probably just do my own research...
posted by Sara C. at 10:25 AM on June 18, 2016


Diane Ravitch has written several books about this subject.
posted by SisterHavana at 1:42 PM on June 18, 2016


did the quality actually change, or are statements about the inferiority of public education the racist shibboleths I've come to assume that they are

Racist, and more! Before the 1970s, most kids with disabilities were basically told to fuck off by their school districts, and change was -- and continues to be -- slow. Some of the "schools were so much better when I was a kid" ranting is from people who mean, even subconsciously, "schools were better when I didn't have to see people with disabilities on a daily basis."
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:43 PM on June 18, 2016


There are a few different things that will help you direct your research. One is narrowing it down to a specific region or urban area. Education is largely governed by a mixture of state and local governmental structures, which means that it can be hard to find things about "education" in the US that aren't at a very wide level of generality.

Once you read more about a certain city's schools, you can then expand out a little bit to find connections in the region that might indicate broader trends. Or you can look at national legislation or national zeitgeist-y things that you get curious about when you see the local reactions to national occurrences.

You might want to go to the library and ask for help with the Lexis database for newspapers -- doing a search for something like "voucher" would bring up all kinds of interesting discussion in news articles, opinion articles, and letters to the editor, and give you an idea of the zeitgeist. Google News can help with this as well, of course.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 2:38 PM on June 18, 2016


To be more general, the issue here is that you don't know what you're looking for. It sounds like that is happening because you need much more background knowledge. With more background knowledge, you can contextualize your intuitions and use them to produce useful research questions.

Good luck!
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 2:42 PM on June 18, 2016


A further point might be that your question begs the question a bit. For example --

"When did upwardly mobile people start sneering at urban public school districts, or assuming that attending a public school was innately worse than being privately educated? "

I don't know that they do! For example, competitive-entry public high school Whitney Young, part of the Chicago Public Schools, famously has a lower acceptance rate than Harvard and is harder to get in to. EVERYONE wants to go there. Our billionaire governor, who could just BUY his kid a school, bought a condo in Chicago and maybe-fraudulently pretended to live there so he could enroll his kid in a top-end Chicago public high school. Many of the top-ranked and best-known high schools in the country are public high schools, not private ones, and plenty of upwardly mobile people would cut someone's throat to get their kids in to those -- some are competitive-entry, but many are community high schools in wealthy communities. (I mean, people buy ridiculously overpriced houses in ridiculously overheated markets, houses they don't even like and struggle to maintain, to get into the "right" schools.) So I think you may need to adjust your framing a bit; the wealthy (and middle class), as a group, don't reject public schools in favor of private ones. They reject certain kinds of public schools, or they reject them in certain communities or under certain conditions. A lot of the school funding battle is about rejecting paying for other people's kids to go to school; one reason funding is so iniquitous is that local communities will pay very high local taxes for their own schools, but are unwilling to pay for out-of-area schools.

(As to how you maintain pockets of excellence like Whitney Young, once you create them, they entrench pretty quickly and districts that are a billion dollars in the hole will fight to keep them because you need your showpieces to keep families engaged.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:21 PM on June 18, 2016 [4 favorites]


I came to suggest Kozol as well.
posted by persona au gratin at 1:39 AM on June 19, 2016


And seeing Diane Ravitch, she's really smart. Though I only know her stuff in charter schools.
posted by persona au gratin at 1:40 AM on June 19, 2016


The Underground History of American Education makes the argument that public school has never been "good."
posted by COD at 6:08 AM on June 19, 2016


There are some important studies noted in this article: "Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City."
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 9:33 AM on June 19, 2016


Just out from Verso: Class War: The Privatization of Childhood by Megan Erickson
About the history and politics of charter schools: "Marketizing Schools" by Doug Henwood and Liza Featherstone
posted by RogerB at 11:20 AM on June 19, 2016


Do you have a public university somewhere near you? As a local citizen, you can often get a year-long library card at public university libraries for a small fee. If you're really curious about this, you should go see if you can get a library card and then talk to a reference librarian there. They will be able to help you refine your search a bit and point you in the direction of some useful sources.
posted by colfax at 4:41 AM on June 20, 2016


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