Commentary Magazine


Community Control

To the Editor:

I read Diane Ravitch’s “Community Control Revisited” [February] with great interest. Too many articles dealing with Ocean Hill-Brownsville have dealt only with the politics of the situation, an approach which uses children as a means, not as an end in themselves. But although I was pleased with the nuance in her report on decentralization, I think Mrs. Ravitch’s treatment fails to present the situation clearly.

It is true that educational retardation was one of the prominent factors which led to the creation of a decentralized system, but reading scores were not the only exhibit of this failure. Several other barometers could be and were considered in the 1960’s. Parents’ confidence in the schools, children’s views of their teachers and schools, teachers’ opinions of students, etc. were equally observable measures of the failure of the system. To look only at reading scores, and on this basis decide the success or failure of an educational process, is to limit oneself to too narrow a perspective. The language of the article leads one to believe that education hasn’t improved because reading scores haven’t improved, an idea the Educational Testing Service of Princeton, for example, cautions against in repeated warnings that reading scores should not be considered the sole indicators of educational achievement. Beyond what ETS has proved, studies such as Pygmalion in the Classroom and The Eye of the Storm clearly show that other factors may be more important than reading scores in judging an educational system.

The use of reading scores as indicators of success has also been cautioned against by the Board of Education of New York City. Chancellor Harvey B. Scribner created a special task force that found instances of teachers preparing students for reading exams and also excluding certain children from taking exams. Bernard Bard claimed in the New York Post of January 5, 1972 that 28,000 children were not allowed to take reading tests so that the scores would be artificially inflated. Moreover, several people who reported this information believed that the practice of giving out the questions to tests was an old one, indeed was considered almost an “accepted practice” by both teachers and principals alike. There certainly should have been some investigation made to ascertain whether the reading scores of 1966 were inflated by these methods. Certainly the number of times this was done in the years 1969 to 1971 leads one to believe it may have been done by schools fearful of angry black parents. But Mrs. Ravitch does not consider this as a possibility.

On the larger question of whether education has improved under decentralization, one wonders if there has been enough time for proper evaluation. The advocates of the More Effective Schools program, who are usually against community control, wanted a period of seven years to evaluate the idea. Given the political upheavals early in the history of Ocean Hill, which may have forced decisions for politics rather than for education, it is safe to assume that the new District 23, which replaced the old demonstration districts, has had more time to prove itself, and in fact, even within the short span of time since peace has come to the area, some of the advances have been impressive. The change in parental attitudes was noted by Marilyn Gittell and Fran Gottfried, and this is a factor which certainly affects the children. Marcia Guttentag, writing in Demonstration for Social Change: An Experiment in Local Control, by Dr. Gittell et al., also noted the improved attitudes of children and teachers. . . .

But even beyond all these points is the fact that reading levels throughout the city dropped from 1967 to 1971, a condition that decentralization inherited from centralization. For the school year 1970-71, for example, almost 30 per cent of all high-school students were reading two or more years below ninth-grade levels (School Profiles, Board of Education, City of New York, January 1972) . But nowhere does Mrs. Ravitch point this out. It is possible that the factors Dr. Gittell and Miss Gottfried point to may have slowed this decline in achievement, but this again is a possibility Mrs. Ravitch does not mention.

Finally, if one still chooses to look at reading scores to decide the success or failure of community control, other demonstration districts should be examined. And, in fact, in the IS 201 complex, reading scores did increase (see Demonstration for Social Change).

In the beginning of this century people wrote that centralization would solve everything wrong with the school system. Many now write that these problems will only be solved by decentralization. Obviously neither side has all the answers, but it is incumbent on the proponents of both viewpoints to present all the facts, which “Community Control Revisited” fails to do.

Mark S. Rosentraub
Research Assistant
Institute for Community Studies
Flushing, New York

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To the Editor:

Diane Ravitch’s article was unfair both to Ocean Hill-Brownsville and to the concept of community control, which she writes off as a failure. The Ocean Hill-Brownsville experience was primarily an exercise in frustration, not in community control. Anyone with an intimate knowledge of the development and progress of that district over the three years of its existence should realize that it never attained anything approximating community control.

The Ocean Hill Governing Board was given only the vaguest of mandates despite its repeated attempts to get the Central Board of Education to clarify guidelines and define the scope of its authority. The local Governing Board did not have control of its budget, of selection and employment of personnel, of building maintenance, and so forth. The Governing Board, though elected, could be suspended at will and was, for nearly an entire school year, by the Central Board, as was the unit administrator for a lesser period of time. And when the suspension was lifted, the Ocean Hill district remained under state trusteeship. In light of these facts, it is hard to maintain that Ocean Hill ever attained genuine community control, its own hopes and claims at the time notwithstanding. It is hardly fair, therefore, to resort to the Ocean-Hill experience for evidence as to what community control can do for education.

Mrs. Ravitch herself has pointed out the confusion and difficulties surrounding the experiment. She notes that the first year was devoted to getting established. During that time, Ocean Hill was involved in continual controversy with the Central Board and other groups. The second year was, to use her own phrase, “one of conflict and controversy.” The schools were in chaos that year. Mrs. Ravitch is correct in noting the high absentee rate that year, but it was in part due to the situation imposed by external forces. At the conclusion of one of the strikes during the fall of 1968, as one observer has reported, over three thousand policemen were sent to the area. Rooftops were patrolled and every school yard became an armed camp. Policemen and demonstrators tangled and a number of persons were badly hurt. Schools were closed down by the Mayor and then reopened. Obviously, many parents concerned about their children would keep them out of school during all this violence and turmoil. Even after the strikes were settled, many children did not return because their parents had enrolled them in schools in other districts and they stayed there.

To add to the confusion brought on by the suspension of the Governing Board and the unit administrator, several of the newly appointed principals were barred from their own schools for five months, due to the litigation brought by the Council of Supervisory Associations and the United Federation of Teachers. At the same time, because 350 UFT teachers had walked out in May 1968 in sympathy with the 19 teachers and supervisors who were either transferred or fired, and refused to commit themselves to return in the fall, the Ocean Hill Governing Board had to recruit all new teachers to replace these positions. A large proportion of these new recruits had never taught before. With a majority of inexperienced teachers, nothing is as important as having the firm guiding hand of a principal. Yet it was at precisely this time that the principals were removed from the schools.

The new programs to which Mrs. Ravitch refers, many of them funded by the Ford Foundation, were slow in getting started and, as already noted, they were run by teachers totally inexperienced in teaching, let alone in the new programs. Under the best of circumstances it would take at least a year to familiarize teachers with novel educational approaches. However, the Ford funds ran out and no funds were forthcoming from other sources. Thus, some of the innovative programs operated for less than a year. This is hardly sufficient time to allow for measurable impact on pupil achievement.

Mrs. Ravitch concludes her article by saying that “after all the publicity and conflict, after all the bold rhetoric and revolutionary expectations, after all the money spent, jobs allocated, new machinery and programs introduced, the children of the district cannot read as well today as they did five years ago.” Her own description of the circumstances, however, bears out my points that the publicity and conflict seriously inhibited learning and that the new programs certainly were not operational long enough to have any measurable impact. In terms of testing, one doubts whether Mrs. Ravitch can document that children tested in 1971 were enrolled in the Ocean Hill schools in 1967. The high pupil mobility rate in ghetto schools is well known. Obviously the effects of a program cannot be evaluated by testing children who were not exposed to the program. I marvel at Mrs. Ravitch when she says that “by the test of reading scores, the Ocean Hill-Brownsville experiment was a failure.” The studies I conducted for The Urban Institute of all three demonstration districts made it abundanly clear that the “experiments” were never allowed to get off the ground.

During the heat of battle and the struggle for existence, Mrs. Ravitch correctly notes that the champions of community control in Ocean Hill made unverified claims of success, many of which were picked up by supposedly neutral observers. To review these claims calmly and, where appropriate, to label them “not proved” would have been a service to educators and students of community control. To assert equally unproved counter-claims, however, is an unfortunate disservice.

Betsy Levin
Director of Education Studies
The Urban Institute
Washington, D.C.

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To the Editor:

As the former JHS 271 teacher whose New York Times Magazine article was quoted by Diane Ravitch, I would appreciate an opportunity to clear up a few of the misconceptions which still appear to exist regarding community control and Ocean Hill-Brownsville.

One cannot but be amazed at the selective perception of “impartial” evaluators. After all this time, Mrs. Ravitch is still able to distinguish tenths of years in Ocean Hill reading scores, but has apparently forgotten the conditions to which children and teachers were subjected during that time. Those of us who were there will never forget the hordes of police, the shrill taunts of the UFT pickets, the almost daily attacks in the press, the quite literal siege under which we were expected to coach children to succeed on culturally-biased standardized examinations. (It would be unfair here not to mention the role of COMMENTARY in imposing that siege; see, for example, Maurice Goldbloom’s “The New York School Crisis,” January 1969.)

There are two points to be made here. The first is that external pressures precluded the kind of teaching which would have raised reading scores. For those who created and sustained those pressures to brand community control a “failure” on the basis of such criteria, is to blame the victim, a phenomenon with which COMMENTARY’s readers should be quite familiar.

The second point is that we did not define education quantitatively, by scores on tests designed to favor white suburban children. We did define it as black children singing the Black National Anthem. We did recognize it when students initiated dialogue with their teachers about which side of the barricades they were on. We also valued the children’s discovery of concepts for themselves and valued this as one major component of their education. None of this could have been mandated by racist bureaucrats; neither could it be measured by their instruments.

The basic issue, though, is whether community control in Ocean Hill-Brownsville was an experiment at all. To me, there is no question but that children learn better when their parents are part of the school, the school part of the community. There is no doubt in my mind that Ocean Hill parents valued their children’s interests more highly than did the striking teachers. And they still do. Community control is not a hypothesis; it is a right. It should be guarded, not tested. But if it is to be evaluated, the evaluation should be done by parents in the community, people who see their children as human beings, not as statistics ground through a computer.

Charles S. Isaacs
Brooklyn, New York

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To the Editor:

Congratulations on Diane Ravitch’s excellent article. . . .

I should like to clarify one extremely significant, though by now greatly obscured, fact which should strengthen Mrs. Ravitch’s thesis. From my vantage point as the principal of JHS 271 during the pre-McCoy period and during part of the demonstration-district interregnum, I could see that there was no sound educational reason for displacing teachers and administrators with the experimental clique. The move could only be interpreted as a political grab for jobs and money by people who were not interested in the welfare of the community, the schools, or the children.

Let’s go back to 1967. Rhody McCoy was arguing then that he needed to take over because educators were not doing their job. Consequently, the schools were decaying and the children were not achieving. He boasted that he and his supporters would reverse the downward trend. But there was no downward trend at JHS 271! What the public did not know, and still doesn’t seem to understand, is that at the time of the McCoy takeover JHS 271 was alive and well and the children in the school were learning.

I tried to publicize this fact in letters to newspapers and magazines . . . but I was a mere popgun against the blockbusters of the media. Fortunately, Maurice Gold-bloom obtained some of the information and wrote about it in COMMENTARY (January 1969).

Here are the facts:

Citywide standardized tests show that the 543 students of the ninth-grade graduating class had improved 3 years and 2 months in reading. Because they had been severely retarded when they entered the school in the sixth grade, this was progress well above what might ordinarily have been expected. Normal readers should grow 3 years, retarded readers less. The eighth-graders, after a year in the school, advanced 1 year and 3 months. There was good reason for our achievement, as college experts who visited the school attested. The school had many forms of individualized reading as well as official Board of Education programs of Intensive Reading, Basic Reading, and Corrective Reading. In addition, without special funds, we had organized the innovative, diagnosis-oriented Reading Skills Centers. . . . Another valuable source of assistance was Professor Beryl Bailey—then at Yeshiva University and now at Hunter College. . . .

Nor was the school ignoring other areas of the curriculum. A good case in point is algebra. . . . In 1965, 5 per cent of JHS 271 students passed the statewide Regents examination in algebra. By 1966, the percentage had jumped to 43 per cent; and in 1967 it rose to 62 per cent, 10 per cent above the city average. In addition, the Mathematics Team won the area championship.

Teachers continuously tried to broaden the horizons of students by taking them on trips outside the neighborhood. In one year, there were over three hundred such excursions. . . . Co-curricular activities at the school included a student government, a drama society, an orchestra, and a band, as well as a Future Teachers Club. . . .

Many honors came to the students. One boy was elected president of the Brooklyn Borough Student Council. . . . The school’s “Community Corps” won first prize in the Mayor’s “Salute to Youth Awards” ceremonies. . . . Both the school’s magazine and its newspaper consistently won national medals for excellence.

I hope the information I have presented here will be widely disseminated . . . but to this date almost nothing written on the Ocean Hill-Brownsville controversy has even touched upon it.

Jack Bloomfield
Principal, Egbert JHS
Brooklyn, New York

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To the Editor:

Despite the clear, fresh, and unbiased view of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville controversy in “Community Control Revisited,” it is evident that the author was taken in by at least one canard propounded by the various supporters of that ill-fated and misnamed experiment in community control. I refer to her statement: “Those schools which ranked below the 45th percentile of citywide reading scores on these tests were permitted to recruit teachers outside the usual bureaucratic process” (emphasis added).

The phrase emphasized above was repeatedly employed by the supporters of the experiment who, naturally enough, made use of every pejorative term available to describe the legally established procedure for selecting teachers and supervisors for the New York City schools. This procedure was enacted as law by the New York State Legislature in 1898 as part of civil-service reform and is more generally referred to as the “merit system.”

How interesting to note in the same issue, in “‘Is It Good for the Jews?,’” the following statement by Norman Podhoretz: “Now wherever the Jewish interest may or may not lie, there can be no question that it lies in the maintenance of the merit system.”

Paul Denn
Board of Examiners
Association of Examiners of the Public Schools of the City of New York
Brooklyn, New York

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To the Editor:

Diane Ravitch’s article is a much-needed revelation. I refer not to the fact that the Ocean Hill-Brownsville demonstration district was a failure, but rather to the prejudgments and claims of success so many “informed” people made without adequate substantiation. This dangerous lack of objectivity has permeated all aspects of social-science investigation. . . .

Anne Spitzer
Riverdale, New York

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Diane Ravitch writes:

I agree with Mark Rosentraub that reading scores should not be the sole determinant of a school’s success or failure, since there are many other factors which contribute to good education. On the other hand, I do not believe that reading scores mean nothing at all, nor that it can be said that a school is functioning well if its pupils do not learn how to read. The fact that reading scores are consistently low in certain schools and districts and consistently high in others reflects something. Perhaps it means, as some critics would have it, that the reading tests are biased against lower-class students; but I tend to think that it reflects the central finding of the Coleman Report: that the influence of the school is not nearly as strong as that of social class. Because this has been so in the past does not mean it must always be so in the future. Efforts to create educational equality have been stimulated by the awareness of the extent of educational failure, as well as by its social and economic causes. I do not believe that the best way to erase educational inequality is to eliminate the means of revealing inequality.

No one knows for sure to what extent teachers prepare students for the standardized reading tests. However, the desire to do well is undoubtedly tempered by the realization that achieving schools lose compensatory funds, teaching positions, and special services. Since test scores tend to follow socioeconomic patterns, not only in New York City but throughout the country, it seems unlikely that cheating, or “prep-ping,” has seriously distorted the city’s reading scores.

Mr. Rosentraub uses the IS 201 demonstration district as an example of a community-controlled district which successfully raised reading scores; and he cites a study produced by the organization he works for as proof. The facts, however, are more complex than the study acknowledges. Some elementary schools in the district made excellent progress, evidently the result of using Caleb Gattegno’s “Words in Color” reading method. But the study made no mention of achievement levels at IS 201 itself, the focal school of the district. A local parents’ group called a press conference last spring to demand an outside evaluation of the school. Their discontent was in part related to low reading levels. Last spring’s city-wide tests revealed that the school’s fifth grade was two years behind grade level, and its eighth grade almost four years behind. Not quite 8 per cent of the children in the school were reading on or above grade level. When so many children are not keeping pace in reading skills (which are so critical to subsequent school performance), something is terribly wrong; it is wrong whether the principal is white or black, whether there is local control or central control. If there is to be any progress made in identifying successful educational strategies, there will have to be ongoing, unbiased examination of all the various reform possibilities.

I agree with Mr. Rosentraub that neither centralization nor decentralization can solve all the problems of the school system. He perhaps knows that the New York City schools, since 1805, have been alternately centralized, community controlled, centralized, and now decentralized; at no point in this history was it ever said that the public schools kept pace with their problems. There can be great virtue in organizational shakeup. Following centralization in 1896, there was a burst of reform energy in the schools; hopefully even greater progressive change will be unleashed as a consequence of the current reorganization and decentralization of the schools. Ideally, new channels of change will open up as districts compete to improve their educational systems. But the proper functioning of decentralization depends to a large extent on high public interest and involvement. School people have always tended to be defensive about criticism, but criticism and demands for improvement continue to be necessary and healthy.

In response to Betsy Levin, I believe that she is jumping to her conclusions, not mine. My article was not intended to be the final word on Ocean Hill-Brownsville or on community control, but rather an attempt to review a number of lavish overstatements and misstatements which received wide and uncritical circulation; some of those “unverified claims of success,” which Miss Levin excuses because they were made “during the heat of battle,” have found their way into hard-cover bindings, with no suggestion whatsoever that these claims are unverified and, what is more, untrue.

I agree with her that it is exceedingly difficult to judge an educational endeavor in the space of three years (though I notice Misss Levin is not disturbed by those who have reached positive judgments on the basis of the same limited three-year period). However, one of the claims that the article examined was the assertion that the district’s greatest educational progress occurred during the strike period. District officials did not say that external conditions impaired teaching and learning (though obviously they did); they claimed the opposite, and around those claims a myth began to grow.

It certainly would have been preferable not to rely on 1971 reading scores, since the district was terminated in 1970. I wish the district had tested its progress in 1968, 1969, and 1970. I wish the district had used some of its state and federal funds to devise a valid reading test or some other objective measure of educational progress. But it didn’t, nor did it make any reports to the central Board of Education, not even attendance reports. I had hoped that the educational reform movement was developing a refined concept of accountability, accountability to children, to parents, and to the public; I don’t think anyone who cares about public education can condone administrative secrecy and news management.

I urge Miss Levin to read Naomi Levine and Richard Cohen’s excellent book, Schools in Crisis, which shows clearly that the conflict and confrontation in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville district was the result of conscious decisions of the Governing Board in their desire to wrest “total community control” from the Board of Education. Their efforts to secede from the city school system (aptly described in Mr. Rosentraub’s letter as “decisions for politics rather than education”) brought their schools under a state of siege and unquestionably damaged the education of the district’s children. Surely it is of some value to reexamine the frequently made statement that minority children learn best when their schools are enveloped in political controversy.

As I read Mr. Isaacs’s letter, I wondered whether the parents in Ocean Hill-Brownsville were aware of the definition of education that Mr. Isaacs uses. When people voted for a Governing Board, did they know that they were choosing schools where education would be defined as “singing the Black National Anthem”? If parents are indifferent to reading scores, why then did Rhody McCoy send out notices which claimed dramatic improvements in reading scores? Where I disagree most with Mr. Isaacs is that I believe that parents have a right to know how their schools are doing by some objective measure. How can parents evaluate the schools when school officials totally control the flow of information? The definition of accountability ought to include a willingness to be judged and a commitment to full disclosure about pupil performance.

In the new book, On Equality of Educational Opportunity, John Gilbert and Frederick Mosteller set forth a new concept of the role of the administrator of experimental programs: “Their careers should not depend upon the success or failure of a particular program but rather upon their skill in exploring the virtues and shortcomings of the program.” This is not what happened in New York City’s demonstration districts, and consequently the city learned less than it should have from the experience. There are advantages and disadvantages to every form of school government; lines of adaptation and experimentation should never be foreclosed by ideological commitments. Helping a child to discover his self-worth and teaching him to read should never be mutually exclusive goals.

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