Commentary Magazine

Learning & the Schools

To the Editor:

The sleeper in David K. Cohen’s article [“The Price of Community Control,” July] is his phrase, “The obvious defect of presuming that schools have an impact on student’s achievement, when most evidence on this point tends in the opposite direction.” And I have heard David Cohen say, speaking to the Northeast States Boards of Education, that all the data since 1925 indicate little, if any, correlation between what the schools have pretended and what they have performed. In his article he makes nothing of this astounding fact. Yet is it possible that there can be any solution for the problem of how to run the schools when the institution of mass schooling might itself be otiose? You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. How long will it be before the Americans, both affluent and poor, realize that they are deluded about the value of schooling, and spend their money in other ways to help children grow up?

I will answer the question. In the present youth unrest, both affluent and poor, a number of schools will be burned down, in neighborhoods both affluent and poor. Taxpayers will finally revolt against paying for such activities and will cut back on the school funds’—this is already happening in the rejection of new bond issues. (I am not exactly advocating any of this, just saying.) There will be many youths on the streets and it will be necessary to provide some non-scholastic way to induct them into society.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to go about this before the emergency arises, as I have been urging for many years?

Paul Goodman
North Stratford, New Hampshire



To the Editor:

Certainly Professor David K. Cohen is correct in pointing out the inadequacy of scale which has characterized programs of integration and compensatory education. It is also true that differences in the child’s general environment will normally have more effect on his achievement in school than will changes in school itself. I think, however, that this can be overemphasized. If differences in schools are confined to what may be considered the customary range, their effect may indeed be relatively small—though the research data from which the Coleman Report draws its conclusions are simply not adequate to support any conclusions. But major changes can produce major differences, for better or for worse. And even smaller changes do make a difference, though usually not a sufficiently striking one to impress those who observe from a distance.

I do not know of any analysis of the results of the More Effective Schools program which has concluded that it has not produced gains in achievement; taken as a whole, the test scores on uniform examinations give fairly conclusive evidence on this point. There have, however, been evaluations which have pointed out that these results were by no means universally achieved, and questions have been raised as to whether the results were worth the expenditure. On the first point, one can only note that no educational technique is infallible; a failure to make proper use of the resources supplied can frustrate the best program. The second question is always a legitimate one; the answer can only be given in terms of the alternatives available. The More Effective Schools program is not the answer, but an answer; as long as answers do exist, even if they are expensive, a purely negative approach to the role of the schools cannot be justified. Indeed, if “differences in achievement . . . are relatively insensitive to anything about schools,” why have schools at all?

Professor Cohen is also right in pointing to the political difficulties involved in getting more money for the education of ghetto children. The difficulty is not a new one, and it is not confined to education. The political obstacles to improved ghetto education were also obstacles to the establishment of free schools, to the passage of child labor and compulsory education laws, and to countless other social reforms. They are today obstacles to adequate public housing, to civil rights legislation, to decent provisions for minimum wages and incomes. But they have never been, and are not today, insuperable obstacles. Although pressure from the groups benefiting from such legislation has usually been an important factor in securing it, these groups have never been able to win such gains by themselves. Progress has always been possible, and is today possible, only because a large section of the population is susceptible to moral and intellectual arguments going beyond its immediate interests. The operation of such considerations is often discouragingly slow. But any strategy which discounts it is doomed to defeat.

Maurice J. Goldbloom
New York City



To the Editor:

David Cohen is guilty of the same error he attributes to those who have dismissed integration and/or compensatory education for having failed to raise the level of educational achievement of pupils in ghetto schools. Cohen correctly points out that since most communities have never attempted to integrate their schools, it cannot be said that integration has failed. Similarly, compensatory education has never really been instituted in the majority of communities. . . . Cohen then turns to the more recent educational concept of community control and, basing his findings on an analysis of data in the Coleman Report and on the recent New York City experience, he dismisses the notion of community control as an approach to educational achievement.

An analysis of the Coleman data, according to Cohen, “fails to reveal any association between the level of parental participation and achievement,” but Cohen has neglected to provide us with his definition of “parental participation.” It is apparent that to most advocates of community control “parental participation” means something quite different from PTA attendance, the indicator the Coleman Report uses. . . .

Meaningful parental involvement in the ghetto child’s education may mean having parent representatives on the local school board who not only have policymaking power but also are able to keep open the lines of communication with the parents whom they represent; it may mean instituting a program using community liaison workers to bridge the gap between school and parent; it may mean the creative educational use of paraprofessionals drawn from the community; it may mean merely increased contact between the individual parent and his child’s teachers, and lessening of the feeling of alienation between parent and school. Ocean Hill-Brownsville has employed all of these strategies, at the direction of parents both in the community at large and on the governing board. It is safe to say that none of these strategies could or would have been attempted had Ocean Hill remained within the existing system. Whatever meaningful participation by ghetto parents may mean, it clearly does not mean membership in the PTA. What we need are new strategies of parental involvement, and new definitions and measures of parent participation. Until these are developed, tried, and evaluated, however, parent participation as a mechanism for affecting pupil achievement cannot be dismissed.

One additional point relating to the Coleman Report data: since a large proportion of the big cities did not respond to the survey, one should note that conclusions based on the Coleman data may not be relevant to the larger cities where community control may be most important.

Having dismissed parental participation as unrelated to educational achievement, Cohen next dismisses the notion that eliminating racist teachers would have any impact on achievement, on the ground that achievement differences are solely related to factors having to do with social class. Admittedly, as Alan Campbell, Dean of the Maxwell Graduate School, has pointed out, the bulk of existing research shows that “the single best predictor of student performance is the socioeconomic characteristics of the student’s family.” But should not the educational system . . . take account of the child who is educationally disadvantaged when he first enters the public school, and make efforts to remedy the situation? Cohen states that the differences in achievement are “of roughly the same magnitude at grade 6 or 9 as they are at the time the children enter school, and are relatively insensitive to variation in anything about schools” (italics in original). But the Coleman Report shows that as pupils get to higher grades their deficiencies in achievement become progressively greater. The educational system cannot be ruled out as at least partly responsible for widening the disparities in ability and achievement, and it seems clear that the “racist” attitudes of teachers (or their negative academic expectations of their pupils) are a significant factor in this.

Since Cohen refers repeatedly to the New York experience (which was primarily an exercise in frustration, not community control), I should like to point out that there are indications that in both the I.S. 201 and Ocean Hill-Brownsville experimental districts the combination of more meaningful parental involvement and a more concerned school staff—together with whatever impact upon sense-of-self the students may have gained from their identification with black supervisory personnel as well as with their parents’ political efficacy—has been effective: student interest has markedly increased, student behavior has improved, vandalism has decreased, and attendance has improved. . . Whether the improvement of the climate for learning and the lessening of the feeling that the school was isolated from the community would have led to improvements in educational performance we will never know: the New York City projects were stopped almost before they got started.

Community control is an as-yet untried attempt to get ghetto schools (which cannot be wished away) to be more responsive to the needs of the children they are supposed to be serving. It may not be the answer, but it appears to be a better one than we’ve had for a long time. Community control may turn out to be as politically unattainable as integration and compensatory education were, but it cannot be dismissed as having no educational impact until it has been tried.

Betsy Levin
The Urban Institute
Washington, D.C.



To the Editor:

. . . Judging from the last section of his article, Professor Cohen’s main point seems to be that improving the education of Negro children can best be achieved through raising the socioeconomic status of their parents rather than in trying to better their schooling. At least three comments are in order with respect to this conclusion.

First . . . if it is at all permissible to speak of a goal common to the Negro community in the United States it would be the achievement of equality with the predominant Caucasian community—and this means equal socioeconomic status. Were it seriously believed that this goal could be achieved independently of a person’s education, then the problem of the poorer disparate education of Negro children with respect to Caucasian children would greatly recede in importance. The issue of disparate education arose precisely because everyone involved, Negro and Caucasian alike, became convinced that education does play a very significant role in hindering the Negro community from achieving the equality it seeks. . . .

Second, Professor Cohen relies heavily on research data showing that the only factor which seems to have a consistent relation to improved achievement of Negro pupils is the socioeconomic status of their parents; the higher the status of the parents, the greater the achievement of the children as measured by achievement tests. But there is more to these data than reported upon in the article. To the best of my knowledge, which though not encyclopedic is reasonably comprehensive, whenever an attempt has been made to equate the socioeconomic status of Negro and Caucasian children, the achievement scores of the former are always noticeably lower than the achievement scores of the latter. Were one to treat the factor of socioeconomic status in isolation, and assume that it can be equated independently of educational achievement, it necessarily follows from these data—and these are the only ones available—that the achievement gap between Negroes and Caucasians would still remain.

Third, Professor Cohen asserts that his conclusion could be implemented if only society were willing to pay the cost, particularly, though not exclusively, in dollars. It has long been an unquestioned axiom that there are certain things that money cannot buy, and these include some of the things most dear to man. As a social scientist I find it very difficult to see how simply spending money will raise the socioeconomic status of the Negro community to the level of the Caucasian community, especially if the improvement of education is excluded a priori. In fact, no matter how I start out I am always forced back to the conclusion that the only area in which the investment of money bears any promise of significantly raising the socioeconomic status of the Negro community is that of schooling. And we are back to where we started from. Unfortunately, the needed changes in the education of the Negro child cannot, to use a phrase from Professor Cohen’s article, “be purchased cheaply with a bit of improved schooling.” Nor is the mere investment of money sufficient. The money has to be invested wisely. The failure of our efforts to improve the education of Negro children to date should be attributed more to the unwise usage of the money available than to any other single factor. . . .

Nehemiah Jordan
Institute for Defense Analyses
Arlington, Virginia



To the Editor:

. . . As an attorney who has sought the elusive goal of “equal educational opportunity” for black people both in the courts and through the administrative morass of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, I attest to the society’s congenital insensitivity when it comes to providing black children with an education sufficient to enable them to meet those standards of scholarship, conduct, and achievement which white society infers will alone overcome its propensity for racial bias.

Dr. Cohen correctly senses the significance but underestimates the difference between the efforts to achieve educational gains for black children through integration or compensatory education and the current demands by blacks for community control of their schools. Viewed as a solution in itself, there is, Dr. Cohen suggests, little in the concept of community control that justifies optimism. But seen as a vehicle through which blacks can utilize their awakened sense of themselves and their growing determination to obtain a share of the nation’s bounty by whatever means necessary (which is to say exactly the way whites got their share), then the true validity, appropriateness, and necessity of the community control movement becomes both apparent and irresistible.

The need for white support proved a fatal weakness of both the integration and compensatory-education efforts. Paradoxically, Dr. Cohen finds that neither the presence of white students nor large sums of money are the critical keys to educational achievement. Rather, he feels that social class . . . is the most reliable indicator of a student’s achievement potential. But blacks will be reluctant to accept these conclusions. On the one hand, the great mass of black people continues to occupy a fairly low rung on the “social-class” ladder. On the other hand, the standard fails to explain the ability of some individuals to achieve notwithstanding the handicap of lower-class origins. . . .

Derrick A. Bell, Jr.
Western Center on Law and Poverty
Los Angeles, California



[Mr. Cohen will reply to these letters, and to additional comments on his article, in October—Ed.]

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