The School Mess

Toward Creating a Model School System: A Study of the Washington, D.C. Public Schools

by A. Harry Passow. and Others
Teachers College, Columbia, 593 pp., $5.00

A white school administrator in the District of Columbia unwittingly provided a clue to the pathology of urban education. She was talking frankly about the “two language” problem of a school population that is 91 percent Negro. Yes, she agreed, Negro children speak a dialect whose consistency we ought, in some measure, to respect. “But then,” she said, warming to her subject, “there is the problem of getting jobs. For example, take the young man who goes to the store for a job. A lady comes out of the store with a package, and he goes up to her and says, ‘Lady, kin ah kerryer packsh furya?” Well, she isn’t quite sure what he has said, and his tone has put her off as well, and so she says, ‘No, thank you.’ And the boy doesn’t get the job.” The sight of black children educated to haul packages for ladies is a common and haunting one: you see them at Washington’s supermarkets any day in the week. Nothing so shapes the education these children are given as the ideas people hold about the purposes of that education.

No more extensive catalogue of the failure of urban education has been provided than a recent study of Washington, D.C.’s public schools. The Passow Report grew out of pressure from citizens’ groups in the District for a plan to change the faltering school system. The former Superintendent of Schools, Carl Hansen, was under considerable personal attack by some members of the school board and by civil rights groups; and, with the Board, he was the defendant in a federal suit, brought by a Negro, Julius Hobson, attacking discrimination against Negro children in general and, in particular, the “track system,” a rigid form of ability grouping instituted by the Superintendent. Hansen agreed to a study, at least in part it would seem, as a delaying tactic, and proposed for the job the National Education Association, a group often accused of being a company union since its huge membership includes school administrators as well as teachers. But liberal groups did not trust the notion of educators passing judgment on their local colleagues—the NEA’S national office is in Washington. Through the efforts primarily of the D.C. Citizens for Better Public Education, whose current chairman is Mrs. Gilbert A. Harrison, they sought out Columbia University’s Teachers College and, in June, 1966, helped to arrange a $250,000 contract for the year’s study.

Those forces working to reform the schools clearly wanted the prestige of Columbia and of “research findings” to substantiate the patent defects that everyone had long observed in the system. White parents had been fleeing Washington since World War II—only 55 percent of the children in Washington’s schools were white when school desegregation was ordered. Negro parents able to afford it had been sending their children to private schools in increasing numbers. It was only a matter of time before Washington’s schools “served” only those, black and poor, who could not escape them.

Meanwhile, however,…

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