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, Julius Hobson’s federal suit against the school system was heard before Judge J. Skelly Wright, the architect of desegregation in New Orleans. In June 1967, on the day before Passow’s preliminary findings were released, Judge Wright handed down his ruling—and thoroughly upstaged the Report. Judge Wright found that the Superintendent and the Board “unconstitutionally deprive the District’s Negro and poor public school children of their right to equal educational opportunity with the District’s white and more affluent public school children.” He attacked segregation of students and faculty, unequal distribution of funds among predominantly white and black schools, and the “track” system. Tracking, said Wright, condemned black and poor children, on the basis of inappropriate aptitude tests, to a “blue collar” education in lower tracks distinctly unequal to that provided white children in upper tracks. Many Negro schools had no honors track and few white schools had the “basic,” or lowest, track. Wright ordered an end to tracking, decreed that children be transferred to relieve overcrowding and to achieve maximum desegregation, and asked the schools to prepare a plan for integrating their faculties and instituting equal services to Negro and white students. Hansen, faced with a sharp judicial condemnation of his regime and forbidden by the Board to appeal in his capacity as Superintendent, resigned; Congressmen talked about providing for election of the School Board instead of having it appointed by the federal District Court judges. It appeared that a new educational day might be dawning in Washington, what with the force of the Wright decision, the possibility of local democracy, and the details and proposals of the Passow Report.

As Judge Wright’s decision delighted the militants who had brought suit, so the Passow Report has pleased its liberal sponsors. Its pages, however unreadable for the most part, honestly document enormous failure at all levels by all participants in the system. Thirty-three task force chairmen and a staff of more than a hundred reported to Passow their observations of the schools and the communities around them, the administrative offices, even their interviews with Congressional committeemen. With professional shrewdness, they examined the administrative hierarchy, the curriculum, books and equipment, population shifts, attendance, teachers’ education and background, and more besides. The endlessly detailed Report, probably put together too hastily by Passow, is a disorganized compendium of all findings: the divisions are arbitrary and everything is given equal importance; there is no real direction—only a hope that Washington will become a model to the nation.


But from the mass of statistics, surveys, and observations, two images emerge. First, an image of administrative quagmire: the system is an irrational accretion of conflicting provinces and traditional loyalties, too understaffed in most areas to do a job well, yet too large to be responsive to classroom needs. Passow charts the breakdown of communication between lower echelons and policy-makers: principals, for example, are almost never consulted about staff appointments to their schools, nor teachers about curriculum materials and aids they need in class. On the other hand, curriculum policy is handed down in bare outline and without real guidance for teachers, with the result that they generally offer to students the shell of a program: reading, for instance, is taught as if it were a matter of breaking some mysterious code, rather than as a useful tool for gaining understanding and enjoyment; and unused and misunderstood science and mathematics equipment lines the bookshelves.

Beyond the bureaucracy’s bungling—indeed, seemingly remote from it—one sees a second image, that of students who are not learning. Passow’s statistics bear out what everyone already knew from experience: that segregated Negro children in Washington, as in every city, perform abysmally by all “achievement” measures. Of eleven high schools in the District that Passow examined, one is 93 percent white, another 60 percent black, the rest between 84 percent and 100 percent black. Test scores for the white school show its students performing among the top 10 percent in the country. Scores in the predominantly black schools are generally in the lowest third, with the integrated school always ahead of the segregated ones; and in math, mostly in the lowest tenth. Achievement tests are, indeed, misleading in many respects, organized so that middle-class students will normally do better; but the fact remains that most of the students in the nation’s capital do not perform in reading, writing, and arithmetic at anything close to national norms, grade levels, or any standards that can get them good jobs. A third cannot really read well enough to pass civil service examinations. As a result, Passow tells us, private employers in the District and federal personnel officials accuse one another of having skimmed the cream of the high school graduates. Meanwhile, knowing how dull and useless school is for them, between 40 and 50 percent of the students drop out.

The reaction of these dropouts is probably healthy and appropriate. Passow’s analysis of administrative breakdown, of an inept curriculum and low morale, would, no doubt, be enough, were the Washington schools guilty merely of failing to teach skills or encourage curiosity, adventure, enthusiasm, pride. But in fact occasionally the impression is of a school system only too successful. “Children in the elementary schools visited by this task force,” says the Report, “were having abundant opportunities to overlearn passive conformity.” Students who drop out may well be rejecting not only the failure of the schools to teach them skills; they may be rejecting what the schools do teach. The Report is worth quoting in this regard, though it is as well to note that these quotations appear only in the sections describing instruction in the elementary schools and in English.

When the teacher has all the ideas, gives all the directions, handles all the materials, and admonishes the children to sit still and not talk—if they do not rebel or withdraw completely—most children respond with an unquestioning acceptance of the teacher’s rulings on all matters. For instance, “a child was not allowed to color his Hallowe’en pumpkin green, even though the teacher had just read a poem referring to the green of a pumpkin when it was small.”

The child spent most of his day paying the closest possible attention to his teacher, following her directions, responding to her questions, and obeying her rules. The children were not encouraged to talk to one another, either formally or informally—indeed, the principal technical criticism the observers had of the language program was that it did not seem to deal with speech. And the sad fact is that in spite of all this, the children don’t really learn to read….

The children sang when instructed to do so, chorused responses when given recognized signals, and worked on written assignments, copying exercises from the chalkboard. The children spent most of the day writing at their desks, rarely speaking except in chorus. No one argued, disagreed, or questioned anything. At no time when I was in the room did any child ask a question.

It is entirely in keeping with the elementary program just described that almost every Negro boy in Washington’s high schools must participate in a “cadet corps” whose first objective is “to inculcate habits of orderliness and precision, to instill discipline and thereby respect for constituted authority….” It is no accident that in high schools with large white enrollments the voluntary nature of the cadet program is explained to students—and a quarter or fewer of the students join—while five of the predominantly black high schools have 100 percent enrollment. Only a rare statistic like this one, or an occasional comment catches the inner character of the Washington school system: “The teachers act as if warmth and sensitivity to individual feelings were somehow in conflict with the intellectual purposes of school instruction.” What is taught in a school, after all, cannot be fully expressed in administrative or even academic language. It is conveyed by the nature and atmosphere of its classrooms, the attitudes of teachers and students toward one another and toward learning. Washington’s school system ignores the lives of its students, offers them an irrelevant curriculum, emphasizes correcting their speech, appearance, habits, personalities, from kindergarten on, works mostly by close-order drill, permits students to spend more time on cadet corps than on English or math, guards instructional materials from student use. It is a system that treats “the child as a ‘piece of children’ rather than as an individual human being.” It teaches him that he is unimportant, stupid, dirty; it teaches him to despair and hate; it teaches him to quit. It does not teach him to function with intelligence and power.


Why is this so? How has Passow explained the fact that Washington’s schools have become instruments for pacifying and degrading students rather than inspiring and educating them? Since Washington (with 91 percent or more of its 150,000 schoolchildren black and more than 50 percent of them poor) is only a more advanced and obvious case of urban education, a diagnosis of its disease can serve, with minor modifications, for Chicago or Gary or Los Angeles.

Passow finds every part of the system contributing to the confusion and degeneration of the schools, but he emphasizes first the responsibility of the administrators and the Board, then the inadequate preparation of teachers. He charts the almost total lack of articulation among parts of the system. Parents cannot find anyone to respond to their complaints, administrators are forever involved in petty details instead of leadership, experimental and research projects come and go without much relation to the system and with indifferent support and less evaluation, and teachers are left prey to their fears for their safety and advancement, and without a sense of freedom to follow their own best instincts should they ever feel the inclination to do so.

They seldom do, Passow suggests. Most Washington teachers—78 percent of whom are Negroes and 80 percent women—have been poorly trained in the District or in similarly weak, segregated systems. For the most part they know only the “say and listen” method and they do what has been done to them. Trained as passive students in authoritarian classrooms, they are really more comfortable in them. An open classroom with active, inquisitive youngsters is worrisome. Unanswerable questions might be asked; a teacher might be “wrong,” get out of her depth, be embarrassed. Noise might attract the unfavorable eye of principal or supervisor. Better to establish uniform control, set the dimensions of the class at the limits of one’s own knowledge and personality. Then nothing unknown or threatening can come up—except, of course, “unruly” children, who can be sent to the principal. Besides, whole-group instruction, which is what Hansen’s instructional program mostly called for, demands total control, or so the teachers believe. Thus, as a product of a repressive system, Passow makes clear, the typical Washington teacher has internalized its main value—control—and elevated it into an educational idol.

There are further problems of race, status, and attitudes toward students that Passow does not sufficiently examine. His questionnaires on teachers’ attitudes do not probe far and their interpretation is disputable. For instance, Passow finds that Washington teachers score high on an “assurance” scale and are not notably “authoritarian,” but he fails to account for their admitted hostility to experiments which upset the routine or the authoritarian character of their classrooms. Again, among a list of “factors which interfere with teaching and learning” presented for teachers’ reaction, Passow includes only two—class size and faculty turnover—that concern the character of the school and classroom or the teachers themselves. Predictably, most teachers blame parental indifference or students’ recalcitrance and poor training. Depending on the grade they teach, 34-41 percent of the teachers cite low level of student intelligence as a factor—one wonders how many more believe that but will not admit it; 50-72 percent cite poor student training in basic skills. Passow’s conclusion, that “teacher evaluations of the quality of education seemed to be an assessment of school offerings and practices, not of the educational potential of the children,” seems, therefore, a bit simple. Indeed, Passow’s view of the instructional program, as well as our own experience in Washington, suggests that teachers’ views of their students and themselves are both more ambiguous and more central to the problem than Passow allows.

During the summer, in a pre-service institute with a group of Washington teachers theoretically committed to participating in an experimental program, a dispute about hair revealed a great deal about the teachers’ self-images and their attitudes toward being Negroes. A film had shown a little Negro girl stroking the long, straight hair of her white teacher. “Why,” a staff member, a Negro woman from Detroit, asked, “hadn’t the teacher reciprocated? Why didn’t she make the child feel that she was beautiful, too?” After a certain amount of hedging, a Negro teacher said, “But how could she reciprocate? She couldn’t say the child’s hair was beautiful—it isn’t. It’s all kinky and nappy, bad hair.” When the term began, the same teacher was one of the first to insist that experminents were all right for suburban children—but “these children” needed something different, discipline, control, a tight hand. Thus it is not surprising that D.C. teachers, Negro and white, while favorable, in one Passow survey, toward Peace Corps volunteers, college professors, Jews, and even Negroes (could they have anticipated, with long classroom skill, what was expected of them?), are coolest toward John Birchers, Communists, the Ku Klux Klan, and Black Power. The fact of the matter is that most teachers are of low social and economic origins, barely “escaped,” as some perceive it, from the ghetto. They have ambivalent, often strongly hostile, feelings toward the ghetto children they teach; and the system, with its tracks, its decrepit schools, its lack of suitable and plentiful material, confirms their low expectations of the students, and, in effect, gives them a mechanism for acting out their hostility without ever being aware of it.

A THIRD PARTY responsible for conditions in the Washington schools, Passow mildly suggests, is Congress, which has been unwilling to provide adequate funds, especially for new construction. Passow accepts the universal groan about the District’s peculiarly tedious budgetary process: School Board requests are first cut by the D.C. government, then by Congressional committees. But the fact is that Congress functions not very differently from local white power structures in other cities. For political and racial reasons, the Congress (through the conservative House and Senate District Committees) continues to insist on controlling the D.C. school budget, althrough it contributes only 15 percent of the District’s funds. (Passow says that 25 percent is a reasonable minimum contribution). Budgetary control permits Congress to make political and educational policy for the schools, as Senator Byrd recently made clear when he forbade the use of regular school funds for “bussing”—though the “bussing” complies with Judge Wright’s orders to relieve overcrowding and promote further desegregation. Moreover, budgetary control has permitted Congress, acting the role of absentee landlord, to reduce steadily the percentage of Board of Education requests granted. In the past thirteen years, Congress has cut almost $150 million from requests. Similarly, though Washington enjoys a relatively strong real property tax base, it shields property owners through sharply declining assessment ratios and low tax levels, while its sales tax, even on food, falls disproportionately on the poor, whose children are thus doubly robbed. As a result, over the last ten years Washington’s per pupil expenditure has risen only 63 percent, as compared with a national average of 81 percent—and this despite the increasing desperation of school problems in the District.

Passow is remarkably restrained in his comments about Congressional responsibility for the degeneration of the District’s schools. His strategy is not to harp on past failures, but to hold out a vision of Washington as “the nation’s laboratory for the creation of a model for urban school systems and its showplace to other countries of how America’s goals and values for equal opportunity can be attained in the metropolitan setting.” As an educational and administrative reformer, Passow provides a compendium of currently acceptable ideas for improving urban education—ranging from total administrative reorganization to new ambitious programs, like regular classes for four- and some three-year-olds. Most useful are his ideas about the re-education of teachers. Passow suggests that teachers should spend between 15 and 20 percent of their regular working day in “continuing education” if such study is to be really useful and not simply a sporadic activity, motivated primarily by desire for higher wages. He recommends establishing with the help of universities, Staff Development Centers for teacher education and curriculum development. He would have the curriculum developed flexibly—by teachers, principals, specialists—working together in an individual school building. He understands that teachers need support, encouragement, and the chance to grow—even as their students do: “Only as teachers come to believe in themselves and in the children they teach, and are provided with the assistance in diagnosing and planning required for individualizing instruction, can the education program advance.” It is a fine sentiment, but the record Passow provides of past studies ignored, present plans undermined, as well as the magnitude of the changes he recommends, suggests that his vision is suspended somewhere in political limbo.

Any proposal to change urban education must contend with problems fundamentally political rather than educational. The failure of integration, acknowledged in Passow’s scant twelve pages on the subject, is a case in point. Only thirteen years ago, integration was seen both as an educational goal and a political strategy, but urban schools today are more thoroughly segregated than they were in 1954. There is, as Passow points out, no greater proportion of Negroes in the Washington area than there was 100 years ago, and thus no greater population barrier to integration. Certainly we know how to integrate the schools: feasible plans already exist for educational parks, “bussing,” pairing of schools, reorganizing school district lines; and we know the further changes in metropolitan planning, housing, governmental structures, and so forth, needed to develop integrated communities. But as Passow says.

none of this is likely to happen—indeed all of it is certain not to happen—until Marylanders, Virginians, Washingtonians, and Americans are convinced that their interests will be better served by making the national capital area a well-integrated metropolitan community than by keeping it the white encircled black ghetto that it is now.

Precisely: white Americans do not consider it in their interest to invest heavily in integration. It is not merely a question of money; it is also a matter of pledging white children to such integration. Thus, however reasonable its educational goals (The Coleman Report has shown, for example, that Negro students perform better in comfortably integrated schools), however essential its social goals (in a multi-racial society, separate education can only perpetuate racism), as a political strategy, integration now appeals neither to reformers and liberals like Passow nor to black militants who have waited for it too long and in vain.

With integration sidetracked, the political questions then become: first, will white Americans pay the costs of the “unequal” education needed to provide equal opportunity to black children, and then, what kind of education will such “compensation” be? The cost of reconstructing urban school systems—which is what Passow is asking Washington to do—will approach, if it does not exceed, the cost of constructing almost wholly new integrated systems. To cut class size from forty to ten, to build new classrooms, to re-educate teachers, to provide special services (medical, social, academic) for students, and new books and materials will cost at least five times the present national per pupil cost, probably as much as $180 billion for the next ten years. Where is the political power to pry that kind of money loose from the Congress—or, for that matter, from any source for any urban system? Who is to guarantee, moreover, that such programs will not, like present Title I dollars from the Office of Education, become a kind of rivers and harbors bill, with each part of the educational establishment getting its bit to continue doing what it has been persistently failing at all these years? But again, money is not the only issue: black militants and others are questioning the credibility of “compensatory” education, at least in the hands of those currently in power.

The controlling idea of “compensatory” education is that black and poor children are “culturally deprived” by their immediate family and slum environment. Hence what they need is an extra dose of what middle-class children get. Educators locate the problem in the child himself and ask how the child can be changed to fit the schools’ definition of achievement, instead of asking how the schools must change to serve the child. Thus Head Start must be used to “prepare” the children of the poor for obedience and cleanliness in kindergarten. The idea of school as a “civilizing” or socializing agent is not in itself necessarily objectionable; rather it is that no matter how carefully one defines “deprivation,” its connotations include, as Dan Dodson of NYU’s School of Education has suggested, the latest version of notions about original sin and natural inferiority. Where then, militants ask, is the evidence that “compensatory” programs won’t become a more elaborate way of pushing kids around, straitjacketing them to fit the system—all in the name of “saving” them from the damnation of deprived (read inferior) backgrounds?

The political reality that Passow does not see is expressed in the indignation of Judge Wright: “The Washington school system is a monument to the cynicism of the power structure which governs the voteless Capital of the greatest country on earth.” Such monuments to cynicism exist, like giant Victorian prisons, in every city of this land. Public education, once a means for integrating and elevating American society, has become a source and carrier of the society’s pathology, its teachers and administrators virtually unconscious of their own illness. The Superintendent of one of the largest school systems remarked casually to us a few months ago that it will be years before people regain confidence in the schools. In the meantime, students and dropouts educated to carry packages, or guns, hang on street corners, waiting to turn the fires in themselves against the cities. Why then, the current desperation urges, trust the school system at all? Why not tear those prisons down, break the system’s monopoly?

Passow’s firm commitment to public education—his belief that it can, with help, cure itself—is what separates his recommendations, finally, from those more recently proposed by Kenneth Clark, James S. Coleman, and McGeorge Bundy. Though there are differences among them, the three are united in their skepticism about the system’s ability to change. Coleman’s idea—already under study by the US Commissioner of Education—is that schools contract the teaching of basic skills to entrepreneurs like IBM and the General Learning Corporation, who would be paid on the basis of results—measured according to standard “achievement” in reading and arithmetic. Kenneth Clark, seeing public education as captive of a white middle class intent on retaining its own power and privilege, suggests the establishment of separate schools to compete with the urban systems. These might be run by states or the federal government, by colleges, industry, labor unions, or the army. Unlike Clark and Coleman, who propose goading the system with new, competing institutions (or allowing it to wither away), Bundy and other proponents of “decentralization” would break the system by diffusing its authority, especially among parents elected to local school boards which would serve limited school populations. Fred Hechinger of The New York Times analyzes Bundy’s proposal as “an effort at both radical change and pacification of a strife-torn city…It aims…to put an end to the feeling, now prevalent in the ghetto, that many of the district superintendents…are colonizers sent ‘down’ by the outside power structure [and] to defuse the present guerilla warfare by giving elected parents—and only parents, not outside agitators—the kind of power and responsibilities normally enjoyed by suburban school board members.” Whatever their dangers, such proposals* respond to the distrust of urban systems and appeal to the interests of potentially powerful groups: the growing “welfare-industrial complex,” ghetto parents and black militants, and the politicians and foundations anxious to provide the latter with “creative” channels for their anger. If they are bound to meet opposition from the educational bureauracy, and teachers groups, among other powerful forces, these ideas still have built-in political clout, which Passow’s recommendations generally lack.

Passow, repeating again and again that Washington should and must become a model system, has only his moral fervor and an appeal to conscience to energize his plans. Given his loyalty to the system, the eclectic character of his suggestions, and his air of agreeing with all critics, even his proposal for some form of administrative decentralization has little political bite. Passow recommends dividing the system into six or eight Community School Districts of perhaps 20,000 students. Each would have a locally elected school board which would choose a District Superintendent from a centrally approved list. Within the rules established by the central D.C. Board, the local boards would establish or consult on curriculum, personnel, and budget—though it remains unclear how they might do this and what power they would really have. Bundy’s proposals are not essentially different. But it is a measure of the political gulf between New York and Washington that his have received much attention, fierce attack, and some significant support, whereas Passow’s, like most of the Report, have been received with little fervor, especially in the ghetto. This is not, finally, so much a consequence of his ideas, but of the Washington Judge Wright so bitterly described. At a recent conference held by Passow for college, school, and community representatives, 80 percent of those present were white. Most “community representatives”—that is, Negroes—had not bothered to attend. As one Negro who did come explained, “they don’t believe much is going to happen.” In New York, where there have been demonstration and other successful actions by parents against the school system, decentralization is a live issue, perhaps because it offers a means to politically activate the ghetto. In Washington, the largely quiescent Negro community has been promised so much so often and disappointed so persistently that it views any set of proposals with suspicion if not contempt. The attitude toward the Passow Report ranges between “tell me when they really change anything” and “that’s another quarter of a million dollars Whitey has spent on himself and not on our kids.”

If adopted, the decentralization Passow suggests may help to awaken the political consciousness of Washington, whether or not Congress decides to provide for the election of a city-wide Board. That proposal has verbal support from nearly everyone in Washington, and probably will be enacted during the coming year. But the lack of any sense of urgency is reflected by the fact that it is now stalled in the Senate because of a trivial political hassle as to whether elections should be held in the spring or fall. In any case, an awakened consciousness is only one step toward meaningful education for the children of Washington. One often forgotten correlation of the Coleman Report suggests that students do better when they sense that the school is relevant and responsive to them, that it is in some sense theirs, that, in short, they have power in it—even, if they will, Black Power. There is a lesson to be learned from that correlation, a lesson proved every day by the banality and intellectual brutality of suburban education: only so long as schools honestly serve the interests of the students can they succeed. Whether schools are responsive to Boards, administrators, teachers, or parents will not finally insure that they are responsive to children. And while they are instruments to pacify or control children, to produce manpower or package-carriers, they will continue to fail.

This Issue

February 1, 1968