An Analysis of Public Affairs and Politics

By Walter C. Farrell, Jr., Ph.D., Professor, UWM
James H. Johnson, Jr., Ph.D., Professor, UNC
Cloyzelle K. Jones, Ed.D., Professor, UMD

Ed. Note: Written in the early 1990s, “The Farrell Report” conclusions prove right on.

Urban superintendents of color and educational reform

More than a decade ago, we conducted an exploratory survey of inner-city low-income African American parents in the central city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  Our objective was to determine their most pressing educational concerns. They identified the acquisition of basic skills (reading, writing, and numerical competence), the employment of teachers sensitive to Black student needs, fair discipline policies, and an opportunity for their participation in school governance as the moat urgent educational needs of their children.

Since that period, numerous urban superintendents have been employed to address these concerns in large urban school districts throughout the nation, and most have been of color (African American or Hispanic). They were hired with the understanding and expectation that their racial and/or ethnic background would give them an added advantage in framing effective educational initiatives for students in their charge, increasing numbers of whom are poor and of color.

Miserable Failures

Yet, the last generation of these multi-racial and multi-cultural urban superintendents failed miserably at the task. Any cursory assessments of their achievements will show that academic outcomes, teacher sensitivity to students of color, and parent satisfaction remain on a downward spiral. Thus, since 1991, superintendents have been forced out, or have resigned under pressure. In a number of urban school districts, including Milwaukee, Chicago, Atlanta, Washington. D.C., and most recently Detroit, the distinguished social psychologist, Kenneth B. Clark, concluded that “it was a shame that so many African American administrators were In charge of predominantly Black school districts and were doing nothing with them.”

In response to their predecessors’ failures, the newest cohort of urban superintendents is beginning to pursue a different educational strategy. Under the guise of innovation, they are seemingly divesting themselves of “problem schools and problem students of color by passing them onto private sector contractors.”

Previously heralded multicultural, Afrocentric, and attractive school initiatives are taking a back seat to the push for the hiring of private, for-profit companies to deliver educational services. This innovation is being advocated by urban superintendents and/or school boards, depending on the level of failure in their school systems. It Is underway in Baltimore and Minneapolis, and it is being explored In Washington, D.C. and Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

In all instances, the schools (or school system In the case of Minneapolis) targeted for this newest educational idea are overwhelmingly populated by poor students of color. Parents, to date, have registered minimal opposition because they are being told by superintendents “who look like them’ that this innovation will be good for their children. Inner city parents, who are desperate for educational change, generally acquiesce to their racial role models who have ascended to office as a result of parent and community advocacy.

Giving Up Leadership

However, Black professionals, parents, and others of color have had only limited, if any, input Into the policy, design, and implementation processes of these for-profit educational companies. In an ironic twist, then, urban superintendents of color are discharging their educational leadership responsibilities and the hopes and aspirations of their core constituency - inner-city parents of color - to majority educators/business persons.  In other words, after decades of efforts by Black community activists to wrest control of urban school systems from Whites In the first place, “superintendents of color are passing the buck back to the man (or woman).”

The two biggest operatives in the for-profit educational arena - the Edison Project, a subsidiary of Whittle Communications of Nashville, Tennessee, and Educational Alternatives, Inc. of Minneapolis, Minnesota - are headed by White males who have had limited experience and/or success in educating children of color of any economic status. Although the former Detroit Public Schools superintendent, who recently resigned, has been brought on board by the Edison Project, she had no input into setting the corporate direction. Likewise, Educational Alternatives, Inc., also has employed former Black school teachers and administrators to do liaison work on its behalf with urban districts as most of the superintendents and board members in these systems, who have to be lobbied for contracts, are Black.

“Though public sector educators are not achieving the results that their constituents would like, there is currently no evidence available to suggest that for-profit educational companies will do any better or that they possess any special educational expertise in working with poor students of color. As already indicated, there are no long-term track records of educational success among these companies either as independent entities or in the collective experiences of their employees. Therefore, it would be appropriate to conclude that they will not be educational panaceas for inner-city children.

“The outcome of this initiative is far from certain, but it is bringing with it some very strange fruit so delightfully different, and yet so hauntingly familiar.”

Please Note: 1993 MPS School Board Director Leon Todd wrote that “… only curriculum reforms, or should I say curriculum re-reforms like back to the basics, can make a positive change, and maybe class size or intact nuclear families will help too.  Most all other reforms have a hidden political agenda from the get go.” 

Dr. Farrell is Professor of Educational Policy and Community Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) where he also serves on the graduate faculty In Urban Studies; Dr. Johnson is E. Maynard Adams Professor of Geography. Sociology, and the Kenan Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC); and Or. Jones is Professor of Education at the University of Michigan at Dearborn (UMD) and president of the National Urban Education Association

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Last edited by Tyler Schuster.   Page last modified on July 26, 2014

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