The Destruction of Education and the Preservation of Inequity
By Barry Garelick
From the fall of 1964 through June 1967, I attended Mumford High School in Detroit. . (I wrote about it previously here: https://www.educationnews.org/commentaries/156298.html.) My brother and sister also attended Mumford and graduated in 1962 and 1958. As I write this, Mumford is in the process of being demolished. The demolition is part of the $500 million Detroit Public Schools Capital Improvement Program started in 2009. Because of a shrinking student population, the state is in the process of shutting down almost half the schools in Detroit. The school district is attempting to sell the shut down schools for redevelopment, an effort that has earned over $10 million since 2009.
But although Mumford is being destroyed, a new version of the high school has been built on what had been the original Mumford’s athletic field. The new school cost $52 million to build, secured by a bond issue in a city where almost half of its schools have been shut down. From the web page for the new Mumford, it is described as a “LEED Silver Certified state-of-the-art facility and will offer academic core areas, a high-tech media center, modern science laboratories, a courtyard student quad, and a community health clinic.” Mumford is one of 15 schools that has been taken out of the Detroit Public School system and assigned to Michigan’s Educational Achievement Authority–a statewide district set up for managing struggling schools. The new Mumford will open in the fall.
For those of us who grew up in a city that was at one time vibrant and had one of the best school systems in the country, it has been difficult to watch its decay. We have seen the closing and destruction of automobile plants, the magnificent J. L. Hudson’s Department Store building, Tiger Stadium, and other landmarks with no effort made to preserve even a fraction of their historical significance. But even sadder for me is to watch the destruction of my old high school, once one of the top schools in the city. It is one more icon, a school built in 1949 with distinctive blue tile and an art deco architecture, which with proper maintenance and care could well have lasted a few more decades.
It is fairly easy to dismiss the decline of education in Detroit on its failing economy and its accompanying social ills and even for some to make sweeping accusations about the low cognitive ability of Detroit’s student population. But the decline of education is not limited to Detroit. It has been happening across the U.S. for quite some time, although not as catastrophically as in Detroit. The vision of education in this country for many decades has been education and equity for all. In fact, the history of the equity problems and their solutions in the U.S. has its parallels in the history of education in Detroit. It is a story of how the fight to eliminate inequity in education has actually increased it.
The educational system in the U.S. has historically pitted many groups against each other— skin color was not the only determinant. Children from farms rather than from cities, and children of immigrants, for example, were often assumed to be inferior in cognitive ability and treated accordingly.
Mirel (1993) (an education professor at University of Michigan who has done much research in the history of the Detroit Public School system) points out that during the depression of the 30’s in Detroit as in the U.S as a whole, the push in education was to keep graduation rates steady and prevent drop outs. With the deficit of work, the thinking was that it was better to have young people in school than out with nothing to do. The general curriculum in Detroit at that time was experiencing a large number of failure rates. To keep the students off the streets, courses were made easier. “Descriptive” science courses were introduced in lieu of lab-based courses and focused on useful topics such as how vacuum cleaners worked. “Relevance” was the watchword just as “engagement” is now. Topics such as traffic safety were woven into classes such as civics, and schools offered courses in personal standards, focusing on topics such as diet, dress, etiquette and personal hygiene. Girls were offered courses on “Appearing to Advantage, “Homemaking”, “Use of Leisure Time” and “Bride and Trousseau”.
This pattern continued long past the depression, past World War II and into the 50’s and 60’s, during which time the influx of African Americans from the south into Detroit continued because of the well-paying factory jobs. Curricula in high schools had evolved into four different types: college-preparatory, vocational (e.g., plumbing, metal work, electrical, auto), trade-oriented (e.g., accounting, secretarial), and general. Students were tracked into the various curricula based on IQ and other standardized test scores as well as other criteria. By the mid-60’s, Mirel (1993) documents that most of the predominantly black high schools in Detroit had become “general track” institutions that consisted of watered down curricula and “needs based” courses that catered to student interests and life relevance. Social promotion had become the norm within the general track, in which the philosophy was to demand as little as possible of the students.
During the period of the 50’s and early 60’s, Mumford had been one of the premier high schools in Detroit, competing with Cass Tech—a magnet school in the downtown area that had admission requirements—for the academic achievements of its students. Mumford was located in northwest Detroit which was a mix of working class, middle and upper middle class neighborhoods. Though predominantly Jewish, the northwest section was also home to upper middle class African Americans who attended Mumford (Graham; 1999).
Northwest Detroit started to experience the phenomenon of white flight starting in the late fifties. The flight began in the twenties, starting in a more central area of Detroit—an area that would be the site of the riots to occur in the summer of 1967—that had also been predominantly Jewish in the 20’s through the 40’s. The flight’s trajectory continued and by the 60’s included northwest Detroit where I was living, and would continue to the suburbs. The demographic of Mumford was changing as well. According to Mirel (1993), 22 percent of black students were in the general track by 1967 with whites making up only 2 percent of the general track despite it being one of the most academically oriented high schools in the city.
After graduation, most boys who were in the general and vocation tracks in Detroit were drafted and sent to Viet Nam. Boys in the college prep track who went on to college, on the other hand, were given a draft deferment status which students in the general and vocational tracks did not receive. The role of the draft policies at the time of Viet Nam played no small part in contributing to the recognition of inequity between white and blacks. One key manifestation of the tension occurred in April of 1966 when the students of Northern High School—largely black at that time—staged a massive walkout in protest of the principal’s decision to ban an editorial in the school paper that protested the “inferior education” and lack of college prep courses at Northern. Northern had been a premier academic institution in the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s. With the influx of blacks into the high school, Northern had become a general track school.
The summer of 1967 brought the riots that ultimately escalated the white flight to the suburbs, and brought in its wake racial rifts from which some say Detroit has never recovered. In the years shortly following the riots, there were efforts to decentralize and desegregate schools—met with protest from the white communities that would be affected. A friend of mine attended Cooley High School (located a few miles away from Mumford). In 1968 he witnessed a race riot that occurred at the school in April of that year, shortly after Martin Luther King was assassinated. He described it as follows:
“It really was a travesty, particularly in that the kids fighting were the ones in tech programs, being streamed into Viet Nam. Cooley was half black, half white and a powder keg as long as I was there. I went back to visit a year after I graduated — the white exodus occurred and Cooley had become almost entirely black. Achievement was up, violence was down — it had transformed into a 50’s middle class school.”
My friend’s description is apt in a way that he may not have realized when he wrote it. To his eyes, achievement looked like it was on the rise as it did in many schools. Change had in fact come to Northern to address the protest of a few years back and it came to Cooley, Mumford and other predominantly black schools in Detroit. But the change came in the form of more “relevance”, focusing on black history, black culture, the arts, dance, and creative writing. The feeling was that the outlying suburban schools (where the whites had now fled) had a college prep curriculum that was “white-based” and did not reflect the needs, values or interests of the black community. As Mirel (1993) states, “it was a matter of community control—not curriculum reform.”
The reforms in the Detroit schools were consistent with reforms brought about across the U.S. during the 60’s and 70’s, by the prevalent radical critics of schools at that time. These reformers brought accusations of sadistic and racist teachers, said to be hostile to children and who lacked innovation in pedagogy. “Traditional” schooling was seen as an instrument of oppression and schools were recast in a new, “hipper” interpretation of what educational progressivism was supposed to be about. In moving away from the way things were, the education establishment’s goal was to restore equity to students rather than maintaining the tracking that created dividing lines between social class and race. The end product however was a merging of general track with college prep with the result that college prep was becoming student-centered and needs-based with lower standards, and less homework assigned. Classes such as Film Making and Cooking for Singles were offered, and requirements for English and History courses were reduced if not dropped. Social class and race was no longer a barrier for such classes as evidenced by the increasing numbers of white students who began taking them. With the requirements for graduation being diminished in the “general” track as a result of the student-centered fad, this track saw an increase in students from 12 percent in the late 60’s to 42 percent by the late 70’s. (Ravitch, 2003).
Currently, high schools have an honors/AP track, and a general track. The general track consists of less rigorous courses and represents a lower level of education. Qualification for the honors/AP track starts before high school, and in elementary and middle schools, there is also a two-tier system. The higher tier (starting at about third grade) is the gifted and talented track. In general, this track provides teacher-directed traditional instruction at or above grade level. For students who do not qualify (and the criteria for qualifying vary, with differing definitions of what constitutes “giftedness”), they are placed in classes with students of varying abilities. As such, they are subjected to a one-size-fits-all curriculum that involves student-centered group activities, and project-oriented approaches to learning. This educational approach is guided by an undying faith led by the educational establishment that all we need to do is teach students how to learn, how to think critically and that facts and content are things they can look up (on Google) on a “just in time” basis whenever they really need to know. For many students, the approach is a guarantee that they will not be able to handle honors or AP courses in high school.
The elimination of inequity and tracking, therefore, has evolved to a two track system starting in lower grades and continuing on in high school. Those students not considered “smart enough for the gifted programs” are consigned to the lower track. This may not be the case if they get the skills and knowledge they need from elsewhere (tutors, learning centers, parents). But in low income areas, this is probably not very common. It certainly is not common in Detroit.
In the meantime, there is a push for more technology in the schools, as if SmartBoards in every classroom and an iPad for every student is the answer. The tearing down of Mumford and the building of a state-of-the-art high school are indicative of what education has now become. As in Detroit, the U.S. as a whole has long observed the demolition of education in the US; helpless to do anything about it, and given promises of great progress and changes for the future.
Graham, Lawrence Otis. 1999. Our Kind of People. HarperCollins; New York.
Mirel, Jeffrey; David L. Angus. Equality, Curriculum, and the Decline of the Academic Ideal: Detroit, 1930-68; History of Education Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 2 (Summer, 1993), pp. 177-207
Ravitch, D. (2003) The Test of Time. Education Next. Spring. Available at: http://media.hoover.org/documents/ednext20032_32.pdf