Harvard Educational Review
  1. City Schools and the American Dream

    Reclaiming the Promise of Public Education

    By Pedro Noguera

    New York: Teachers College Press, 2003. 176 pp. $13.97

    “Pragmatic optimism” is how Pedro Noguera characterizes his perspective on the issues that confront our nation’s urban public schools today. In City Schools and the American Dream: Reclaiming the Promise of Public Education, Noguera describes what he views as the central problems facing urban schools and outlines potential strategies for improvement. Drawing on years of experience as a teacher, parent, school board member, researcher, and college professor, Noguera writes with a tone of pragmatism — recognizing the limits and challenges involved in reforming urban schools — but also with a sense of optimism — emphasizing that change is possible.

    Noguera writes, “The central argument of this book is that until there is a genuine commitment to address the social context of schooling — to confront the urban condition — it will be impossible to bring about significant and sustainable improvements in urban public schools” (p. 6). He goes on to demonstrate with convincing and compelling language that it is impossible to reform schools in places where basic social services are lacking. What exacerbates the problem is that, in most of these communities, the school is the safest place for children to be and the most stable public service. In this way, schools serve what Noguera calls a “captured market.” In poor urban communities, there is no viable threat that parents will leave and take their children elsewhere because they have no other options. Therefore, there is no real incentive for the schools to change.

    The book is divided into seven chapters, each addressing a specific issue related to urban school reform. Throughout the book, Noguera draws on examples from four communities in the San Francisco Bay Area to illustrate his arguments—Berkeley, Oakland, Richmond, and San Francisco. He chose these four communities not only because of his personal and professional experiences there, but also because they demonstrate how dynamics of race and class play out in very different cities to result in very similar problems in urban schools.

    After the two introductory chapters, Noguera devotes two chapters to the topic of closing the achievement gap. In chapter three he provides a thorough and detailed review of the research on this topic. Using evidence from communities in the Bay Area, he shows that the gap persists even in relatively high-performing schools. He discusses and challenges several common cultural explanations for minority academic failure, such as stereotype threat, the model minority, and oppositional behavior. Noguera draws on research as well as personal experience to discuss how students who are “exceptions” to minority academic failure cope and manage multiple identities.

    In chapter four, Noguera takes a more practical stance and offers an example of how schools may go about understanding and addressing the achievement gap. He describes the Diversity Project at Berkeley High School, an initiative begun in 1996 that continues to this day. Involving more than thirty parents, teachers, students, administrators, and university researchers, the Diversity Project had three underlying objectives as part of its overall mission to undo the consistent gap in achievement between Whites and non-Whites at the school. These objectives were 1) to make the familiar seem strange and problematic; 2) to critically examine the organization and structure of privilege; and 3) to empower the disadvantaged and marginalized (p. 67).

    Describing the strategies used to accomplish each of these objectives, Noguera demonstrates the power of research to influence change — especially when it is owned by those directly affected by its results. In other words, by engaging in a cooperative effort to gather and analyze data about an obvious phenomenon (“making the familiar seem strange”), this team of diverse stakeholders was able to develop a groundswell of support for developing strategies for change. While Noguera acknowledges that this work is far from complete and that the project could eventually lose funding or energy, this example shows the potential for urban schools and school districts to attack problems such as the achievement gap directly and independently.

    In chapter five, Noguera discusses the traditional concept of “local control” that governs school districts in the United States, and explains how this notion does not work effectively in many low-income communities. Using Oakland as an example, Noguera describes the problems that many urban communities face in supporting their schools — a lack of social capital to address basic urban problems related to health, welfare, and safety. Oakland is an excellent example of the “captured market” Noguera describes in his earlier chapters:

    The student population is largely poor, immigrant, and non-White, and completely dependent on the school system. Private schools are not accessible to most poor families due to cost, and leaving the school system typically is not possible even if one is dissatisfied with the quality of school services provided. With a majority of the students served by Oakland’s schools trapped by economic circumstances, dependent, and unable to leave, affairs of the district can be managed with little concern for whether or not those served are satisfied with the quality of education provided. . . . As long as parents continue to enroll their children in the district’s failing schools, the miserable status quo can be sustained indefinitely. (pp. 89–90)

    Noguera concludes this chapter with a call for public agencies to engage in efforts to develop the social and civic capacity of low-income communities.

    In chapter six, Noguera addresses the topic of violence and school safety — one of the most ubiquitous problems facing urban schools. He uses the example of Lowell Middle School in Oakland to demonstrate the scope of the problem and possible strategies for addressing it. Like the Diversity Project, the Lowell example shows how research can be a powerful tool for effecting change. Noguera surveyed students at Lowell and Willard, a comparable school in a wealthier community, about their views on violence and their perceptions of safety in their schools and neighborhoods. The results revealed surprising similarities and stark differences between the two groups of students. For example, students at the two schools were equally likely to carry weapons to school or to have been in a fight in the previous month. However, students at Lowell were much more likely than those at Willard to look to their friends for protection than adults. Noguera explains, “For these students, telling a friend or family member was a better solution because it might enable the student to avoid the fight altogether in that a show of force could neutralize the threat of violence” (p. 122). The survey also showed that students at Lowell felt much more threatened by violence outside of school than did those at Willard. Noguera concludes this chapter by encouraging school officials to adopt several strategies, including involving students in efforts to curb violence at school, and coming up with both short- and long-term solutions.

    In his final chapter, Noguera summarizes the arguments put forth in the previous chapters. It is unfortunate that he does not lay out a comprehensive strategy for reform, because the strategies presented in earlier chapters do seem a bit piecemeal and targeted to specific issues. Granted, the complex nature of the problems facing urban schools may make a comprehensive, “one size fits all” solution impossible. Noguera emphasizes the importance of looking at the specific context surrounding each case and each problem, and developing solutions that involve the communities directly. This book will prove useful to anyone interested in and perplexed by how to reform urban public schools in this country. For some, it may seem discouraging — the few concrete strategies for change that Noguera describes are buried behind many more abstract strategies for change, as well as an abundant amount of information about the root of the problem. For others, however, who have the motivation and energy to take on this immense task, this book will serve as an important guide and source of inspiration.

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    Book Notes

    Why Is It So Hard to Get Good Schools?
    By Larry Cuban

    Losing My Faculties
    By Brendan Halpin

    Teaching with Fire
    Edited by Sam M. Intrator and Megan Scribner

    Troubling Education
    By Kevin Kumashiro

    The Promotion of Social Awareness
    By Robert Selman

    Affirming Diversity
    By Sonia Nieto

    City Schools and the American Dream
    By Pedro Noguera

    Adolescent Lives in Transition
    By Donna Marie San Antonio