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Are Some School Reform Technocrats Using Failed Urban Renewal Projects As Their Blueprint?

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By now, most people have heard about Education Secretary Duncan’s comment that Hurricane Katrina was “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans.” He apologized today — several days after making the remark.

His comment elicited quite a bit of reaction — to say the least.

Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post, for example, wrote:

By the time we find ourselves praising a natural catastrophe for education reform, we are in big trouble. Such talk is the last refuge of someone bereft of new policy ideas.

At nearly the same time of this controversy, Mayor Bloomberg was closing “failed” schools in New York City. Diane Ravitch writes:

It is odd that school leaders feel triumphant when they close schools, as though they were not responsible for them. They enjoy the role of executioner, shirking any responsibility for the schools in their care. Every time a school is closed, those at the top should hang their heads in shame for their inability or refusal to offer timely assistance. Instead they exult in the failure of schools that are entrusted to their stewardship.

Both of these events, in turn, reminded me of an interview The Wall Street Journal did with Eli Broad (who funds the kind of school reform supported by Duncan and Bloomberg and who now has a presence in Sacramento) last summer. Here’s an excerpt:

…he is enthusiastic about all the change that is possible when urban school districts go bankrupt—as Oakland, Calif., did a few years ago—”or what happened in New Orleans, which is the equivalent of bankruptcy.”

I’m no expert in urban planning but, from what I know of it, these perspectives sound eerily similar to what I know about the countless failed “urban renewal” projects done in cities over the past sixty years — technocrats wanting to wipe the slate clean and instill their unproven vision of what is best instead of engaging with the people who are already there. And then, those people who are already there get pushed-out. We’ve already seen that with documented evidence that it’s not uncommon for the “successful” examples proclaimed by proponents to have entirely different student bodies than those who had been there before.

Check-out this 1955 video advocating for urban renewal in Pittsburgh. Anything sound familiar?

What do you think, am I pushing the parallel too far?

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

4 Comments

  1. Love your perspective here, Larry. You’re connecting more than the usual dots, if you’ll pardon the cliché.

  2. Having lived in New Haven, CT for seven years, I’ve seen first-hand what urban renewal can do. The fabric of the downtown had been severely damaged and communities had been torn apart. For decades, the city has been trying to undo the damage.

    That said, I used to know one of the people involved in that urban renewal work. He acknowledged mistakes, but he reminded me that the problems they were dealing with in the 60′s were daunting: Spiraling crime, abandoned buildings and neighborhoods, growing traffic congestion, dwindling populations and people removing to the suburbs. Non-renewal was not a great option, and it was difficult to conceive of strategies that didn’t involve destruction and dispersal. The paths forward were anything but clear. Their greatest failure might have been their triumphalism 45 years ago. Hindsight is 20/20.

    The parallel with school reform is very intriguing, even if I can’t vouch for it as an exact match. One lesson we seem to have learned from urban renewal is the need to respect and engage communities in the process. That may be a lesson we’re still learning in school reform.

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