Schooling beyond the melting pot

February 24, 1993

Advocates of school reform in New York City were dealt a setback recently when the Board of Education voted not to renew the contract of schools chief Joseph Fernandez over disagreements about where he was leading the system. New York now joins Los Angeles and Chicago in search of new schools chiefs.

Part of New York City's woes stem from budget problems that have hit urban schools especially hard. As large urban cities become poorer, public schools have fewer resources to address the greater needs of the disadvantaged children they serve. These schools become dumping grounds for social problems from teen pregnancy to drug use, gun violence to AIDS.

Dr. Fernandez recognized that schools have to deal with the intractable problems students bring to the classroom while providing a solid academic foundation. But balancing the two isn't easy. Indeed, the greatest obstacle to reform actually may lie in the lack of consensus over what public education is supposed to accomplish.

Public schools were an invention of intellectual and social elites of the mid-1800s in response to the arrival of millions of immigrants with different languages, customs and backgrounds. The schools were supposed to assimilate immigrant children into the American way of life. The melting pot model was frankly paternalistic. By definition it represented a radical intrusion on the values of the immigrant family -- an intrusion that was sanctioned, however, by the larger society.

By the 1960s, that consensus had eroded. Powerful centrifugal forces gradually turned the schools into ideological battlegrounds over desegregation, multi-culturalism and sex education. Meanwhile, newly empowered communities challenged the traditional elites for the right to determine what was taught in the schools.

Mr. Fernandez, for example, ran afoul of a school board responding to complaints the schools had no business teaching about AIDS, drug abuse or homosexuality. The board argued such issues should be left to parents -- despite the fact that many families today can't be counted on to provide the guidance young people need in such matters.

New York's problems are symptomatic of a broader crisis in public education that has challenged the consensus over what schools are supposed to do as well as the moral authority of those who lead them. Until that social compact is repaired, the tenures of big-city schools chiefs likely will continue to be uncertain balancing acts that too often are as thankless as they are short.

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