An Incomplete Lesson Plan For Struggling Schools

By Richard Lee Colvin,
director of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media at Teachers College, Columbia University, and a former education writer for the Los Angeles Times
Wednesday, February 14, 2007


American Education on Trial

By Susan Eaton

Algonquin. 395 pp. $24.95

The children in this often moving but flawed book attend an all-minority elementary school in the impoverished North End of Hartford, Conn. The school, Simpson-Waverly, drew journalist Susan Eaton's attention because it is one of the few in Hartford that has produced decent test scores. It does not fit the urban school stereotype in other ways as well: It has a good library, plenty of textbooks and many veteran teachers. Eaton focuses on the classroom of Lois Luddy, Hartford's 2002 teacher of the year, and her students.

The third graders of E4 are, in Eaton's word, "underexposed" to the world beyond their neighborhood, no matter how high their test scores. They see drugs sold openly, try to avoid gangs and are prevented by their parents from playing outside. On a field trip to the suburbs ("What's the suburbs?" one of them asks), they look out the bus window in wonderment at the Connecticut River, which most of them had never seen though it is minutes from their homes.

To Eaton, these curious, sometimes disruptive and often self-doubting children symbolize the harm done by segregation. When Eaton began her research for the book in 2000, the Connecticut school system was in the midst of a desegregation lawsuit filed 11 years earlier. The plaintiffs in Sheff v. O'Neill would eventually win a ruling that what appears to be de facto racial segregation in the public schools is actually de jure (by law) and that the state must ameliorate it. More than 90 percent of the students in Hartford were racial minorities. In many surrounding towns the percentage was under 5 percent. The schools were clearly segregated.

Eaton spent four years at Simpson-Waverly. She had set out to write about how the school had produced test scores that would bring it a designation as a federal Blue Ribbon school. But she ended up weaving together the stories of the children and a history of the lawsuit, starting her story years before the suit was filed.

At times the author's rendering of courtroom scenes or pre-trial strategy meetings gains the page-turning momentum of a legal thriller. But she interrupts that momentum to depict classroom mini-dramas that seem like unconnected vignettes, despite touching portraits of Luddy, a charming student named Jeremy and other classmates. Eaton further weakens her story by veering off into semi-rants against educational testing and teaching approaches that offend her child-centered sensibilities but that have little to do with the matter at hand.

Despite its shortcomings, this book is timely and important. The U.S. Supreme Court is considering the legality of school desegregation plans in Louisville and Seattle that were designed to counter the effects of housing patterns on schools' racial makeup. The lawyers arguing for those plans say that the 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education will be undermined if they lose. Eaton does a fine job of showing that segregation is not, as many conservatives argue, simply what results from the cumulative effects of individual choices. Government policies and programs, including the drawing of school district boundaries, zoning laws and banking regulations all facilitated the segregation that is commonplace in many metropolitan areas.

"The Children in Room E4" also poses a question that hovers, unasked and unanswered, over the nation's faith in urban education reform: Can very good schools overcome the effects of racial segregation, as well as the concentrated poverty and cultural isolation that characterize many American cities?

Eaton tries hard to convince her readers that the answer to that question is no. Indeed, in many ways, the school she focuses on is quite good. Luddy is, in Eaton's telling, as patient as she is inspired, optimistic but hardly naive, strict but quick with praise and open to her students' potentials for learning. Classes are small. The school is spotless. In 2003, Eaton reports, Hartford spent nearly $4,000 more per pupil than a suburban school that Luddy's children visit. Still, Simpson-Waverly could hardly be expected to overcome the poverty and isolation of its students. Jeremy, Eaton says, is bright and funny and a hard worker, but when he leaves school each day he goes home to a depressed grandmother, an erratic aunt and three other children.

But Eaton is unwilling to engage a question that bedevils many liberal education reformers. Can children whose lives are completely different benefit equally from the same education? Would Jeremy be well served by learning the history of lacrosse and conversational French, as they do in the suburbs? Eaton says he would. Others might argue that Jeremy first needs to know the basics of reading, math, science and writing.

Eaton denounces the relentless focus in Hartford on building children's academic skills using a highly structured curriculum that, she says, undermines teachers' creativity and deters students from following their curiosity. And most of the schools have given up recess, science experiments and other hands-on activities in favor of incessant test-prep drills in reading and math. But Eaton worries that any effort to raise academic achievement in city schools is harmful because it undercuts the moral and legal argument for integration. "The dizzying quest to nudge up test scores overshadowed far-off visions of equal, integrated schools," she writes. When one of the chief lawyers in the Sheff case says, tiredly, that the time and resources spent pursuing integration in court might have been better used to "improve educational achievement even in all one-race, non-white schools," she seems shocked.

As daunting a task as school reform is, the job of creating neighborhoods more integrated by race and class, which is the only real cure to the isolation of the students Eaton writes about, would be even more difficult. Refreshingly, Eaton does not argue that merely spending more money will cure all these ills. But her proposed solutions -- more magnet schools drawing from diverse neighborhoods, more engaging teaching methods, less testing -- are unlikely to lead to the transformation she would like to see. Her book is subtitled "American Education on Trial." A franker subtitle might have been "America's Ideal of Equal Opportunity on Trial."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company