History Of Urban Schools Essay

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There is a widespread belief today that city schools are a persistent dilemma. Less than fifty years ago, city school systems were judged much less harshly than at present, and in some cases, they were considered to be quite good. It was only in the latter half of the twentieth century that urban schools came to be seen as a major problem. Historians of urban schools have illuminated the process of evolution that has transformed urban education in the United States. This entry will examine the principal themes in the development of urban schooling, identifying many of the major historical works that have informed our understanding of changes it has undergone.

Early Schools

To fully appreciate the changes that have occurred in city schools, it is important to begin at the earliest stage of American history. In 1973, Carl Kaestle published a groundbreaking study of the early schools in New York. Following the Revolutionary War, schools appear to have been church-sponsored or conducted by individual masters who taught for a fee. New England had the longest tradition of schools established by community or governmental authority, and these too were predominantly religious in purpose. In New York, small proprietary schools served all segments of the population, although there certainly were distinctions in wealth and status that characterized both students and institutions. Public funding often was intended to assist the education of the poorest students.

By the start of the nineteenth century, the largest American cities had acquired loosely structured systems of private, church-sponsored, and publicly supported schools linked to different classes of the population. In the decades leading up to the Civil War, cities grew rapidly, propelled by industrialization, improved transportation, and large-scale immigration. This is a major theme in Kaestle’s work on New York and in other studies of school systems from that era. Charity schooling for the poor became a dominant theme, but there was considerable pressure to create public institutions to broaden the reach of popular education. At the same time, industrialization and the growth of trade transformed the social profile of these and other cities, making the small-scale private institutions of the past seemingly archaic. As several historians have noted, the appearance of poor and unskilled working-class city dwellers gave rise to a new atmosphere of diversity and cultural dissonance.

Schools And Social Benefit

By and large, the nineteenth century was an era of institution building, and urban schools were in the forefront of campaigns to ensure greater social stability through education. Whether maintained by private groups (such as the New York Public School Society) or public agencies (like the public schools in Boston), “free” (no tuition) primary schools served the children of the poor. As illustrated in a series of studies, these efforts were coordinated by an emerging bureaucracy. Eventually, these institutions developed into fully articulated public educational systems.

As a number of studies demonstrate, however, not all groups made full use of these opportunities; those in the social and cultural mainstream came to embrace the schools most enthusiastically. In other places, such as New York, the transition to public education was fraught with difficulty, as exhibited in Diane Ravitch’s 1974 account of battles over education in that city’s history. There was conflict on cultural and religious grounds, especially among Catholics, who decided to form their own school systems. Taxpayers objected to rising costs, challenging expensive new institutions, such as public kindergartens and high schools, along with other reforms, as seen in a number of studies. Gradually, however, sustained agitation by reformers resulted in acceptance of change in most places.

A new class of administrators came to lead the urban schools, professional superintendents who strove to build systems in keeping with the latest innovations sweeping the country. These men (and very few women) created professional networks whereby information and ideas were exchanged. These developments are major themes in David Tyack’s comprehensive 1974 study of urban schooling in the United States, The One Best System.

As pointed out in numerous studies, certain schools or classes were designated for children deemed “slow,” or prone to chronic misbehavior. Only a relatively small number of students ever attended secondary schools, but these institutions came to be seen as important repositories of learning and culture, evident in David Labaree’s 1988 study of secondary education in Philadelphia. Curricular innovation, often under the banner of progressive reform, created programs of study to link schools to the job market, along with innovative administrative reforms, as in the famous “platoon schools” of Gary, Indiana.

Centralization Trends

The early twentieth century was a time of rapid growth for most American cities. In education, new controversies erupted over matters of curriculum and various mechanisms for the control of schools, often affecting local political arrangements. Studies of controversies surrounding reform in several cities at this time by Julia Wrigley, William Reese, and others, most of which were published in the 1980s, point to the origins of these conflicts in urban politics. Still other studies, published later by Kate Rousmaniere and other historians, highlight the role of teachers in these debates. At the same time, parochial (religious) school systems grew in parallel to the public schools as seen most recently in the work of Mary Ellen Vinyard. All of these developments made for a period of great ferment.

In most cities, public schools were first organized in a decentralized fashion, with control often focused at the local level, usually the city ward. Eventually, this led to an atmosphere rife with conflict and corruption. Reformers aimed to take the schools out of politics by instituting highly centralized administrative systems. The creation of the modern school superintendency in the early twentieth century marked the apogee of this reform impulse. This was documented in David Tyack and Elisabeth Hansot’s study of prominent educational statesmen.

Political battles raged in some districts, as dissenting groups challenged the newly dominant management ethos. Teachers formed unions, debated intelligence testing, and demanded curricular reforms to help students. But the basic structure of authority in urban school systems remained intact. Although it was seriously tested at times, such as during the financial crisis of the Great Depression, as described in Jeffrey Mirel’s 1993 account of Detroit in the 1930s, the prevailing progressive model of school administration thrived in most city school systems well into the second half of the twentieth century.

Dramatic Postwar Change

Following World War II, the urban scene changed dramatically. The major thrust of urban development shifted due to suburbanization, the movement of people out of the large cities to adjacent communities outside the urban core. The urban population remained culturally diverse, but its composition shifted, and cities did not benefit uniformly from the general affluence of the postwar period.

Millions of southern Blacks were displaced by new farm technology and migrated to the North and West. Large ghettos developed in most major American cities, and when suburbanization accelerated in the 1950s and 1960s, it often became known as White flight. Urban school systems became highly segregated because of changing residential patterns in the cities. This led to glaring disparities in education, and dramatic protests erupted over the unequal resources available to various groups of students.

Many of the newcomers to the cities during this period were quite poor and could hardly afford to support the rising costs of high-quality urban schools. As a result, urban educational systems began to face dire budget shortfalls in the 1960s and 1970s, just about the time that their student populations became predominantly African American or other minority groups. Political battles raged over issues of equity and discrimination in urban education, and the poor schooling was often afforded children in minority communities. It was a period of activism in urban Black and Latino communities, and much protest focused on educational questions. A number of studies have focused on these issues, the most recent being Jack Dougherty’s examination of Milwaukee. This body of work considers the struggles that took shape in different cities, noting a variety of approaches to the problems that were seemingly endemic to the times.

The decade of the 1970s saw a number of developments that further aggravated these matters. First, government-enforced desegregation plans and middle-class fears about crime and deteriorating urban neighborhoods contributed to an accelerated rate of suburbanization in many parts of the country. There is a sizable literature on the desegregation era, much of it summarized and assessed recently by Charles Clotfelter. Second, although Black migration from the South slowed, new immigrant groups started to appear in major American cities in large numbers. The largest groups were those who spoke Spanish, most of whom came from Mexico, Central America, or the Caribbean (Puerto Rico in particular). This posed yet a new challenge, one of educating an increasingly diverse population while dealing with long-standing problems of racial segregation and poverty, as shown in the work of Guadalupe San Miguel.

Urban Stresses

In addition to these changes, the economic base of major cities began to shift as well. In the 1960s, manufacturing employment began to decline substantially, a process often described as “deindustrialization,” and this trend accelerated in the 1970s and 1980s. The resulting loss of employment brought a host of other problems, many with dire implications for education. Since 1970, the number of female-headed households in American cities has grown enormously, as marriages became difficult to sustain in the wake of rising unemployment. Illegal drug sales, violent crime, and teen pregnancy also have increased sharply in the wake of these developments.

With the virtual collapse of urban industrial employment, Black communities that traditionally relied upon the factory for employment entered a state of crisis. These changes had a palpable impact on urban schooling, as demonstrated in a number of studies. In many inner-city communities, destitution and isolation contributed to an atmosphere of nihilistic self-destruction, where illegal activities became important to indigenous peer culture. Dropout rates among urban teenagers climbed to more than 50 percent in many large American cities, as thousands of adolescents turned to the street in the absence of stable and meaningful employment.

Although downtown areas of the big cities have continued to develop economically, and there has been movement of middle and upper-class Whites back into the urban core, the overall pattern of metropolitan development has isolated minority groups while eroding the fiscal base of local school systems. This process has been documented in many of the works cited earlier, and by sociologists such as William Julius Wilson. As a consequence, in most large urban districts today, a substantial majority of students come from minority backgrounds and are at a disadvantage regarding school success. With these circumstances, the democratic tenet of the nation’s public school tradition—that education is to be shared by all members of the society—is considerably less viable today than it was for previous generations of urban children.


  1. Clotfelter, C. T. (2004). After “Brown”: The rise and retreat of school desegregation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  2. Dougherty, J. (2004). More than one struggle: The evolution of Black school reform in Milwaukee. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
  3. Kaestle, C. F. (1973). Evolution of an urban school system: New York, 1750–1850. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  4. Labaree, D. F. (1988). The making of an American high school: The credentials market and the Central High School of Philadelphia, 1838–1939. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  5. Lazerson, M. (1971). The origins of urban education: Massachusetts, 1870–1930. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  6. Mirel, J. E. (1993). The rise and fall of an urban school system, Detroit, 1907–1980. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  7. Ravitch, D. (1974). The great school wars, New York City, 1805–1973: A history of the public schools as battlefield of social change. New York: Basic Books.
  8. Reese, W. J. (1986). Power and the promise of school reform: Grassroots movements during the Progressive Era. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  9. Rousmaniere, K. (1997). City teachers: Teaching and school reform in historical perspective. New York: Teachers College Press.
  10. San Miguel, G. (2001). Brown, not White: School integration and the Chicano movement in Houston. College Station: Texas A&M University Press.
  11. Tyack, D. B. (1974). The one best system: A history of American urban education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  12. Tyack, D. B., & Hansot, E. (1982). Managers of virtue: Public school leadership in America, 1820–1980. New York: Basic Books.
  13. Vinyard, J. M. (1998). For faith and fortune: The education of Catholic immigrants in Detroit, 1805–1925. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
  14. Wilson, W. J. (1996). When work disappears: The world of the new urban poor. New York: Knopf.
  15. Wrigley, J. (1982). Class politics and public schools: Chicago, 1900–1950. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

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