Trying to Fix an Urban School
Trying to Fix an Urban School without Fixing the Neighborhood in Which It is Embedded is Like Trying to Clean the Air on One Side of a Screen Door
Jean Anyon 
Graduate Center, City University of New York

Interview with Jean Anyon  (Audio Only)                Print Friendly and PDF

The title, taken from Ghetto Schooling: A Political Economy of Urban Educational Reform (1997), alludes to my argument that systemic poverty requires systemic change. The fact that poverty is a function of the way the economic system works rather than a function of group or individual sloth or deficit motivated my analysis (see also Anyon 1980, 1981, and 2011). Ghetto Schooling demonstrated ways in which 100 years of deindustrialization, urban neglect, and ultimate abandonment by political elites and major corporations decimated the city and what had been a nationally touted secondary school system in Newark, NJ. Widespread poverty in cities like Newark, I argued, will almost certainly trump the efforts of school reformers to create systemic and sustainable excellence in the schools.

Neoliberal reformers argue that there are “no excuses” for failing urban schools, and there are sufficient examples of high performing schools attended by low-income children to demonstrate that poverty is not an excuse. Although some low-income individuals and some urban schools achieve at high levels despite the weight of the political economy, I argued in Ghetto Schooling that for successful, sustainable reform in urban districts we need to also provide economic reform – the creation of opportunities in neighborhoods. Thus, to counter the effects on achievement of the instability and frequent trauma of life in poverty, of long-term health problems and sub-standard housing (in which lead poisoning continues to be an important cause of learning disabilities in some cities), what educators need to do – in addition to supporting important educational efforts like smaller class size and better funding  –  is to join with groups working for economic and social equity. Together, building a social movement, we can create the conditions for hope and possibility in communities, and therefore in schools.

I would argue now that the last 15 years of urban school reform – during which poverty has increased, and during which not one large urban system has educated the majority of its poor students to high achievement – supports this view.  Indeed, despite more than a decade of effort toward ‘college for all,’ only 7 to 9 percent (depending on the measure) of low-income students obtain college degrees, with lack of funds and preparation major reasons. This dismal college graduation rate of low-income students is a powerful indictment of leaving ‘meritocracy’ to the education system.

In Radical Possibilities: Public Policy, Urban Education, and a New Social Movement (2005a), I shifted the focus to ways that the current political economy maintains urban poverty, especially in Black and Latino communities, and thereby undermines school reform efforts there. One question that motivated this analysis was the following: How can even a well-reformed urban school benefit a low-income student of color whose graduation will not lead to a job on which to make a living wage because there are not enough such jobs, and will not lead to the resources for college completion, because the only source of such funds is significant debt? 

In the book I argued that macroeconomic policies like those regulating the minimum wage, job availability, tax rates of rich and poor, public transportation, and affordable housing create conditions in cities that no existing educational policy or urban school reform can transcend. Public policies that yield poverty wages for full time work, housing discrimination on the basis of color and social class (when zoning laws in affluent neighborhoods prohibit small lots and multi-unit buildings), and transportation policies that segregate low-income workers of color in urban areas (including segregated, fiscally distressed suburbs) while most entry level and other job development are in affluent suburbs where public transit does not reach, all maintain poverty in urban neighborhoods and therefore the schools. In order to solve the systemic problems of urban education, I argued, we need not only school reform but the reform of these and other major public policies. Education reform, then, is a necessary but not sufficient component of sustainable school improvement in low-income districts.

I accompanied Radical Possibilities with a piece in the Harvard Educational Review (2005b) that described important research demonstrating that providing financial and other social supports to poor parents typically raises the school achievement of their children (see also Anyon, 2009).

I am preparing the second edition of Radical Possibilities. The Great Recession that began in 2007 intensified and exacerbated trends I identified and examined in the first edition. Inequality, poverty, and a lack of decent jobs, for example, have increased significantly. The rich are richer: The top one percent of income filers now control 40 percent of the wealth in the country, and take home nearly a quarter of all the income. Poverty has spread:  According to the 2010 Census, one in three Americans was poor, or near poor, in 2011. (In addition to 49 million Americans below the poverty line that year, 51 million were near poor — with incomes less than 50 percent above the poverty line.) And jobs may be slowly returning, but they continue the trend of offering low wages: Jobs created since February 2010 pay, on average, substantially lower wages than jobs lost during the Recession. The biggest job losses during the recession were those paying between $19.05 and $31.40 an hour. The largest gains over the past two years have been jobs paying $9.03 to $12.91 an hour – low-wage work.

These changes in the system do not bode well for urban education. Stark inequality and spreading poverty, and a preponderance of low-wage work, are products of a political economy in which Black and Latino residents of poor neighborhoods bear the brunt of economic turmoil. These developments will make meaningful district-wide school reform in cities even more difficult to implement and sustain. I taught elementary school in extremely poor Black neighborhoods in Brooklyn, NY, and Washington, DC for seven years; l know that the students can learn at high levels. The problem, however, is that the political economy prevents them from having opportunities to learn as much as they could, and profiting from their education when they graduate high school.

The analysis here of poverty undermining the potential of school reform as we know it is not meant to lift the burden from teachers, nor protect those who have given up. It is intended, rather, to motivate additional spending where it counts: on good jobs and other opportunities in poor areas. And, of course, to motivate work for systemic equity in the economy.


Anyon, Jean. Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work.  Journal of Education. Vol. 162, Number 1, 1980: 67-92.

_______. Social Class and School Knowledge. Curriculum Inquiry. Vol. 11, Number 1, 1981: 3-42.

_______. Race, Social Class, and Educational Reform in an Inner City School. Teachers College Record. Vol. 97, Number 1, (1995): 69-94.

_______. Ghetto Schooling: A Political Economy of Urban Educational Reform. NY: Teachers College Press, 1997.

_______. Radical Possibilities: Public Policy, Urban Education, and a New Social Movement. NY and London: Routledge, 2005a. Revised Edition, 2013.

_______. What ‘Counts’ as Education Policy? Notes Toward a New Paradigm. Harvard Educational Review. Vol. 75, Spring, 2005b: 65-88.

_______. Theory and Educational Research: Toward Critical Social Explanation. NY and London: Routledge, 2009.

_______. Marx and Education (Routledge Key Ideas in Education Series). NY and London: Routledge. 2011.


Jean Anyon is Professor of Social and Educational Policy in the Urban Education Doctoral Program at the City University of New York. She is the author of Radical Possibilities: Public Policy, Urban Education, and A New Social Movement and Ghetto Schooling: A Political Economy of Urban Education. Her articles on social class, race, and schools have been reprinted in 45 edited collections, and translated into several languages.

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