Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Heatherly: Public Education in New York City

Michelle Heatherly
While the purpose of education can be viewed a multitude of ways, it has been generally understood by the working class as the route to a better life. Whether education meant one’s child could have the tools to become a physician, or simply the ability to understand all of their one’s natural rights as a resident of the United States (instead of citizen, because not everyone who attends school in U.S. is an American citizen), working class parents have known over time that education could help their children—the next generation—experience more upward socioeconomic mobility. Historically, the movement to make public education more available, more efficient, and equal for all has been difficult and filled with obstacles. Working class families wanted their children to be educated on the same level as other families living above their means, but were often not given the same resources to do so. As a center of immigration and working class history, New York City provides a powerful example as to what the possession of an education meant to working class families. While the struggle for a better system of public schools in New York City seems to be a permanent one, the 20th century held many important changes for the New York City school system, which directly affected the education given to working class families.

According to the 1900 United States census, Over 3 million people lived within New York City.1 Many new immigrants from western and eastern Europe were com City to find a better life for their families. Within the first fifteen years of the century, New York City public schools doubled in attendance to over 800,000 pupils.2 While the first compulsory education laws in New York City were passed in 1854, the earliest, child labor laws were passed in the early 1900s. A fourteen year old youth could legally resign from school and begin to work in the various factories throughout the city. Though youths desired to contribute to their family unit many of their parents and relatives held the notion that their children should go to school, even if the family would suffer economically because of it.
At this time, school conditions were less than desirable. Extreme overcrowding (of as much as seventy children per classroom) led to the quick spreading of illness and a lack of individualized instruction by teachers. were very strict places and were very crowded (large classrooms featuring anywhere in between 35-70 children.)3 A teacher could not devote individual time to any student. Many schools had very limited supplies and resources, and several could only offer children a half day school program. Furthermore, working class immigrant children, who did not speak English as a first language, did not have the English as a Second Language programs that we do today. They were negatively labeled for the rest of their educational careers.
One group who attempted to improve the educational opportunities of the working class was the Teachers Union, founded in 1916. At this time the union was a locally formed group of teachers, with no larger union affiliation. Essentially, Teachers Union members joined together for the greater good of student welfare and creating power for themselves. Many members came from underprivileged or working class backgrounds themselves, and a good percentage had more liberal, socialist, or even communist leanings. By the beginning of World War II, out of “...the 6034 members of the TU, well over 5,000 were Jewish”.4 That gave them a special knowledge of what it was like to be socially marginalized in the United States, and to know what better educational circumstances could be. A good portion of the Teachers Union’s work was responding to the blatant racism that pervaded New York City at the time. The Americanized school curriculum was highly racist and left out the histories and cultures of many groups of people due to the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant backgrounds of many school textbook writers. The Teachers Union sought to make the curriculum more inclusive and appreciative of every culture's contribution to America.
Another tremendous challenge facing working class families in New York City was career tracking and IQ testing. Children in kindergarten and first grade were being tested from an early age to put them on a “career track.” Those of racial minority background es “produced” at least 20% “retarded” children, according to these culturally and linguistically biased examinations. 5 Similarly, biased testing put the children of working class immigrant families into worse schools, because the tests were in English. Otherwise bright children were categorized as “retarded” because they could not yet read English. It is obvious that there was a severe racism as the time. Groups of immigrants would live in their own neighborhoods, which was fortunate in Brooklyn, because unlike the other boroughs, Brooklyn fought, for and maintained, for sometime, district/neighborhood control over their own schools. Minimally, the underprivileged races and those of a different background could create school environments more conducive to their needs.
Alongside the work of the Teachers Union, the progressive education movement changed the dynamics of education of the working class. A progressive education means that every child will have the education that is best for them; no student should be bored in school. Some schools would offer courses in animal husbandry, mechanics, beauty salon work, or culinary skills: according to the student's desires. A child's education should have everything, including the core basics of education. For the sake of brevity, the issue with progressive education and the working class is its real impact on the child. Some argued that progressive education trained the working class for manual labor, otherwise known as vocational training. Others praised progressive education, saying it offered more than a working class child would get at home: health education, gym programs, and options so that school becomes enjoyable for them. Fortunately (or not, depending on one’s perspective) New York City did not experiment so much with progressive education, but smaller details like gym programs began to grow within schools.
Between 1945 and1965, New York City went from an industrial city full of factory jobs, to a service oriented city. Working class jobs went to service jobs, and good portion of factory work moved out west. Due to the nature of jobs and the changing demographics of New York, a different type of working class was born. The distinctions between races and classes become more prevalent. Neighborhoods became more so what they are like today. A borough like Brooklyn then started having clear boundaries between wealthy neighborhoods, which were historically white, and poor neighborhoods, which were historically comprised of racial minorities. About 800,000 white people left New York City during the “white flight” era of the 1950s, and about the same number of Blacks and Puerto Ricans entered it.6 During the 1940s and 1950s, education experts moved strongly towards the “one size fits all” approach to education. The power of schools in New York City were centralized, which essentially gave the mayor all control over the schools. The money and availability of good schools for the working class decreased. These two decades were an incredibly stressful period, and when you have as large as a student body like in New York, it is hard find a complete solution. There was no excuse to wait until the mid 1950s for relief.
The solution for many desired during the 1950s to the 1960s, was for neighborhoods to have local control of their schools. Ideally, minority parents wished for greater school integration, but New York City was not making this possible. The parents of African Americans and Puerto Ricans believed that their neighborhoods were experiencing "discriminatory zoning,” meaning that their children were forced to attend more underfunded schools, due to their race. These minority neighborhoods wanted to locally control the schools in their neighborhoods, to ensure their children were given the best education for their tax dollar. In response to the need and desire for new schools for all races, the mayor at the time, John Lindsay, did not have a direct plan. He gave the decision making power to the Board of Education. One important decision was to revamp all of the junior high schools in New York City. That led to the creation of IS. 201 in Harlem. Parents demanded either they get local control over that school, or the school was to be 100% integrated. Since the major could not guarantee the latter, in 1969 New York City mayor John Lindsay relinquished mayoral control over New York City schools to the Board of Education. Then the Board of Education created school districts. A Time Magazine article at the time suggest that relinquishing the control of schools (decentralizing) was an inadequate way to fix the problems. 7 Nevertheless, for a period of time districts created programs which benefited the children within their jurisdiction.
The 20th century highlights the transformations that have taken place within the sphere of public education. The decades succeeding the early 1970s show an alternating belief between the importance of a more individualistic type of education, and the desire for an increasing bureaucratization of education. To understand the direction of our public education system, we have to assess the historical events which have played a part in the understanding of what public education means. We still use testing to determine the worth and intelligence of a child, and a vague sense of discriminatory zoning of schools still exists. The Teachers Union understood schooling as a primary way democracy is upheld in society. The working class should be told their history, their struggle to maintain control over their child's education, so that they may know their rights as inhabitants of the United States.

1 1. Rosenwaike, Ira. 1972, 80 Population History of New York City. New York: Syracuse University Press,

2 Ravitch, Diane. 1974,168 "The Great School Wars, New York City, 1805-1973. A History of Public Schools as Battlefield of Social Change.” New York: Basic Books, Inc.,

3 Ibid, 169

4 Taylor, Clarence. 2010. Civil Rights in New York City: From World War II to the Giuliani Era.(Chpt 1, 1st page, last paragraph-Google-books)

5 Ravitch, Diane. 1974. "The Great School Wars, New York City, 1805-1973. A History of Public Schools as Battlefield of Social Change.” New York: Basic Books, Inc. 178

6 Ravitch, Diane. 1974, 261 "The Great School Wars, New York City, 1805-1973. A History of Public Schools as Battlefield of Social Change.” New York: Basic Books, Inc.

7 Unknown “John Lindsay’s Ten Plagues.”Time. Nov1968, Vol. 92 Issue 18, p40. 10p.

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