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Racial Isolation, Poverty and the Limits of Local Control
as a Means for Holding Public Schools Accountable

Part 3

by Pedro Antonio Noguera
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Pedro Noguera.
Pedro Noguera. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
Pedro A. Noguera, Ph. D is a Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University.
Changing Schools from the Outside In:
The Potential Role of Social Capital and Civic Capacity Building Efforts

Given the failure of past reform efforts in Oakland and in the other large urban school districts, there is a growing consensus that alternative strategies to improve the quality of public education must be considered. Although by no means popular among policy makers and reform advocates, strategies that attempt to develop the social capital of parents and to cultivate the civic capacity of communities may be the most important steps that can be taken to further educational reform in cities like Oakland. If carried out in a coordinated manner, the two strategies could bring about several significant changes in the way public schools in Oakland have functioned and produce lasting changes in school systems.

There are several reasons for one to be optimistic about the potential of such an approach. First, developing the social capital of parents may be the only way to address the captured market problem. It is generally true that any organization that is able to function as a monopoly over a segment of a market can afford to operate without regard for the quality of service it provides to its clientele (Gormley 1991). It is often difficult to improve such organizations because there is no incentive for good service or penalty for poor service. This is true whether the organization in question is a public hospital, an airline or a police department. If the quality of service provided has no bearing upon the ability of an organization to continue to operate, and if those who receive the service have no way to effectively register their concerns, self-initiated change is less likely.

Unlike many defenders of public education, proponents of vouchers and various school choice schemes have understood the importance of addressing the captured market problem. Voucher advocates have argued that the solution to the problem lies in allowing parents to change schools by “voting with their feet” - allow them to leave a school when they are not satisfied with the quality of education offered to their children. They argue that such a strategy will force bad schools to close when they lose students, and that competition is the best way to promote reform (Chubb and Moe; Gormley 1991). Not surprisingly, polling data shows high levels of support for vouchers among low-income, minority voters in urban areas where the worst schools tend to be located (Wilgoren 1997).

Despite its understandable appeal, voucher advocates generally ignore the fact that schools rather than parents retain the ultimate choice over who will be admitted to a school, and the supply of good schools is limited. Vouchers will not provide parents with access to selective private schools both because of the prohibitive cost of tuition and because the selectivity of such schools is designed to favor an elite and privileged population of students. Moreover, the few high performing public schools in Oakland have limited space and enrollment, and cannot easily accommodate increased demand for access. Finally, research on voucher programs shows that there is no clear evidence that private schools are better at educating low-income students than public schools (Rouce 1999). There is even less evidence that other private and parochial schools are clamoring for an opportunity to educate poor children if and when they flee from failing public schools.

Efforts aimed at developing the social capital of parents can address the captured market problem when combined with policies that empower parents and make schools accountable to those they serve. In Chicago, this has been done through the development of elected local site councils (LCS) that are comprised of parents and community representatives (Hess 1999). The LCS has responsibility for hiring and monitoring the performance of the school principal, reviewing and approving the school’s budget, and receiving reports on its academic plans. Under such an arrangement, how parents feel about the education their children receive is more likely to be taken into consideration because parents are empowered as decision makers at school sites (Fine 1993).

To be effective, such a strategy must also be combined with ongoing efforts to organize and keep parents informed about their rights and responsibilities so that the LCS does not come under the control of a small number of well organized people or become manipulated by a savvy administrator. For this to happen efforts to develop the social capital of parents must be accompanied by technical assistance, translation services, childcare and active support from community-based organizations. Churches and community groups that possess strong ties with poor communities, especially recent immigrants, are often well positioned to provide training and to facilitate contact and communication between parents and schools.

Many new charter schools have been designed with these goals in mind. At several new charter schools parents are required to serve on the site council or to provide services to their school voluntarily (Clinchy 2000). In some of these new schools, such an approach creates conditions for a genuine partnership between parents and educators. Unlike many public schools that do not actively encourage parents to be involved in the education of their children, many new charters require active participation and have a clearly enunciated approach for promoting their rights and responsibilities.

Strategies such as these represent significant investments in the social capital of parents because they fundamentally change the relationship between parents and schools. Unlike traditional schools where parents most often interact with school personnel as individuals, the approach used in Chicago and several charter schools provides a basis for collective empowerment. Acting on their common interest in quality education, organized parents are better positioned to demand good service from schools and to hold them accountable when their expectations are not met.

Developing Civic Capacity

Like social capital, civic capacity building also occurs outside of schools but can have a direct impact upon what happens within them. Civic capacity building requires organizations and institutions that may not have any direct relationship to education to play an active role in supporting schools in their efforts to provide services to students (Stone, 2001). It compels the leaders of public and private organizations to think creatively about how to bring the resources they control to bear upon the goal of educating students. Most importantly, civic capacity building forces the members of a community to cease blaming schools for their failures and to focus instead on how to help them improve.

In a city like Oakland, civic capacity building could involve at least four different kinds of activities. First, it could entail the use of community volunteers in roles as tutors and mentors for students. Several school districts have been very successful at getting public and private organizations to provide release time to their employees so that they can provide services in schools. In San Francisco, a private non-profit corporation coordinates the recruiting and training of volunteers who provide a variety of services in schools. Several other school districts have taken advantage of the Ameri-corp Program to get university students to provide college counseling, tutoring and other services to students. Strategies such as these enable schools to reduce the adult to student ratio and make it possible to address the needs of students who have fallen behind academically.

Secondly, civic capacity can also involve the formation of school-community partnerships to provide work-related internships and to support the development of career academies. Research on high schools has shown that career academies are possibly the most successful means for increasing student engagement in school (Conchas 2001). Several Oakland high schools already have career academies, some of which perform quite well, however involvement by community-based organizations and businesses has been minimal. To obtain the maximum benefit from these partnerships, on-site learning opportunities through internships need to be created so that the partnerships can produce genuine career opportunities for students. The Bio-tech academy established by the Bayer Corporation at Berkeley High School and now in place at five other high schools in the Bay Area is a model of what can be accomplished. Students in the program receive advanced training in science and math, and through the participation of local community colleges and California State University at Hayward, students have the opportunity to pursue related studies in bio-technology so that they do not get stuck in entry level jobs. When done successfully, school-community partnerships can provide students with meaningful learning opportunities outside of school, enhance the relevance of what they learn in school, and in the process transform education from an activity that is strictly school-based, to one that is embraced by the entire community.
Third, school-community partnerships that lead to enhanced civic capacity can also focus on the provision of professional development services to school personnel. Given the high turn-over among teachers and administrators in a district like Oakland, there is an ongoing need for professional development and training. Partnerships with local universities may be the most effective way to provide support to teachers in pedagogy and curriculum content. However, public and private organizations can also play a role in supporting administrators, particularly school principals, who increasingly are required to take responsibility for a broad array of activities beyond traditional school management. Given the work demands that school personnel must contend with, most professional development activities need to be site-based. It is also important for those who provide the training and support to have a genuine knowledge of the work performed by educators.

Finally and most importantly, the area where civic capacity development is most urgently needed is in the provision of health and welfare services to students and their families. Throughout the country, there are several effective models for providing a range of services to students at schools. In all cases, the best programs are based upon a partnership between schools and community agencies. For example, the Children’s Aid Society in New York City operates eight community schools that offer health, dental, recreational and employment training services to students and their families (Dryfoos 1997). A number of Beacon and Full Service schools operate throughout the country and they often remain open twelve hours per day by drawing upon a second shift of community professionals to run after-school programs. While many of these programs are exceptional, the number of students served by them is miniscule. Most of the best programs operate at individual school sites, and not a single one operates throughout an entire school district.

Given the high levels of poverty among school children in Oakland, a comprehensive, city-wide strategy for providing social services at school sites is needed. For the sake of cost efficiency, this will necessarily involve improved cooperation between the School District, City government (which funds recreational and youth services), and County government (which funds health and social services). Private organizations (e.g. YMCA, Girls and Boys Clubs) as well as churches and non-profits can also play important roles in developing systems of support for students, but the large public agencies will undoubtedly have to take the lead since they control the bulk of resources for social services.

Given that all three of these public agencies provide services to the same population of families, improved coordination in service delivery could actually reduce redundancy and increase cost efficiency. However, inter-agency cooperation is difficult to accomplish on a large scale because the individuals staffing these organizations generally have no prior history of cooperating, and bureaucratic narrow mindedness is not a small hurdle to overcome. For this reason, leadership and support from the Mayor, Superintendent, School Board, and County Board of Supervisors, will be needed so that those who carry out coordination activities have the backing to overcome the obstacles they will inevitably encounter.


In contrast to many analyses of urban school systems in the United States (Kozol 1991; Maeroff 1990), it is my hope that the one presented here is relatively optimistic. I genuinely believe that it should be possible for Oakland public schools to effectively serve the educational needs of its students. Further, by creating conditions that enable schools to be held accountable by those they serve and drawing on the active support and participation of the numerous assets and resources present in the City, Oakland should be able to significantly improve its schools. This is not to suggest that the obstacles to bringing this transformation about are not formidable, but clearly the conditions and possibility for change does exist.

The same may not be true for other poor communities that have less money and fewer community assets. Strategies that develop the social capital of parents and civic capacity of communities in socially isolated areas where poverty is concentrated are less likely to produce lasting improvements in public schools. Small cities like East Palo Alto or Compton, California, North Chicago, Illinois or Poughkeepsie, N.Y., simply cannot be expected to elevate the quality of their schools on their own. In such places, the array of social and economic hardships besetting the community is so vast, and the availability of resources so limited, that outside assistance will be needed if change is to be made. In such places, the limitations of local control of schools and the inequities it tends to reinforce are most evident.

Rather than presuming that all schools can be treated the same, state and Federal officials must recognize that socioeconomic conditions within the local context can act as significant constraints limiting possibilities for local control of schools. Put more simply, without the power and resources to exert control over schools, low-income communities cannot be expected to hold their schools accountable. Nor is it reasonable to expect that schools in such communities will be able to solve the vast array of problems confronting students and their families on their own. Unless states enacts measures to mitigate against the effects of poverty and racial isolation, local control will remain little more than a guise through which the State can shirk its responsibility for insuring that all students have access to quality education.

The fractured nature of civil society in the U.S. may make it unlikely that policy makers will enact the kinds of far reaching changes in social policy that are needed. Ideology, racism and divisions related to class, national origin and even geography, have historically prevented politicians and vast segments of the general public from considering problems affecting the poor as a matter of national concern (Gans; Phillips;). The recently approved Leave No Child Behind Act, which will significantly increase the Federal government’s role in failing local school districts, is unlikely to provide the help that is needed. The measure does nothing to address the horrid conditions present in many failing schools, and it does not even begin to attempt to ameliorate the social inequities that impact schooling.

For African Americans the government’s continued neglect of public education represents a significant problem. Although reforming public schools will not eliminate poverty or racial discrimination, education continues to be the only legitimate source of opportunity available to the poor. Beyond the skills and job opportunities that education can make possible, it can also serve as a means for the poor and oppressed to imagine and more just social order (Freire 1973). Having the ability to imagine alternative possibilities is often how social movements that lead to greater societal change are born (Horton and Freire 1990). For communities struggling to meet basic needs, improvements in education can be an effective means to obtain tangible benefits even without other more far-reaching social reforms.

Public education has historically occupied a special place within American civil society because it has often been the birthplace of democratic reform (Tyack 1980). For African Americans, education has long been recognized as vital to collective improvement because “it is the one thing they can never take away” (Anderson 1988). Education is also the only social entitlement available to all children in the United States regardless of race, class or national origin (Carnoy and Levin 1986). In the last ten years, support for improving public education has also been the only domestic issue that has generated broad bi-partisan consensus among policymakers. Given its unique status it makes sense for those interested in finding ways to reduce poverty and racial inequality to focus at least some of their energies on efforts to improve the quality and character of public education in the United States.

Published in In Motion Magazine May 5, 2002

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