The Ocean Hill-Brownsville Demonstration District is by now a symbol of the movement for community control of public schools. At the time of its inception in mid-1967, Ocean Hill-Brownsville—one of three such demonstration districts in New York City—represented an attempt to address the problem of massive educational retardation in ghetto schools which had been revealed in the school-by-school reading scores released by the New York City Board of Education at the end of 1966. By decentralizing the mammoth city school system and giving black parents and educators a chance to rescue pupils from the stultifying grip of the white civil-service bureaucracy—so the argument of its proponents went—community control would significantly improve the educational achievement of ghetto children.
To be sure, there were many other reasons advanced for supporting community control as a political strategy, but its adherents were all agreed that the schools’ failure to educate ghetto children—on the verifiable, objective, and undeniable evidence of low reading scores—was in itself compelling argument for change. Ocean Hill-Brownsville, by virtue of events the most public of the city’s three demonstration districts, was the arena where community control as an educational reform was most visibly on trial.
Ocean Hill-Brownsville survived as a separate, experimental district for three academic years, from the fall of 1967 until June 1970. Its first year was devoted to getting set up, starting new programs, probing the limits of the authority accorded by the central board; it was also a year of thrust and parry between the district’s elected governing board and the United Federation of Teachers, culminating in the involuntary transfer (or firing) of nineteen teachers and supervisors on May 9, 1968. The second year was one of conflict and controversy; in the first three months of the fall semester, teachers were out on strike all over the city, while the schools of Ocean Hill remained open, staffed by their own, anti-UFT personnel. Following the strikes, Ocean Hill-Brownsville operated with its own teachers, as well as those few UFT teachers who chose to remain after the final strike settlement. In its last year, the district (which was abolished by the 1969 decentralization law and absorbed into the larger District 23) received $4 million in state and federal funds to establish a Community Education Center, thus getting a. well-subsidized opportunity to demonstrate educational effectiveness.
During the fall 1968 strikes, a steady stream of prominent visitors made the long trip out to Ocean Hill. These visitors may have expected to encounter their private vision of a ghetto school: bleak, chaotic, repressed. Instead, they discovered schools where the latest educational innovations were in use. There were self-programmed reading materials, a Montessori-type kindergarten, a Bereiter-Engelmann program, extensive employment of paraprofessionals, the Madison Math Project, a bilingual school, and an Afro-American Studies Center. To many who had become discouraged with compensatory education (too expensive and of questionable impact) and integration (politically impossible where most needed), community control appeared to offer the solution to a vexing quandary: quality education in the depths of the urban ghetto.
Many of those who published their impressions of Ocean Hill believed that they had seen the future and that it worked. I. F. Stone made the trip to Ocean Hill and reported that it was “like waking from a nightmare,” compared to what he had been led to expect. “The visit was therapeutic . . . the real concern within the embattled district was simply to create effective schools. . . . I felt it would be a tragedy if this experiment in community control were shut down.” He described district officials: “I have never met a more devoted group of people. All of them are harassed and overworked but sustained by a combination of desperation and joy, desperation because they fear the experiment may soon be wiped out under union pressure, joy in a chance to demonstrate in the little time they have what community control could accomplish. . . . And their focus is on the child.” In Stone’s assessment, the parents wanted better education, while the union and the bureaucracy were fighting to perpetuate their special privileges.
During the same period, the noted literary critic Alfred Kazin wrote an article in the New York Times about his visit to Ocean Hill-Brownsville. He had grown up in the district and recalled the fervor for education of the poor Jewish immigrants who lived there. In his article, titled “The Holy Flame of Learning,” he wrote that “the flame burns hotter than ever. . . . The intentness all over the place audibly vibrated in my ears.”
Another visitor, Dwight Macdonald, publicly repudiated his previous endorsement of a pro-UFT statement. He returned from Ocean Hill impressed by “the friendly, serious, relaxed atmosphere. . . . Ocean Hill reinforced the prejudice I’ve always had in favor of amateurs who don’t know how to do it but, as the etymology suggests, love doing it.”
Admirers of the district quite naturally expected that the new educational atmosphere in Ocean Hill would contribute to positive educational results. Thus, for example, Nat Hentoff, writing in the Village Voice: “. . . ghetto children can learn if teachers are convinced they can learn. In the unlikely event the Ocean Hill-Brownsville experimental district is at peace for the next two years, I would expect a substantial rise in achievement in those schools because of the staff that has been there from the beginning of the school year. I have no idea how many of them are fully licensed, and I don’t think it matters in view of their attitude toward the children.” This column was written in the fall of 1968; the Ocean Hill district did survive for two academic years afterward, though not “at peace.”
Some sympathizers of Ocean Hill and community control went beyond personal reactions and speculation to declare in the heat of battle that Ocean Hill had already achieved academic success, that it had made the breakthrough in ghetto education which so many others had fruitlessly sought, and that it was the crest of an irresistible wave. Statements from Rhody McCoy, unit administrator of the project, and from the project’s governing board, fed this conviction. A typical press release, soon after the strikes were settled, claimed that
From September 9, till the teachers’ strike was settled on November 19, the Ocean Hill community proved to the entire world that, with 580 Principals, Assistant Principals and teachers who respected us and our children under real community control, our children could learn as never before. Forget all the so-called arguments of “due-process.” Forget all the tales of whether “decentralization” was dead or alive . . . remember only that our 9,000 children really started learning. . . .
The district’s self-evaluation was taken at face-value by many outsiders. For instance, Fred Ferretti wrote in New York magazine that Rhody McCoy had “wrought, in slightly over a year, deep organic change in the eight schools of the district. . . . It is revolutionary in this white- and blue-collar city today to believe that children in an almost totally black neighborhood might possibly be taught to read as well as kids in ‘better’ all-white schools. McCoy believes it and the kids in Ocean Hill-Brownsville are reading better, despite the pamphlets of the United Federation of Teachers. It is a revolutionary thought to most whites that black and Spanish-speaking kids might actually like to go to school.” Ferretti declared that McCoy’s innovative reading course “has succeeded in raising the reading levels of many children in the district in a remarkably short time.”
Similar sentiments were advanced by the New York Civil Liberties Union, which entered the conflict during the strikes with a one-sided blast at the UFT. The NYCLU did not contend that community control was a panacea. It did, however, conclude that, “with all the vicissitudes of the past year, there continue to be signs that the experiment in local community control is bringing about substantial improvements in education in Ocean Hill-Brownsville.” They saw these “improvements” as “an encouraging sign that a real breakthrough may be made in bringing about educational equality.”
In what must have been the most foolish document to appear during the entire contretemps, the New York Urban Coalition asserted that community control was the “one answer” to the failure of the public schools. The Urban Coalition took out a full-page advertisement in the New York Times with the headline, “If it works for Scarsdale, it can work for Ocean Hill.” The advertisement implied that the public schools of upper-income, suburban Scarsdale were better than those of New York City simply because Scarsdale has community control. The education task force of the Urban Coalition consisted essentially of two groups: high-powered businessmen and lawyers who knew little about the public schools, and militant blacks and Puerto Ricans who were deeply committed to total community control. The former relied on the latter to inform them about the school system. The New York Urban Coalition may have been alone in contending that community control was the “one answer” to the complex problems of the city’s schools, but it was hardly alone in its belief that community control would result in higher educational achievement.
Political support for Ocean Hill was intimately tied to the conviction that the district was achieving dramatic educational gains. Academic verification for the claims made by Rhody McCoy came from the Queens College Institute for Community Studies, which funneled more than $1 million in Ford Foundation grants to the demonstration districts and which both assisted and observed their operations. Community, the publication of the Institute, stated in mid-1969 that “at this point reports are being filed with the district office which attest to the effectiveness of the program. Some children have jumped several grades in basic skills and there are at least two cases of students skipping five grade levels.”
While the state legislature was arguing the future of the school system in the spring of 1969, a new claim was put forward in a television debate between Jerome Kretchmer, who was then an Assemblyman and the leader of the community-control forces in the legislature, and Albert Shanker, head of the UFT. Kretchmer quoted Rhody McCoy as saying “that by February 1, 1970, every youngster in that school system will be classified as a reader. There will no longer be any students in that school system, in that district, classified as non-readers.” That is the kind of change, said Kretchmer, to be expected from a decentralized system, “if we allow that system to have a little bit of its own head.” Shanker protested, apparently to no effect, that Ocean Hill had no way of knowing such statistics, since it was the only district in the city which had not participated in the standardized citywide reading tests.
By this time, however, some supporters of the district were saying that it should not be judged on the basis of reading scores in any case, since these were a “fraudulent” gauge of children’s learning. A teacher at JHS 271 complained in an article in the New York Times Magazine that the project would be “evaluated in terms of the established conventional criteria: reading scores, discipline, standardized achievement tests, etc. . . . We have a problem when these criteria fail to measure the extent to which a child has been educated, when they simply test rote memorization, stifling of initiative and training in sitting through standardized examinations. Unleashed creativity, or a critical outlook, for example, would probably lower a child’s scores on these exams, rather than raise them.” The teacher concluded nevertheless that since these “conventional criteria” would determine the survival of the project, “we must miseducate the children before we will be allowed to educate them.” Implicitly, then, he accepted the necessity of teaching children to master standardized tests of reading and mathematics before winning the freedom to “unleash” their creativity.
The significance of reading scores was also denigrated by advocates of community control in the academic-foundation world. In Community Control and the Urban School, Mario Fantini (Ford Foundation), Marilyn Gittell (Queens College Institute for Community Studies), and Richard Magat (Ford Foundation) held that reading scores reflected static, cognitive learning, which was less desirable than affective learning, that is, personality-conscious, humanistic education. They predicted that community-controlled schools would evolve into “humanistic patterns” which would be more sensitive to children’s needs than bureaucratically-controlled schools.
There was something of a contradiction in these reformist views. On the one hand, the single issue which had stimulated widespread disaffection with the public school system was the hard data of reading scores which showed large numbers of children unable to read at grade level. Yet many of the same people who had brandished these figures in high indignation were now saying that reading scores had little to do with learning. McCoy had to satisfy two constituencies at once: the academic-foundation types who held the purse strings, and the parents of the district who wanted demonstrable academic progress.
Rhody McCoy resolved the dilemma ingeniously. Throughout 1968 and 1969, he refused to submit the children of his district to any tests, but nevertheless continued to release figures attesting to the rapid improvement of reading scores. On the eve of the community school-board elections in the spring of 1970, which community-control partisans boycotted, McCoy distributed a notice to parents of the district, which began:
THE DISTRICT HAS JUST COMPLETED ITS PROGRESS report on the reading and math abilities of our elementary school children.
THIS IS A REPORT SCHOOL-BY-SCHOOL. A more detailed report will soon be made public. Schools and the number of pupils who have made substantial progress (grades 3, 4, 5). P.S. 73-67%, P.S. 87-76%, P.S. 137-66%, P.S. 144-55%, P.S. 155-58%, P.S. 178-69%.
NOTE: THIS DOES NOT INCLUDE PUPILS:
- Already on or above grade level.
- Pupils with excessive absence.
- Pupils not here in September or who have had only one test.
- The district average is 64% reported from November to March.
The rest of the “progress report” was devoted to urging parents not to vote in the school-board elections; one of the consequences of voting, wrote McCoy. would be to “legalize your child’s failure” and to “end all of the programs that are working well for your children.” The notice did not define what “substantial progress” was, what the cited percentages represented, how many pupils were tested, or what kind of test was used. To date, neither city nor state education officials know of any achievement tests administered in Ocean Hill-Brownsville.
Almost two years have now passed since the dissolution of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville project, and neither state nor city authorities have as yet evaluated this much-publicized, highly controversial experiment. This fact is not the least remarkable of the many remarkable aspects of Ocean Hill-Brownsville. From the start, considered simply as an experiment, it was ill-conceived. There was no control group or any other standard by which to gauge its effectiveness. State officials who were assigned to the offices of the district now claim that there was no systematic or reliable record-keeping and that any other district which handled its internal affairs so inefficiently would have been dissolved by state authorities. Furthermore, the records and reports of the state trustees who supervised the district after the strikes, as well as the papers of the state supervisory committee (which protected teachers’ rights citywide as part of the strike settlement), have been locked away and may never be seen again. It is as though a conscious effort were being made to close the book on Ocean Hill-Brownsville forever.
So long as the Ocean Hill district existed, its officials refused to administer the standardized reading tests which were given to other city schools. State officials, sympathetic to the district’s rejection of the city’s lockstep procedures, invited the district to use any other reading test or to devise one of its own. The offer was declined. All that the public could discern about the district, therefore, was what the district disseminated about itself, without any means of outside evaluation.
The day came at last, however, when the eight schools which had made up Ocean Hill-Brownsville submitted to the same reading tests as the rest of the city’s schools. This did not occur until the spring of 1971, less than a year after the governing board and the district had been dissolved. Standardized tests (the Metropolitan Reading Achievement Tests) were administered at that time throughout the city, in accordance with a section of the 1969 decentralization law. Those schools which ranked below the 45th percentile of citywide reading scores on these tests were permitted to recruit teachers outside the usual bureaucratic process.
By the test of reading scores, the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Demonstration District was a failure. Every school in the district reported poor reading scores—as compared with other schools in the city, with other schools in the borough of Brooklyn, and even with other ghetto schools generally. The highest-scoring school in the district, an elementary school, had only 24.5 per cent of its pupils reading on or above grade level. Junior High School 271 ranked as the next-to-lowest school in Brooklyn, with only 5.5 per cent of its students reading on or above grade level.
The results of the 1971 tests were lower even than those of the tests given to the same schools in 1967, before the experiment was initiated. In 1967, for instance, seventh-graders at JHS 271 scored 5.4 (five grades and four months, more than two years behind reading level); the normal reading score for the seventh grade would have been 7.7, seven grades and seven months. In 1971, the seventh grade at this same school scored 4.7 on two separate tests, dropping a full three years behind what is considered a normal reading level for that grade. Nor was the seventh grade an aberration: the eighth grade at JHS 271 scored more than three years behind, recording a 5.5 and 5.4 on two different tests in 1971. No school in the former Ocean Hill-Brownsville district recorded a higher score in 1971 than it had in 1967.
Besides failing to show any improvement in reading, Ocean Hill-Brownsville schools had a serious attendance problem. The pupil absentee rate throughout the city is normally 10 per cent. Ocean Hill’s absentee rate during 1968-69 was far higher. Contrary to Rhody McCoy’s statement that during the teachers’ strike, “our 9,000 children really started learning,” about half of the district’s enrollment was not even in school at that time. The district’s own figures, as filed with the Institute for Community Studies at Queens College, show an opening-day enrollment of 8,534. The attendance on September 19, during the second strike, was reported to be 5,293; on November 18, during the third and longest strike, attendance was 4,439. By the district’s own accounting, then, close to 50 per cent of its students were out of school; state observers believe that the true figure was closer to 70 per cent. After the strike, there continued to be an unusually high absentee rate; the district reported an attendance of 6,780 on January 23, 1969, and of 6,483 on February 6.
The district had 580 professional staff members, making a ratio of one professional to every eight-to-ten pupils. With such a favorable ratio, with the numerous paraprofessionals also on staff, with an unusual concentration of academic and foundation support, with a broad array of innovative materials and expensive educational “hardware,” the educational program might have been expected to produce results. Yet there is no evidence that anything was accomplished by the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Demonstration District, in terms of teaching children to read.
Schools exist, in the first instance, to provide basic literacy. Schools which cannot teach reading and writing probably cannot teach anything else, certainly not humane values. It may be that standardized achievement tests elicit the “wrong” kind of learning, whatever that means, yet parents generally expect the schools to deliver literacy before embarking on innovative paths. This point, ultimately, is one of the crowning ironies of community control. Though community control has been advanced by educational radicals as a means of freeing the schools from bureaucratic conservatism and conventional thinking, in fact, elected parent-community boards tend to be more conservative, more middle class, and more bound to traditional approaches than most professional educators. Real community pressure, especially in poor and working-class areas, is in the direction of making sure that children are being equipped for entry into the middle class. This explains why Rhody McCoy felt compelled to demonstrate conventional achievement to Ocean Hill-Brownsville parents with impressive-sounding figures. The Ocean Hill-Brownsville governing board may have appeared radical and innovative to the outside world, but in fact it was desperately trying any and all means to achieve the traditional goals of higher reading scores and discipline in the halls. The community wanted educational results. At the very least, parents wanted assurance that their children were learning to read and write at grade level.
It still remains true, in New York City as elsewhere, that schools with middle-class children—whether white or black—record higher achievement scores than schools with lower-class children, no matter who controls the schools. And it is equally true that the problems of poverty—hunger, family instability, sickness, unemployment, and despair—cannot be solved by the schools alone. No amount of administrative experimentation seems to be able to change these facts. Of Ocean Hill-Brownsville it cannot be said that anyone gained educationally from the experiment in community control. On the contrary, after all the publicity and conflict, after all the bold rhetoric and revolutionary expectations, after all the money spent, jobs allocated, new machinery and programs introduced, the children of the district cannot read as well today as they did five years ago.