Book Reviews

Book Review: In The Crossfire: Marcus Foster and the Troubled History of American School Reform

Through the CrossfireIN THE CROSSFIRE: Marcus Foster and the Troubled History of American School Reform.  By John P. Spencer.  Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.  2012.

            Those who study the history of education realize that there are no quick fixes for providing equal educational opportunity for all.  Throughout America’s educational history, some groups (Whites and European immigrants) were given increased participation in public schooling while others groups (people of color, women and non European immigrants) continually faced limitations.  After more than a century of limited schooling opportunities for African Americans nationwide, and shortened efforts to address inequality, a new breed of school reformers believe that addressing the achievement gap, devoid of lessons from the 1960s will be the cure all for the problems of urban school reform.  John P. Spencer poses the biographical experiences of Marcus Foster as a “cautionary lesson” for current school reformers.  In Marcus Foster, author John Spencer writes, “we see that problems of access, of achievement, of resources, of responsibility, were more complicated than they appeared to be in polarized public debates over who was to blame” (3).  Furthermore, Foster’s story provides a sense of what is possible with school reform while confronting the restrictions of that same reform.

            In the Cross Fire chronicles the school leadership experiences of Marcus Foster.  As the principal of three Philadelphia schools and the superintendent of Oakland Public Schools, Foster was able to turn around schools others considered a failure.  With compensatory funding, Foster targeted teacher expectations, student and parental attitudes and involvement, as well as community and business support to revitalize the educational environments of the schools and district he led.  His charming personality as well as his ability to bring diverse people together to solve school problems served as an asset in fulfilling his goals.  Unlike Foster, current school reformers have taken a more adversarial approach by demonizing teachers and unions rather than working with them to solve problems.  Each time Foster became a principal at school, he gave teachers and other groups a seat at the table in determining how they would reform the school.  This inspired the teachers and gave them buy-in for the changes that would be necessary at each school.

            Spencer argues convincingly that liberals in the post World War II period expressed conflicting views about school problems.  Some blamed the school system and racist society for problems students experienced in schools.  Others used cultural deprivation arguments to determine that situations beyond the schools led to the problems by blaming the lack of abilities on students and their families.  Marcus Foster’s leadership bridged this ideological divide among liberals.  Foster took a more holistic approach to solving the problems in urban schools, recognizing both the societal and familial difficulties his students faced.

            This book is an important contribution to the debates currently occurring around school reform.  The push for excellence, and high stakes testing as the solution to narrowing the achievement gap without a concerted effort to provide additional funding for the schools with the most need is simplistic.  As Spencer rightly demonstrated, Foster made great strides in the schools he revitalized because he had additional compensatory funding to provide tutoring for students, outreach for communities, and additional services to improve the education of his students.  It is doubtful his efforts would have been as effective without the additional aid.

            This book is well written and researched.  Foster’s experiences are well situated in the context of the times, and Spencer superbly incorporates Foster’s work in the crossfire of the arguments around schooling in the 1960s.  Spencer also recognizes that the traditions of equality and of excellence have been long a part of the Black community’s cultural ethos and Foster comes from that tradition. 

There are only a few minor critiques that can be made of an otherwise excellent book.  First, the book is very repetitive particularly with Spencer’s constantly rehashing his arguments.  He left no doubt in readers’ minds about what he was arguing.  To a lesser extent, on a couple of occasions Spencer called nontraditional families “broken.”  Discussing families as “broken” has become outdated.  This terminology makes children of these families feel as if there is something wrong with the people who come together to give them a home.  Additionally, in a critique of proponents of community control in Ocean Hill Brownsville, Spencer agreed with historian Jerald Podair’s assessment.  Spencer determined that black educators’ rejection of white middle class values did not accompany calls for “respect for learning, hard work, and a desire to improve one’s condition.”  Blacks and Puerto Ricans have long demanded educational excellence they believed some white educators failed to provide.  Community control was an attempt to create an environment for that excellence to flourish, not an opposition to excellence.  Moreover, the values Spencer spoke of were not limited to the white middle class.  Blacks and many poor people have long sought to improve their lives and have worked hard often in spite of minimal reward for that work.

            In spite of these minor criticisms, this is an important study for those concerned with educational leadership, school reform, and the context for understanding current educational initiatives.  Marcus Foster’s professional career highlights the tensions and possibilities in revitalizing urban educational systems.  Spencer should be commended for such an important and timely study.

by Dionne DannsIndiana University

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