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

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

by John P. Spencer

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As media reports declare crisis after crisis in public education, Americans find themselves hotly debating educational inequalities that seem to violate their nation's ideals. Why does success in school track so closely with race and socioeconomic status? How to end these apparent achievement gaps? In the Crossfire brings historical perspective to these


As media reports declare crisis after crisis in public education, Americans find themselves hotly debating educational inequalities that seem to violate their nation's ideals. Why does success in school track so closely with race and socioeconomic status? How to end these apparent achievement gaps? In the Crossfire brings historical perspective to these debates by tracing the life and work of Marcus Foster, an African American educator who struggled to reform urban schools in the 1960s and early 1970s.

As a teacher, principal, and superintendent—first in his native Philadelphia and eventually in Oakland, California—Foster made success stories of urban schools and children whom others had dismissed as hopeless, only to be assassinated in 1973 by the previously unknown Symbionese Liberation Army in a bizarre protest against an allegedly racist school system. Foster's story encapsulates larger social changes in the decades after World War II: the great black migration from South to North, the civil rights movement, the decline of American cities, and the ever-increasing emphasis on education as a ticket to success. Well before the accountability agenda of the No Child Left Behind Act or the rise of charter schools, Americans came into sharp conflict over urban educational failure, with some blaming the schools and others pointing to conditions in homes and neighborhoods. By focusing on an educator who worked in the trenches and had a reputation for bridging divisions, In the Crossfire sheds new light on the continuing ideological debates over race, poverty, and achievement.

Foster charted a course between the extremes of demanding too little and expecting too much of schools as agents of opportunity in America. He called for accountability not only from educators but also from families, taxpayers, and political and economic institutions. His effort to mobilize multiple constituencies was a key to his success—and a lesson for educators and policymakers who would take aim at achievement gaps without addressing the full range of school and nonschool factors that create them.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Marcus Foster is not as well known in education circles as Horace Mann, Maria Montessori, or Benjamin Bloom. Through this work, Spencer (education, Ursinus Coll.) details Foster's role in education, from his early career as a teacher in Philadelphia through his rise to superintendent of Oakland Public Schools. The author demonstrates that, in addition to his charm and charisma, Foster's success lay in his ability to recognize the good in various sides of an issue and his unwillingness to settle for less than the best for all students. Compensatory education, school-community relations, and shared accountability were methods that worked and were popular, but also caused friction and led to his assassination in 1973 by members of the Symbionese Liberation Army, who mistakenly believed that Foster supported a controversial plan to require student identification cards in Oakland schools. VERDICT This is a fascinating look into one of education's more successful but less prominent figures, and will find an audience with educators, historians, and the general public.—Terry Christner, Hutchinson P.L., KS
From the Publisher
"This is a fascinating look into one of education's more successful but less prominent figures, and will find an audience with educators, historians, and the general public."—Library Journal

"This excellent biography of a remarkable educator enriches the history of urban education. By carefully examining Foster's work in Philadelphia and Oakland, California from 1958 to 1973, John Spencer sheds new light on a pivotal era in the evolution of African American schools. . . . This well-written and persuasively argued study should be required reading in courses on the principalship, school-community relations, multiculturalism, and urban education."—Education Review

"In the Crossfire does an exemplary job of narrating Foster's educational and occupational trajectory, first as student in the Jim Crow South, then as a teacher and principal in Philadelphia, and finally as an administrator in Oakland. Yet Spencer accomplishes so much more than this. While he grounds his analysis in the singular life of one man, Spencer expertly utilizes Foster to tell a much larger story about the "troubled history" of urban education, equality, and school reform in the postwar period."—Journal of American Studies

"In the Crossfire is well researched and the author attentively places the story in the context of social and economic change and national struggles over civil rights and educational equity."—Journal of American History

"Can education improve life chances for the least fortunate among us? Or do school reformers ask too much of schools, which will never provide a solvent for American inequality? As Marcus Foster taught us, the answer is both: although schools can surely 'make a difference,' they can't overcome the yawning social and economic differences that continue to haunt us. John Spencer has produced a splendid study of a long-neglected educator, whose life ended in violence and tragedy. But Foster's message lives on, and we would all be wise to listen to it."—Jonathan Zimmerman, New York University

"In this timely and important book, John Spencer situates the tragically shortened life of the brilliant African American educator Marcus Foster in multiple contexts: the history of urban education, urban politics, and debates around strategies of school reform. Foster was one of the most dynamic and influential urban educators of the 1960s and early 1970s, and his career coincided with momentous developments in civil rights, the urban violence that rocked American cities, and economic crisis. Given the current prominence of school reform as an issue of national importance, In the Crossfire should have a wide and varied readership."—Michael Katz, University of Pennsylvania

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University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc.
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Politics and Culture in Modern America Series
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.01(d)

Read an Excerpt


On November 6, 1973, Marcus Foster, the African American superintendent of the Oakland Public Schools, was assassinated by members of the previously unknown Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). This book chronicles Foster's life and work, and it explores what his story can tell us about the history and current circumstances of urban education and American school reform.

Who was Marcus Foster? Outside of Oakland and his native Philadelphia, Foster tends to be remembered—if he is remembered at all—for the sensational nature of his death. When reminded, Americans of a certain age might recall that the SLA killed him just before the group became famous for kidnapping publishing heiress Patty Hearst. And while I am younger and do not remember Foster's assassination, it is certainly the detail that first caught my eye as a historian. Why would the SLA (whose "brainwashing" of Hearst was a source of great mystery to me as a nine-year-old just coming into awareness of national events) kill a school superintendent—and a widely admired one at that?

It was, in fact, Foster's position as the chief administrator in a troubled school district that drew attention to him. After several years in Oakland, Foster was caught in the middle of a heated controversy over a wave of school violence and vandalism. On one side, a number of East Bay politicians, educators, and citizens were pressuring him to make a stronger showing of law and order, including, perhaps, the placement of armed, uniformed police officers in some predominantly black schools. On the other side, the Black Panthers and other activists denounced the proposed security plan as a "fascist" device for blaming school problems on students whom the system had failed. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the participants, a black escaped convict named Donald DeFreeze latched onto the controversy in his own peculiarly chilling way. DeFreeze had been looking for a public figure to assassinate in order to launch the SLA and thereby ignite "the Revolution." In the end, he and a handful of white coconspirators settled on Foster because they believed (incorrectly) that the superintendent was a driving force behind the police-in-schools proposal.

Foster's bizarre and tragic death is an inescapable part of his story, especially for those who were closest to him. But as I quickly learned, Foster's life prior to 1973, and its enduring significance since then, are an even richer subject. In part, the richness is biographical. Born in 1923, Foster was the fifth and youngest child of a single mother who struggled to pass on a family legacy of African American achievement through education. As a dynamic teacher, principal, and administrator—first in his native Philadelphia and then in Oakland—he made success stories of urban schools and children whom others had dismissed as hopeless, only to be murdered by self-styled revolutionaries who denounced him as an Uncle Tom for trying to change the school system from within. At the same time, Foster's story offers a valuable lens on larger social and political changes in the decades following World War II: the great black migration from South to North, the civil rights movement, the violence and economic decline that rocked American cities, and the ever-increasing emphasis on educational achievement as a ticket to success in American life.

But why Foster? What can the experiences of a single educator teach us about the intersections of race, inequality, and education in the postwar era? Foster's story highlights how education, and especially the quintessentially American idea of schooling as the key to one's social and economic advancement, took on new importance in the context of postwar struggles over racial inequality and urban decline. In tracing Foster's life and work, we see, first of all, how the underachievement of black children became a contentious issue well before the 1960s and came to play a significant role in the crisis of postwar liberalism. This crisis played out in such divisive events as urban riots, fierce public debate over publication of the Moynihan Report (as The Negro Family came to be known), and African Americans' efforts to take direct control of the schools in their communities. By looking at these and other conflicts over education and inequality through the eyes of a black educator who wrestled with them on the ground in individual schools, we are able to see them in a new light.

From Foster's vantage point—in the classroom, from the principal's office, as superintendent—we see that the 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. Moreover, in Foster's responses to these problems, we see more clearly the possibilities as well as the limitations of reform. In contrast to other stalemates that pitted communities against schools—the most infamous being the conflict over "community control" in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of New York City—Foster led school revitalization efforts that were notably successful because he was able to—indeed, had to—mobilize diverse constituencies. At the same time, his career dramatized the dangers of making too much out of such success—of assuming urban schools could bring equal opportunity and achievement to their students, if only educators (especially African American ones) would roll up their sleeves and insist on success. Ultimately, Foster's story shows us poignantly that schools and their students were shaped by larger social and economic forces that no educator, no matter how talented, hard working, and effective (as Foster surely was), could transcend on his or her own. To expect otherwise, as Foster increasingly emphasized when he rose to leadership at the district level, was to set the stage for disillusionment and retreat. In this sense, Foster's work—his achievements as well as his limitations—is not simply a matter of historical interest; it offers a cautionary lesson for current school reforms that aim to eliminate racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps, showing how those efforts build on, and at the same time ignore, important lessons from the 1960s.


The idea that education is the key to a person's social and economic advancement is an old and powerful one in the United States, going back to the founding of public school systems in the early nineteenth century. To be sure, the father of American public education, Horace Mann of Massachusetts, saw many purposes for state-supported school systems, including the Jeffersonian idea of educating citizens for democracy—and some critics continue to prefer civic and intellectual purposes of public schooling to a more instrumentalist economic agenda. Still, one of Mann's most enduring ideas was that education would be "the great equalizer of the conditions of men." Perhaps no group of citizens has been as invested in this idea—or as frustrated by the gap between idea and reality—as African Americans. Blacks were initially barred altogether from access to public education, and in the process they were not only denied a possible avenue of social advancement; they were stigmatized as an intellectually inferior people. As a result, educational achievement has been a core value and goal for African Americans, especially since emancipation. As we will see, there are serious problems with schooling as the "great equalizer." Yet it remains a powerful idea, and understandably so: in the wake of deindustrialization, civil rights progress, and an expansion of white-collar public sector jobs since the 1960s, education has come to play an increasingly important role in shaping social and economic opportunity in the United States.

Given the importance of education to Americans in general and to black Americans in particular, it is not surprising that the persistent underachievement of African Americans has become an increasingly contentious issue over the past half century. The controversy in Oakland over placing police officers in schools is part of a much larger debate that has raged in educational and public policy circles ever since African American migration transformed the nation's cities during and after World War II: Why have urban blacks lagged so persistently behind other groups in school and in economic life generally? Who is responsible? What can and should be done about these inequalities? Argument over these questions has been fierce. Though Marcus Foster's murder in a crossfire of bullets was indeed extreme, it is, in some ways, symbolic of a larger political and ideological crossfire over how to effectively explain and respond to the "urban crisis" and, in particular, the persistent problems of urban schools that serve African American students.

For most of American history, until the years of Marcus Foster's childhood in the 1920s, the predominant answer to the question of why blacks lagged behind in educational attainment was racist: blacks were supposedly unequal to whites because they were biologically different and inferior. As Foster came of age in the 1930s and 1940s, however, racist ideologies were giving way to a new "racial liberalism" associated most famously with the sociologist Gunnar Myrdal and his landmark book, An American Dilemma (1944). According to postwar liberals, racial inequality was not a product of inborn racial differences, nor did it result, as more left-leaning critics contended, from white privilege and power in an exploitative system. Rather, it was a matter of attitudes that could be adjusted—a correctable flaw in an otherwise free and fair society. Blacks were not inherently different or inferior; they had been blocked from participating and succeeding in American society by irrational white "prejudice." Compounding the problem, according to Myrdal and many other liberals, blacks had responded to their exclusion by developing dysfunctional attitudes and behaviors that reinforced existing white prejudices and kept them at the bottom of the social system—in all, a vicious cycle of discrimination and "cultural pathology."

The story of how postwar liberals optimistically looked to the nation's schools to break this alleged cycle of white prejudice and black failure is at the center of this book. To an extent that has not been widely emphasized among historians, urban schools were a focal point in the development of racial liberalism after World War II. It is important to note that liberals were not a monolithic group in this or any other period. Some were rooted primarily in civil rights activism and tended to prioritize the fight against various forms of prejudice and discrimination, including segregated schools and low academic expectations. In education, the most familiar outgrowth of these efforts was the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education (though much research remains to be done on the implementation and meaning of Brown in urban settings outside of the South). Others, including social scientists, government officials, and foundation officers, tended to emphasize the "cultural pathology" part of the vicious circle, emphasizing the need for blacks to assimilate white, middle-class cultural norms. An important expression of this view was the Johnson administration's War on Poverty, which included a heavy focus on "compensatory" education programs for "deprived" inner-city children. In spite of these differences in focus, however, racial liberals shared an overarching belief that some combination of these impediments (prejudice, discrimination, and cultural pathology, as opposed to black inferiority or a fundamentally exploitative system) was responsible for black inequality, and that the time had come to eliminate these obstacles to racial integration. Unlike their predecessors in the New Deal era, postwar liberals put racial inequality on the nation's political agenda—and by the 1960s they came to emphasize education and training (as opposed to 1930s-style jobs programs and other elements of an economic safety net for vulnerable citizens) as a centerpiece of federal law and antipoverty policies.

If this book traces the rise of the education-oriented racial liberalism that shaped Foster's development, it also examines the splintering of that liberal vision into a more polarized debate, stretching from the later years of his career into our own time. Conflicts over busing are already an iconic example of how K-12 education figured into the crisis of liberalism and the social and political turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s. But just as Brown was part of a larger story of educational ferment in the 1940s and 1950s, so, too, was busing part of a wider struggle over the status of African American youth in the nation's big cities and schools—a struggle that played a role in splitting the liberal political coalition that built the New Deal and the Great Society. No sooner had President Johnson launched the War on Poverty in 1964 (based partly on a pilot project that involved Foster in the Philadelphia public schools) than the ghettos of North Philadelphia, Harlem, and several other cities erupted in violence and looting, much of it involving teenagers. A few years later, in one of the most traumatic racial incidents of the 1960s in Philadelphia, police brutally assaulted a multitude of black high school students who had gathered at the school administration building to protest racial discrimination and a Eurocentric curriculum.

Americans came into sharp disagreement as they attempted to explain these and other urban problems—including what came to be called the "achievement gap" between students of different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. Some zeroed in on the strand of liberalism that emphasized cultural deprivation among low-income African Americans—though often with a more somber emphasis on the schools' relative inability to overcome these deficits. The massive federal study Equality of Educational Opportunity, better known as the Coleman Report, was especially influential in this vein. Others, especially civil rights activists, sharpened their critique of discrimination and racism: black children were failing not because of deficiencies in their own culture and home environments but because white-run schools were not educating them. To these critics, liberals such as James Coleman and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (author of the controversial report, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, better known as the Moynihan Report) were guilty of "blaming the victim" for institutional and societal failures. Still others—especially sociologists and historians—began to pursue more radical critiques, challenging the very notion that schools could foster equal opportunity in a fundamentally unequal capitalist society.

These arguments were not mutually exclusive. The problems of educational and social inequality were more complex than liberals had realized, and the various critiques of liberalism held the possibility of a more sophisticated approach to urban schooling, one that would emphasize the need for reforms (especially in terms of academic expectations, teacher quality, and funding) and the importance of addressing social, cultural, and economic conditions beyond school walls. Often, though, debates over the problems of cities and their schools became polarized in a more simplistic way, between those who blamed the schools for achievement gaps and demanded that those gaps be eliminated and those who insisted that urban schools were victims of social and cultural forces beyond their control.

A striking example of such polarization was the notorious 1968 battle between white teachers and black activists over community control of public schools in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of New York City. In one sense, Ocean Hill-Brownsville was a power struggle: black parents and community activists gained a measure of local control over their neighborhood schools and used it to fire white teachers who were members of the United Federation of Teachers. (After a series of strikes that divided white and black New Yorkers as bitterly as any event of the 1960s, the UFT prevailed in reinstating the teachers.) But community control was not just about power; it was also a clash between warring interpretations of who was responsible for low achievement: culturally deprived black students or racist white teachers?

By focusing on a school-based educator who had a reputation for bridging the divide, In the Crossfire offers a different perspective on this ideological crossfire over race and achievement. Of course, teachers and principals do not have all the answers simply because they are "in the trenches"; being in schools may, in fact, lead to a myopic view. But in Foster's case, long experience with the daily life of schools and children was one reason he tended to take a more eclectic and less ideologically pure approach to urban educational problems than did many of the policymakers, commentators, and activists who weighed in on those problems from the outside.

Foster's friend and colleague Bob Blackburn was especially well positioned to grasp the significance of what he calls Foster's "long apprenticeship as an educator." Blackburn worked with Foster in Philadelphia and went with him to Oakland to serve as his deputy superintendent—in which capacity he was nearly killed in the assassination—but by comparison with his boss, he was an outsider in the world of school reform, having come to it as a civil rights activist with no classroom experience. "We were kids on the bus coming down to meet [Mississippi civil rights activist] Fannie Lou Hamer—and Marcus was Fannie Lou Hamer," Blackburn says of himself and others of his generation who gravitated to urban school reform as a way to work for social justice. "Almost all the people that you think of being superintendents or educational hell-raisers or foundation officials or national organizations . . . they simply weren't as steeped in their craft as [Marcus] was . . . I mean, it's the difference between those who have the political zeal to see injustice ended, and those whose personal history is drenched in that injustice. And in Marcus's case, it was drenched in struggling to get kids to be effective readers and to see what social studies really meant to children in primary grades."

As a result of this long immersion in school improvement from the ground up, Foster was able to combine an activist's sense of urgency with a practitioner's sense of the complexity of the job. As a principal of three all-black schools and later as a superintendent, he insisted that educators raise academic expectations of low-income and minority children and be held more accountable for their achievement or failure; in that sense, he helped pioneer a critique of racial and class bias in American public education. But Foster was a critic of the system from within. In contrast to some outside the profession, he did not single out educators for blame; he recognized a range of factors, both inside and beyond the schools, that affect student achievement. Moreover, he translated this critique into actual change, energizing a wide range of people, including teachers, students, parents, politicians, and taxpayers, to work together and help turn around troubled schools.

Foster's ability to engage a wide spectrum of people emerged as a major theme of the oral history interviews I conducted for this project; interviewees invariably praised his ability to communicate with and mobilize diverse constituencies in the name of reform. Partly this was due to his varied life experiences and his legendary charisma and communication skills. School reformer Theodore Sizer, who was a thirty-something dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education when he encountered Foster in the 1960s, was struck by his infectious optimism and his ability to relate to all kinds of students: "He was a roaming-the-halls principal. He had a remarkable ability to sense the wavelength, even among kids who had good reason to be distressed." Foster could relate to even his toughest students because he, too, was a product of gritty urban neighborhoods in South Philadelphia. For this reason, for example, student militants at Gratz High School not only were willing to let him know they wanted to use violent tactics during a conflict between the school and the school board; they were willing to obey him when he responded, "Fellas, that's not the way. Violence is not the way."

But Foster's effectiveness with diverse people and groups was not just a matter of personal charm and shared life experiences; it also came from his willingness to take competing viewpoints seriously and synthesize them into a more complete and inclusive response to urban school problems. This sounded like a very different story than Ocean Hill-Brownsville, and I was motivated to write this book partly to explore the apparent contrast. In this sense, In the Crossfire is first and foremost a work of history that culminates in the early 1970s and provides a kind of alternative to the New York story.

At the same time, I have been struck by the continuing relevance of Foster's story in our own time, and as a result, the book is not only about the past: it draws on history to make an argument about school reform debates in the present. Foster lamented the powerful correlation between social background and academic achievement; before the term was in common usage, he was dedicated, above all, to eliminating achievement gaps. Since his time, and in particular since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 (NCLB), relationships between race, inequality, and schooling have continued to fuel intense controversy. NCLB made racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps a central focus of national policy. In particular, the law calls on the states to regularly test all students in math and reading, to break down the achievement data by race and socioeconomic status in order to shine a light on achievement gaps, and, ultimately, to penalize or close those schools that fail to make inroads on the problem.

The specific provisions and implementation of NCLB have been widely criticized, but the basic idea of holding schools accountable has been overwhelmingly popular, at least outside the schools themselves. The law was a centerpiece of the domestic policy agenda of Republican president George W. Bush, yet it passed Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support. The election of a Democrat to the White House in 2008 did little to change the basic thrust of federal education policy. Under President Barack Obama, the U.S. Department of Education has continued to emphasize the use of standardized test scores to hold schools accountable for student achievement—especially the roughly five thousand lowest-performing schools in the nation. Indeed, Obama has pushed accountability even further than did his predecessor, using his $4 billion grant program, Race to the Top (RTT), to pressure Democratic-leaning teachers' unions to accept student test scores as a basis for teacher evaluation. On education, in contrast to other key issues such as health care and financial reform, the president has enjoyed support from politicians across the spectrum—not to mention media and business figures, such as Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey, and major media such as Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times.

Everyone seems to support the idea of holding schools accountable—everyone, that is, except educators. Echoing the debates of the 1960s, teachers and other educators have tended to argue that accountability singles them out for blame—that it scapegoats them for social problems beyond their control. Is it fair for NCLB to hold schools accountable for reducing the achievement gap between students of different backgrounds? Is it reasonable for Obama's Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, to insist that state and local school leaders find a way to "turn around" the five thousand worst-performing schools in the nation? Or, on the contrary, are schools and educators at the mercy of larger social and economic forces—inadequate resources, for instance, or economic hardship among students and parents? By 2011, Americans were being inundated by media coverage that broke down along these lines, with educators often being portrayed as excuse makers and villains in the story of educational inequality in America.

Marcus Foster's story provides a valuable perspective on these debates. Broadly speaking, Foster charted a course between the extremes of demanding too little and expecting too much of the schools as agents of equal opportunity in America, and it is this approach, I think, that has fruitful lessons for our own time. On the one hand, Foster insisted that educators take responsibility for raising achievement at failing urban schools, and in this sense, I argue, he was an early advocate of the "accountability" argument. Commentators tend to say that movements for educational "excellence" and accountability have arisen since the 1980s, in opposition to the "equity" agenda of the 1960s, with its emphasis on such issues as desegregation and the equalization of access and resources. This is certainly true in significant ways, but Foster's story reminds us that in other respects, the excellence and accountability agendas are also legacies of the black freedom movement of the 1960s and, prior to that, a longstanding tradition of African American educational achievement and activism. To be clear: I am not suggesting a straight line of continuity from the activism of the 1960s to the accountability movement of the NCLB era. But I do mean to say that we cannot fully understand the latter without reference to the former. The concerns of educators and activists from Marcus Foster's time—in particular, the notion of taking responsibility for student learning and making no excuses—have informed the current movement for accountability and helped to imbue it with a sense of moral urgency. When presidents and legislators promote education as the "new civil right" and insist that schools eradicate the achievement gap—as they did during the Bush administration and have continued to do since the election of Barack Obama—they are tapping into powerful hopes and expectations that rose to prominence in the 1960s.

On the other hand, this book reconstructs a vision of what I call shared accountability, which stands in contrast to the recent school reform agendas spearheaded by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. Foster insisted on accountability not only from educators but from families, taxpayers, and political and economic institutions as well. This effort to mobilize multiple constituencies was essential to the urban educational success stories that dotted his career—and a lesson for current policymakers who would take aim at the achievement gap without addressing the full range of school and non-school factors that have created it.


In the Crossfire develops and embeds these arguments in a narrative of Marcus Foster's career as a student, teacher, school principal, and superintendent. As I trace his efforts in local schools and communities, I emphasize how this work interacted with the larger urban context in Philadelphia and Oakland and with national developments. In the process, biography, urban study, and policy history emerge as interconnected and indispensable lenses for analyzing urban education.

The book begins in the time of Marcus Foster's own schooling, in the 1930s and 1940s—a time when achievement gaps between black and white students were not only accepted but expected in the urban North as well as the Jim Crow South. In such a climate, it was not necessarily school so much as a mixture of outside influences that pushed Foster on his path toward successful leadership. One such influence, ironically, was the education he received in the streets, dancehalls, and youth gangs of South Philadelphia; for the rest of his life, it seems, these experiences gave him a visceral understanding of the challenges and circumstances faced by black teenagers in the inner city. At the same time, the gritty side of urban life did not fully define or consume Foster, partly due to a second major influence: his family, which exemplified a history of African American striving to excel in education. Foster's mother, Alice, immersed her five children in this legacy and, in spite of humble finances, she managed to impart to them a good deal of "cultural capital"—the knowledge, skills, resources, and attitudes that some parents (most often affluent ones) pass on to their children to help ensure their academic success. Blessed by this foundation of literacy and learning—and a scholarship—young Marcus ended up at historically black Cheyney State Teachers College, under the tutelage of a strict headmaster, Leslie Pinckney Hill, who preached the power of education as a lever of progress for the Negro race.

Foster was able to synthesize these various influences and rise to positions of educational leadership partly because of his personal attributes; by all accounts he was exceedingly bright, ambitious, and charismatic. But Foster's rise to leadership was also shaped by timing and history. Beginning especially in the 1940s, events in the wider world converged to elevate Foster and his educational aspirations to a larger stage. In public life (though not necessarily in most schools and classrooms), racism increasingly gave way to racial liberalism, and liberals looked to education for solutions to racial inequality and the unfolding urban crisis. As he embarked on a career in the Philadelphia public schools in the 1950s, Marcus Foster was positioned to test the idea that, for African Americans, urban schools could be an advantage, as opposed to an obstacle, in the quest for educational and life success.

Foster took up that challenge of African American achievement in the 1960s, as the principal of three troubled, all-black schools in Philadelphia. The middle chapters of the book examine his efforts to transform those schools, as conflicts over race and inequality increasingly tore the country apart. In all three examples, we can see how urban school policies and reforms played out at the school and classroom level. In the first, from 1958 to 1963, Foster served as principal of the Dunbar Elementary School in North Philadelphia, where he participated in a Ford Foundation pilot project in compensatory education, which in turn helped shape national education and antipoverty policies during the Great Society. Proponents of the compensatory approach, or "deficit model," expressed key tenets of postwar liberalism: low-achieving urban students were not unintelligent, as racist ideology had long asserted; they and their families were declared to be educationally and culturally deprived. Schools, in turn, were said to have both the ability and obligation to compensate for such deprivation by instilling the attitudes and skills needed in a modern, technological society. Even as the Johnson administration adopted it as a cornerstone of federal education policy in the mid-1960s, however, compensatory education was on its way to being widely discredited. African American leaders increasingly denounced the cultural deprivation thesis as a new and more subtle form of racism—a liberal way for white educators to avoid desegregation and blame underachievement on black students and families.

Foster offers a different perspective on compensatory education, however, by showing how it was developed and implemented by innovative educators at particular urban schools. In the late 1950s and 1960s, at schools like Dunbar, Foster and other educators developed pilot projects that began to reverse a legacy of racial discrimination and pave the way for the current policy era of high academic expectations of all students. Drawing on African American traditions of educational activism and achievement as well as the liberal creed of equal opportunity, the Dunbar program raised academic expectations, motivated students, reached out to parents, and not least, provided much-needed infusions of financial and human resources. This brand of compensatory education anticipated subsequent research on how student achievement is shaped both by the social and cultural capital that parents pass on to their children and by the attitudes, instructional approaches, and resources the children encounter in school. Foster and other black educators addressed school as well as non-school factors in their pilot programs. As they did so, they began to confront the intertwined problems of racism, poverty, and underachievement that continue to haunt urban schools.

As compensatory education rapidly expanded into a nationwide federal program, liberals not only spent too little and promised too much for it as a social policy (in hindsight, the most serious problems with the approach); even more damaging at the time, they continued to alienate previous allies in the black freedom movement with pejorative-sounding language that ignored the persistence of racism in schools and society. The escalating critique of liberal condescension—including the critics' insistence that schools be more responsive to, perhaps even governed by, their communities—forms a context for Foster's work in the later 1960s at the Catto Disciplinary School and Simon Gratz High School. In that era of heated challenges to authority in education, Foster was among those who called for urban schools to be more responsive and accountable to their communities. He did so, however, from within the system, as an African American principal who helped bridge divisions between families, teachers, and administrators who increasingly blamed each other for urban school problems. Foster revamped Catto, turning it from the "cesspool of the system" into a school that some parents requested for their children (to no avail, unless the child was "lucky" enough to have a record of delinquent behavior). Foster declared that Catto students were not "hoodlums," as many believed (especially after the riot of 1964); they were victims of racial injustice, and the schools had an obligation to educate them. But the teachers and administration could not do it alone. At Catto, as at Dunbar, Foster not only raised staff members' expectations of the students; he also motivated parents, students, and even neighborhood merchants to help meet those expectations. Under his leadership from 1963 to 1966, Catto students were less likely to engage in delinquent behavior and more likely to attend and succeed in their classes.

Similarly, Foster's emphasis on "total school community" was key to his effort to transform perhaps the most troubled school in the system, Gratz High School in North Philadelphia. At Gratz, Foster forcefully expressed a sense of urban school accountability that echoes today: "Inner city folks . . . want people in there who get the job done, who get youngsters learning no matter what it takes. They won't be interested in beautiful theories that explain why the task is impossible. The people believe that the job can be done. And they want it done now." As at his previous schools, however, Foster attempted to "get the job done" in a variety of ways, with change coming not only from educators but from students, parents, and others in the community. A black history program and a school-led confrontation with the city to expand Gratz's facilities showed how educators like Foster responded to the increasingly insistent demands of their school communities. In this sense, schools were important sites in an antiracist struggle for Black Power, defined broadly as poor and working-class citizens organizing to challenge power structures in the city and improve the quality of their immediate lives. At the same time, a compensatory education program, outreach to parents, and efforts to generate college scholarships and internships in local businesses were the work of a liberal who continued to believe schools should fill gaps in the background of urban students, providing them with the skills, confidence, and connections—again, the cultural capital—that more affluent students typically got from their parents. As measured by improved attendance, higher college admission rates, and a dramatically energized mood in the Gratz community overall, Foster's mix of approaches offered a ray of hope for urban school reform.

Foster's work at Gratz brought him public acclaim and propelled him to administrative leadership, first as an associate superintendent in Philadelphia and shortly thereafter as superintendent in Oakland. The end of the book analyzes his Oakland years as a culmination of the conflicts of the 1960s and, at the same time, as a prelude to more recent attempts to hold schools accountable for eliminating achievement gaps. In Oakland, in contrast to the Ocean Hill-Brownsville crisis, the Foster administration created a vibrant citizen participation process that resolved the city's crisis over school governance. Foster continued to insist that the schools produce results for the parents and communities they served, and he increasingly expressed this goal in terms of accountability and grade-level achievement. However, in Oakland, as in Philadelphia, Foster's approach was neither punitive nor focused on schools and educators alone. He called on taxpayers, politicians, businesspeople, and parents to join educators in taking responsibility for the performance of all students in Oakland. He insisted on shared accountability.


As this overview suggests, In the Crossfire is partly a story of how leadership and activism changed the conversation about race and education in America. When the SLA took Marcus Foster's life, they cut short one of America's most promising efforts to sever the links between race, socioeconomic status, and achievement. And even so, Foster's work had already helped ensure that the racism of the society in which he had been raised, while not eliminated in all quarters (especially individual classrooms), was for the most part gone from public and scholarly debates over education and inequality.

But Foster's story is also a cautionary tale. Even as he made notable progress in Oakland, Foster confronted the difficulties of achieving equal educational opportunity in an unequal society—difficulties that haunt educators and reformers to this day. As a superintendent, he grew increasingly bitter over what he saw as a narrow approach to accountability that singled out educators and set up a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure: political institutions and the public did not provide urban school systems with the "massive doses" of support they needed, and then blamed either the schools or their largely poor and minority students for the resulting failure to produce dramatic progress. By the time of his assassination, Foster had come to see inadequate resources and a lack of public accountability as the biggest obstacles to his effort to eliminate the achievement gap. Speaking in 1973 at a conference of school administrators, Foster surprised his audience with an uncharacteristically caustic commentary on the plight of urban schools and educators: "We go through a coronary alley at all those tough high schools," he said, alluding to the heart attack he had suffered while working fourteen-hour days as a high school principal—"and they tell us, 'Here it is, baby; make it fly.' Then, when you can't make it, they say, 'I told you those niggers can't do it.'"

Foster's searing statements pointed to the limits of isolated efforts at school reform in the nation's big cities. Writers and filmmakers have inspired audiences with the exploits of dynamic educators like Foster who pushed their students to unexpected heights of accomplishment. (The charter schools in the widely discussed 2010 documentary film, Waiting for "Superman," are a recent example.) Yet, as Foster's experience showed, and as sociologists and historians have emphasized since, urban school reform must be part of a larger social and economic policy response to the urban crisis—a response that also addresses the problems of inadequate housing, health care, and unemployment. To ignore this insight—and to expect educators like Foster to defy the odds with all-consuming, after-hours dedication, at the expense of their families and personal health—is to turn them into martyrs and scapegoats.

Americans of the 1960s often made that mistake. From compensatory education, which policymakers expected to cancel out the effects of poverty with a few modestly funded programs, to the black freedom movement, which exposed institutional racism but said little about the impact of social and cultural capital on achievement, to advocates of fiscal retrenchment in the early 1970s, Foster's contemporaries tended to expect too much of school reforms and provide too little support for them.

Instead of learning from these mistakes, however, Americans in recent years have compounded them. Since the 1970s, the tendency to hold urban schools solely responsible for the low achievement of their students—and, in a larger sense, the tendency to look to schools for solutions to the problems of urban poverty—has only intensified. Proponents of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have espoused the accountability and antiracist themes of the 1960s and 1970s—noble sentiments, for sure—while too often ignoring the larger structural dimensions of urban school problems and social inequality. The period of rising expectations in school reform has coincided with economic trends that undermine the idea of education as the key to social mobility. Disparities in wealth and income have steadily increased since the Reagan era, as have the barriers blocking access to higher education for poor and working-class citizens. In their focus on school-based solutions, federal policies have ignored—indeed, diverted attention away from—a variety of other factors that prevent urban children from reaching their full potential in school and in life. It is hard enough to fix urban schools so that low-achieving students get the knowledge and skills they need for college—but even that is not enough, if the students cannot pay for it.

In pointing out that schools are not in fact the great equalizer that Horace Mann said they were, I do not mean to suggest that they cannot be reformed or that they do not matter as a mechanism of opportunity. I do not mean to make "excuses" for their failings. Rather, I seek to emphasize complexity—even paradox—in the relationship between schooling and opportunity in America. Like the Sixties-era debates that this book reconstructs, recent debates over race, urban schooling, and achievement gaps have tended to emphasize either the power and responsibility of schools to reduce the achievement gap, or the larger social and economic forces that impede such efforts. Both are important arguments, and this book will develop them still further. At its core, however, this book is about the tension between stories of educational uplift and analyses of entrenched inequality. It has been difficult for Americans to espouse the dream of educational empowerment and uplift without turning schools into what one historian called the "imperfect panacea." At the same time, it has been hard to emphasize the social and economic forces that limit what the schools can accomplish without diminishing the importance of school reform. With the pendulum swinging from one of these positions to the other, the result has been a recurring cycle of overheated expectation and disillusioned retrenchment in American school reform.

This account of the remarkable but tragic career of Marcus Foster tries to synthesize these conflicting arguments and impulses into a more complete analysis of race, poverty, and educational inequality—one that captures the importance of schools as agents of opportunity in an unequal society, as well as their inability to transcend that unequal society on their own.

Schools are not the answer to problems of social inequality—but we cannot solve those problems without them.

Meet the Author

John P. Spencer is Associate Professor of Education at Ursinus College.

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