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Paperback | $34.00 Short | £23.95 | ISBN: 9780262680301 | December 1977

Look Inside

The Urban School

A Factory for Failure


"One way to begin the development of a more systematic understanding of what events in the classroom do to students is to bring to bear the skills of participant-observation field work....

"In this book, Ray Rist uses these skills to make us understand the first few years of school experience of one group of children. He shows us in fine-grained detail how teachers shape and direct some of the children toward academic success and others toward failure. Because most of these children are poor and black, and because their teachers, though black themselves, nevertheless expect most of their charges to do poorly, the principal training that goes on in the classroom seems to be training for a life of failure rather than success...."

From the Foreword by Lee Rainwater

One of the traditional sources of American pride has always been the upward mobility afforded its citizens through mass public education. Regardless of income, race, or background, all children are supposedly given an equal opportunity to learn and thereby advance into a share of the good life. In this longitudinal study of a group of black children attending a de facto segregated urban school, Ray C. Rist demonstrates that this cherished belief is unfortunately another myth that desperately needs to be reevaluated.

The study on which the report is based was conducted over a three-year period in one of the St. Louis public schools. Beginning with the initial kindergarten experience of the children, it follows them with day-to-day observations through the middle of second grade. The subtle (and not-so-subtle) "sorting mechanisms," which begin with the children's table assignments the first week of kindergarten, are traced from year to year, teacher to teacher, until they have become, as Dr. Rist observes, an almost immutable caste system. Though these classifications are ostensibly formed according to the intellectual ability of the children, Dr. Rist points out how the teachers (all of whom are black) use such cues as social class, dress, speech, and social behavior to sort the children into groups. That the children quickly learn to use the same cues in their own interactions is also demonstrated. Much of the report contains actual dialogue between the teachers and the children which vividly captures the flavor of the classroom situation. Dr. Rist writes with warmth and compassion for the children caught in a society that values superficialities they are too young to control and with sympathy for the teachers who must cope with overcrowding, constant interruptions, and petty bureaucracy before they can begin to teach. The reality of his observations will be apparent to anyone who has ever taught (or been taught) in a public school; their implications are a sobering critique of the reinforcement of socioeconomic inequality.


"Listen to R. Buckminster Fuller describe the American education system: It's a kind of greenhouse where the gardener starts with beautiful little plants in full bloom and then systematically plucks off the leaves and flowers, leaving at the end of 12 or 13 years only the bare twigs of humanity.

"The Urban School: A Factory for Failure is a modern Gothic horror tale that describes in vivid detail how the stripping off process works in a big city elementary school. Ray C. Rist weaves a grim tale of an entrenched urban system conspiring unwittingly with its professional staff to reinforce a caste system in America. He does it by tracing the progress of a single class of black youngsters in St. Louis from the first day of kindergarten through the third grade—day by day, step by step, demonstrating how the politicized interaction of teachers and principal and how the insensitivity of the teachers melt into a common purpose: to sort winners from losers. From the first day of kindergarten, the kids are seated according to economic status. A.D.C. youngsters are—albeit unconsciously—labeled losers. Middle-class children (offspring of parents not yet having abandoned the ghetto for the suburbs) are seated at the front of the room.

"It moves from there. The overarching goal is a quiet, passive child; the methodology is control-oriented behavior (five times more prevalent with the losers than with the winners). A-track kids (Tigers) studiously pursue arithmetic assignments; C-trackers (Clowns) cut and paste paper flowers—the rich get richer and the poor get you know what. 'The inequality in American education,' says Rist, 'is accounted for, not so much by differences between schools, but by how the same schools treat different children.'"
American School Board Journal