October 2, 2013 | Faculty
By MARGALIT FOX
September 30, 2013
“If I had a gun I’d kill you,” the teacher said. “You’re all hoodlums.”
That remark, made by a white teacher to a class of black and Hispanic fifth graders in Newark, was, for Jean Anyon, a window onto the often inhospitable landscape where education, economics, race and class converge.
Professor Anyon, who died on Sept. 7 at 72, was one of the first people to study that landscape in detail — and among the first to assert that without accompanying social reforms like job creation, antipoverty initiatives and urban renewal, the problems of education in urban, poor areas would never be surmounted.
“The structural basis for failure in inner-city schools is political, economic and cultural, and must be changed before meaningful school improvement projects can be successfully implemented,” she wrote in a 1995 article in the journal Teachers College Record.
“Educational reforms cannot compensate for the ravages of society.”
At her death a professor of education policy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, Professor Anyon spent her career analyzing the web of socioeconomic factors that makes public schools work — or fail.
At CUNY, which she joined in 2001, Professor Anyon taught in the doctoral program in urban education. She was previously on the faculty of Rutgers University and it was in work there in the 1990s that she encountered the vitriolic Newark teacher and many others who were equally abusive.
In the early ’90s, Professor Anyon was part of a team convened to help reorganize a group of the worst elementary schools in Newark, which were in danger of being taken over by the state.
She spent several years immersed in the workings of one elementary school (identified pseudonymously as the Marcy Elementary School), attending classes and interviewing students, parents, teachers and administrators.
Though the reorganization effort failed and the schools were ultimately taken over, the record of her work at Marcy was incorporated into her first book, “Ghetto Schooling,” published in 1997 and still considered a seminal text in the field.
In it, she rooted Marcy’s contemporary problems in more than half a century of economic decline in Newark. She went on to use the school as a vehicle for a larger discussion of the problems of education in urban, poor areas and the possible solution.
“To really improve ghetto children’s chances, then, in school and out,” she wrote in the book’s conclusion, “we must ultimately, therefore, eliminate poverty; we must eliminate the ghetto school by eliminating the underlying causes of ghettoization.”
Jean Maude Anyon was born in Jersey City on July 16, 1941. She received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania, followed by a master’s in education there and a Ph.D. from New York University in education and psycholinguistics. She began her career as a public-school teacher in an economically depressed neighborhood in Washington.
Professor Anyon joined the faculty at Rutgers in 1976 and first came to wide attention with a 1980 article, “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work.” Published in The Journal of Education, the article examined fifth-grade classes in five New Jersey schools across the economic spectrum, from working-class to wealthy districts.
The study focused on what Professor Anyon called the “hidden curriculum” of each school — the type of work students were assigned, and the ways they were expected to complete it.
In the working-class schools, she found, work entailed the rote following of procedure, with no analytical thought encouraged. In the middle-class school, she wrote, “work is getting the right answer.”
In a more affluent school, Professor Anyon found, work emphasized creativity. In the wealthiest school, work meant “developing one’s analytical intellectual powers.”
These differences, she concluded, helped recapitulate existing class divisions. The children of blue-collar families, for instance, received “preparation for future wage labor that is mechanical and routine,” while those of wealthy families were taught skills that would help them assume leadership positions.
Professor Anyon was married and divorced twice. Survivors include a brother, Robert Anyon, who confirmed her death, of cancer, at her home in Manhattan; and a daughter, Jessica Anyon-Bird.
Her other books include “Radical Possibilities: Public Policy, Urban Education, and a New Social Movement” (2005) and “Marx and Education” (2011).
While many earlier scholars had considered the problems of urban schools in isolation, Professor Anyon argued that they were inextricably linked to larger social ills.
“Attempting to fix inner-city schools without fixing the city in which they are embedded,” she wrote in “Ghetto Schooling,” “is like trying to clean the air on one side of a screen door.”
Originally published by The New York Times