Elevate Difference

The Children in Room E4: American Education on Trial

No regular news consumer could avoid being informed of the failings of the educational system in the U.S. Every medium, new and old, is filled with the details of this country’s abysmal international rankings, the breakdown of school discipline, the costs of teaching to the test, the soaring dropout rate and the dearth of funding that leads school systems to abandon arts programs and other educational necessities. What is often left unexamined is one of the primary causes of many of these problems: de facto segregation by race and class. The Children in Room E4 intersperses intimate tales of one teacher’s valiant attempts to educate her students in the dysfunctional Hartford, Connecticut school system with the details of that community’s decline and the Sheff case waged against the system’s damaging segregation of its students.

Eaton’s examinations of the development of de facto segregation due to de-urbanization, economic decline, white flight to the suburbs and racism in the real estate market are carefully researched and well written. However, I would have preferred to see at least some mention of the impact of the government’s so-called war on drugs, which has been disproportionately waged in communities like Hartford. The absence of discussion on how racist and classist drug policies have destabilized poor and minority communities is, perhaps, the only major flaw in the book.

Whether in the courtroom or the classroom or the neighborhood, the book’s “characters” are presented as living, complex human beings, not caricatures in a morality play. The only two-sided characters seem to be those who appear in the opposition: the politicians, lawyers and “experts” who defend the segregated system and stall progress through inaction and incompetence. However, the opposition is given fair though not necessarily positive treatment.

The chapters concerning the denizens of Room E4 and the Hartford school system in general are particularly well-done. The overwhelming burden born by teachers like “Ms. Luddy,” who must cope with the disproportionate weight of students’ personal problems as well as educational politics, constantly changing curricula and poor funding, is revealed in excruciating and infuriating detail. Its impact on the developing minds of Hartford’s children is evident and seemingly inevitable. The circumstances can produce no other result, it seems, than the wholesale theft of opportunity from Hartford’s poor African American and Hispanic students. In our desire to maintain sanity in an unjust world, it’s easy to avoid wrestling with material like The Children in Room E4 and the problems they reveal. Don’t.

Written by: Melinda Barton, August 8th 2009