"What is at stake is our vision of the kinds of human beings we would hope Americans to be in the last years of the twentieth and the first years of the twenty-first centuries, and of the kinds of education that will help bring those human beings into existence."
     Lawrence A. Cremin. Popular education and its discontents. Quoted in the report "Research and the Renewal of Education," from the National Academy of Education, 1991.
 

 

Changing Classes:

School Reform and the New Economy

by Martin J. Packer

Cambridge University Press.

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Willow Run is a small, residential, urban fringe community located in the southeast corner of the state of Michigan. Located 30 miles west of Detroit, the district measures just 16 square miles and has a population of only 19,000. The district has just eight schools--an early childhood center, five elementaries, a middle school and a high school--with a student body of around 4,000. The community is ethnically mixed, largely working class, about 40% African American, 60% Caucasian. Across the Willow Run Community School District 56% of students are on the free- or reduced-lunch program: it's a poor community, with many single-parent families.

In February 1992 the General Motors Corporation announced its decision to close the auto assembly plant at Willow Run, Michigan. This was one of GM's desperate efforts to regain market-share and profitability in the face of an onslaught of foreign imports. It was also part of a radical reorganization of manufacturing in the automotive industry and many other segments of the U.S. economy: the shift from a fordist mode--standardized, large scale, assembly-line production with a rigid and complex top-down hierarchy--to a postfordist mode of production--more flexible, small-batch manufacture, with changeable work arrangements and horizontal team work.

The announcement left the community of Willow Run reeling, in shock and outrage. The Willow Run community had been the child of twentieth century state-regulated industrial production, born of a union between the war-time demand for complex fighting machines, and the power of the federal government to mandate the efficiency gains of centralized production. The GM plant was originally a gigantic bomber factory, constructed during the second world war for the mass production of B-24 bombers. Workers flooded to this plant from all over the country, and more followed after the war when the plant was retooled for automobile production.

Over local opposition, the federal government financed construction of temporary residential dormitories and apartments for the workers, along with a new school district and three new schools. Looked down on by their neighbors, a strong sense of community and mutual support developed among the "Villagers." The community is still a diverse mix of people who are proud of their war effort and their work at the plant. The high school student handbook, 50 years later, has the bomber on its cover; the school's football team is named the Fliers. But now is a time of challenge and redefinition. How to adapt to the loss of jobs, to a new kind of work, to a new economy?

The Willow Run Community School has been directly caught up not only in the dramatic changes of late twentieth century capitalism, but also in national strategies for public school reform. Michigan's Republican Governor John Engler, chairman of the National Governors Association, initiated a sweeping program of "market-place" reforms. These began when, in July 1993, the Michigan Senate voted to ban the use of property taxes for the support of public education, without first identifying replacement revenue. Approved by the Michigan House of Representatives and signed into law by Governor Engler, this constituted a 65% tax cut for property owners and a loss of about $6 billion in revenue for the schools. A plan to completely revamp the public school finance system followed. The Governor has redesigned state standardized tests in math and science, cut back the operations of the state Department of Education, initiated accreditation for each school building, introduced charter schools, and granted parents choice among public schools in different districts.

At the same time, the National Science Foundation announced its "State Systemic Initiative," a program of "systemic" reform, emphasizing equity--equal access to the new higher-order thinking skills and inquiry-based curriculum in science and math. Michigan applied for SSI funds and received them; Willow Run responded to the state's call for proposals and the "Willow Run Systemic Initiative" team was born. 

Area Map
Historical Map
Willow Run School District
Willow Run Community Schools

 

"Changing Classes" is an account of the struggles taking place over public schools in the United States. The story of the Willow Run Community Schools teaches us lessons that can help us better understand what is happening all over the United States.

At the same time, the book is a reflection on the character of schooling. Schools are such familiar places that we take them for granted, but we lack a clear understanding of just how it is that schools work--how they transform the kind of person a child can become. How is it that attending school changes a young person's way of engaging the world; changes who they are? This book offers the beginnings of an account of how this happens.

The book traces the Willow Run school district's navigation through both state and federal school reform initiative,s and the demands of an auto industry laboring to give birth to a new form of post-Fordist production. It offers an intimate look at the complexities and contradictions of public schooling, and explores how a community like Willow Run turns to its schools in times of challenge and threat.The reader is taken into the classroom, from 1st grade through high school, as well as behind the scenes to hear teachers and administrators reflecting on the constraints and resources that influence what happens in the classroom. This is the story of a community struggling to preserve its identity, of dedicated educators working to meet the needs of children in danger of being left behind by fast-paced economic change, and of the way personal change and history intertwine. The local reformers understood that if the community was to survive its children had tochange. The schools had to do more than teach new skills, they had to change children's attitudes towards schooling, to prepare them for a new way of life as their old lifestyle vanished.

 

Thanks are due to the children, parents, teachers and school staff of Willow Run, and to the Spencer Foundation, the Office of the Vice President for Research, University of Michigan, and Duquesne University for their support.