The Roots of Educational Inequality

Philadelphia's Germantown High School, 1907-2014

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Pub Date 03 Dec 2021 | Archive Date 03 Dec 2021

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The Roots of Educational Inequality chronicles the transformation of one American high school over the course of the twentieth century to explore the larger political, economic, and social factors that have contributed to the escalation of educational inequality in modern America.

In 1914, when Germantown High School officially opened, Martin G. Brumbaugh, the superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia, told residents that they had one of the finest high schools in the nation. Located in a suburban neighborhood in Philadelphia's northwest corner, the school provided Germantown youth with a first-rate education and the necessary credentials to secure a prosperous future. In 2013, almost a century later, William Hite, the city's superintendent, announced that Germantown High was one of thirty-seven schools slated for closure due to low academic achievement. How is it that the school, like so many others that serve low-income students of color, transformed in this way?

Erika M. Kitzmiller links the saga of a single high school to the history of its local community, its city, and the nation. Through a fresh, longitudinal examination that combines deep archival research and spatial analysis, Kitzmiller challenges conventional declension narratives that suggest American high schools have moved steadily from pillars of success to institutions of failures. Instead, this work demonstrates that educational inequality has been embedded in our nation's urban high schools since their founding. The book argues that urban schools were never funded adequately. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, urban school districts lacked the tax revenues needed to operate their schools. Rather than raising taxes, these school districts relied on private philanthropy from families and communities to subsidize a lack of government aid. Over time, this philanthropy disappeared leaving urban schools with inadequate funds and exacerbating the level of educational inequality.

The Roots of Educational Inequality chronicles the transformation of one American high school over the course of the twentieth century to explore the larger political, economic, and social factors...

Advance Praise

“In The Roots of Educational Inequality, Erika M. Kitzmiller provides a clear and meticulously researched inquiry into the racial and economic inequality which has plagued America’s public high schools for over a hundred years. In her groundbreaking study, Kitzmiller brilliantly utilizes both ethnographic and quantitative methods to expose ‘how these institutions were founded to provide different opportunities and resources to Black and white children.’ Readable and thought-provoking, this volume is of interest not only to educational specialists but to everyone who cares about equality in public education.”
—Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Harvard University

“In The Roots of Educational Inequality, Erika M. Kitzmiller provides a clear and meticulously researched inquiry into the racial and economic inequality which has plagued America’s public high...

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The Roots of Educational Inequality: Philadelphia's Germantown High School, 1907-2014 by Erika M Kitzmiller shows that the "failure" of many schools were seeded from their inception to fail. Through the in-depth case of Germantown high school and extensive research on national trends and policies Kitzmiller makes a very strong case for the failure being one of the system rather than failures of many individual schools.

I can't do the research credit by trying to summarize many of the factors that contribute so I will (likely oversimplify) one of the main points. This will also include some of my feelings as well as her research, so any misstatements will be mine and not the book's. Even when Germantown was new (and most of the things about Germantown can be applied to schools across the country) the tax revenue was not really sufficient to maintain the school. So philanthropic sources were found, which for affluent and even most middle class communities can compensate for governmental underfunding. As the dynamics of the community changed, what is usually called white flight, so did the dynamics of being able to raise extra funds. Since the government didn't want to increase taxes, the school became underfunded, then underperforming. But the cause was not white flight, that was just the catalyst that exposed the initial problem, underfunding. This process then leads to many urban schools as well as many rural schools in poor areas to be considered failures. The communities served by the schools tend to be predominantly communities of color and/or poor communities, thus unable to make up the difference between what an adequate school needs and what the school boards and local governments are willing to allocate to the future of the country, namely the education of our young.

My oversimplification glosses the many social and cultural aspects as well as the details of the policymaking. Kitzmiller, however, goes into detail on all of this with this longitudinal study that covers the history of this particular school from every vantage point.

I find it hard to believe that the powers that be weren't perfectly aware, very early in the twentieth century, that they could attain their racist and classist ends without ever being openly so. Just make it look like what happens is both natural and the fault of those who are being victimized by a system stacked against them.

Whether you agree or disagree with my view, you owe it to yourself to read this book with an open mind. If you truly believe I am wrong then you should have no trouble refuting all of the research and evidence. But if you read with an open mind then maybe you will come to agree with at least some of what I said. If the education of future generations is at all important to you, then learning what is here can only be a positive thing, but dismissing it out of hand just shows where you fall when it comes to equitable education for all of our children.

Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.

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I had originally requested this book under a different pretense, but I'm thrilled that I kept reading even when it did not match my initial conception of what this book might be. As somebody in a 'third world country' I feel that educational inequality is as common as day and night and so to see it playing out in a case of one particular School as selected by the author provides for an interesting read. History teaches us important lessons in this book and it is my hope that many other such topnotch scholars like the author of this book will undertake such microcosmic studies and present an in depth picture. The public school system needs overhaul, yes it absolutely does. A weak public education system is sure shot way to corrosion of society, some affects of which, we are already seeing.

This is a strong recommend for anyone looking to understand the importance and manner of conducting such a study, apart from the all important topic that it deals with.

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Educational inequality is not new nor is it extinct in public education. Kitzmiller’s historical view of Germantown High School in Philadelphia, PA was an eye-opener. Inequalities were present from almost the beginning and plagued this educational institution to its closing days. Racial and economic inequality play a key role in the educational system for these Philadelphia residents. Of particular interest was the differing accounts of the students’ experiences. There were such varying accounts of events for students attending during the same timeframe. The experiences for minority students were quite different from the experiences of white students. While there were many student accounts in the book, there were not many accounts from faculty members. I wonder if the educators from Germantown were even aware of how their practices impacted students.

This book should be essential reading for all educational administrators in the K-12 system. As we grapple with educational inequalities in the US, there are lessons to be learned from this book.

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A great look at Germantown High School- the beginning and how it got here. Philadelphia is not known for currently having good schools. It’s interesting to see the roots of how we got where we are. It’s good to know there are people trying to change the issues and be what the students need.

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This book was rather hard to get through. I found the subject interesting and important as public education is still vastly unequal and separated by gender, race, and class. However, the book was rather stale with all the quantitative information. I found the qualitative aspect really enjoyable to read. Actually hearing the stories of students in Philadelphia from decades ago until now was the part of the book worth reading.

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A really interesting account about how constant underfunding of public education combined with racial fears to create segregated and exceedingly unequal schools. The basic spoiler is that white schools had a larger parent and alumni base to rely on for charitable donations, making the underfunding of these schools seem a non-issue. When the schools began to become more integrated, racial fears led to some of those families abandoning the schools and certainly a good deal of racism in the schools themselves, but the Great Depression and World War II really ate into charitable donations to schools. Without the donations, these formerly excellent schools fell into disrepair, so those who could abandoned them for highly selective schools, private schools, or for suburban schools with a higher tax base. This left them to be underfunded and largely poor and segregated once again. This led to the push to have school choice and the proliferation of for-profit charter schools that impoverish schools further, most without producing better results for students.

Serving as a backdrop to this general story is the story of Germantown High School. The book deftly weaves the history of this one specific school into the overarching story, telling individual stories of students and staff in an effective manner. It's a good deep dive into this time period of public school education history.

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