Our public schools today are pretty much the result of three major reform efforts of the past. First there was the common school ideal, that which fueled the first public schools in Massachusetts in the 1850s, and is still very much alive today. For don’t we believe, no less now than Horace Mann then, that free public education should be available to all, that it should champion civic, not religious, virtues, and that it should provide ample opportunity for all, within a common or shared educational environment, to lift themselves up by their own work and merit irrespective of racial, ethnic, gender, or class origins?
Second, there is what I’ll call the academic ideal, an ideal that continues to fuel our public schools no less than that of the common school. This is the idea that there are “essential” things that need to be learned, math and science, history and language, all those proper school subject matters first spelled out by the so-called committee of ten in 1893 led by Charles Eliot then president of Harvard College.
For many that is still what school is, or should be mostly about. Reading, writing and arithmetic and as one gets older their increasingly sophisticated forms that take one all the way up to readiness for college.
Third, there is the liberal, or progressive ideal, this one closely associated with the thinking and writing of John Dewey, just as the common school is associated with Mann, and the academic or essential subject matters with a long string of educators beginning over 100 years ago with Harris, Bagley, and Kandel, right up to the present day and Hirsch, Ravitch et al.
In good part the progressive ideal was less John Dewey’s creation than it was a reaction to the sometimes stifling role that academics played in the lives of too many children. It was a reasonable attempt to meet and satisfy the huge variety of interests, talents, capabilities, and needs of the young.
A heavy diet of academic subjects alone is, of course, not for everyone, in spite of the present ill-conceived movement to send everyone to college. Countless educators on the front lines, beginning with the classroom teachers themselves, have probably always tried to provide a more palatable diet for those who were not thriving under, say, a lean regime of math, history, and Latin. Indeed, how could they not have done so?
The result of progressivism is that we now have in our public schools, in addition to the college prep courses, a whole range of other courses and activities, these including vocational ed, athletics, live theater and marching bands, art and music, internships, the so-called life sciences, drivers ed, sex ed, and all the rest, all having their source in the progressive ideal.
The availability in our public schools of a wide variety of course offerings probably accounts for the fact that today, nation-wide, nearly 4 out of 5 students will successfully complete four years of high school. An academic curriculum alone would never have matched that result.
My question is why, given the success of these three substantial reform movements, why do we continue to be witnesses to a fierce battle of words between those who attack and those who defend the public schools? Why aren’t the common school, academic, and progressive ideals, all well established within our schools, enough? Why aren’t we mostly satisfied with the schools as they are?
In particular why do the Commentary pages in Ed Week, in article after article, contain the contradictory proposals of those on the one side who blame the schools, who would like to do away with the schools as they are, make all schools private by means of universal vouchers, abolish high school entirely, as well as of those on the other side, who no less passionately mount a defense the schools, often couched in the language of Mann’s original common school, never finding the schools and the teachers at fault, but placing any blame for whatever failure there might be entirely on the “failed” lives that the children through no fault of their own bring with them to school?
The reason, I think, is that we have failed to properly recognize and work with what I call the three widely different populations of students within our schools. Instead, we continue to talk about the schools and the students as if they were all together a whole, as if they were just that one “elephant” that we, not blind men, could describe and then reform. They’re not of course, and we can’t.
School reform because it does concern millions of distinct individuals, teachers as well as students, is inherently and exceptionally complex, more like the worlds of currency exchange rates, quantum mechanics and the weather, all things that no one understands, than like, say, reforming the rules of rugby or tennis. The game of school, what school is all about, has not yet been described to anyone’s, let alone everyone’s satisfaction, and it’s probably not about to be now.
Instead of directing our efforts at the “schools” we might with much greater profit directly address the three widely different student populations that attend the schools. We would quickly see that reforms appropriate for the one group are not appropriate reforms for the others, the No Child Left Behind Law being only the latest instance of a valid reform for some universally applied.
What are the three groups of students? Those of the first group make up what I call the student meritocracy. Although still small when compared to the whole their numbers have been growing as we have sought out with our scholarships those previously hidden potential members of this group, the many gifted and talented children coming from poor and otherwise disadvantaged family situations. In our large cities, perhaps much less so in our rural areas, there are more and more programs to recruit these gifted kids and get them on track to college and post college careers.
For many years now public exam and magnet schools, elite private independent schools, wealthy suburban school districts have been successfully identifying and moving along the gifted and talented. And this is happening, less because of what we do and more because it has to happen. The country needs these kids, ultimately depends on them for its own survival. In any case who doesn’t want to help kids who can most take advantage of that help?
As far as I know no one is trying to undo, or redo, or substantially reform the way we educate the gifted and talented. This is a success story, perhaps the greatest single success of the common school movement, and why we still look with pride upon our public schools.
The second student population, and the largest of the three, are all those kids in the middle, hence what I call the “great middle.” These are the ones who go along pretty much unnoticed, not usually getting into trouble, mostly doing what they’re told, but definitely uninterested, unmotivated by the college prep programs that their parents insist that they take. They mostly graduate from high school, although not a few of the more independent minded among them will drop out of school and go to work.
These are the same ones whom when quizzed (“What Do Our 17-Year Olds Know?”) will reveal their abysmal ignorance of so many things that they were supposed to have learned in school, U.S. history, how to write a simple declarative sentence let alone an essay, solve a word problem, speak a second language etc. They’re the ones whom most of all the progressive reforms have served to keep in school, but on whom the academics haven’t had much influence. (And they’re probably most of all the ones who drive young and idealistic teachers from the teaching profession.)
The third group is the one that has received the most attention, most of the printer’s ink, although up until now there have been few positive results to show for all the reforms that have been fashioned with them in mind. Achievement gaps and high dropout rates are still very much with us.
The kids of this group are the mostly minority, impoverished, and generally disadvantaged kids who attend de facto segregated schools in our large inner cities. This segregation is by class and by color, the result not of Jim Crow law but of the white, and still on-going middle class flight into the suburbs, that which has left behind a school population of mostly black and latino kids from poor families, thereby creating the segregated schools of our cities.
The kids of this group, even more than those of the “great middle,” are failing to profit at all from attending the public schools. At best they’re finishing high school doing 8th grade level work, that which doesn’t prepare them for a decent job, let alone college. At worst, and the worst is not unusual, they’re dropping out of school and then too many of these are getting into trouble, usually with drugs and petty theft, but sometimes with a lot worse, their mistakes leading too many of them ultimately to prison.
We’re always hearing statistics like the following, that for the first time in the nation’s history more than one in 100 American adults is behind bars, that for Latinos and Blacks the incarceration rates are even higher, one in 47 for latino adults, one in 15 for Blacks, and one in nine for black men between the ages of 20 and 34.
But we seem powerless to change things for the better. Nothing we do with these kids during their passage through the public schools seems to break the inevitable path to delinquency and finally prison for large numbers of them, if they have managed to stay alive up until then.
This situation is not new. By 1970, and for the first time in the history of the country, most kids of all socioeconomic classes were in K-12 public schooling. And by that time the three student populations were well established. Nothing we have done since that time has done anything important to change the situation. A bit earlier, in 1961, James Bryant Conant in his book, Slums and Suburbs, wrote:
“… when one considers the total situation that has been developing in the Negro city slums since World War II, one has reason to worry about the future. The building up of a mass of unemployed and frustrated Negro youth in congested areas of a city is a social phenomenon that may be compared to the piling up of inflammable material in an empty building in a city block. Potentialities for trouble–indeed possibilities of disaster–are surely there.”
Now, nearly 50 years later in regard to the increased numbers of out-of-school and out-of-work black, and now latino youth the situation is considerably more troubling than it was then. What will it take to get our country to address this situation other than with words and grossly inappropriate and inadequate reform efforts such as the No Child Left Behind Act (that which may have made sense for the students of the “great middle,” who certainly need to be pushed to work harder in school, but not for the impoverished kids whose life situations President Conant and countless others since then, including Jonathan Kozol, David Berliner, and Richard Rothstein, have so well poignantly described).
In sum, what we probably need are as many reform efforts as there are students and teachers in the school. Otherwise there will always be those who will be left out. We’ve known for a long time that kids don’t learn in the same way, that there is no curriculum, let alone classroom or school building, that is going to work for all kids.
We’ve known for a long time that schools, from the time of the one room school house in New England, have always been a compromise between how kids learn and what they need in order to learn best, and the always limited resources that we have at our disposal to help them to learn.
What to do? We need to find points on which we can all agree and move on from there. We probably could agree that my first group of students, those belonging to the meritocracy, are doing just fine. And we would no less agree that those of the “great middle” are not doing just fine, and, in a word, that they lack motivation. They need to want to learn. There probably needs to be a major overhaul, both in our thinking about them, as well as in their attitudes towards school. As it is now school is mostly just a holding place for them until they turn 18 and graduate from high school.
The kids in our third group, with few or no life support systems out there where they live while not in school, are simply not making it. They should be our greatest concern. Their not making it, for whatever reason, accounts for the hundreds, if not thousands of failing schools in our inner cities. Obviously the kids in these schools need help, most of all they probably need caring adults in their lives, such as they don’t have at home. So far we haven’t done very well providing these caring adults, so far we haven’t come up with a cost effective way of helping them. Unlike the kids in the “great middle’ it won’t be enough just to tell them to help themselves.
What to do? I would agree with President Conant that it is the third group that ought to be on the receiving end of the bulk of our reform efforts. And I strongly agree with what he says after visiting the inner city schools, that “he grows impatient with both critics and defenders of public education who ignore the realities of school situations in order to engage in fruitless debate about educational philosophy, purposes, and the like [when] these situations call for action, not hair-spitting arguments.”