Sunday, January 22, 2012

Let's Get "Elitist" With Our Schools

A lawyer I know used to quip that, in a lawsuit, every lawyer added to the case would double the amount of time it took to resolve the litigation. A similar concept appears to apply to classrooms - each disruptive student added to a classroom doubles the amount of time a teacher must spend on classroom management instead of teaching. I saw that effect when I was in fifth grade and my classroom was split between neighborhood students and kids with emotional disabilities. I saw it in my high school, which had voluntary academic streaming, whenever I was in a class that was not academically streamed. I saw it during my brief stint as a substitute teacher. I will add the caveat that some teachers are much better than others at managing and redirecting classroom disruptions, but the multiplier appears to nonetheless be the same.

When people point to charter schools and argue, "This school is a great success," and I see a school that looks more like a juvenile detention center, with children subject to intensive behavior codes, required to march silently from class to class, squaring off their corners as they turn down another hallway, I see three things: First, the rigidity will almost certainly reduce the amount of time any given teacher has to spend on classroom management, even if they otherwise have weak skills. Why? Because the schools have a clear escalation schedule for behavior issues and clear consequences for repeated infractions. Second, even without considering the accusation that some of these schools actively "counsel out" kids who cannot adhere to their behavior codes, I see how the codes become a mechanism for discouraging problem students from enrolling and in ensuring that many or most who do enroll won't stay. Third, I see a school environment that most middle class parents would find unacceptable for their own children.

And when I hear how "success" is defined by many of these schools, with the trumpeting of any modest improvement over the performance of an average school in the district, I can't help but note that there are often public schools in the same district that perform as well or better, but are largely ignored. There are instances of public schools being hailed as significantly better than others in the district, and when politics enter that process the touted school can turn out to be as overblown in its success as a typical charter. But for the most part charter school advocates and the media portray this as a battle between successful charters and failing public school, whatever the facts.'

When I hear proposals for school reform, I am reminded not only of the failure of one reform after another, I'm reminded of the partial success of the British grammar school model. That model, in very simple terms, involved testing children at age 11 and, on the basis of the result, tracking them into technical, 'modern', or intensely academically oriented grammar schools. In the following passage, George Orwell made observations that suggest that he, like everybody else, can form opinions based upon the passions of the time:
The time was when I used to lament over quite imaginary pictures of lads of fourteen dragged protesting from their lessons and set to work at dismal jobs. It seemed to me dreadful that the doom of a 'job' should descend upon anyone at fourteen. Of course I know now that there is not one working-class boy in a thousand who does not pine for the day when he will leave school. He wants to be doing real work, not wasting his time on ridiculous rubbish like history and geography. To the working class, the notion of staying at school till you are nearly grown-up seems merely contemptible and unmanly. The idea of a great big boy of eighteen, who ought to be bringing a pound a week home to his parents, going to school in a ridiculous uniform and even being caned for not doing his lessons! Just fancy a working-class boy of eighteen allowing himself to be caned!
I'm also reminded of visiting my stepfather's home town in the north of England, seeing two towering schools built side-by-side to respectively educate the boys and girls of a very working class region, and of the fact that for my stepfather and his brother that project was an undeniable success. A critic of the grammar school era who has come to soften his tone observes,
For a considerable time now, however, I have been in the process of changing my mind: did people like me, both a beneficiary of a grammar school education and also a vociferous critic of it at the time, make a grave error?

My thoughts coalesced when I was questioned while taking part in a BBC4 documentary, The Grammar School – A Secret History (to be next screened on Thursday at 9pm). This was a much more difficult U-turn for me than many because I wrote a book in 1975 about my former school, Dagenham County High (now defunct), entitled Goodbye to the Working Class. I was extremely critical of the school specifically and grammar schools in general. Though I do not recant everything, including the book's overall thesis, I now concede that I totally underplayed the value of the education itself.
The atmosphere of the grammar school, or of British schools in general, of the post-WWII period was critiqued, in a manner of speaking, in the movie and song, The Wall.

The concern was not on creating a warm, caring environment for the children, but for those who were lucky enough to make the cut at age 11, and took advantage of what was offered to them, there was the opportunity to advance through education: Getting not only a very strong (for lack of a better term) K-12 education, but also passage into top universities with very low tuition. When I heard my stepfather describe his experiences I had mixed feelings: Fist that I would have appreciated that type of academic opportunity myself and second, even as a student who didn't often get into trouble, that I would not have enjoyed the rule-driven authoritarian structure of his school. (I started school in the U.K., so I had a taste of the tail end of that authoritarianism, and I didn't like the taste even then.)

My stepfather once commented on high school reunions, that his grammar school had never held a reunion? Why? Because by the time he graduated, there were only about twenty students left in his class. There was some truth to what Orwell had to say about the clash of cultures in grammar school. That attrition rate, no doubt, was a significant factor in the winding down of that particular social experiment, but at a cost:
Indeed, when I bump into old boys and girls, the majority of them extol the virtues of the school and the education system which gave them – the sons and daughters of largely blue-collar workers – the chance to take a step on the ladder to a better life....

I supported the transformation to comprehensive schooling in the egalitarian belief that we should dispense with a two-tier state system (the third tier, technical schools, never worked anyway). But I now accept that we should not have rejected the educational ethos of grammar schools. As the testimonies in the documentary illustrate, they did a fine job. In phasing them out, we dumbed down instead of smarting up. And those grammars that have managed to survive prove the point.
The author also notes that although "only 1% of the children of semi-skilled or unskilled workers went on to higher education"
There were economic reasons for many not going on to university, allied to the fact that obtaining a place was difficult because there were fewer universities at the time. Most significantly, the schooling itself provided a springboard to the professions and led many to go to university later, as mature students.
The author concludes that grammar schools, "and particularly the disciplined culture they cultivated", worked, and that the present need is to reinvent them, not to dismiss them. But here's the thing: that takes us back to academic tracking.

I recently discussed tracking with a professor who spent a good part of his career helping K-12 teachers learn to better teach English, and he commented on how different a school environment could be within a large school district, with some schools under pretty good control and others largely out of control. He expressed sympathy for teachers who oppose tracking, as the net result can be that they're left with a classroom full of kids who don't see much or any value in learning. But he seemed to accept that in many school districts, tracking was pretty much the only way you would get the more academically capable students into a learning environment where they were challenged. The conceit of the public school is that smart kids will take care of themselves. Some will, but others will meander or drop out.

The best solution we seem to have developed for students with special aptitude is to offer magnet schools - to allow kids to voluntarily funnel themselves into schools that support academics, the arts, or even specific career training. It's an imperfect solution and, in my opinion, generally starts later than would be ideal. Like British comprehensive schools, even academically focused magnet schools are dumbed down as compared to the historic British grammar schools, but at least students have a shot at being not only prepared for college, but prepared to do well.

To the extent that the British once operated under the conceit that if you identified bright children and gave them the opportunity for a top quality education, albeit in a setting that was too rigid and authoritarian for many kids who were channeled into it, you could make them all college quality and they would all attend college. The reality did not meet that expectation, but when you look at what was accomplished you have to acknowledge a transformation of culture and the economic elevation of a great many kids who were otherwise unlikely to have moved beyond working class employment and wages. Their rise was buoyed by a number of factors, including the post-WWII economic expansion, the increased need for educated workers, and the fact that traditional class structures arguably contributed to a larger-than-otherwise-likely population of bright young people with supportive families who were nonetheless pretty much locked into the bottom end of the nation's class structure. But a valid takeaway is that you do help achieve social mobility, better society, and better the lives of individual young people when you give them the opportunity to pursue academically rigorous education.

Our nation presently operates under the conceit that schools can turn anybody into "college material" and that everybody will benefit from having a college degree. I disagree on both counts. In terms of the value of a college degree, a strong case can be made that an excessive population of college graduates, emerging from colleges that have dumbed down degree programs to ensure high completion rates, makes a college degree less valuable. When employers can no longer safely make assumptions about the academic abilities of a college graduate based upon their degree, and when there are many underqualified or lightly qualified graduates who look pretty much the same on paper as the ones who would be a good hire, the hiring decision is apt to turn on other factors. That's not new - the elite colleges that have traditionally served society's scions still carry intense brand value that is arguably in gross disproportion to their comparative academic rigor - but it puts many college graduates back in the position that high school graduates enjoyed back in the 1950's and 60's. A college degree is in some ways analogous to a union card - it doesn't necessarily show that you can do the job, but at least it opens the door for your application. A "college for all" attitude dilutes that value.

Also, even for some highly capable or highly intelligent students, completing college can consume years and money that would be better invested in other pursuits, such as jumping into a challenging field based upon a display of ability, or starting a business. Also, some students benefit from taking time between high school and college, as they lack the interest or motivation to study. (Think: the entire phenomenon of the "party school".)

I would like to see educational reform focus on helping students identify their aptitudes, and maximize the development of their skills. I would try to provide a structure in which a student whose interests changed, or whose aptitudes shifted, move from one track to another - or perhaps be the equivalent of a "dual major" - rather than locking kids into a track based upon choices made or test results from too young an age. And while I would try to provide equal opportunity for all, and to give all kids safe schools with competent teachers, I would not concern myself with notions of "elitism" when I allowed kids to choose academically tracked programs. It may well have been an "elitist" system that allowed my stepfather and his brother to leave a small, working class town, get Oxbridge educations, and pursue successful careers in business, but our nation's "reforms" of the past decade seem more likely to have kept them in under-performing schools while the nation's resources were poured into trying to bring sub-average students up to average and pretend that would make them all "college ready". If you pretend that the smart kids, or those who excel vocationally or artistically, in failing schools (or the mediocre charters we pretend are fantastic) will take care of themselves, you'll disadvantage those kids and deprive society of the full extent of their gifts.


  1. I used to be completely against "tracking", but I've come to see the benefits. Don't hate, please! As long as you do not permanently track someone--i.e., he's not "book smart" at 14, off to the factory you go, no tag backs--then it CAN be not a bad idea. Let me give an example. I work with a couple of students who are profoundly LD. After years of helping them, I have come to the sad fact that they are probably not going to be readers. I know how that sounds, but in the system they are in, in the households they are in--it simply isn't going to happen. My solution has been to use technology to help them get over in school, and I've seen some success. But I doubt they will stick it out through high school, being unable to read or write. Yes, in a perfect world, we would give them intensive tutoring/reading help, but a) that has been tried and been unsuccessful and b) the guardians are not into it. So in our imperfect world, I'd much rather see them get vocational training/life skills training that will hopefully keep them out of gangs and get them some sort of decent employment. Now, if by some chance these boys get a windfall inheritance and end up going to the top private school in the world and learn to read, well, mazel tov! Get the academics going! But that simply isn't going to happen and to pretend that these kids have a chance in a regular high school, taking four years of math/English/science, is short sighted at best and cruel as worst.

  2. Have you seen the HBO documentary, Journey Into Dyslexia? It follows some high achievers who suffer severe dyslexia, and how they dealt with their basic inability to read. It demonstrates how completely demoralizing the standard approach of, "There's something wrong with you, you're not trying hard enough", can be to a child who has little to no chance of learning to read, and how finding either adaptive technologies or a teacher or subject that allow the child to flourish despite their dyslexia can help the child flourish.

    I think care must be taken, but at a certain point if a child cannot read but might be able to succeed in school without being able to read, adaptive technologies can help the child progress in other subjects. If it's possible to address the reading deficit at a later date, great. If not, at least the child has progressed in other subjects.

  3. I have to see that...I will check the Flix o' Net :) You're right...we have some technology (my principal kindly ordered me some Intel readers) but no speech-to-text software/computer yet. Hopefully one day!