Thursday, October 11, 2007

Bastions of Privilege, and Other Myths

Education writer Peter Sacks is the author of Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide in American Education. Like me, he also blogs occasionally for the Huffington Post. Recently, he wrote a piece on how ability grouping has gone "underground" that left me shaking my head. You can read the piece, "Can Public Schools Fix the Achievement Gap? Yes, But They Won't" here.

Basically, it takes a certain sort of person to find evil in just about everything good that's going on in American education. He takes on AP classes, math and science magnet schools that are partially funded by corporations, and even a shocking move by some Berkeley High teachers to "quietly" offer what was called the Academic Choice program within the school (basically, a rigorous college prep curriculum). According to Sacks, all these are bastions of class and privilege. And as long as they exist, and every student is not enrolled in them, nothing will change.

So what is to be done? "With appropriate re-engineering and refocusing, American schools do have the capacity to diminish the achievement gaps that politicians like to talk about," he writes. "Schools need to pay a lot more attention to supplementing the cultural and social capital that disadvantaged students -- for a variety of reasons -- do not get from home because they, unluckily, were born to parents who lack education, information, and resources."

But I am trying to figure out how this would work in a schooling situation in which all separation of children has been deemed illegitimate. Let's say schools select out children from troubled backgrounds who are having academic difficulties for special attention. Perhaps they could be put in intensive math classes that would bring them up to speed. But would the children already performing at grade level need to be in the same intensive catch-up classes? Their presence would take attention away from those who need special help. But if these at-grade-level children are in separate classes from those who need extra help, we're back to some version of tracking, which will be viewed with much suspicion. Indeed, gifted education, when done right, is simply finding kids who need supplementation and giving it to them. Somehow this is OK if the kids have cultural and social capital needs. But not, in Sacks' view, if they have academic ones.

Of course, I would never claim that all is wonderful in the world of tracking and ability grouping. I know that in some schools, very bright poor or minority children are made to feel uncomfortable in college prep or AP classes. And too often, the "regular" tracks get bad teachers who don't challenge the kids. Sometimes honors classes don't challenge kids either, as we discussed in the last post. But the soft bigotry of low expectations is alive and well.

Still, say we took a high school and chose one of two options. Everyone takes whatever math class the most advanced 10 students are capable of, or everyone studies the level of math the ten students who are struggling most in the subject are able to handle. The first might be interesting. I would love to see an experiment with it. My guess is that some proportion of the next tier of students would rise to the occasion through diligent work. But among the rest, you'd have as much frustration and failure as if you told all students in a school to run a 20 minute 5k.

Unfortunately, when schools do away with ability grouping, they tend to choose some version of the latter option (not aimed at the very bottom, usually, but the lower middle). Good teachers can still figure out a way to make it work some of the time. With bad ones, though, it's a disaster. Every time some education writer or researcher goes on about the joys of heterogeneous grouping, I remember my 7th grade English class, in which the teacher spent day after day having us do pre-writing exercises called "clusters," since some kids simply couldn't handle an essay. Eventually, it got so boring that a number of the boys started jumping out the first floor window and running around the school. But who knows. Maybe this is what Sacks means by "tearing down the gates."


Anonymous said...

I am a child of lower-class parents. But I do not think that 'tearing down the bastions of privilege' is in my best interest. If your intelligence is so high that a decent curriclulum for the majority doesn't fit your needs, these bastions are the places (honours programs, etc)all the interesting stuff goes on.

I live in Europe, and all the schools I went to provided a decent education. But there were no honours classes, or advanced classes at that time. It was 'elitist' I got bored no matter how good the education was. A decent education just isn't enough for the gifted.

Are you helping the lower-class by denying their gifted kids proper education because gifted programs also tend to attract bright, affluent children?

Anonymous said...

This is almost shockingly wrong- minded. My daughter attended a GT program for Kinder/1st and it was largely low income and diverse: lots of Asians, and latinos who could never afford private school. Some who lived in apartments nearby as they couldn't afford housing in that neighborhood and didn't want to subject their child to the commute. What options will they be left with if you take that away? they can't afford other options! Homeschooling is expensive and many of them weren't educated enough to do it anyway. Particularly in English.( I eventually moved my child to a private school but if I could think of any worthwhile use of my tax dollars, that would be second - right after the public library!) What audience is this argument intended for? no one in the real world surely?

Peter Sacks said...

Blogging is a great thing but it's no substitute for books and real knowledge. Blogging is one way for me as an author to cut through the noise and get my work out into the world of mass information for those who want it. If readers really want to understand my ideas and arguments, for readers who do really care about social and economic injustice, I would encourage them to actually read my books on these issues, including my new book, Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide in American Education (University of California Press, 2007) For the owner of this blog to suggest that bastions of privilege in American schools, colleges and universities is a "myth" is to be completely and blissfully ignorant of the recent trends in the education system and its role in American society. But, again, once a critic has actually read my book, only then is he or she in a position to refute it in any substantive way. But then again, there is no shortage of sloppy pseudo-criticism in the blogosphere, is there?
-- Peter Sacks, author

Karen said...

Being against tracking of high school students is insane. Look at life after high school. College has majors, jobs require specialization. Some kids want to take advanced basketball others, advanced math. As long as all classes at public schools are open to all with the ability to complete them and resources are spread evenly I see only good coming out of special advanced classes across the board as long as they match student interest.