This is the third in a series of posts critiquing the "college for all" rhetoric of the contemporary reform movement. If you're just tuning in, I recommend reading from the first post in the trilogy. If you're in a hurry, I encourage you at least to read last week's post.
|Original artwork by Paris Mancini,|
created for Dewey to Delpit
The avoidance of the realities of student achievement constitutes a peculiar reworking of the concept of high expectations. Any real teacher who has genuinely high expectations for his students knows that what is exceptional and praise-worthy in one student is run of the mill for another; and what is exceptional and praise-worthy for the other will be unobtainable for the first. Thus, real teachers would never hold all students to identical standards. Yet, policymakers’ simultaneous adherence to the rhetoric of egalitarianism and that of high expectations has led to precisely these sorts of identical standards.
“College for all” is the ultimate manifestation of this uniformity of expectations, but the effects trickle down into the lower grades, in the form of state—and soon, national—standards, for each grade and each subject. Let me be clear: there’s a strong argument to be made for a consistent national curriculum, but the requirement that all students, homeless and affluent alike, be proficient in precisely the same skills in each grade constitutes a dangerous obliviousness to individual variation; the result is that teachers in schools serving disadvantaged students are forced to race through large swaths of material, relying heavily on memorization and sacrificing both comprehension and retention (see my post on rote instruction and memorization in impoverished neighborhoods).
For middle-class parents, one of the primary purposes of education is intellectual development—and the university is viewed as the final intellectual training-ground for young minds; but for many low-income children, real intellectual engagement is sacrificed in the pursuit of college.
Doing and Thinking
Different expectations for different students does not mean low expectations; in fact, it need not even imply unequal expectations. Students who struggle in purely academic classes may excel in other types of classes that are no less rigorous, stimulating, or useful. Alternative tracking raises questions of equity, however, when the majority of students from particular demographic groups arrive at school better prepared for some tracks than for others.
In other words, vocational tracking in high school poses social justice problems only because we have failed to create equal opportunity at the primary school level. If academic achievement among American thirteen-year-olds were not so closely correlated with economic and ethnic background, then we could sort high-school students into vocational tracks and purely academic tracks, confident that these would be filled according to ability and interest, not according to class and race.
Considerations of equity and social justice, compelling as they are, are poor reasons to abandon vocational ed; to do so is to deprive students of valuable alternative routes to economic stability and intellectual stimulation—and, perhaps, to college as well. Many jobs that do not require a college degree (plumber, auto mechanic, welder, etc.) pay salaries that are sufficient to support a family. What’s more, many students who struggle with academics engage more readily with instruction that’s grounded in practical applications; as Dana Goldstein’s article reveals, practical training can be an in-road to rigorous academic study, and ultimately a route to college educatin.
So why does vocational tracking have such an ugly stigma attached? In a recent blog post, Mike Rose explains the cultural bias at work here:
The comprehensive high school and curriculum tracking was an early twentieth century response to the rapid increase of working class and immigrant children in urban centers, and separate academic, general, and vocational courses of study seemed an efficient way to address their wide range of educational preparation and ability. But conceptions of ability were made amidst the emergence of I.Q. testing and a full-blown eugenics movement. So there was much talk about the limited mental capacity of various immigrant and working-class groups and the distinct ways their brains functioned. As opposed to college-bound students (overwhelmingly white and middle to upper class) who were “abstract minded”, working-class and immigrant students were “manually minded.”
It is not only this history of exclusionism and racism that stigmatizes vocational ed, but also a persistent middle-class bias against physical, technical, and practical work. A plumber is a far more indispensable member of society than, say, lawyer; his skill set is highly refined; his salary is high—why does he garner so much less respect? Plainly, it is because his expertise is of a less intellectual and theoretical nature.
Vocational education is associated with John Dewey, and for good reason: he was a great advocate of it. Dewey understood that practical training need not be merely a route to a particular profession; it can also serve as a means of building moral character and acquiring broader and more intimate knowledge of science, politics, and human society. To Dewey, purely theoretical knowledge was inferior to theoretical knowledge grounded in detailed experience of the concrete particulars to which the theory refers. (See my posts on Dewey’s educational philosophy.) This was Dewey’s vision of practical training, as not a reduction but an enhancement of academic study.
The unacknowledged abandonment of Dewey’s vision in favor of the more convenient and reductive vocational ed dominant in the American comprehensive high school of the mid-20th century has thus impoverished not only vocational training but academic study as well. By rejecting the practical and concrete, we have divorced academics from the tangible particulars that originally inspired them and which might give them life. Lost in this divorce is not only a great many sources of rich cognitive engagement and intellectual stimulation, but also “the factors of discipline and character-building,” self-respect and satisfaction entailed in the acquisition and successful execution of practical skills.
Morality and Citizenship
The issue of moral training, both in the personal sense and in the broader civic sense, is an important one in the discussion of the purposes of schooling and the role of college. Indeed, one of the original aims of public schooling was to give students the moral fiber and the intellectual tools to engage with their communities and their governments, to exercise their rights, and to resist oppression. After all, a democracy with an ill-informed, gullible, or disinterested citizenship is a recipe for the most insidious sort of tyranny. Ahem.
College is not necessarily the only context in which the tools of civic engagement can be acquired, but it is clearly the case that a degree of academic training—in history, politics, rhetoric, textual analysis, and probably statistics, economics, and science as well—is necessary for well-informed participation in modern democracy. Any vocational tracking that ignores such subjects disserves both its students and the society at large.
As Dewey recognized, however, responsible participation in democracy is not only a matter of intellectual capital but also of moral fiber and social adjustment. A well informed, but disaffected, selfish, or embittered citizen may serve his own political interests well enough, but we would hardly want a society full of such people. A well-functioning democracy is not simply a marketplace of votes, in which everyone serves his or her own self-interest; it is a nation of voters who seek the overall betterment of society. (How’s that for high expectations? In fact, though, that vision should hardly smack of idealism; the alternative is Social Darwinism.) If we teach the knowledge and skills of civic engagement yet neglect the moral character of students, we do our nation and its people no great service.
Having wandered so far from what was, at the start of this trilogy of posts, a simple and easily-defensible thesis (“college for all” is not as good as it sounds), into the realm of educational philosophy and lofty idealism, let me take one more inadvisable step, over the edge, into flat out philosophical musing: let me suggest that to teach pure, academic knowledge without grounding it in concrete experience of practical, physical, and social activity is to encourage a schism between the analytic mind and the empathic, emotional, interpersonal mind—and thereby to cultivate amorality and blind self-interest.
Standardization and Education
The preceding investigation is ambitious and wide-ranging, but the critique with which it begins is a simple one: principles of good education (high expectations, for example) are not simple and fixed ideas; they are intricate, flexible tools that can be used effectively only by experienced educators. That’s an inconvenient reality in a country with an inexperienced teaching force (about half of all teachers leave the profession within the first five years), and policymakers try to standardize these tools in an effort to make them, if not impervious to individual human variation, at least functional across a large and heterogeneous teaching force. Many of these policymakers are themselves lay-people in the field of education and lack the expertise to properly wield the very tools they are trying to standardize. The result is blunt, dangerous instruments.
This is a very widespread problem in education—the current rhetoric of “best practices” and the claims that “we know what works” tend in the same direction—but it’s not a stupid problem, by which I mean, it arises not purely out of arrogance and ignorance. Yes, arrogance and ignorance play a role, but standardization arises primarily as a response to a very real opposing problem: the deterioration of quality and equity that occurs in its absence.
The pendulum has been swinging towards standardization for the past 30 years, and I suspect it’s nearing its apogee, but another swing back in the opposite direction will not help American schools. The top-down desegregation movement of the early ‘60s did little to right inequities in American public schooling, and the bottom-up community control movement of the late ‘60s and ‘70s did even less. After nearly 200 years of unceasing conflict in American public education between local control and variation on the one hand and national control and standardization on the other, we ought to recognize that the problem is more complicated than it looks and that the solution lies on neither side.
How do you propagate good practices without codifying, ossifying, and desiccating them? That is one of the most fundamental questions facing American education, past and present.
 ^ the quote is from Dewey, The School and Society, 1900. It’s a piece of a longer excerpt that I posted a discussion of back in February. (http://edcommentary.blogspot.com/2011/02/little-dewey.html)
 ^ 20 to 25% of those who leave return later, but that still implies that 40% of the teaching force, at any given time, has fewer than five years of experience. See http://www.nctaf.org/documents/no-dream-denied_full-report.pdf, figure 4.
 ^ After playing professional basketball in Australia, Arne Duncan worked as an administrator in the field of education for a number of years before being appointed to run America’s public school system, but he never taught. Joel Klein was a lawyer in the department of Justice, who had no involvement with education before becoming the superintendent of the NYC schools. The first great champion of standardization in American education, Horace Mann, was a career politician with no connection and apparently no interest in education, until he was 43.
As the first secretary of the Massachusetts board of ed, Mann went to great lengths to educate himself about the schools he was in charge of, visiting every school in Massachusetts, in the late 1830s. Duncan and Klein have surely done their homework in the way of background reading, and they’ve probably done their share of school observations as well, but there is no substitute for actual teaching experience.