Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Thoughts About High School

At a recent birthday party for an old friend I met an obviously talented high school history teacher who teaches at a huge school—it looks to be about the size of the Pentagon—that I used occasionally to drive by in my suburban expeditions.  It is located in a rapidly developing part of Middlesex County that transitioned from potato farms to tracts of McMansions in what seemed like a trice, certainly during the active lifetime of one pickup truck.  Even the most casual observer will note, passing along its freshly landscaped borders, the evidences of a significant immigration of persons of subcontinental Asian origin—a detail not without significance to my current musings.  For as the field of competition for the Democratic presidential nomination takes shape, I have found myself particularly interested in some of the various ideas concerning education that are beginning to emerge.

As I see it, there are at least two major questions about our high schools that should greatly concern Americans.  This first is this: do our schools, in general, set a high enough standard when compared with the schools in other prosperous nations?  The answer to this is “No”—in my opinion a resounding “No”--but as the question is seldom so much as asked, I leave it aside from this essay.  The second is this: what accounts for the marked disparity in educational outcomes of our high school students along racial lines.  This question is frequently asked, and frequently answered.  But how good are the answers?

The Federal Government first became seriously involved in secondary education in 1965, the year I began teaching college. In connection with the “War on Poverty”, the Johnson administration commissioned an ambitious sociological survey of American public schools in an attempt to pinpoint as accurately as possible the facts of the racial achievement gap and its larger sources.  The so-called Coleman Report of 1966 drew attention to a dramatic chasm of about a full standard deviation separating the academic achievement of black and white students in our high schools.  Race itself was an important correlating factor in educational success, along with levels of parental education and family income.  Local budgetary factors—class size, and per-student expenditure—were relatively minor factors.

Lots of people saw the Coleman Report as a wake-up call.  Our government educational experts didn’t wake up, exactly, but they did go on a spending spree.  Over the next half century per-capita expenditure on the public schools roughly quadrupled.  Kids were given head starts.  No child was left behind.   With what concrete results?  A new major study—we’ll call it Son-of-Coleman—has just summarized the state of the achievement gap for American children born between 1954 (the year of my graduation from high school, as it happens) and 2001.  Simplifying only slightly, the needle has barely moved!  The efforts of the last fifty years, which were far from trivial, half-hearted, unimaginative or niggardly—have failed even to dent the problem of racially disparate educational outcomes in the public schools.  There is still essentially a full standard deviation separating the performance of black and white students. 

A problem so huge and so persistent is unlikely to have a single or a simple cause, but there is in my opinion one major factor that too seldom commands serious discussion because of its intractability and social sensitivity.  That is the traditional educative role of the family, as opposed to that of the school.  My two Montreal grandchildren have been with us over Easter, and yesterday my six-year-old grandson took me for a little walk.  We saw many interesting things to discuss: flowers, birds, the worms that had been driven to the surface by a heavy rain some hours earlier.  Since in his school they speak French as well as English we tried to identify objects of interest in both languages.  We stopped to admire a lush clover patch.  He knew about clover, and about the lucky four-leaf instances thereof.  But he didn’t know the French: trèfle.  He repeated the word, amending instinctively and without comment my lame pronunciation.  How could there be such different words for the same thing?  That led me to English trefoil, thence to bibliographical folios, thence to what it might mean “to turn over a new leaf”.

It is hard not to make this sound like a philological seminar rather than what it was, a perfectly natural conversation between a young boy and his old grandfather.  Yet, like dozens of other daily exchanges he has with his parents, it will certainly be a small part of the foundation upon which the boy’s formal education can be constructed.  The schools can do a great deal, but they are much better at building on a foundation than at laying one.  That has since time immemorial been the task of parents and other familiar elders.  This brings me back to the high school teacher of my first sentence.  She teaches elective Advanced Placement courses in history.   Performance in AP courses (sometimes called “college preparatory” courses) is measured by a single nationally administered test that aims to establish an objective and uniform standard.  The degree to which this goal is achievable is not beyond debate, but I know from personal experience that the College Board, which administers the program, strives mightily to achieve it.  For several years I was on the committee that makes up the AP exam for English.

Although a quarter of the students in her school are black, she has no black students in her classes this term.  She thinks most black students are “lost”—her word—to the aspirations of AP well before they get to high school.  On the other hand students of Asian background, another sizeable demographic in the student body, are significantly overrepresented.  She told me that AP is nearly the cultural norm among this broad section of the immigrant community, and one widely supported by parents “actively involved” in all aspects of their children’s school careers.  That was also her phrase.  She clearly thinks that parental involvement can be too “active” in monitoring homework and demanding high grades.  She spends a certain amount of time with pressurized teenagers.  But in terms of outcomes—such as those that are causing such anguish in the New York City system with regard to the admissions to elite high schools—the heavy hand seems to triumph over even the most benign neglect every time.