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August 01, 2003

Education Reform and the Lessons of History


Have you come across Diane Ravitch’s book, “Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform?” It’s a history of the internecine struggles over the curriculum and styles of pedagogy of public high schools over the past 110 years.

I came away from the book feeling depressed at the eagerness of the upper reaches of the teaching profession to indulge in various forms of social engineering. I also came away angry at the arrogance of their disregard for many of the children they were supposed to be nurturing. However, since most of the people discussed in the book are long dead (if, in some cases, still quite influential) it was hard to get beyond thinking “a plague on all their houses!” and putting the book on the shelf.

But a few months later I find myself thinking that my first reaction was a bit hasty. It dawned on me that understanding the various permutations of the high school (and the education theories embodied in those permutations) holds important lessons for those of us interested in trying to improve the performance of the public schools.

So bear with me while I sketch out a little historical context.

Public high schools were, in their first, Victorian incarnation, public versions of private college preparatory schools. The basic curriculum was derived from the college prep schools, and thus strongly academic. In the latter 19th century, high school students were largely children from urban middle- and upper-middle-class families, often admitted via entrance exams designed to screen out the inadequately prepared. These early high schools were elite institutions: in the year 1900, only 6.4 percent of the nation’s 17-year-olds were high school graduates. Drop out rates were high, in part because failure to graduate held no particular stigma. (In the 1880s, even the Wright Brothers, despite being academically gifted middle class students, never quite got around to getting their diplomas.)

So what was the basic classroom paradigm of the Victorian high school? The teacher presented the material to the students, tested them to see if they had mastered it, gave them a grade and moved on. Frankly, this was a pretty reasonable approach, given the “social facts” of the surrounding situation—after all, the children had been screened to ensure that they were ready for and capable of handling this type of instruction, the use of grades would presumably motivate them to work hard and give them feedback about their progress, and if it turned out that high school was not working out for an individual, he or she could drop out without stigma. In short, high school was a way up the social ladder for those willing (and prepared) to endure its rigors, with no apparent “downside.”

However, the Victorian-model high school did not last past the First World War. This was not because it was perceived as a failure; on the contrary, the model was adopted on a massive scale. (As Stanford education historian David B. Tyack has observed, Americans built one new high school a day from 1890 to 1918.) But as high schools spread across the nation’s cities, reformers began to see in them a possible “solution” to the problems caused by several simultaneous waves of social change that had been ongoing since the Civil War:

(1) Rapid urbanization: the period from 1860 to 1930 saw the American urban population grow tenfold while the rural population merely doubled. This had a major impact on the demand for secondary education as high schools were, in the pre-automotive era, a largely urban phenomenon.

(2) Rapid industrialization: the same period showed a massive shift of American manpower from agriculture to industry. While the economy grew by slightly more than ten-fold from 1860 to 1929, the number of trade union members grew from around 300,000 in 1860 to a high of 5,000,000 in 1920.

(3) Rapid immigration: While immigration had been a significant social force throughout the 19th century, in the latter 19th and early 20th century it reached higher levels (relative to the size of the native born population) than at any other time in American history. By 1900 roughly a third of the population was either foreign born or were the children of the foreign born. (A 1908 congressional study found that children of foreign-born fathers made up majorities of the students in the New York, Chicago, Boston, Cleveland, Providence, Newark and San Francisco school systems.) Moreover, in contrast to early waves of immigration, this “great wave” was primarily made up of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, who were perceived as more culturally foreign than their predecessors.

On the left, these social changes promoted the fortunes of the Democratic Party, trade unionism, and urban machine politics. They also emboldened those advocating outright socialism. On the right, they inspired Progressivism, which was largely a movement of the traditional American Protestant elite to control and/or counteract the political impact of the new urban masses. The Progressives, lacking votes for direct political influence in many large cities, cleverly campaigned on a program of anti-corruption (because machine politics ran on bribery, shake-downs and the diversion of public funds into private pockets), professionalization (because this allowed the substitution of educated career bureaucrats for party hacks, weakening a key base of machine power) and de-democratization (because this insulated many facets of municipal government from corrupt “political” influences).

Progressives, moreover, strongly emphasized the “Americanization” of the immigrant population. (It should be noted that few if any elements of the native-born population disagreed with this goal.) Looking around for a way to institutionalize assimilation as a social goal, they hit on the public schools. Mandatory education legislation was passed across the country in the first few decades of the 20th century to ensure that the children of immigrants would attend school. On top of that, increasingly restrictive child-labor laws helped to ensure that these children had fewer and fewer alternatives to staying in the education system. These laws—along with the interest of many immigrant and native-born working-class parents in getting their children an education—accomplished their purpose. By 1920, the fraction of children aged 14 to 17 who were in high school rose to 31.2 percent, and fraction of 17-year-olds who were high school graduates rose to 16.8 percent. By 1940, three quarters of the 14-17 year old population was in high school, and graduates made up 50% of the nation’s 17-year-old population.

From a Progressive point of view, education, like other bureaucratic governmental functions, needed to be “professionalized.” This era saw the emergence of teacher training colleges and departments of education in major universities. The professors of these teacher-training programs became the new gurus of the field (although it should be made clear that actual teaching remained in the hands of underpaid women.) These gurus set about remaking the public high school to meet the demands (as they saw them) of the new environment, creating what I term the Progressive high school. Of course, like the other reforms of the Progressive era, this top-down design effort meant a reduction of “democracy” in the education arena. Bureaucrats and professionals largely seized control of schools from parents, confident that their notions about the nature of society and the goals of the education system were correct—after all, weren’t they “social scientists”? (Actually, the short answer to that question would be a resounding “no,” as there was a remarkable dearth of anything approximating scientific rigor in the field.)

I’m not even going to try to explain all the tangled routes by which the Progressive High School came into existence, which involved overlapping fads/notions/initiatives such as child-centered education, the curriculum reform movement, the vocational education movement, the mental testing movement, the activities movement, the social reconstruction movement, the needs-of-children movement, etc., etc. (Obviously, had been a major boom in academic education theory.)

Let it suffice to say that, as it was implemented on a broad basis, the Progressive High School of the latter 1920s was basically one that adopted multiple curriculum tracks— e.g., college preparatory, commercial (business), vocational (industrial arts for boys and home economics for girls), and “general.” Children were assigned(!) to various tracks based either on parental occupation(!) or as the result of early generation pencil-and-paper IQ tests. (Let me note, whatever the cultural bias or lack thereof of modern IQ tests, these early models undoubtedly contained significant cultural bias.) As a result, the “lower” tracks of the Progressive high school were disporportionately filled by immigrant children and students from other low socio-economic groups.)

The arrangement of the Progressive high school was based quite openly on the notion that most children lacked the mental wherewithal (and cultural background) for academic studies. In fact, the Progressives were remarkably unified on the notion that academic studies were actively harmful for the mass of children, making them discontent with their inevitable lot as cashiers, auto mechanics, beauticians, housewives, etc. At the same time, because these non-academic-track children had to be kept in school to ensure their socialization as good Americans (and also to further the empire-building ambitions of educational bureaucrats), less challenging alternatives to the academic disciplines had to be found. This was particularly the case for students in the “general” track, who didn’t take algebra but did take “general” math, who didn’t take history but took “social studies.” Today's widespread practice of dreaming up elective classes on distinctly non-academic topics (with the chief intention of entertaining students) originated in the Progressive high school.

One major change did occur to the Progressive high school model during the 1930s. Severe limits on immigration had been imposed during the 1920s, and gradually the goal of Americanizing foreigners from the wrong parts of the world seemed to be of less overwhelming urgency. Moreover, as a result of the Depression, manufacturing jobs were no simply longer available to new workers. Both of these trends led to the collapse of the vocational education track and the transfer of students from it to “general track” which then became dominant in terms of sheer numbers. Responding to this new shift, the edu-crats immediately responded with a new goal for the Progressive high school: the warehousing of children society’s children in a safe environment until social conditions permitted them to go out into the adult world.

However, the basic classroom paradigm of the Progressive high school remained identical to that of its Victorian predecessor. The teacher presented the material to the students, tested them to see if they had mastered it, gave them a grade and moved on. However, this classroom paradigm no longer fit the “social facts” of the school surrounding it. Because of the very success of the high school movement and the consequent increase in the number of children earning their diplomas, the failure to graduate began to acquire a real stigma. Because high school had become a mass, not an elite, institution, the contents of the non-academic tracks had to be intellectually watered down to ensure that the number of kids failing or dropping out of school was kept to a minimum. It should be noted, however, that the failure of a significant percentage of children was absolutely assumed and taken for granted. And, given the new goal of “warehousing” children, the acceptance of this fairly substantial “failure rate” had its inevitable result the widespread practice of social promotion (i.e., where the advance of children through the school would be based on seniority, not subject-matter mastery.) Last but not least, the entire tracking mechanism converted the raison d’etre of high school from being a mechanism for social advancement to being a mechanism for what was referred to as “life adjustment”—to wit, making you content with your lot in life. Moreover, Progressive educators had managed this significant shift in educational policy without the consultation (and often without the knowledge) of parents or the community.

As the grandchild of Southern European immigrants who came to this country as teenagers during the era of peak immigration in the 1910s and who sent their children to high school in the 1940s, I can’t pass over the arrogance of these edu-crats in tossing many (most?) children onto the “learn to live with it” pile. (I think I can say with great certainty that my grandparents did not go through the painful struggles of immigration to be told that they should learn to live with their place in the social order.) Although “Left Back” is rife with appalling utterances by various educational gurus, I will illustrate their mindset with one example taken from a prominent Progressive educator during the 1930s:

Writing in The Journal of Negro Education, Harl R. Douglass of the University of Colorado insisted that the greatest need of Negro youths—like white youths—was to be “adjusted” to society….Like the federal report on Negro education in 1917, Douglass recommended “practical” education for the realities of life rather than a bookish education for black students…Douglass expressed his puzzlement with “the unreasonable tendency for Negro adolescents and their parents to favor this linguistic-mathematical-historical-date type” of schooling even though it would not prepare them to adjust to society…He criticized black leaders who complained about racial discrimination and said that they should devote themselves instead to preparing the black youth “to fit into the framework of society as he will find it.”

Before we pat ourselves on the back too hard for being more enlightened than Mr. Douglass, however, I would urge us all to realize that the Progressive-model high school is still the version available to most children today. Maybe the tracking system isn’t quite so out-in-the-open as it was in 1925, but the whole complex of assumptions and practices remains more or less intact.

Granted, the denigration of the academic curriculum (one of Progressive educators' favorite pass times was the disparagement of what they called the “sacred-cow” academic curriculum) has ceased, as everyone recognizes that in the information technology age an academic education is a vocational education. And granted that strenuous efforts have been undertaken to ensure students are taking tougher classes, hopefully from more qualified teachers. But…let’s face it, the results of two decades of “reform” have been pretty minimal to date.

I would suggest that is because our public high schools as institutions are still organized around the ideas of the Progressive high school. (The same goes for how teachers are trained and even the expectations teachers bring to their work.) What must change to permit more radical improvement in today’s primary and secondary schools is a shift in the classroom paradigm. In short, the notion of teachers presenting, testing, grading and moving on was never really designed for the education of all children. This model assumes that its outcome will be students with a gradation of subject matter mastery (some will totally master it, some will kinda sorta get it, and some will miss out entirely.) I will grant you that this paradigm "worked" for upper middle class Victorians (given the lack of stigma attached to failure)—and that it still sort of works for today’s upper-middle class families in high-quality school districts, because lots of parental resources can be brought to bear on the laggards. But this paradigm will never permit across the board, “no child left behind” academic competence for all children, whatever their background.

But organizing a school around this paradigm is not inevitable. There are other classroom paradigms floating around out there that do promise to bring many more children up to speed. For example, it's widely admitted that one-on-one tutoring of children willing to work even minimally has a 100% success rate in teaching virtually any subject. Granted, one-on-one tutoring is economically infeasible in public schools. But there are others paradigms that are designed for the one-teacher many-students environment of the public schools. One, Mastery Learning, aims to bring 80% of children, regardless of intellectual horsepower, up to at least 80% mastery of every subject. I’ve never seen a Mastery Learning classroom in operation, but it appears that the approach has resulted in significant test score improvements where it has been intelligently applied. In any event, I believe the goals of Mastery Learning—the accomplishment of mass academic competence and the utter abandonment of social promotion—must be adopted by schools. Somehow, methods must be developed to make these goals a practical reality. (For example, I could see a definite role for computer-based training in such a system; being personalized, it has no “bottom half of the class.”)

But I think that education reformers must realize that reform initiatives like standardized testing and exit exams, while useful measures, aren’t going to get us where we're trying to go, as long as we're stuck with the baggage of the Progressive public school. We need new classroom paradigms, we need teachers trained to utilize them, and we need feedback mechanisms to ensure that they are being effectively implemented. To accomplish this is, I would estimate, a task of about the same size and complexity as building up the U.S. Army for the invasion of Europe in World War II—which took tens of billions of dollars and at least five years to accomplish. Until we are as serious about education as George Marshall and FDR were about invading Europe, we probably won’t see victory in our struggle with inadequate public school educations.



P.S. For those who want to learn more about the evolution of the American high school, an excellent set of articles is available on the Education Week website, which you can read here.

An introduction to Mastery Learning is available here.

A helpful overview of the Progressive era is available here.

posted by Friedrich at August 1, 2003


You have to be careful when you use an example from Black American education to justify some conclusions about American education as a whole. Historically, Black Americans have faced explicit political barriers to educational opportunity that make their case anomalous, possibly even unique, in American education.

First of all, Black Americans faced the problem of deliberately underfunded, segregated public schools. Secondly, the existence of these schools was in many places contingent on the assumption that these schools would not teach a basic liberal arts curriculum. (Private schools attempting to operate under these conditions were frequently destroyed by angry mobs, or closed by local officials.) The basic idea of a "practical education for Negroes" was instrumental in justifying -- at least to race-baiting Progressives -- any public or private education for Black Americans at all.

It's no surprise, given the autocratic state oppression under which they operated, that a major discrepancy evolved over time between the official goals of Black educational institutions ("practical education" and vocational training) and the liberal arts curriculum that was clandestinely taught within their confines. Still, because of the very hostile environment outside these institutes (all of which were located in the South), it was necessary to conceal from outsiders' eyes any real education that occurred within them. For a century after Reconstruction, it was agreed that a well-educated Black man in the Deep South was a lynching waiting to happen.

In the early days of integration, this overall wariness among educators and institutions alike was amply justified. Several Southern regions -- including the entire state of Virginia -- opted to close all public education rather than allow Black children to attend classes with Whites. Of course, local political bosses promptly organized private schools to take care of White children, and ensured that these schools were properly funded and subsidized. But Black children in the South found themselves embroiled in years of controversial courtroom battles. Often these children had to move away, living with friends or relatives so that they could obtain a basic education.

It's impossible to blame "child-centered education" or Dewey-eyed progressivism for the eventual racist actions of Plaquemines Parish boss Leander Perez or Virginia governor J. Lindsay Almond Jr. Perez and Almond had nothing to do with Dewey or his disciples. Likewise, it's impossible to apply this hostile educational environment Black Americans faced in the 1930s, a product of specific historical forces, to American education today.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on August 1, 2003 05:48 PM

I understand your point, Tim. But the reason I used the quote was not to justify or even dicuss the difficulties of black education in the South, but to discuss the dismissal of their hopes and dreams by Progressive edu-crats My larger point was to highlight the willingness of these SOBs to consign whole classes of society to menial roles.

Also, I should clarify something that might not have been obvious from my posting: there were left-wing Progressive educators as well as right wing Progressives. But despite their extreme differences of opinion over the nature of an ideal society, their impacts on mass education oddly tended to parallel and reinforce each other. I would never say that John Dewey, for example, supported segregation or was against the education of blacks. But I would say that his support for what amounted to a "liberal" vocational education (essentially unrealizable on a mass basis) didn't help, and his attacks on the traditional academic education probably hurt the plight of black children who had moved North, only to find themselves put into the vocational or "general" track at some large urban high school.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 1, 2003 06:29 PM

Friedrich -- I was enjoying your history lesson, when all of a sudden I was brought up by this: "I believe the goals of Mastery Learning—the accomplishment of mass academic competence and the utter abandonment of social promotion—must be adopted by schools."

Can you clarify exactly what you mean by "the utter abandonment of social promotion"? Because if you mean grade-retention programs like they have in Florida, I think you're not only wrong but actually being extremely counterproductive. But before we enter into this debate, I want to be sure I understand what you're talking about first.

Posted by: Felix on August 1, 2003 06:48 PM

Anytime this topic comes up, the first thing I do is direct people to the writings of Richard Mitchell. And now I just have.

Throwing around the word "paradigm" gets a knee-jerk response of disgust from me, mostly because it's the sort of word that the educationists bandy about to hide what they're doing (or rather, to hide the fact that they don't know what they're doing).

Yet a new one of those... those... things must be executed, you're certainly right about that.

Mitchell begins the fourth chapter of The Graves of Academe thusly:

AFTER SOBER and judicious consideration, and weighing one thing against another in the interests of reasonable compromise, H. L. Mencken concluded that a startling and dramatic improvement in American education required only that we hang all the professors and burn down the schools. His uncharacteristically moderate proposal was not adopted. Those who actually knew more about education than Mencken did could see that his plan was nothing more than cosmetic and would in fact provide only an outward appearance of improvement. Those who knew less, on the other hand, had somewhat more elaborate plans of their own, and they just happened to be in charge of the schools.

Social promotion must be thrown out, standards must be set and rigorously adhered to and, perhaps most important of all, education must be taken out of the hands of bureaucrats. This means private schooling only, a free market system. Otherwise, social engineers and tinpot dictators will be drawn to the system like ants to honey, as we've seen over, and over, and over, and over...

Posted by: Ian on August 1, 2003 09:10 PM

I taught for several years in a gifted school that utilized the mastery approach. 'Time needed to learn' is a real issue: learning curves vary widely. In practical terms, it seems to me, you're talking about tracking, an approach that isn't acceptable to many in education today.

Posted by: Ellie on August 1, 2003 09:44 PM

I noticed over at Samizdata that Brian had a posting you education junkies might find interesting, here.

He recommends this site too, here.

And of course Brian's own Education Blog is always of interest, here, as is the blog of the queen herself, Joanne Jacobs, here.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 1, 2003 10:44 PM

Another interesting edu-discussion is this posting and then comment thread at Arnold Kling's EconLog blog, here>.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 1, 2003 10:50 PM

I guess I've always assumed that there'll always be a certain number of kids (the majority? maybe not) who have an academic knack and who have some interest in academic-style learning too, but that there'll also always be substantial number of kids who, bright or not, are completely unmotivated academically.

Which I guess has tended to leave me feeling, in a general and uninformed way, that offering lots of different tracks (including many different kinds of vocational) is probably a good thing at the high school level; that academic study per se should probably be required only through about ninth grade (ie., get every kid to where she can read comfortably, write a few ok paragraphs, do arithmatic, and know a few hundred basic history facts, and after that set her loose to go her own way) ...

I'm not convinced that all kids can do well academically -- gift for it or not, intellectual-style learnin' above a certain level does require a certain kind of motivation, and I remember well that a lot of kids simply don't have it. So I've always thought: why torture 'em? Why traumatize 'em with boredom, and why make 'em feel stupid and resentful? Bring 'em up to a certain, very basic level and after that let 'em choose their own destinies.

I'm not even sure that Michael Blowhard's world would require kids to attend school through the age of 16 or 17 or whatever the law currently is. 14 maybe. Then offer lots of different kinds of high-school level schools for the kids who want to go on -- some oriented towards traditional academic study, some towards more technical stuff, others towards trade-type skills, etc. ... Don't let the educrats tell the kids which track they should take, let the kids and their parents decide. Which is one of the reasons I think vouchers are a good idea. But I'd also like to see more kinds of adult-ed possibilities develop too -- gotta take into account all those people who don't develop any idea of how they want to go through life until after they've spent some time out in the world.

Do these hunches -- which I haven't given a lot of systematic thought, let alone research -- jibe with your prefs where education is concerned?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 2, 2003 09:18 AM

Michael’s world would require a wholesale rethink on the part of parents and students, in addition to educrats. I suspect that a large majority of parents would prefer that their children attend college, and thus, would select a college-prep curriculum. For reasons I don’t know, we spent most of the 20th century pushing back the age at which children assume responsibility for their own lives. We also bought into the notion that education professionals know ‘better’ than parents and students. Tracking at entrance to high school would be bitterly resisted as a means of ‘locking’ students out of certain life-choices at an early age; current educational ideology believes that any high school freshman is a potential nuclear physicist. It’s also significant, I think, that our society respects educational level: how often do we see statistics indicating the pay differential between college-educated and non-college educated workers? And, yes, it’s a little odd to lump illiterate day laborers in the same group with $100,000 per-year plumbers, but that’s what we do. Of course, the changes in the goals and student population of the American high school over the past century have devalued the high school diploma to such an extent that, in many cases it doesn’t even suggest literacy on the part of the graduate.

In my opinion, the best we can hope for at this stage is limited access to vouchers, and perhaps an expansion of tech schools.

Posted by: Ellie on August 2, 2003 10:35 AM

Quoth Friedrich:

> But the reason I used the quote was
> not to justify or even dicuss the
> difficulties of black education in
> the South, but to discuss the
> dismissal of their hopes and dreams
> by Progressive edu-crats. My larger
> point was to highlight the
> willingness of these SOBs to consign
> whole classes of society to menial
> roles.

W.E.B. DuBois made a similar critique about Booker T. Washington's Tuskeegee Institute: "The purpose of education is not to make men carpenters, but to make carpenters men." He deplored the focus on menial education, and advocated an advanced liberal-arts curriculum.

Well, point taken and welcomed. But in the case of "Negro" education in the 1930s, an entire population had already been consigned to menial roles. Progressive politicians did not invent this situation, but they certainly approved and perpetuated it. (I should also note that in the early 20th century, race hatred was an integral part of left-liberal politics; dyed-in-the-wool liberals like Woodrow Wilson were also deeply racist.)

The idea of a "practical education" to make Black tradesmen more competent and contented was not used to hold down an entire group of people. "Lynch law," Jim Crow codes, and a full-fledged police state were already holding Black Americans down. Rather, the idea of menial education was used to mollify resentful, autocratic state governments which opposed on principle any education for Black Americans at all.

So in this case, far from being "SOBs," the professional "educrats" you deplore had somewhat decent motives: Their objective was not to hold people down (under such wide-ranging state repression, that was a given), but to provide at least the bare rudiments of education for truly oppressed people. Without this context of oppression, the remark you quoted makes no sense. And that context is certainly not analogous to the situation of professional educators today.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on August 2, 2003 12:49 PM

Friedrich - - Are you writing under the assumption that the main purpose of public school is to educate children? If so, I disagree.

The main purpose of public primary and secondary school is to protect children. Compulsory education is connected with concepts like statutory rape and child labor laws. The children are protected for a certain amount of time and in return they have to sit on the sidelines of life. It is an opportunity for adults in a community who care to have some influence in the lives of children whose parents do not care. Children whose parents may not normally buy them clothing will get clothes for school. At school children will be fed and have some recourse against adults who physically abuse them.

If public schools can do more to prepare kids for life, like educating them or helping them learn a trade, wonderful. Mass education, standardized group learning is a hit or miss thing though. Students are not going to get individual treatment like Alexander with Socrates. However I believe public schools are only truly a failure when they fail to protect their students.

Posted by: Matt Leonard on August 2, 2003 02:42 PM

Make that Alexander and Aristotle. Please excuse my public education.

Posted by: Matt Leonard on August 2, 2003 02:53 PM


I do not think the Florida grade retention policy is wise. It is half-assed patch on a broken engine. The assumption of a rigid correspondence between student age and a fixed schedule of subject matter to be mastered is one of the aspects of the Progressive education model that I would be most eager to be rid of. I would also point out that while you are full of ire at the Republican legislature for "penalizing" children who haven't kept pace, the Progressive high school model (now in its 80th or so year) is predicated on the notion of "keeping up" and also is perfectly content to stick the child with the consequences of failing to keep up. It doesn't do this by retention, but by poor grades and by giving up on kids who get too far behind while letting them slide through the system. As you may recall, in my interview with Teacher X, he taught a number of inner-city junior high school kids who were all at about a fourth-grade mastery of mathematics. Clearly, despite his heroic efforts, by the time he got there it was impossible to get these kids back on track. The consequences of this neglect on the children will be grim indeed, but I don't think anyone at that school (except Teacher X) seems to have sweated them much.

What I want is for the schools to adopt the attitude that Toyota insists on from its suppliers--that the suppliers take responsibility for delivering 100% of their end product to spec. These part suppliers can't get away with delivering parts that haven't been machined to the proper tolerance by criticizing the moral worth of its raw materials; why is it that schools get away with delivering products (i.e., 17-year-old students) who can't read or write or do arithmetic by stamping a poor grade on the students' foreheads?


I would be very interested to learn more about your experiences with Mastery Learning. I always wondered how ML balanced their goal of getting at least 80% of the kids up to "mastery" with the pressure to keep moving the entire class along at a single rate of progress. Am I right in my suspicion that they may not have solved this particular organizational/logistic problem? Can you compare how well ML compares to more standard classroom practices; is it at least a partial solution, if not a complete one?

I am not advocating tracking, which has some significant downsides in terms of student psychology and self-image; it seems to me that track selection risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. I am intrigued, as I mentioned in the post, with the notion of computer-based training because it does not require that everyone move at the same speed.


I understand your reservations about forcing all kids to (1) stay in school and (2) do academic work beyond the point where they have any interest. (Of course, the fact that you bring this up at all obviously marks you as an unreconstructed hippy, but I'll take that up with you later.) Your suggestions are logical and may be the proper solution to that problem.

The downside of letting kids go their own way, however, is that they are making life-determining decisions with a minimum of information about the outcomes. I wonder if unmotivated children who spent a year or so working at some completely dead-end job might not develop a greater interest in academic subjects if only to maintain greater social mobility? And since you can't really give kids such experience (given child-labor laws, etc.), are you really being responsible by letting them take their chances?

Given the premium society currently places on academic skills (which, I'm guessing, will be even greater in the future), it might be a better approach to develop better approaches to teaching academics, so that even unmotivated kids may master more skills.


In my opinion the edu-crats weren't particularly ill-intention towards blacks; they were equally condescending and feckless towards the youth of all races and religions. I repeat, a lot of these guys were SOBs. IMHO.


What do you think I'm going to say, that schools should take advantage or fail to protect their students? I agree, academics should definitely take second place to creating an environment of safety, calm, and respect--which too many students do not have outside school. However, childhood is the key time in life to master certain employment and intellectual skills, and I'm not sure you're doing your duty to the kids if you neglect, or allow them to neglect, developing those skills.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 2, 2003 06:44 PM


I don’t know that ML as I experienced it in a small, private school is transferable to large public schools. For starters, we were a ‘gifted’ program, which, in practice, meant that we did not admit students who were performing below grade level. Admission decisions and group placements (grade levels) were made based on subject-specific testing (math, reading, and writing skills.) We placed students according to ‘achievement level’ (never mentioning the word ‘ability’) in groups whose composition varied depending on the performance level of the individual student. We didn’t use traditional ‘grade’ levels (1rst, 2nd, etc.) Student age was not an issue; our groups were all mixed ages. Most students were working at grade levels that varied by subject; for example, a 12 year-old student (generally a 7th grader) might be in 8th grade English, and 10th grade math. We used a high-school style scheduling system in which students, K-12, traveled to different classrooms and different teachers for various subjects. Some grouping/tracking occurred within the classroom. The lower school used two teachers for reading instruction: one worked with the full class while the second pulled out students (grouped by mastery level) for instruction tailored to the reading level of that particular group. My Latin classes were always mixed level. Though my incoming middle school students were generally beginners, by the end of the year, individualized rates of progress resulted in a classroom in which some students were halfway through Latin I, while others were well into Latin II. I used smaller groups within a single class to provide instruction. (And yes, small class size helps here, as does, critically, well-behaved, motivated students.) ML is more difficult, I think, in middle/high school subjects. In addition to Latin, I taught history, and, I couldn’t very well have had one group in the Civil War while stragglers were stuck on the Articles of Confederation. So, we did progress at a steady pace in history classes. Students who failed to meet mastery requirements (basic facts, writing, research skills, etc.) were required to ‘make up’ the work during the remainder of the school year. Make-ups could involve re-writes, retesting, and alternative assignments. We occasionally recommended tutoring, both peer and professional. Students who were really unable to meet minimum standards were ‘held back’ in that particular class, and required to repeat it, or substitute a dual enrollment college course at our local state university/community college. (10th – 12th grade students were permitted to take college level classes in subjects of personal interest.) On rare occasions, we did have students who were quite simply incapable of achieving mastery in one subject or another; depending on the extent of the difficulty (ie, the number of subject areas involved), we lowered our expectations or asked the student to leave.

Obviously, the private school setting offers huge advantages: small class sizes, disciplined students, involved parents, instructional/administrative flexibility, etc. Given the limited resources available to public schools, I’m not sure how ML would play in public education.

Posted by: Ellie on August 2, 2003 09:49 PM

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