By Robert Pondiscio
We are ruining America, notes dour New York Times columnist David Brooks, suddenly and considerably alarmed by a standard feature of American life, if not human nature—the tendency of the privileged and powerful to guard jealously every advantage they have been handed or earned. Brooks takes up his pen to offer a stinging rebuke: Members of the college-educated class, he writes, “have become amazingly good at making sure their children retain their privileged status. They have also become devastatingly good at making sure the children of other classes have limited chances to join their ranks.”
Brooks focuses his concern on the parenting style of privileged Americans, coining a brilliant neologism in the process, “pediacracy,” by which he means the determination of affluent parents to give their kids a leg up. “As soon as they get money, they turn it into investments in their kids,” he writes. Next come zoning laws that keep the poor and poorly educated out of well-off neighborhoods and excellent schools. Finally there’s access to elite colleges that cement the grip of top quintile families on the brass ring of their advantage.
Brooks, I think, confuses effects for causes. Mating, motherhood, and Middlebury are not the arenas where battles for opportunity are fought. They are the spoils of war accrued by those who’ve already won. He hits closer to the mark when he draws attention to “informal social barriers that segregate the lower 80 percent.” His Timesman’s bubble thick as armor, he virtue signals, chiding himself for insensitivity when describing how he took “a friend with only a high school degree” (note to Times copy desk: it’s called a “diploma”) to a gourmet sandwich shop. “Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named ‘Padrino’ and ‘Pomodoro’ and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican,” Brooks writes.
Notwithstanding his prosciutto-handed tale of privilege made suddenly self-aware, Brooks is correct to be concerned about the social barriers to upward mobility. “Feeling at home in opportunity-rich areas means you’ve got to understand the right barre techniques, sport the right baby carrier, have the right podcast, food truck, tea, wine and Pilates tastes, not to mention possess the right attitudes about David Foster Wallace, child-rearing, gender norms and intersectionality,” Brooks notes. I think he overstates the case, but only in his focus on the accouterments of privilege. There is, without question, a language of privilege in America that excludes those who do not speak it fluently. And unlike assortative mating, blood-sport parenting, and legacy admissions to the Ivy League, it is within our power as educators and policymakers to influence children’s acquisition of that language. But doing so will require a degree of clarity and candor to which we are unaccustomed when we talk about education. E.D. Hirsch, Jr., has long been making the social justice case for giving disadvantaged children access to the knowledge and language that have long been assumed by the privileged and powerful. It earned him contempt for years, and more recently begrudging acknowledgement that he might have a point.
To a degree that can be awkward to acknowledge, language is a cultural artifact, filled with assumed knowledge, allusions, and idioms that are a reflection of the culture that built, uses, and sustains it. Not for nothing did Hirsch title his 1987 bestseller on reading and language Cultural Literacy. That book and Hirsch’s subsequent work have tended to ignite firestorms of controversy, but critics have typically misunderstood Hirsch’s thrust. His object was never to establish a canon. Rather his is a curatorial effort aimed at cataloging the knowledge assumed by literate speakers and writers (those who read the New York Times op-ed page, for example) and who take for granted that their audiences command the same base of knowledge and references. Hirsch’s project has been to inventory, to the degree possible, the mental furniture of the elites that Brooks sees hoarding privilege and opportunity, and to advocate for seeding their knowledge and language in every American classroom. This has long made Hirsch our best and truest voice for social justice in K–12 education.
But the idea that American schools should explicitly familiarize children—especially those from other countries, cultures, or traditions—with a uniform body of knowledge in elementary and middle school falls upon contemporary ears as awkward, anachronistic, even inappropriate. We are far more likely to honor or even revere a child’s home language, culture, and dialect. But we must seriously consider the possibility that this well-meaning impulse is quite wrong for all the right reasons.
Lisa Delpit, an African American literacy researcher and 1990 MacArthur grantee, has written persuasively for many years about the “culture of power” in American schools and classrooms and the “schism between liberal educational movements and that of non-White, non-middle class teachers and communities.” In her seminal essay, “The Silenced Dialogue,” she explains the implications of the culture of power:
This means that success in institutions—schools, workplaces, and so on—is predicated upon acquisition of the culture of those who are in power. Children from middle-class homes tend to do better in school than those from non-middle-class homes because the culture of the school is based on the culture of the upper and middle classes—of those in power. The upper and middle classes send their children to school with all the accouterments of the culture of power; children from other kinds of families operate within perfectly wonderful and viable cultures but not cultures that carry the codes or rules of power.
To say this is an uncomfortable topic among educators is to vastly understate things, especially among those who are earnestly committed to both progressive ideals and progressive pedagogy. “The Silenced Dialogue” and the book it spawned, Other People’s Children, are staples on the syllabus of teacher-education programs and spark heated debate and wounded egos. “Those with power are frequently least aware of—or least willing to acknowledge—its existence,” Delpit insists. She argues:
To provide schooling for everyone’s children that reflects liberal, middle-class values and aspirations is to ensure the maintenance of the status quo, to ensure that power, the culture of power, remains in the hands of those who already have it. Some children come to school with more accouterments of the culture of power already in place—“cultural capital,” as some critical theorists refer to it (for example, Apple, 1979)—some with less. Many liberal educators hold that the primary goal for education is for children to become autonomous, to develop fully who they are in the classroom setting without having arbitrary, outside standards forced upon them. This is a very reasonable goal for people whose children are already participants in the culture of power and who have already internalized its codes.
“But parents who don’t function within that culture often want something else. It’s not that they disagree with the former aim, it’s just that they want something more. They want to ensure that the school provides their children with discourse patterns, interactional styles, and spoken and written language codes that will allow them success in the larger society.
To be highly proficient in Brooksian English—the language of privilege—requires mastery over not just an alphabet and rules of grammar, but also an enormous range of assumed knowledge, historical references, and cultural allusions that are commonly held by members of a speech community. “My kids know how to be Black,” one parent tells Delpit. “You all teach them how to be successful in the white man’s world.”
American education remains deeply reluctant to do this, since it requires overthrowing any number of traditions and practices—from child-centered pedagogies, assumptions about student engagement, and other progressive education ideals, to local control of curriculum, the privileging of skills over content, and the movement toward mass customization of education. Each of these in ways great or small work against the cause of language proficiency; in doing so, they make the task of educating for upward mobility more difficult.
In 1994, Ron Suskind published A Hope in the Unseen, the story of a bright, ambitious young man from one of the worst high schools in Washington, D.C., who defies the odds to win acceptance at Brown University. The book became one of the touchstones of the education-reform movement because it appeared to demonstrate that demographics need not be destiny. You can grow up as dirt poor as its protagonist, Cedric Jennings, and still achieve at the highest levels academically—all the way to the Ivy League.
There is a brief but telling moment in the book when a Brown professor asks his class how many of them have ever been to Ellis Island. Jennings has never heard of it. “Ellis Island is not a core concept in Southeast Washington,” Suskind wrote. Rather it is “the sort of white people’s history passed over in favor of Afrocentric studies.”
Because of his lack of background knowledge, Jennings is at a decided disadvantage. He struggles through a lecture in which some students barely take notes and others literally sleep. “So many class discussions are full of references he doesn’t understand,” Suskind reports. “Maura knows what to write on her pad and the sleepers will be able to skim the required readings, all of them guided by some mysterious encoded knowledge of history, economics, and education, of culture and social events, that they picked up in school or at home or God knows where.”
The author does not dwell on the anecdote, but it is a critical insight. Jennings is a smart, driven young man who wants badly to succeed. He may be the grittiest in class and have first-rate work habits, but he has to work much harder, and his simple lack of background knowledge nearly derails his chance of succeeding in college. In the end, he succeeds not because of the formative years of his education, but in spite of them. His journey from poor urban schools, through the Ivy League, and onward to a life of economic mobility is made far more difficult than it needed to be. This remains the case in too many schools that serve almost exclusively low-income children. Those schools, in reality, are making upward mobility harder.
It cuts against the received wisdom of pedagogical and political fashion, but regardless of where one attends school, if we are serious about breaking down the social barriers to upward mobility, there should be far more similarities than differences in education in the United States, at least at the K–8 level. The promise of preparing children for academic achievement and upward mobility depends upon a base level of language proficiency. Foundational knowledge across the curriculum not only sets the stage for further independent exploration, it provides the basis for language proficiency—for communication, collaboration, and cooperation between and among disparate people.
Make no mistake. Language cares little about education’s enduring fascination with child-centered schools and culturally relevant pedagogy. Language cares even less about local control of curriculum. There is a language of upward mobility in America. It has an expansive and nuanced vocabulary that it employs to nimbly navigate the world of organizations, institutions, and opportunities.
There is a language of power. It is the language of privileged parents, affluent communities, and elite universities. It’s the language of David Brooks. But he’d do well to recognize that you don’t learn that language in those places. They don’t let you in until or unless you demonstrate command of it.
This essay was adapted from Education for Upward Mobility where portions of it originally appeared.
In 1991, Milwaukee began a bold experiment in market-based education reform. Twenty-seven years later, the city’s education system is dramatically reformed, but the results of those reforms are something less than dramatic. Milwaukee’s NAEP scores trail other major cities, and the performance of Milwaukee schools on aggregate is unacceptably poor. What happened? Why has the birthplace of school vouchers not experienced the successes of other education reform hotbeds like Washington, D.C. and New Orleans? The failure of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) to fully deliver on its promises can be attributed to certain program features, as well as the positions taken by voucher supporters and opponents over the life of the MPCP.
First, it was never clear exactly what the MPCP was supposed to be. The original voucher coalition was a clumsy alliance of free-market reformers, social justice warriors, urban Democrats, and suburban and rural Republicans. Though the coalition was successful at creating the program, the diverse supporters’ long-term goals were never aligned, creating ongoing tensions amongst supporters that pulled the program in different directions. To put it another way, it was impossible for the MPCP to succeed because there was no agreement as to what success would look like.
Second, a program design encouraging the creation of new schools simultaneously led to frequent school failures that hurt the program’s reputation. Between 1991 and 2015, 102 participating schools shut their doors. For many years, opening a voucher school was as simple as filing a one-page form with the state, finding a building, and convincing parents to enroll their children. Some of these schools were of shockingly low quality, creating a public narrative that millions of dollars were being sent to storefront scam-artists running schools in name only. At one point in the early 2000s, Milwaukee Public Schools went as far as to launch an advertising campaign advocating for district schools on the grounds they will remain open long enough for students to graduate. Though advocates pushed successfully for new accountability requirements that dramatically decreased the failure rate, the new school problem did lasting damage to the MPCP’s legitimacy in the eyes of many in Wisconsin.
Third is voucher supporters’ longstanding resistance to standardized testing of MPCP pupils. Students in MPCP schools were not required to take standardized tests of any kind until 2005, and were not required to administer and release the school-level results of the official Wisconsin state test until 2009. Between 1995 and 2009, the MPCP grew from about eight hundred to over twenty thousand pupils—yet during that time, parents, policymakers, and the public had no ability to compare student performance across schools or school sectors. To put it mildly, student performance was not driving legislative decision-making during this period. Instead, new program regulations were either hastily pushed by advocates in reaction to a crisis at a MPCP school or schools, or by program opponents in a punitive manner aimed at undermining the program. The result was a clumsy regulatory structure that changed frequently, failed to adequately target problem schools, and was divorced from the goal of improving academic achievement.
Last and most important (and a common thread running through the three previous paragraphs) is the lack of a unified governance structure guiding decision-making and providing direction for all Milwaukee schools. Milwaukee’s three publicly funded school sectors—vouchers, independent charters, and Milwaukee Public Schools—all enroll significant numbers of pupils. It is also common for students to transfer from sector to sector during their educational careers. Yet all three sectors are funded, regulated, and governed differently. The fragmented structure ensures that positive reform in any one of the city’s three sectors will fail to improve the lot of a sizable slice of Milwaukee’s K–12 population. It has also created an endless cycle of unresolvable conflict between voucher advocates and opponents focused on sector-to-sector performance and accountability comparisons rather than the overall performance of the city’s fragmented education system.
To be clear, there are successes in Milwaukee. Several high performing schools in the MPCP, charter, and traditional public school sectors would likely not exist without school choice. There is also evidence of an attainment advantage for voucher users. Finally, there are many dedicated professionals and support organizations active in Milwaukee’s education scene because of the city’s willingness to embrace reforms. But none of these successes mask the MPCP’s failure to deliver substantive academic gains for K–12 pupils in Milwaukee.
Thankfully Milwaukee is still a work in progress. With almost twenty-eight thousand students attending MPCP schools, the program is a necessary part of the city’s education infrastructure that cannot and should not go away. But until a mechanism exists for creating funding and regulatory equity, outcomes-oriented accountability across sectors, and an arena to resolve issues impacting students across Milwaukee’s diverse school spectrum, we should expect to see more of the same. For now, Milwaukee’s voucher experience stands as a cautionary tale on the consequences of governance fragmentation.
Michael R. Ford is an assistant professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
On this week's podcast, special guest Thomas Toch, director of FutureEd at Georgetown University, joins Mike Petrilli and Alyssa Schwenk to discuss teacher reform in Washington, D.C. During the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines how well principals' evaluations differentiate teacher performance.
Amber’s Research Minute
Jason A. Grissom and Susanna Loeb, “Assessing Principals’ Assessments: Subjective Evaluations of Teacher Effectiveness in Low- and High-Stakes Environments,” Education Finance and Policy (June 2017).
It’s no secret that “selfie-stick wielding, ‘Keeping Up with the Kardashians’-watching,” Millennials have gotten a bad rap. But has their stereotyped self-indulgence resulted in poor life outcomes? This new report from IES, Early Millennials: The Sophomore Class of 2002 a Decade Later, tracks a cohort of over 13,000 students who were high school sophomores in 2002. Over ten years, this cohort was surveyed three times about various life milestones, such as finishing school, starting a job, leaving home, getting married, and having children. Most respondents were twenty-six years old at the time of the last survey, in 2012.
Recall that this is the cohort that was just entering high school during the dot-com bubble of the late 90’s. They were sophomores during the September 11 terrorist attacks, and in their early twenties when the Great Recession hit in 2007. They also saw the cost of college increase exponentially during their entry into postsecondary education. The nearly three-hundred-page report is chock full of noteworthy findings. Here are a quick baker’s dozen:
- An astonishing 96 percent completed high school either through earning a diploma or through the GED or other equivalency;
- Eighty-four percent enrolled in postsecondary education; just one half had earned a postsecondary degree or certificate by 2012;
- One third had earned a bachelor’s degree or higher by 2012;
- Of the roughly one third who began at a two-year college, 47 percent earned a credential—of those, 30 percent received an associate’s degree or similar, and just 17 percent moved on to receive a bachelor’s or advanced degree;
- Those who started out at four-year colleges fared better: 72 percent earned a postsecondary credential—most of which were bachelor’s or advanced degrees (15 percent had left without any postsecondary credential);
- Eighty-two percent were employed, 11 percent were looking, and 7 percent were out of workforce;
- Thirty-five percent of bachelor’s degree recipients say they are working jobs that require a lesser degree (which is a type of underemployment);
- Twenty-eight percent were currently married, and one third had become parents as of 2012;
- Childbearing rates were inversely related to educational attainment: 70 percent of those without a high school credential and 53 percent of those who had only a high school education had children in 2012, compared with 13 percent of bachelor’s degree holders and 9 percent of masters or higher degree holders.
- Twenty-three percent were living with their parents (more common among males), and 23 percent were cohabiting with a partner (that’s up from 1 percent of cohabiters from a 1988 eighth-grade cohort);
- Among students with comparable socioeconomic and academic backgrounds, blacks, Hispanics and Asians had a similar likelihood of attaining various levels of education relative to their white peers;
- Sixty percent took out loans to pay for postsecondary education, and on average they borrowed a total of $30,000 for postsecondary education;
- And finally, forty percent of the cohort who grew up in families with low socio-economic status (SES) were in the lowest quarter of the SES distribution in 2012, yet roughly 60 percent had moved up the SES ladder into the middle half or highest quarter by age twenty-six.
It’s hard to draw firm conclusions about education from such a wide-ranging, deep dataset. Here’s one that we can all agree on, though: Even though most students eventually earn a high school degree or equivalent, and the majority also enter post-secondary education, just half eventually earned a postsecondary degree or certificate. That’s a remarkable college dropout rate. We know that we need to do a better job of both equipping high school graduates to succeed in college and of ensuring that non-college pathways are robust, relevant, and lucrative. Question is, are we doing it fast enough for Generation Z?
SOURCE: Xianglei Chen et al.,“Early Millennials: The Sophomore Class of 2002 a Decade Later,” National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences (June 2017).
A recent report from the Brookings Institution explores the pros and cons of online education.
Online classes have the potential to bring otherwise unavailable educational opportunities to a broad range of students, tailoring courses’ content and pacing to each individual learner’s needs. For example, the report’s authors point to the latest “intelligent” tutoring systems, which can assess students’ weaknesses, diagnose why they are making these errors, and adjust the coursework accordingly.
Despite these promises, however, many of today’s online courses may be causing more harm than good, especially for low-performing students. This report reconfirms yet again what numerous studies have previously shown—that online schools consistently underperform the brick-and-mortar variety.
The Brookings report analyzes an online college, but many of its lessons apply to K–12 education, as well. Authors use data from DeVry University, a for-profit college at which every class is offered online and in-person. The average student takes two-thirds of her courses online, and online and in-person versions of a given classes are mostly identical, as “both follow the same syllabus and use the same textbook; class sizes are approximately the same; [and] both use the same assignments, quizzes, tests, and grading rubrics.”
The authors find that taking a course online lowers student grade point averages by 0.44 points on the traditional four-point grading scale. Online courses also lower a student’s GPA the following semester by 0.15 points. When looking at only courses in the same subject area as the online course taken the previous semester, the authors find a 0.42 drop in GPA. In courses for which the online class was a pre-requisite, there is a drop of 0.32 points. The authors also find that students who take an online course are 9 percentage points less likely to remain enrolled the following semester.
Moreover, the negative effects of online courses weigh heavier on students with prior GPAs below the median. These students’ GPAs drop 0.50 points or more after taking an online course, compared to a 0.40 or lower drop in those above the median. As noted previously, these results are in line with past studies looking at online education in different settings, such as community colleges, competitive four-year universities, and online charter schools.
Online learning has the potential to make education more accessible for everyone, but current efforts simply aren’t working. Advocates therefore ought to rethink the models that are currently in use, regardless of whether an online school is serving primary, secondary, or post-secondary students.
SOURCE: Eric Bettinger and Susanna Loeb, “Promises and pitfalls of online education,” Brookings Institution (June 2017).