Education Commentary

A Question of Privilege

By Richard Sagor — February 25, 1987 7 min read

During a visit to a magnet school in an urban setting, I rediscovered a quality that had once been among the most salient features of our secondary schools: the sense that education is and should be viewed as a privilege.

This New York school had a reputation for excellence, and, as a result, the students who chose to attend believed they were receiving the best college-preparatory education available anywhere. Furthermore, they believed their teachers were outstanding. Virtually every student, teacher, parent, and administrator I spoke with explained that the primary reason for the school’s success was the fact that students considered attendance a privilege.

The parents did not consider this consensus surprising; in fact, they applauded the return to a culture that prevailed 30 years ago when I attended high school. These parents, many black and once poor, told the same story one hears from the children of the great wave of early 2Oth-century European immigrants: Educational opportunity was something incredibly valuable that should be respected and used to one’s advantage.

This echoed the attitude I had witnessed in Seattle the week before, while visiting the classrooms of recent Indochinese refugees, who were attacking a dry and tedious English-as-a-second- language curriculum as though it were a great treat.

The perception that educational opportunity is something valuable--to be respected and used to one’s advantage--was at one time the prevailing attitude nationally. Unfortunately, my role as a high-school principal has made me well aware that most teen-agers today do not view being asked to spend time in school as a privilege. Rather, they view this time as a duty, a chore, or simply a rite of passage, and then behave accordingly. That I find a discrepancy between the behavior of students who view themselves as “doing time” and that of their peers who feel “privileged” should be no surprise.

And I have to wonder if the encouragement and promotion of a sense of educational privilege is incompatible with or contrary to our essential mission of providing a universal 12-year public education for all.

Arthur Pearl, education chairman at the University of California, Santa Cruz, contends that motivated students have a need for educational experiences that reinforce their feelings of competence, belonging, and potency. And he maintains that, once teen-agers know they are proficient with skills that will later empower them to accomplish meaningful goals, they are willing to make enormous sacrifices in the pursuit of such success. Anyone who doubts this premise ought to look no farther than the athletic fields of his local high school during an after-school football or basketball practice.

But even teen-age athletes, who push themselves to their limits in pursuit of competitive success, frequently find the “other half’ of their schooling seriously lacking in personal meaning. Indeed, would we find the majority of our students viewing their education as meaningful, and thereby worthy of a significant investment of blood, sweat, and tears? I’m afraid we would not.

As David K. Cohen, Arthur G. Powell, and Eleanor Farrar pointed out in The Shopping Mall High School, most students shun academic activity by the systematic avoidance of rigor and the negotiation of academic “peace treaties” with their teachers. If that is the case in most of our comprehensive high schools, such a finding merits an examination of why it isn’t the case in all of our schools.

In Seattle, the Southeast Asian students I observed and their refugee parents have great clarity about appropriate long-term goals. Furthermore, like their European counterparts of almost a century ago, they came to the United States with a profound confidence that mastery of the traditional school curriculum would ultimately enable them to compete successfully for a piece of the American dream. Given those expectations, the opportunity to attend an American public school is perceived as a privilege to be both appreciated and exploited.

Likewise, the administration and faculty at Wingate High School in Brooklyn operate with the belief that graduation and future employment are attainable goals for all of the students in their attendance area--despite the fact that the students are mostly poor and, frequently, educationally disadvantaged. Armed with this confidence, Wingate’s principal, Robert Shain, and his staff have been able to hold on to most of their 3,000 students (posting a 7.7 percent dropout rate) and are able to send approximately 93 percent of their 500 inner-city graduates on to postsecondary education each year. The voluntary prematriculation classes, the tutorial programs, the frequent school-parent communications, and the regular, lengthy homework assignments are accepted by the student body because each student knows that these time-consurning activities will ultimately lead to the achievement of significant goals.

Much national attention has been focused on the class of inner-city 6th graders in New York City to whom the philanthropist Eugene Lang promised a free college education, contingent only upon high-school graduation. Granted, this offer was combined with special academic guidance and a personal investment of time by Mr. Lang. But, more important, this group of low-income students performed in a fashion well beyond what would have been predicted had they not been given reason to believe in the significance of their high-school endeavors. With Mr. Lang’s challenge, these typical students were vested with a very practical reason for investing

Can these illustrations be helpful to us when forging educational policy to benefit all our nation’s students? Perhaps.

To begin with, I suggest we adopt a new test of appropriateness for educational programs. When the last generation of planners established our comprehensive “shopping-mall high schools,” they justified each of the diverse and diffuse programs by the belief that each component would appeal to someone. Because of this philosophy, it is not astonishing that many of our students find no meaning in all but a small portion of their school experience.

If we simply want to move our children through a nurturing adolescent period, safe from physical harm and entertained by a supermarket of activities and experiences, then we are not only successful, but we are getting better all the time. But the result of this approach has been schools that feel more like recreation centers that one may attend because of the location in the neighborhood, rather than prep schools that one is privileged to attend.

Second, I would encourage policymakers to examine each school program through a “preparatory” lens. If meaning is to be ascribed to experiences that assist one in meeting personal goals, thereby making involvement in them a privilege, then schools must be clearly and primarily focused on preparation for post-high-school achievement.

Finally, I would ask the reader to imagine a public-education system with schools where instruction is universally outstanding; where teachers employ appropriate and proven practices; where the curriculum is vibrant and relevant. Then the reader should envision students and their families being told that this opportunity is being made available to everyone; all they need do is demonstrate a desire for education-by doing the assigned work, attending regularly, and using allocated time for intended purposes. Failure to comply with such minimal expectations would be met with an explanation to student and parent that education cannot occur without desire and, therefore, the student should suspend his attendance until such desire returns.

Would such a stance be indefensible? Would it violate the rights of large numbers of students? Are we capable of providing the excellence of program and academic guidance that would be necessary to make this transfer of responsibility to the student fair and just? The experience of alternative and magnet schools leads me to believe that we can expect most students to show the requisite desire, and the research on mastery learning reassures me that we have reason to be confident that our students can and would be successful in meeting universally high and reasonable expectations.

Therefore, I see the challenge before us as a challenge of will. A sense of privilege need not be based on availability of resources.

If we make each of our schools a place with coherent programs, where young people will find reason to believe that people care for them and are prepared to provide them with excellent instruction in the skills necessary to meet their goals, then we would have reason to feel confident of success.

In such a system, the sense of privilege would no longer belong only to the few, but rather would belong to every teen-ager simply because he was entitled to a free public education.

A version of this article appeared in the February 25, 1987 edition of Education Week