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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

From The Same Thing: College for...One?

By Rick Hess — December 16, 2010 4 min read
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Note: Over the next few weeks, I’ll occasionally be flagging nuggets from my new book, The Same Thing Over and Over, just out from Harvard University Press. For more, check out the book on Amazon.

With NCLB’s goal of 100% proficiency by 2014 having crashed and burned, we’ve settled upon a grand new aim: President Obama wants us to be sure that every high school graduate is “college and career ready” by 2020.

One of the great things about this new goal, I’ve noted, is that it’s much easier to meet, since no one really knows what it means. (I can picture educators gauging their success come 2020: “Lorenzo, Sylvia, guess what? You’re career-ready. Go celebrate!” Whoo-hoo.)

In the past decade, we have settled on this admirable but vastly ambitious goal of insisting that all of our schools educate all of our students--regardless of immigration status or special needs--to a high level. This is a worthy aim, but one that’s staggering in its scope; it is truly something new under the sun.

As I note in The Same Thing Over and Over, it took us more than three centuries--from the first compulsory education laws in the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1647 until 1970--just to get ninety percent of our students to show up to school each day. High school graduation has only been an established norm since World War II. Yet, shortly after we finished spending three centuries building school systems that could get all our kids off the streets, we decided we now wanted these schools to educate each child to a demanding level (and to help erase social inequities). Again, fabulous goals, but daunting ones that today’s schools aren’t necessarily designed to tackle.

A glance back can help make clear how much our expectations have changed--and why aged arrangements may prove a poor fit for today’s aims. Thomas Jefferson, founding father and famed champion of democratic schooling, believed a system of public education system was essential for American democracy. He famously asserted, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” While deemed a radical egalitarian in his day, though, even Jefferson never imagined an agenda of universal schooling-- much less the ambitions of those who today talk of universal proficiency or “college for all.”

Indeed, Jefferson is instructive because he sketched a detailed plan for public schooling in his native Virginia in 1778’s A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge. Jefferson envisioned a system comprised of three levels of schooling: primary schools, grammar schools, and universities. All free children in the district, male and female, would be entitled to three years of primary schooling at public expense, during which they would receive a basic education. Jefferson thought two kinds of citizens would emerge from primary schools. As he explained, “The mass of our citizens may be divided into two classes-- the laboring and the learned. The laboring will need the first grade of education to qualify them for their pursuits and duties; the learned will need it as a foundation for further acquirements.”

Seeking to break down the birth-based aristocracy, Jefferson proposed a system designed for promising young boys from families that could not afford grammar school. Each year, overseers would pick one scholarship recipient from each school who showed the “best and most promising genius and disposition” but whose parents were too poor to provide further education. After two years, one scholarship student would be selected for further study.

From the pool of twenty scholarship students who would graduate from grammar schools under this system each year, the single boy who demonstrated “the best learning and most hopeful genius and disposition” would be sent to the College of William & Mary for three years at the state’s expense. So much for “college for all"--Jefferson was more focused on “college for one.” Jefferson saw education not as something that would serve every child, but largely as a process of sifting the wheat and the chaff. That assumption, of course, continues to underlie the structure and machinery of schools, school systems, and colleges to this day.

(By the way, while Jefferson’s 1778 plan called for an initial cohort of 153 boys to receive free schooling at the grammar schools each year, a reworked proposal he put forward in 1817 slashed this potential population to just 18. So, not only did Jefferson’s radical egalitarianism envision that, in the nation’s largest state, just one boy per year would merit a publicly supported college education, but-- when he revisited this plan more than a quarter-century after first proposing it-- he sharply reduced the suggested annual cohort of grammar school students!)

In calling for universal excellence, today’s reformers set forth a far more ambitious goal than Jefferson ever contemplated. Today’s ethos echoes Jefferson’s commitment to the equality of opportunity for a few gifted souls, but with an unshakable faith in the gifts of all youth that would have shocked the most radical egalitarians of the Enlightenment. In other words, our aims have profoundly changed. That said, it seems bizarre for so many defenders of the status quo to dismiss as “anti-education” proposals which reimagine schools in pursuit of 21st century educational aims.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.