School Choice & Charters Opinion

Theresa May and the Design of the American Education System

By Marc Tucker — January 05, 2017 7 min read
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Check out the October 12 edition of Flypaper, The Fordham Institute’s newsletter, and you will find a very thoughtful commentary from Checker Finn on the proposal from Theresa May, Britain’s new Prime Minister, to resurrect that country’s grammar schools. These are the selective high schools in the government-funded system that used to provide the gateway to university for most students on the basis of exams given at the end of what we call elementary school. There are a few of these schools left, but most were abolished by the Labor government nearly half a century ago on the grounds that they were a vestige of the British class system that denied access to higher education to students from the lower classes. While the grammar school system appeared to operate on merit, Labor argued that the system actually heavily favored students who entered school with much bigger vocabularies, a much wider exposure to books and high culture and much more support for education. So the system operated to enable the upper classes to reproduce themselves; their kids would continue to have the advantages they had always had, and the lower classes would continue to be denied an opportunity for social mobility, the very opposite of what government-funded schools are supposed to do.

Finn traces the history of what happened next. The old system of grammar schools for the university-bound, vocational schools for those going into the trades and secondary modern schools for the rest was abolished and a system of comprehensive schools was created in their place. Over time, these secondary schools became more charter-like and the national government wrested control over them from the localities, which they viewed as Labor Party strongholds. As these schools became more charter-like (so-called academy schools are operated by independent non-profit boards) and offered more choice, they became more differentiated from one another. As in all such systems, parents further up on the socioeconomic ladder were more able and more likely to take advantage of those choices. Inevitably, that meant that social class began to reproduce itself once more, just like in the old days of grammar schools. Prime Minister May would argue that Britain now has the liabilities of the grammar school system without the advantages, that is, that the effort to build a system that would be fairer to those who lacked the advantages of the upper classes simply ended up leveling the whole system down, not up. So why not bring back the grammar schools and restore a measure of excellence to British education?

Finn seems bemused by this story. He points, accurately, to the many analogues to the history of American education since World War II. He ends his piece by telling us that he is not certain that May’s proposal is the right way to go, but he admires her courage in putting it forward. I gather that he is well aware of the liabilities of the old system that May is trying to resurrect and even more sensitive to the failures of the system that replaced it. It is easy to sympathize with his dilemma, both in its British form and its American form.

Finn is right to draw the parallels between the United States and Britain on these issues. James B. Conant’s call for comprehensive high schools came at much the same time and with the same rationale as Labor’s call for comprehensive high schools in Britain. We both largely abolished selective admission to high schools at about the same time and for the same reasons. We both moved toward school choice with much the same rationale and both moved toward having the state rather than the locality take responsibility for the new schools. And both systems are performing more or less miserably now, relative to the other countries to which we usually compare ourselves. But that does not leave the United States—or Britain—with a choice between continuing on the road we are now on or returning to the old system. Neither will work. We know that from bitter experience.

Let’s start by being clear about what we want—or ought to want. As I see it, we want two very different things. On the one hand, we want a system that will take our current performance curve, keep its furthest right point even further to the right—to match the top performers—and compress the rest of the curve way over to the right as far as possible—that is, to move the bottom way up and move the bulk of our students from middling performance to considerably higher performance. Put another way, we want to improve the number of our star performers while at the same time getting almost all of our students to leave high school having met a very high minimum performance standard on a shared core curriculum. That is what will enable them to bob and weave as the world changes, always able to learn quickly what they have to learn to be strong contributors and, at the same time, learning what they need to know to be well-informed and active citizens. Having all students meet a specified high standard is the opposite of a sorting system. But, at the same time, once our students have met a high minimum common standard of performance, we also need to enable students to follow their own star, find out what they are good at and to pursue excellence as far on that road as they can. That will allow others, especially universities and employers, to evaluate students on the criteria that are important to them as they make their choices of students and employees. And, finally, we want a system that will make the correlation between the socioeconomic background and education of a student’s parents and the achievement of that child in school as weak as possible. We want schools to equalize opportunity, to provide as much social mobility as they can.

Finn is right to want our system to provide opportunities for our best students to reach for the excellence our society should demand of them. And it is no less true that our society needs to create a high minimum standard of performance that we expect all but the most severely disabled to meet before they leave high school. It is now clear that neither the British-American system of comprehensive schools nor a return to the old system of selective high schools will get us to this goal. What is truly important to understand is that there are entire countries, provinces and states that fully embrace the criteria for education system design that I just put forward and are doing a vastly better job than either Britain or the United States of meeting those criteria. Not one of them is satisfied with their progress toward these goals, but they are far ahead of us on the journey.

As I have said many times, if we wish to match the performance of the countries with the most successful education systems, we need to study what they have done carefully and build a system that stands on their shoulders without copying them. But we cannot leave the matter there. In two previous blogs, I talked about the history of race and social class discrimination in this country that makes it so hard for us to do what we have to do to match the performance of the top performers. These matters go beyond education policy as such, but they are crucially important determinants of educational opportunity and achievement.

“Crucially important” understates the case. I would argue that the whole presidential election ended up turning on issues of economic and social class isolation. The data show that social class isolation is greater now than it was in the 1970s. That is true within each racial group as well as for the country as a whole. With increased social isolation has come decreased social mobility. Decreased social mobility has led to less and less opportunity to use education as a way up because, in our country, access to education is a function of wealth. So we are wrapped in a vicious circle. The way we have organized and funded our education system now reinforces social class isolation. Increasing social class isolation has made it harder and harder for the children of the less educated to get a good education. This widening gulf in education has caused a widening gulf in employment opportunities as the availability of well-paying jobs for the poorly educated have melted away and that has led to growing despair and anger among those among us who feel disenfranchised by the nation’s elites. The cumulative impact of this line of logic may well tear this country apart.

Grammar schools won’t save us. They will make matters worse. Rather, we must redesign our education system to make sure that virtually all students meet a very high minimum standard of general education before they leave high school and also have mastered some arena of technical expertise that will give them a leg up on the next part of their journey. If all of our students are reaching internationally benchmarked levels of achievement, far above the levels most students now reach, then it might make sense to have some highly selective upper secondary schools for students of exceptional ability.

But we will never get all of our students to a high minimum standard of achievement unless we confront the gaping holes that have opened up in our social fabric, and we will not be able to educate all of our students to a high standard unless we find a way to reduce the social class isolation of our students. Much depends on closing the ring of that logic.

The opinions expressed in Top Performers 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.