Saturday, August 20, 2011

A Place for Everyone

The metaphor that No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top share in common is that of the single path: there is an assumption that all our little Lilos start off in a single place (kindergarten, first grade?) and need to stay together on their field trip as they advance together towards a single destination ("the top", some mythical Elysian high ground where all the self-congratulating members of the relevant mutual admiration societies end up--perhaps resembling the halls of Congress, the last several administrations in Washington, a Teach For America reunion, or the Gates Foundation, where such notions are cooked up and mutually reinforced?).

The French education sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (or more accurately his translator, Richard Nice) has a particularly apt term for dropping out (from the group on this field trip), "self-exclusion". In my years of watching hundreds of kids drop out from Locke High School, it was strongly reinforced for me that this was exactly what these young people were doing: excluding themselves, in spite of the bent-over-backwards attempts of many very socially minded young adults to make sure they felt included (our old school's slogan was "Locke High School, where students come first", replaced in 2002 with "Locke High School, home of the successful Saints, where each and every student is expected to go to college", repeated ad nausem like a mantra over the public address system, as if its mere repetition would make it come true).

One of the most profound statements regarding education I've ever run across came from the 18th-century economist Adam Smith, of all people. He observes, in The Wealth of Nations, "No discipline is ever requisite to force attendance upon lectures which are really worth the attending, as is well known wherever any such lectures are given." 

We have millions of young people in this country (and in Europe, parts of which are burning; and in Japan, where school refusal has become a significant national problem) who are not Lilos, and are excluding themselves from this single path because they do not believe that the lectures on offer are really worth the attending. There has to be a better way, particularly for those least likely to win any "race to the top", but really for all of us, since it is a great moral shame for our society to allow vast wastelands like Watts to exist; and it is an intellectual shame to continue with the same old failed, single-path policies that are common not just in America but throughout the English-speaking world. Nay, it is beyond shame, it is insanity, which, in Albert Einstein's definition, is "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

I shall be writing in my next post of a less insane way of proceeding, so that we can provide better education for all, and in particular for those young people who today are being served so ill by people who mean them well. In particular, I shall be proposing an entirely different approach to the ninth and tenth grades, which is where most of our self-exclusion is occurring. We can help these young people to better lives; and they can get by with a little help from real friends.


  1. (From John Thompson, via email:) In our district, we have an excellent Metrotech, but kids have to have excellent behavior to attend. Many kids might not have developed deplorable behavior in middle school had they had access to the respecful learning environment that is available to their more mature friends.
    We need the type of honest conversation that you are encouraging.

  2. Thanks, John. Students of all types, both those already mature and those in need of more maturing, need access to both general academic and to vocational programmes; although neither need have an infinite tolerance for repeated misbehavior, which cannot be allowed to continue for so long as to drive away the more ambitious and higher achieving students, which is what has happened in places like Los Angeles.