School reform? Let them eat cake!  

According to mythology, Marie Antoinette was made aware of starvation among commoners.  Her response to the famine and shortage of bread was “let them eat cake.” It is doubtful that she ever said these words and they are similar to a statement made by Marie-Therese, the wife of Louis XIV some 100 years earlier. These words do suit my purposes nicely, however.

 

The great truth in this mythological story is that the upper class does not always recognize the needs of lower-class citizens. Could we be repeating this mistake today when it comes to education? Even though here in the United States we pride ourselves on not being class conscious and offering equal opportunity to everyone, the hard, cold, scientific truth is that our efforts at class equality are unrealistic and may be the cause of negative educational outcomes for all social classes. It’s just not possible for everyone to have an equal opportunity for every level of education. Most people jump to the conclusion that what’s holding back advanced academic education is poor teaching and/or inappropriate teaching materials.

These good folks believe that if the system could be changed, much as the French revolution led to gradual economic improvement which eventually headed off starvation, every student could have their fill of cake. But the critical difference is that eating cake is not like learning. Almost anyone can eat cake, but learning requires certain pre-existing capacities and capabilities within each student.

Unlike a healthy diet, many other special ingredients are necessary to allow for academic proficiency. In general, these include two-parent families, nurturing, structure, the development of self-control, stimulation of the brain through parent reading and family discussions, early reading, etc. etc. And learning abstract academics at a high level is probably limited to 25 to 40% of the student population anyway, due to the normal distribution of intellect. I live in a modern, progressive community, yet only 19% of the population have a college bachelor’s degree.

Most students need bread in order to survive, but I’m afraid we are insisting they eat cake, instead. In this analogy, cake equals college. Our present mythology is that all children will attend college and eat the academic cake whether they like it or not. We will force feed them cake even if it makes them sick, and that is exactly what it is doing.

This push for college is based on mythology which rivals that of 18th century France. This belief asserts that all students have a right to college and all students are capable of college. Anyone who does not attend college is left behind, rejected, and somehow discriminated against. How about that apple tart with the cherry on top (Harvard)? Yes, Marie-Therese loves that idea. All of those hungry children enjoying a never ending birthday party right there at Harvard! Goodie, kind of like Alice in Wonderland.

How is it making them sick? The majority of our student population, especially those coming from a deprived background, do not find abstract academic work relevant in any way, shape, or form. But does it actually make them sick? Because they don’t have the skills they could learn through advanced career education, they become economically deprived adults with few salable abilities in the competitive marketplace. They are sick, but it’s more a chronic disease than an acute infection, and unfortunately it lasts a lifetime.

And to make things worse, through the process of creaming (siphoning off), those students who are least likely to want cake are being rounded up in neighborhood schools for forced-feeding. Parents who have the knowledge and wherewithal to get their kids into better public and private schools take them out of the neighborhood schools. Critics blame these elite schools for taking the best and brightest students, but it’s actually the parents who do most of the creaming. This is simply because they want the best for their children.

These parents search for good public schools in wealthy neighborhoods, schools that often require transportation (which some poor parents can’t afford), and public magnet and charter schools, as well as private schools. Public schools also cream, both within and between schools. For a partial list of institutional creaming devices, both overt and subtle, please see my book The Elephant in the Classroom.

At the present time, schools are evaluated based on the test scores of their students. In order to keep that all important school grade high, students who desperately need career education are often not referred to career programs because they are retaking that darned algebra test for the third time! So there we have it. These hungry students are sampling cupcakes to prepare them for the kitchens at Harvard.

101_0126Will creaming in our society ever end? No, and it probably shouldn’t. We live in a competitive meritocracy and constantly strive to be the best. For example, many times in our history we have set up selective hurdles for immigrants. Business recruiters go to elite universities because they believe those universities have done much of their work for them by creaming off the best students. Even though I don’t like to be thought of as elitist, when I get on an airplane I want the best pilot to fly my plane. Creaming even extends to children’s play time because parents are careful to arrange playdates that expose their kids to right kinds of friends.

But I think this education thing is different. The concern here is what happens to those who have not been creamed; those who have been truly left behind educationally? Answers to this question are found in some Florida public schools with Wall-to-Wall Academies. Ninth grade students select exciting and sophisticated career options such as aeronautics, where they can earn a pilot’s license. And those students who are turned on by academics have an opportunity to pursue college and eat cake as well as bread, if they wish.

So let them eat bread –– and cake.