In a recent Wall Street Journal article, columnist Peggy Noonan suggested that elites are distancing and detaching themselves from those at the bottom of society. What she calls a historic decoupling between the top and bottom and a disregard for the overall good of society. It’s what Noonan calls “forsaking our countrymen.” Noonan is writing about income and poverty levels, but I wonder if this is happening in education?
Noonan uses German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s unilateral decision to take in over a million Muslim refugees as an example of the pursuit of high ideals, but with little concern for the burden of social and cultural change experienced by people who live closer to the edge. Merkel’s decision, of course, isn’t a burden to those on the top.
In one county in Florida that prides itself on innovative programs and a strong and dynamic core of administrators, a newspaper exposé showed that achievement in 6 to 8 schools in poverty areas was not only significantly below schools serving middle and upper middle-class families, but test scores were lower than comparable schools in other counties. Is this an example of Noonan’s hypothesis that the elite have less empathy for those on the bottom?
I don’t think so. In order to compete with private schools, voucher-driven schools, charter schools, and other competitors, the school district established high quality magnet schools, which inadvertently tend to cream off middle and upper middle- class families. Those without awareness of these programs or access to transportation, or an inability to jump through the hoops to qualify for a magnet, voucher, charter, or private school, were stranded in their neighborhood schools.
So, we have social-class segregation based on circumstance, not a diabolical plot cooked up by the school board or public school administrators. There’s little doubt that more could be done for those at the bottom who are left behind. Better teachers, more tutoring, and, especially career education, would give the vast majority of those left behind the opportunity to feel good about themselves and to eventually become independent citizens.
A closer analogy to Chancellor Merkel’s move was forced integration of our schools. This is a better fit because poor and lower middle-class students were thrust suddenly into middle and upper-middle class schools. While motivated by racial concerns, this actually had more to do with social classes. As with the Syrian refugees, forced integration left it to those on the bottom to struggle to cope with the abrupt cultural shock.
Also similar to Chancellor Merkel, the powerful people who set this in motion could take the moral high ground when there were objections and refer to complainers as narrow-minded and racist. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, but there were some positive aspects to the forced integration of schools: at least kids on the bottom were exposed to good teachers, materials, and equipment.
What to do about those left behind? Efforts to surmount social-class barriers have never worked. Government and private research shows that beefed up preschool is not enough, and recent research at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg, illustrates the importance of the first 12 months of life. There are more brain changes taking place at that time than at any time in the life span, and the physical and emotional effects of poverty can create long-lasting intellectual and emotional deficits.
Ten or fifteen percent of those left behind, who are capable and motivated for abstract academic work, can continue to take state-mandated achievement tests and study college prep curricula. Parents of other students should decide whether formal standardized testing is necessary, and their children should be given the opportunity to engage in career education. Unfortunately, as with the waves of migrants entering Germany as well as our previous attempt at forced integration, opponents of career education will take the moral and humanitarian high ground and label those who want realistic solutions for students on the bottom as racist.
So, I don’t think education elites are intentionally forsaking lower socio-economic class and working families, but they need a realistic view of those at the bottom and what can help them survive in our society. They must recognize individual differences and not propose solutions based on the concept that all students are the same or have the same academic potential. Sophisticated career education must play a major role if we are not to, in Peggy Noonan’s words, “forsake our countrymen.”