Commentary | Education

Lessons—Offering Students a Hand to Move Up

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These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.

[THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES ON OCTOBER 4, 2000]

Offering Students a Hand to Move Up

By Richard Rothstein

We like to believe this is a nation of great social mobility. Study and work hard, and you will rise above your parents’ status to join the middle class.

But this is more myth than reality. Intergenerational mobility is no higher here than in other industrial nations. When a father is poor, with income at the 25th percentile, the chance of his son being in the poorest fifth is twice that of his being in the richest fifth. The situation is similar in other industrial nations.

In an important new book, “Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms” (Simon & Schuster), Diane Ravitch, a historian and former education official in the Bush administration, suggests that, at least in the United States, this lack of mobility was not inevitable. A choice was made to deny immigrant and working-class children education to rise above their parents’ stations. They were taught only vocational skills, with academic instruction reserved for the middle class.

Dr. Ravitch adds that the proponents of this differentiation were not conservatives, but “progressives,” many at Columbia Teachers College in the early 1900′s.

Her attack on this aspect of progressive education finds its mark. But Dr. Ravitch’s admiration for opponents of progressivism who, throughout the 20th century, wanted high academic standards for all, is less persuasive. We now understand what conservatives 100 years ago did not: using schools to combat social rigidities requires a lot of compensatory work for the less advantaged. Offering the same academic instruction to all will not work.

Lack of mobility is easy to overlook because economic growth can make children richer than their parents, although their standings relative to peers are unchanged.

But most Americans expect schools to do more than this. Schools should help diligent students move above their parents’ relative status. Yet even good schools find this difficult because pupils enter with skills tending to parallel those of their parents. Adults in jobs needing literacy tend to rear children better prepared to read.

In a fairer society, schools would have two missions. First, give children from poorer families the skills to catch up, even while wealthier children also gain. Second, waiting until all have the chance for equal knowledge, sort pupils based on ability and interest, not parentage, into courses that assure success in fields they themselves select.

Dr. Ravitch shows that educators have long disputed how to balance these goals. The winners of these disputes, she complains, have mostly been progressive educators who assumed children could rarely surpass parental stations, so working-class pupils needed only “life adjustment” education.

Progressives considered the early sorting of children into nonacademic programs “democratic” because it kept immigrant and working-class pupils from dropping out of school. Rather than trying to overcome the disadvantages with which these children started, progressives urged dead-end tracks for the lower class.

The dean of Teachers College in 1906, James Russell, argued that schools should preserve civic order, not stimulate ambitions for mobility that “cannot possibly be fulfilled.” President Theodore Roosevelt denounced academic programs that “train the boy away from the farm and the workshop.”

Dr. Ravitch shows that suppressing academics to provide vocational training remained schools’ purpose until recently. Particularly influential was James B. Conant, a former Harvard president who, in 1959, argued that only 15 percent of students could master college- preparatory lessons. Schools should resist “unreasonable parental pressures” to put others in academic classes not relevant to their eventual jobs, Dr. Conant said.

But Dr. Ravitch’s heroes, the dissenters seeking one academic curriculum for all, had a vision as flawed as the differentiated model they denounced. Overcoming social class requires the high standards demanded by the conservatives, but it also needs more – like summer, all-day and preschool programs, specially trained teachers and customized curriculums that middle-class children do not need. Opponents of differentiation, or tracking, did not understand this.

Dr. Ravitch agrees that disadvantaged pupils may complete academic lessons at a slower pace, but her concession cedes the argument. Unless educators figure out how the poor can catch up, not learn more slowly, upward mobility will not improve.

In good part because of contemporary critics like Diane Ravitch, tracking is now discredited. We now want high standards for all. But if all children cannot get to an even starting gate, the race for rewards will continue to be a sham.

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