Books Every Teacher Should Read. #1: Shopping Mall High School.

by Harry on February 16, 2009

Joe (a prospective teacher in an certification program) teasingly asks what is on my list of books about education that everyone should read. More useful, perhaps, would be my list of books that every teacher/prospective teacher should read. So, here’s the first in an occasional series of Brighouse recommendations. This is not strictly one that every teacher should read, but certainly every American non-rural public school teacher, and I’d guess most private school teachers too. I had long heard of The Shopping Mall High School: Winners and Losers in the Educational Marketplace, and been a little put off by the name (remember, I didn’t read any of this stuff in grad school). But in fact the title is perfect. The conceit, obviously, is that the large comprehensive high school is a shopping mall; it is attempting to cater to a variety of consumers, some of whom want very high quality goods, others of whom want a kind of “life and let live” approach, and others still have niche needs, like children with special needs, athletes, etc. In an added twist, schools differ in the composition of their clientele (I don’t remember them using the idea of the strip mall at any point—but they must have been in those schools too!), so different schools resemble different malls. By allowing students to select classes by schedule and even teacher, the school prompts a sorting process the effcts of which are nicely explained here; by establishing “electives” within departments, the school ensures that students will choose their way into college-prep, vocationally-oriented, or non-demanding classes depending on the attentiveness and aspirations of their parents, the peer group they are in, and their own perception of their own abilities. The texture of school life is beautifully placed on display in the book, and way that “empowering” students to choose classes ends up sorting them more effectively even than tracking would is nicely…well, tracked. (One of the many things that has always puzzled me about so American left-educators is that they oppose tracking and are utterly convinced that parental choice of schools will lead to inequality, but defend student choice of classes within schools to the hilt, whereas Shopping Mall High School shows that it has much the same effect as tracking, and is driven by exactly the same dynamic as choice of schools). The book was published in 1985, and seems to have been out of print for quite a while but you’ll be lucky if you don’t recognize your local high school in its pages.

I can’t remember why I finally read it, but after I did, and started raving about it to my dad, he said “Oh, yes, you’re in that book, didn’t you know that?” I did remember an American academic visiting one of my British History A-level classes, and chatting with him after class about school. That, I gather, was Art Powell, the first-named author, and must have been in 1981; mine was one of the English schools the authors studied in order to put the schools they’d been visiting in perspective (the preface does mention Peers but I can’t find anything in the text that resembles my History lessons) There’s an embarrassing coda; I was hanging out in an office at the U of Michigan School of Education in Ann Arbor a few weeks ago, when someone called David Cohen was introduced to me. I was delighted to meet someone whose work I have admired, but (perhaps because David Cohen is a common name, or because I have in mind that 1985 is so long ago) I didn’t realise he was the same David Cohen that wrote SMH. When I was preparing this post I suddenly realised that he must be the third-named author which, indeed, he is. When I return I’ll grill him about when there’s going to be a reprint, which is long overdue.

{ 42 comments }

1

Sherman Dorn 02.16.09 at 4:09 pm

Agreed that the book is an important landmark in school criticism, along with the others in Ted Sizer’s group of mid-80s writers (Horace’s Compromise, The Last Little Citadel).

2

Slocum 02.16.09 at 4:31 pm

One of the many things that has always puzzled me about so American left-educators is that they oppose tracking and are utterly convinced that parental choice of schools will lead to inequality, but defend student choice of classes within schools to the hilt, whereas Shopping Mall High School shows that it has much the same effect as tracking, and is driven by exactly the same dynamic as choice of schools.

One of the reasons to defend choice (of schools or of classes within schools) is that tracking is generally institution-directed, whereas choice is student/parent directed. It seems pretty clear to me that schools have no business acting in a gatekeeper role to determine who may and who may not pursue the more challenging courses of study. Of course, the students & parents who self-select into advanced course are mostly the same as those the school would have chosen, but certainly not always (and keep in mind that advanced courses are by no means a limited resource — it is no more expensive to teach a class of 25-30 high school Calculus students than 25-30 pre-Algebra students).

By the way, my observation with respect to these issues are that schools actively discourage advanced courses and parents push back. Minority students are disadvantaged in this dynamic because minority parents seem less likely to resist recommendations of school officials.

BTW. the reason that “American left-educators” support choices of classes within schools but not choice of schools themselves is pretty obvious — the latter is threatening to the American left education establishment, while the latter is not. Choice of schools means charter schools at minimum and — if the trend were extended — vouchers for private and religious schools. Choice of classes within public schools, on the other hand, mean business as usual.

3

akatsuki 02.16.09 at 4:38 pm

It is sad when the myth of the rational consumer is applied to children. And then their entire future is put at risk because of that.

4

Russell Arben Fox 02.16.09 at 4:51 pm

[T]he reason that “American left-educators” support choices of classes within schools but not choice of schools themselves is pretty obvious—the latter is threatening to the American left education establishment, while the latter is not.

You mean “while the former is not.” Your point is a good one, though not a complete one, I think. I can rail about the “American left education establishment” as well as anyone, but there are principled reasons to be concerned about school choice. I think those concerns can be responded to, but it’s not as though the establishment’s hostility is entirely self-interested.

5

Harry 02.16.09 at 5:01 pm

I agree (with Russell) that there are principled reasons for being concerned about school choice and that many left-educators understand those principled reasons (and agree that those principled reasons can be responded to) but my point if that the principled reasons that animate opponents to inter-school choice are also raised by intra-school choice (and that is what SMHS, written before the explosion of enthusiasm for inter-school choice, brings out so nicely). So, for example, opponents of inter-school choice say that educated parents will exercise a great deal of effort figuring out which school is best, and exercise choice on behalf of their kid, whereas uneducated parents will allow their kid to choose to be with his peer group. Yep, certainly happens; but exactly the same thing happens in intra-school choice (as the authors bring out). The dissonance helps to fuel slocum’s cynical interpretation. I have an even more insulting take, which is that there is a very powerful ideology at work in the educational establishment against inter-school choice but in favour of intra-school choice, and, rather than being animated by self-interest, lots of people just adopt the ideology uncritically, despite it being prima facie self-contradictory (I’m not saying that there is no way of reconciling the two stances, and I can think of interesting ways of reconciling them, but I don’t hear those from people).

6

Slocum 02.16.09 at 5:49 pm

So, for example, opponents of inter-school choice say that educated parents will exercise a great deal of effort figuring out which school is best, and exercise choice on behalf of their kid, whereas uneducated parents will allow their kid to choose to be with his peer group.

My observation has been that it is more than that. Within school choices are different than between school choices in a couple respects. First of all, within-school choice tends to operate more at the upper levels (late middle school and high school) whereas charter schools are mostly at the elementary level. And within school choice is not generally between higher or lower quality classes at the same level but rather the choice between the advanced and less advanced tracks. So — Algebra in 8th grade (leading to calc in 12th) — or not? Biology in 9th grade (leading to AP Senior science) or Earth Science? AP English, History, etc — or standard versions? And so on.

Let me say a little more about the within school dynamic that I’ve observed. It seems to me that most school administrators, counselors, and teachers are somewhat suspicious and hostile to the advanced classes, which attitudes extend to both the students taking these courses and the teachers teaching them. Part of this is personal — most educators (as the stats bear out, though things are improving) were not AP students themselves, and so they themselves are living proof that such courses are not necessary. And then there are reasons of institutional self-interest for wanting students to take less rather than more difficult courses. If students stay well within the limits of their abilities, it’s easier on teachers and administrators. Nobody struggles, nobody requires extra help, nobody has to be switched out to different courses, etc. Schools recognize there is a demand for the advanced courses and so they must offer them, but they don’t really like them.

I was once a parent on a middle-school improvement committee. I suggested that considering the achievement gap and that that there are virtually no African American students in AP courses here, middle-school teachers should be actively recruiting and encouraging promising African American kids to take the advanced-track courses in 8th and 9th grades. This was a non-starter. They looked at me like I was an alien. Closing the achievement gap was critical, of course, but AP classes are elitist and only for a few students — we shouldn’t be talking about that.

7

Sebastian 02.16.09 at 5:53 pm

“I have an even more insulting take, which is that there is a very powerful ideology at work in the educational establishment against inter-school choice but in favour of intra-school choice, and, rather than being animated by self-interest, lots of people just adopt the ideology uncritically, despite it being prima facie self-contradictory “

I’m not sure if this is a more insulting take than slocum’s or just an expansion of his explanation. Yes a huge number of people uncritically accept the ideology which contains self-contradictory notions. But a recurring theme here on crookedtimber is that such ideology often doesn’t just happen by accident. Slocum’s explanation works pretty well to explain why the ideology might be the way that it is.

8

Slocum 02.16.09 at 6:46 pm

..my point is that the principled reasons that animate opponents to inter-school choice are also raised by intra-school choice (and that is what SMHS, written before the explosion of enthusiasm for inter-school choice, brings out so nicely).

What, BTW, do you see as principled reasons for opposing intra-school choice? And if it did not exist, what would replace it? Differentiation without choice (e.g. all tracking decisions made by school officials)? Or no differentiation at all (either calc AP for everybody or calc AP for nobody)? And if choice and differentiation were eliminated in K-12, would they be allowed at the university level? If so, why would differentiation be any more ‘fair’ there than in K-12?

9

Harry 02.16.09 at 7:59 pm

I agree with Sebastian r.e. #5 and #2.

Principled reasons for opposing intra-school choice would be that relative to some ideal sorting of children into classes it makes it more likely that children already advantaged by socio-economic and educational background will get the “choice” pickings. Note the “relative to some ideal sorting”. I’m not saying that, in fact, intra-school choice is worse in this regard than what the real alternative in the circumstance would be. But, for example, setting (grouping children by reference to their likely uptake of what is offered in the class) enables schools to press students whose parents won’t press them to take more demanding classes. In a school with adept and attentive officials setting (and perhaps even tracking) can at least interfere a little with the inequality of prospects yielded by the unequal informal power of parents. Of course, that depends on the school being adept and attentive in the right way (which many are not — I sometimes tell students the story of my stepfather’s first day at secondary school, when the master asked all the boys what their fathers’ jobs were, and placed the boys with professional fathers at the front of the class, those with respectable white collar working class fathers in the middle, and those with blue collar working class fathers like my stepfather at the back, saying — “you’ll be leaving on your 15th birthday, so there’s not much point in educating you” — and they talk about the “hidden” curriculum!).

FWIW I think universities have way too much choice, but for different reasons (that is, there are different reasons its there, and different reasons that it is way too much).

10

Slocum 02.16.09 at 8:15 pm

I’m not saying that, in fact, intra-school choice is worse in this regard than what the real alternative in the circumstance would be. But, for example, setting (grouping children by reference to their likely uptake of what is offered in the class) enables schools to press students whose parents won’t press them to take more demanding classes.

But given that more demanding classes are not more expensive to teach and, therefore, not a scarce resource, there’s no necessary conflict between intra-school choice and, at the same time, enabling schools “to press students whose parents won’t press them to take more demanding classes”. Schools certainly could and should be encouraging promising students from non-professional families to take more advanced courses. So why don’t they?

11

notsneaky 02.16.09 at 11:05 pm

“Of course, the students & parents who self-select into advanced course are mostly the same as those the school would have chosen, but certainly not always”

I would guess that this correlation is much lower than you suspect. Schools select kids into the advanced courses based mostly on various forms of statistical discrimination and ability to perform on test is only one aspect. Unconscious (let’s hope) racism does play a role and African American and Latino students have to be truly excellent – above and beyond what is required of White or Asian students – in order to be chosen for these classes. Most of the time the way it works is that white students are encouraged and often outright selected by teachers and counselors for the advanced courses whereas nobody ever thinks to ask the black kids if they’d be interested. If a minority kid does show some initiative and asks to be placed into advanced courses then he or she better have some outside support (either parents or friendly, untypical, teachers) or no one will listen.

The other aspect here – which I know first hand, having spent my junior high years in remedial classes – is that educators will also select against trouble making kids and choose “nice” kids. Basically if you’re the kind of kid that’s got detention hall every day, teachers just assume that you don’t belong in the advanced courses and in fact your place is in the remedial classes which are geared towards discipline and behavior control rather than actually teaching stuff anyway. Of course the fact that you’re causing trouble cuz you’re bored out of your freakin’ mind doesn’t really occur to anyone.

So no, I don’t think the choice of parents or students themselves would correlate that closely to the choices made by the school administration and teachers.

12

Jordan DeLange 02.17.09 at 12:24 am

But given that more demanding classes are not more expensive to teach

Is there a good reason for assuming this to be true? I’d suspect that AP classes tend to be taught by teachers with advanced degrees, as well as those with extensive experience, and I’d expect these teachers to draw higher salaries than teachers with fewer credentials or less experience. Even if the teacher gets the same salary whether teaching an AP class as opposed to a non-AP class (is this true?), surely increasing the demand for these types of teachers tends to drive up school costs? When you add in costs related to subsidizing test prices and course materials, I don’t see why we should assume that many of these demanding classes are not more expensive to teach.

If it isn’t, then you can see how there might be an incentive for schools not to push students towards those types of classes.

13

ScentOfViolets 02.17.09 at 12:48 am

Basically if you’re the kind of kid that’s got detention hall every day, teachers just assume that you don’t belong in the advanced courses and in fact your place is in the remedial classes which are geared towards discipline and behavior control rather than actually teaching stuff anyway. Of course the fact that you’re causing trouble cuz you’re bored out of your freakin’ mind doesn’t really occur to anyone.

They just ‘assume’ it, huh? How about they logically reason that troublemakers, making classes hard to teach, would be especially detrimental in the advanced classes where concentration and lack of distraction is at a premium? I’m guessing – yes, it is just a guess – that they probably look at a few other indicators before making these decisions. And I’m guessing that if you’re a known trouble maker, that your aptitude tests don’t look so hot, and that your grade records don’t reflect the slightest spark of ability or even any interest in the subject, yes, they won’t put you in the advanced classes. Certainly that’s what has happened in the cases I know about.

14

notsneaky 02.17.09 at 1:37 am

SoV, even if you were right that, on average, troublemakers would be detrimental to learning in advanced classes, then that’d still be statistical discrimination. But the causality probably goes the other way to a significant degree. Let me guess, yes, just guess, you’ve never been tracked into a remedial class yourself. For a half way intelligent kid being stuck in a mind numbing, overwhelmingly boring, completely useless remedial class is an open invitation to cause trouble. And hey I’ve seen it from both sides of the barricade.
And personally I don’t know what the average relationship between causing trouble and scores on aptitude tests is. Based on personal experiences, again, from both sides of the fence, I’d hazard a guess that there is probably no relationship whatsoever. And if there is some weak positive relationship (which I doubt) then it’s probably due the fact that those suckers are lying when they say they’re measuring aptitude when in fact they are measuring straight up preparation and test taking skills.
Grade records and “slightest spark of ability” are also reflections of reverse causality as well as the fact that teachers will only tend to see “sparks” in the eyes of nicely behaved, properly dressed, well mannered, ass kissing pupils of the right skin tone.

I got tracked into remedial classes in 6th grade based on some of these wonderful ‘aptitude’ tests. Now, it was possible, just possible that for English classes this was the right placement. But there was basically no way in hell that I belonged in remedial math and science. At the time, being more interested in goofing off and causing trouble I actually didn’t mind this. But my parents did. They asked to see the actual aptitude test upon which the results were based. The counselor who administered the test refused. They went to the principal. She refused as well. They went to PTA meetings, to the school board, to the county ed super, they all refused to let them see the aptitude test. It was only when my folks hired a lawyer and were about to sue that the school very quickly jumped me from remedial 6th grade math to high school pre-calculus (which I dropped after a quarter in order to take math classes at the U instead). Of course they still wouldn’t release the aptitude test records but at that point (to my 12 year old annoyance) my parents got what they wanted.

In the end I can’t say I was much of a victim of the screwed up educational system. I turned out alright. But that’s pretty much all because my parents gave a whole lot of fuck about it. And because they were from a background which enabled them to know how to contest this kind of bullshit. But there’s a lot, A LOT, of kids out there who’s parents, even if well meaning and engaged simply don’t have the time, nor the resources, nor the financial and other ability to fight schools on this. I can tell similar messed up stories from my ( brief) time as a high school teacher when I saw lots of very smart kids stuck in remedial classes either because, well, let’s call it what it is, institutional racism (sometimes a form of ‘classism’ too , in regard to Appalachian kids), or because school teachers assumed that anyone who wasn’t an ass-kissing goody two shoes must be mentally challenged.

(as an aside, the educational system in other countries isn’t necessarily much better)

15

notsneaky 02.17.09 at 1:42 am

I might as well add that from a purely self-interested point of view I’ve always been a big fan of standardized tests (at least when these score are actually released to you). They’re impersonal, dehumanized, cold, insensitive and don’t give a flip about what kind of day you’re having. And that’s why I like them. They’re still better than some idiot teacher assigning you a grade based on how much sucking up you’ve done or whether or not you’ve shown “proper respect”.

16

Chris 02.17.09 at 2:19 am

But given that more demanding classes are not more expensive to teach and, therefore, not a scarce resource

Isn’t this obviously false? Advanced classes systematically have smaller class sizes – at my high school there was an application process to get into the limited amount of seats in the advanced classes. (Which included the imponderable judgment of the teacher – there were a number of jokes among the students when the male AP English teacher selected a class of 15 girls and 1 boy.) Obviously, classes with smaller class sizes are more expensive per student, limiting the number the school can offer (with a given finite amount of money); therefore, seats in them *are* a scarce resource.

Although for a while I entertained the theory that the scarcity was intentional to create a positional good, since for the people who did get into the top tier of classes (almost all of whom had rich and influential parents, of course), it looked better on their college applications. Well, I didn’t know the term “positional good”, but that was the idea. On further reflection, though, the small class size itself explains why they didn’t open up more sections: they couldn’t afford to make all their classes that small because there weren’t enough teachers.

17

notsneaky 02.17.09 at 2:27 am

“when the male AP English teacher selected a class of 15 girls and 1 boy”

Standardized tests 1: Human teachers 0

18

Watson Aname 02.17.09 at 2:55 am

Of course the fact that you’re causing trouble cuz you’re bored out of your freakin’ mind doesn’t really occur to anyone.

It turns out this isn’t so clear. At least your experience and mine cancel out that way. It didn’t help, though, and I left anyway.

19

notsneaky 02.17.09 at 3:13 am

If you get a good teacher then you get lucky. There are really good, caring teachers out there who are willing to make the (sometimes tremendous) effort to help the kids who get stuck in those bad situations. But they’re a minority and they’re working within a totally dysfunctional institutional system which tends to eliminate and punish them or their idealism which motives that goodness and caring in the first place.

20

Britta 02.17.09 at 4:33 am

Actually, there is no reason why advanced classes have to be smaller than remedial ones, nor is it necessarily obvious that they would be. Indeed, the argument could be made the other way around, that intelligent and motivated students are much easier to teach en masse than students who may need significant individual attention, so advanced classes scale up much better than remedial ones.

At my high school (public, urban, white, upper middle class, and significantly underfunded), advanced classes were not a scarce resource, with over half the student body taking at least one or two. As a result, each calculus section had 50+ students, whereas algebra I had around 20 per section. The largest class, at over 90 students, was a senior honors english/history class. Books were old, and if the school ran out they would make and bind photocopies and/or ask students to share. Students sat on the floor or the window sill, yet none of this seemed to have any material effect (heh) on the learning.

21

Katherine 02.17.09 at 10:37 am

What, please, is “tracking” in this context? Thanks.

22

mpowell 02.17.09 at 11:03 am

What you have to keep in mind is that there are certainly some insitutional power effects in play when you are talking about AP classes. At my high school, the AP calculus teacher wielded a lot of power in the department, probably because he was a solid teacher who got excellent results. But partly that was due to teaching the freshman honors math class, carefully observing students in the honors track and making sure he only had the students he wanted in his AP calc class. It wasn’t particularly small, but he was able to use this to maintain a very high AP passing rate and even 5 level scoring. Maybe that was the right thing to do, since anything less than a 5 on the AP calc test means you really haven’t learned calculus at all, but I can very easily see this kind of mechanism manifesting itself in various less desirable ways.

I think that slocum is partly right that advanced courses should not theoretically require additional resources, but for a variety of reasons, this may not be true in practice. Also, just based on my theory that 90% of all people are total frauds, I doubt most high school teachers can actually teach at the AP level effectively, which means offering a lot of AP classes means that the best students get the only decent teachers in a high school.

23

Zeba 02.17.09 at 11:48 am

Just a recommendation for books – not so US-centred, but the work of John Macbeath on self-evaluation and school effectiveness are very interesting both in terms of looking at individual practice and building relationships in schools between staff and students, and looking at schools in a more global sense.

I’d also recommend Andy Hargreaves.

Just my 2 cents from across the pond.

24

Sebastian 02.17.09 at 5:36 pm

Katherine, In this discussion ‘tracking’ is used to mean something like: identifying and sorting students at a fairly early age (say sometime in the 10-14 range). You then put them on a track based on their perceived ability. This might include a high speed learning track, a more middle of the road track, and a remedial/slow learning track. The theoretical advantage would be that you can tailor the teaching more appropriately to their learning. A disadvantage would be if you get on the wrong track, and get stuck there for a number of years. A more subtle disadvantage would be if you might be capable of different tracks for different types of subjects.

25

functional 02.17.09 at 6:08 pm

So, for example, opponents of inter-school choice say that educated parents will exercise a great deal of effort figuring out which school is best, and exercise choice on behalf of their kid, whereas uneducated parents will allow their kid to choose to be with his peer group.

And this differs from the current system . . . how? Educated parents (including many of the lefty opponents of vouchers) already exercise a great deal of effort trying to buy a house in the right neighborhood, or sending their kids to private school (e.g., Sidwell Friends), in order to exercise choice on behalf of their kids. The only thing that inter-school choice would do is allow poorer parents (who can’t afford the better neighborhoods) at least a small chance of being able to exercise some measure of choice. (If you are inclined to fall back on the common-but-ludicrous objection that vouchers don’t provide enough money for the poor parents to afford good schools, there’s an easy solution to that problem, and one that is consistent with what lefties purport to believe a good thing: give poor parents more money.)

26

harry b 02.17.09 at 6:34 pm

functional, why do you assume I’m opposed to vouchers?

27

harry b 02.17.09 at 6:36 pm

To be less terse, there’s nothing in my comments above that remotely suggests that I am opposed to inter-school choice, or to vouchers. Only your imagination. I imagine that if you google Brighouse School Choice or Brighouse Vouchers its pretty easy to figure out what I think.

28

functional 02.17.09 at 7:38 pm

I wasn’t talking about you, but about the exact same “American left-educators” that you find puzzling because of their belief that “parental choice of schools will lead to inequality” (as if the parental choice of wealthy suburbanites doesn’t already exist to just about its fullest extent).

29

Katherine 02.17.09 at 9:04 pm

Thanks Sebastian. The UK equivalent is called “streaming”, just for info.

30

harry b 02.17.09 at 9:12 pm

Thanks functional — I’ve had that discussion with people oh so many times.

Katherine and Sebastian — schooling is like Babies and Cars — US and UK English diverge completely. The Brits practice streaming much less than they used to, but setting (in which you are placed for each subject with children who have reached roughly the same level — there doesn’t seem to be an American equivalent term) is common and pretty uncontroversial. I suspect some of the disputes over tracking versus complete homogenisation in the US would be a bit less fractious if setting were more widely adopted (as it is, frequently, for math, but often only for a small elite top-set).

31

Slocum 02.17.09 at 9:47 pm

I suspect some of the disputes over tracking versus complete homogenisation in the US would be a bit less fractious if setting were more widely adopted (as it is, frequently, for math, but often only for a small elite top-set).

Is it really the case that ‘setting’ is uncommon in the U.S.? Our experience in the U.S. has been that choices of which courses to take in advanced form is pretty idiosyncratic. Few high school students want to go all Honors/AC/AP because it’s just too brutal. So different students make different choices about where to take advanced courses and where to take regular courses (depending on ability and interest). They also often trying to figure out how to trade off GPA against ‘strength of schedule’ for university admissions purposes. My sense is that this is all quite typical for U.S. high-school students. Is there data that indicates otherwise?

32

harry b 02.17.09 at 10:29 pm

I’m sure there is good data on this, but I don’t have it (and don’t know how common setting would be). But what you’ve described is not setting, but choice of classes (as described in SMH). I strongly get the impression that the SLC grants the Dept of Education is running have tended toward homogenisation within grades 9 and 10 esp in the basic academic subjects (which, in the UK, are still the final compulsory years of high school — secondary school there standardly begins in 6th grade, and setting begins then or very soon after). But that’s anecdotal – there’s probably data, but I don’t know if the DofE is collecting it…

33

Slocum 02.17.09 at 11:17 pm

But what you’ve described is not setting, but choice of classes (as described in SMH).

Right, but the point is that ‘choice of classes’ is neither tracking (the institution placing all students into a track for all subjects) nor complete homogenization and, in effect, more like ‘setting’ (as I understand it).

I strongly get the impression that the SLC grants the Dept of Education is running have tended toward homogenisation within grades 9 and 10 esp in the basic academic subjects.

SLCs may be pushing for homogenization in grades 9 and 10, but these represent choice of a different kind–many smaller learning communities are magnet or specialty programs which are likely to appeal differentially to students of varying abilities. And although SLCs may be the ‘new thing’, they are not typical of American high schools at this point.

34

harry b 02.17.09 at 11:26 pm

Sure, I didn’t mean that these were the only options or practices, just that resistance to tracking is often well-motivated but is also often used to promote homogenisation, rather than setting.

I’m not sure SLCs are, in fact, working out as you imply. I suspect there’s a lot of window dressing, but only from anecdotal acquaintance, not from any comprehensive study of what is going on (I hope such a study is under way).

35

William 02.18.09 at 11:59 am

I don’t think its at all surprising that people who might oppose school choice and tracking might favor allowing students to choose which classes they would take. A couple of observations:

1.) Students in the same school are still physically in the same building. They are in clubs, on teams, eat lunch in the same space, etc. More importantly, they take the same electives which are typically *not* or differentiated at the lower levels.

2.) Students in the same school still have the same administration and broad resources. If all of the students in a school wanted to take an honors curriculum, a principal could simply increase the number of honors sections. Getting enough AP certified teachers to make *all* classes AP would be difficult, but should a school be lucky enough to face that problem, it could be accomplished too.

3.) The alternative to allowing students to choose a standard curriculum or a more challenging curriculum is to have one size fits all. This is not really viable; either the curriculum will be too hard or too easy for large numbers of students.

36

Tracy W 02.18.09 at 2:28 pm

Harry – the curiousity is killing me, did your stepfather stay at school past his 15th birthday? (I believe the story, my father and some of my older teachers at school can tell similar ones).

37

harry b 02.18.09 at 2:34 pm

No, he left at 15 (probably at the end of the academic year he turned 15). But entered the car industry as an apprentice engineer (breaking off for 2 years of national service) and, when he finally retired, was managing a safety engineering unit most of whose members had PhDs in Engineering.

38

harry b 02.18.09 at 2:35 pm

What’s interesting is that this was a grammar school — that is, all the boys had “passed” the 11plus exam, so were already part of an academic elite of about 25% of the population.

39

Tracy W 02.18.09 at 10:32 pm

Thanks Harry. Weird – the teacher, not your stepfather of course. Especially since it was a grammar school.

40

Witt 02.19.09 at 1:59 am

Since this is the most recent education-related thread, a real live example of schools that explicitly focus on and have narrowed or eliminated the achivement gap:

Philadelphia has a handful of racially and economically diverse schools where Black and White students achieve comparably high test scores, defying the traditional achievement gap. In some cases, African Americans outperform their White peers.

[…] The schools are different, but share some essential characteristics: focused attention on each child; little teacher turnover; a relatively stable student population; and, perhaps most importantly, rigorous dedication to narrowing racial achievement gaps. Each school is supported by strong leadership and boasts both economic and ethnic diversity.

Full article.

41

Witt 02.19.09 at 2:00 am

Darn it, the blockquote looked right on preview. Sorry, everyone. The second and third paragraphs are quoting from the article.

42

ralph 02.19.09 at 5:20 am

Well, there was a nice little wandering there. Back to the original post, I believe the reasonable point that edumacators in the U.S. oppose choice at the level of physical school and unconsciously (at least) support it at the individual school scope. I think this is true, and I think that it’s because of several points, a few of which make complete sense to me and a few of which do not. The idea, for example, that lower-income parents have the time/energy to move their child (whether permanently or daily) to another school merely to do them some selectin’ is seen as burdensome, whereas it makes total sense that if the school-as-mall can provide the same selectin’ opportunities in the local school just down the street (if in fact they’re lucky).

No one on the U.S. left cares one whit about the badness of choice for anyone; what I perceive as the major obstacle is fairness in the distribution of resources. If the middle- and upper-classes can take their kids out, the fear is that the remaining children will get the resource and opportunity shaft. There IS a bell curve of some form in all things; even in the private world, there are great schools, and there are crappy ones. Sure, the crappy ones are cheaper, but that doesn’t mean they’ll magically go away due to market forces, leaving only lean and efficient ones. Right?

So I think the main arguments that make sense to me about inter-school choice would be those that make arguments about how to continue to distribute competence and resources equitably without regard to race/class AND provide choice. Within schools, there is a rough ability to do this; across schools, not so much — yet.

Comments on this entry are closed.