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This is an interesting discussion about the future of American education, written by Marc Tucker.
Check out the October 12 edition of Flypaper, The Fordham Institute’s newsletter, and you will find a very thoughtful commentary from Checker Finn on the proposal from Theresa May, Britain’s new Prime Minister, to resurrect that country’s grammar schools. These are the selective high schools in the government-funded system that used to provide the gateway to university for most students on the basis of exams given at the end of what we call elementary school. There are a few of these schools left, but most were abolished by the Labor government nearly half a century ago on the grounds that they were a vestige of the British class system that denied access to higher education to students from the lower classes. While the grammar school system appeared to operate on merit, Labor argued that the system actually heavily favored students who entered school with much bigger vocabularies, a much wider exposure to books and high culture and much more support for education. So the system operated to enable the upper classes to reproduce themselves; their kids would continue to have the advantages they had always had, and the lower classes would continue to be denied an opportunity for social mobility, the very opposite of what government-funded schools are supposed to do.
Checker Finn muses on whether we made a mistake by expanding access to high schools to all. Was universal public education a mistake? Should we pay more attention to our smartest students?
Finn is right to draw the parallels between the United States and Britain on these issues. James B. Conant’s call for comprehensive high schools came at much the same time and with the same rationale as Labor’s call for comprehensive high schools in Britain. We both largely abolished selective admission to high schools at about the same time and for the same reasons. We both moved toward school choice with much the same rationale and both moved toward having the state rather than the locality take responsibility for the new schools. And both systems are performing more or less miserably now, relative to the other countries to which we usually compare ourselves. But that does not leave the United States—or Britain—with a choice between continuing on the road we are now on or returning to the old system. Neither will work. We know that from bitter experience.
Where do we go next?
You may notice if you scan the comments that I wrote the third one. I see this discussion as disconnected with reality. We stand at the cusp of an era in which the federal government is determined to make war on public schools and to promote religious schools and charter schools. We will have neither universal access, nor equity, nor excellence.