Sunday, May 03, 2009

Whenever I Hear the Word "Left-Educators" I Reach for My Revolver

This Oldish Harry Brighouse quote via Dina has been stuck in my mind like a burr:

One of the many things that has always puzzled me about so many 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.

This comes in the context of a recommendation of The Shopping Mall High School. Now, here's the thing: I'm a liberal, and that book was pivotal in my thinking about high schools; it launched my journey in high school reform. The reputation comprehensive high school has never recovered.

The Shopping Mall High School and the closely related Horace's Compromise led to the creation of the Coalition of Essential Schools, which was the nexus of progressive school reform for much of the '90's. And the left-educators that were central to this movement, like Dennis Littky, Deborah Meier, and Bil Johnson, were not starting comprehensive high schools, they were starting small schools of choice, under a variety of public school configurations. Other leading left-educators like Mike Klonsky's Small Schools Workshop worked to help break up large high schools into smaller units, each of which necessarily offers fewer choices than a single large school. It is liberals like David Simon and John Thompson who call for high quality alternative programs for at-risk "corner kids." My colleagues at the Arlington Career Center -- liberals. Science Leadership Academy -- liberals.

The only public intellectual advocate of the large comprehensive high school I can think of is Diane Ravitch, whose contributions have been more agreeable lately, but is hardly a liberal. Meanwhile, there are plenty of conservatives also promoting small schools as well now. Not to say that comprehensive high schools have gone away -- they've lost the war of ideas, but that has little relationship to how kids are actually educated.

And let's remember that conservatives only like certain kinds of choice. It was liberals who fought to give kids in the city a chance to go to school in the suburbs, and vice-versa, and conservatives who ultimately defeated them.

1 comment:

Dina said...

School reform is much on my mind, Tom, as you probably can see from my latest string of posts-- and with such books out there as "So Much Reform, So Little Change," and such data as from the Tenessee Star Project, I fail to see the how the small schools/small class movement can not be supported across the political spectrum. Hell, the anecdotal evidence alone ought to be convincing enough. Writing thoughtfully on a weekly basis in reading journals for 20 kids versus 165? Being able to conduct home visits for your whole class before April? The list goes on.