The Privileged Poor

A (to me) fascinating article in the New York Times today, talking about “the privileged poor,” which in this case means poor students who were fortunate enough to attend elite high schools, and the advantages they have over other poor students when both groups went on to college. The article was fascinating to me because I was very much “privileged poor” — I attended a private boarding school in high school and was so well prepared for college because of it that it literally took me a year and a half at college before I was dealing with something I couldn’t just dip into my high school experience to deal with, and I went to the University of Chicago, not exactly a grunt school.

This is a topic I’ve addressed before, indeed very recently: The idea that my life had been manifestly changed because my high school let me in despite being poor; my upward trajectory in life started my freshman year in high school. It was, to be sure, an incredibly tough year, as I adjusted to the school and its expectations (the fact I was a willful little brat didn’t help any). I try to imagine that year of wrenching adjustment happening when I was eighteen rather than fourteen. I don’t know that it would have gone as well for me.

I don’t think you need to go to an elite high school to be reasonably prepared for college; lots of people don’t go to one and get along just fine. But the article does reinforce my belief that a good education leading up to college really is important. You can’t just chuck someone into the deep water of college– any college, not merely an “elite” one as noted in this article — and expect them to swim. If there’s one thing I would absolutely change about the US, it would be an immense overhaul of how we do schooling and how we prep our kids for the future. How it happens matters. It matters a lot.

69 Comments on “The Privileged Poor”

  1. I agree. As someone who went to high school in Canada, where schools are funded city-wide and (note: in this case city=massive municipality, not small neighbourhoods) and most kids go to public school, I was shocked when I did my second degree in Cleveland and discovered how schools were funded. It was insane to me that if you lived in a poor neighbourhood that your public school got a fraction of the funding of schools in rich neighbourhoods and that funding wasn’t equalized across all schools. It seems to be a system guaranteed to perpetuate inequality rather than help kids succeed. And what shocked me more was that no one seemed to have a problem with this, and the answer was just “make sure you live in a neighbourhood with a good school board”.

  2. As a teacher of 25+ years experience in the UK, worked in Abu Dhabi as part of a team at the behest of the Abu Dhabi government for 3 years to bring their education system into the 21st Century (and succeeding) and having worked in the US in Summer Camps in roles from Counsellor to Assistant Director I agree with your last sentence wholeheartedly. I only wish I could work with educationalists at State, or even National, level to help do this. If you know of a way I could get involved then let me know.

  3. I agree that we need to improve our general education system. In my case, I was a poor kid given a scholarship at a private school where they cared more about my soul than my brain, and I skipped a grade because I was ahead of my peers. Then I moved to a well-funded public school with high educational standards and found myself playing catch up to my peers. By the time I was in my senior year, my friends from that private school were well behind my peer group in the public school, and they certainly did much worse on standardized tests for college. I think it’s a disservice to those students and their families to pretend that they were equally prepared for the rigors of college.

  4. I have thought for many years that any kind of public or military or private enterprise should be completed by all high school grads before entering college. Maturity, or less immaturity, is needed for college.

  5. I would ask for an immense overhaul on how schools are funded. It’s just horribly wrong that the wealthier the neighborhoods, the better the schools and if you’re a student in a poor one, well thats just too damn bad. I also don’t like the attitudes that come with either particular mindset

  6. It was noted by one of my college professors a few years back (a state school) and she noted that more and more students are coming in needing remedial classes. It’s just mind boggling that we no longer educate our kids. And the charter school movement only appears to be making that problem worse.

  7. From a different perspective, I also think it’s wrong that college has become the be-all and end-all, when there are many kids who would be better off doing an apprenticeship or trade school (regardless of intellectual ability). High schools are so focussed on preparing kids for college and have no respect or focus for those who will be excellent plumbers or car mechanics or electricians.

    This focus on college has also led to degree-requirement inflation, where jobs that should only require a high school diploma now require a college degree, and those that should require a college degree require a graduate degree, and so on.

  8. In a society that espouses meritocracy, talking about privilege can raise delicate issues about advantage in our society.

  9. Have to agree with you there, John. My own experience of university following high school was not pretty. It took some time to get around that bend. Made me a firm believer in community college first then university if there were any doubts about direction.

  10. As a college professor and adviser, I really agree with this. It is heartbreaking to see good students come in ill-prepared and waste time and money figuring that out. All public schools should be funded equally and well. Even though I mostly sent my kids to a religious school, I still vote for higher public school funding because I have to live with the people who go to public school! We all do.
    We espouse meritocracy, but we don’t do much to make it happen. The playing field is so far from level.

  11. As a community college professor I have to strongly agree. We serve anyone who walks in the door. That includes many students with high school diplomas who can’t write a paper and who test for math at a third grade level. The math department struggles with these low-math score students, many of whom have to go somewhere else to catch up with enough math to take our remedial math that still doesn’t count toward any type of degree.

    In my biology class I ROUTINELY have student who can’t tell me how many minutes are in an hour. There is no excuse for anyone to get through school with this level of education.

    Yes we need to reform our education system but not by adding more testing and so called teacher accountability. I also second the idea that not everyone should be on a pre-college track. Let’s have a trade school type track for future electricians and plumbers. Let’s have smaller class sizes and free lunches for all (many students don’t get enough to eat at home). Le’s have support for students who need extra help other than having the teacher spend extra time with that student at the expense of her other students. Let’s have harder classes for students who learn fast. Let’s forget the idea that students who need extra help are “stupid.”

    Oh, sorry, you got me up on one of my soap boxes. But when the revolution comes and we all elect Scalzi as Czar I’ll be happy to be the Secretary of Practical, Evidence Based, Education Reform.

  12. Kind of an odd situation here — I’m retired after a (lucrative) career as an electronic engineer and have gone back to study physics at a kick-ass university. A few random notes:

    1) Damn. This is some serious workload. Not so much “too much” as “too fine-grained..” I’m used to big deliverables over a span of months, not a few hours worth two days later. Not too bad if you’re used to it — but I wasn’t and I suspect quite a few of my classmates are even less so.

    2) Bright kids, and when they catch up to my head start I’m going to have to really bust my buns. Sweet!

    3) The faculty here, contrary to previous experiences, really care about making sure we master the material. Including citing actual research to us on what works and what doesn’t.

    4) We do a lot in teams. Coming from industry, this tickles me pink. It also lets me see, close up, how well my teammates are prepared — which is all over the map, despite the school being highly selective. I’m trying to do my part, but totally second the pros above.

  13. I went to one of these high schools (but a free public school). Anecdotally, it has been life-changing for many people that I know, including my husband and myself.

    Less anecdotally, according to some of the research that Hoxby and Turner have done, elite magnets like the one I went to are where most elite colleges focus their diversity-recruitment-energy, so they compete over a few poor students.

    Add to that that prestigious high schools have multiple guidance counselors focused specifically on getting kids to apply to and be accepted at the right colleges (guiding them to fee waivers if appropriate)– I never in a million years would have gone to my elite SLAC if it weren’t for my guidance counselor suggesting it. If I hadn’t gone to that SLAC I wouldn’t have gone to the top graduate school I went to because they don’t accept students from lower tier SLACs. My life trajectory would have been very different. My husband’s trajectory would have looked more like his brother’s than his own.

    So it’s not just the preparation that an elite high school gives academically or socially, but the access these schools give for students to know where and how to apply. And the elite stamp that helps these students get into the elite colleges with bigger endowments and more resources to support poor students.

    Although, I have to say it was weird the way all the other freshmen I knew didn’t know how to do laundry and had never been on their own.

    I’m not sure if we will encourage our kids to go to elite boarding schools or not… they’re already upper-middle-class and so wouldn’t get as much out of the experience as we did.

  14. The great challenge of reforming public education in the US is that there *is* no unified national system of public education. At the least, there are fifty (or 51 or 52, depending on how you address DC and Puerto Rico) K-12 public education systems, each with unique modes of governance and finance, and in practice, there are thousands of local schools and school districts, governed by thousands of distinct school boards, superintendents, and attendant hierarchies.

    In some states, district-level school boards consist of elected, unpaid volunteers (here in Oregon, for instance); in others, serving on a school board is a full time job which can include a respectable salary (California). In some states, schools are funded primarily by the communities in which they are located — often, in that case, by property taxes. In others, schools are funded largely by revenue collected by the state and allocated to local districts via some specified formula. In some jurisdictions, schools located within a given city or county may fall directly under the oversight of that city or county government; in others, school districts may be operationally independent of the cities and/or counties in which they exist. The awarding of teaching credentials and licensing of teachers mostly occurs under state-level authority — which means that (although a degree of reciprocity exists) a teacher licensed in one state may not be permitted to teach in another.

    This may sound like a recipe for nationwide chaos…and from a regulatory standpoint, it often is. And yet…I promise you, any attempt to gather up and govern or regulate every school in the US under some sort of grand unifying operational authority would be the greatest nightmare public education has ever seen. For all the challenges it creates, focusing operational school governance at the community level is, I think, one of the essential components of a free and democratic society such as the US strives to be — because a well-run public school system is (or should be) one of the core unifying components of any given community.

    Contextual-Bias Note: My mother served for over three decades on elected local school committees, school boards, and education service district boards, and as an appointed state scholarship commission member — in all cases as an unpaid volunteer. My brother and sister-in-law teach in a (very) large metropolitan school district; he’s in high school English and photography, she teaches second or third grade.

  15. Betcha.

    I go without lunch many a day, wear only shoes I find discarded by other people, and pay endless, endless “I don’t have it WITH me” fees (aka, the fifty dollar fee for being two days late to pay a twenty dollar bill.)

    But I’ve made my living, such as it is, in the arts and generally enjoy my work. I get to spend my leisure playing around with high-tech toys. I can even afford to travel (although I’m still paying off the credit card debt from that!)

    Such is being white, male, a native English speaker and more-or-less middle class in an affluent area. A lot more doors are open to you.

  16. Let’s have a trade school type track for future electricians and plumbers.

    You know, that sounds good until you realize who, exactly, American society would consign to the trade school. Hint: it wouldn’t be the people best suited for it, it would be the already-marginalized folks who are getting trained for “their place.”

  17. domynoe: “It was noted by one of my college professors a few years back (a state school) and she noted that more and more students are coming in needing remedial classes.”

    She did, did she? I’d be interested in knowing the basis for her claim. College faculty have been saying the same thing for well over a century, even in the days when mostly rich kids who’d gone to prep school went to college.

    “It’s just mind boggling that we no longer educate our kids.”

    Actually, “we” never did educate kids very well. It’s a complicated issue, but remember that until about the mid-20th century, only a relative few students went to college, and the high-school graduation rate was much lower than it is now.

    “And the charter school movement only appears to be making that problem worse.”

    I’ll agree with you that the charter school movement is worrisome. But as I said, “that problem” has always been with us. Americans have always been ambivalent at best about education.

  18. For all the challenges it creates, focusing operational school governance at the community level is, I think, one of the essential components of a free and democratic society such as the US strives to be — because a well-run public school system is (or should be) one of the core unifying components of any given community.

    And conversely, sorting students by the neighborhoods their parents can afford to live in is a great way to pass along privilege, both by providing some with remarkably good taxpayer-financed schools and by consigning others (guess who) to at best third-rate schools that are all their communities can afford.

  19. A large percentage of the population wants to pay no taxes, insists that the schools make their kids geniuses, and squawks loudly at any suggestion of a proper science education. It is against their religion, you see.

    And when little Johnny can’t actually get into Harvard based on their rural (insert state name) education, they complain about the poor quality of the schools. Then they go out and support the ongoing weakening of the teachers unions, so that the only people that can educate their children properly are in near-poverty. It’s a self-perpetuating downward spiral.

    And the 1% keep getting richer and more privileged, and rich people’s kids keep getting the best educations.

  20. D.C. Sessions: And that’s why that sentence says “operational school governance”, and does not mention funding — because you’re entirely right that imbalances in funding are a serious problem in today’s schools. This is one reason that Oregon’s school funding model — which relied mostly on local money when I was a student several decades back — now relies largely on a state education fund from which money is distributed to local districts. The idea is that this will establish a state-level baseline whereby funding is equalized so that schools in poorer communities are not unduly penalized for that poverty.

    I’ll also note that I don’t necessarily equate “community” with “neighborhood”. My personal take is that the largest school districts in my metropolitan area (notably Portland Public Schools and the Beaverton School District) are both about as large as a school district can become and still be both community-grounded and structurally sound. Both take in very affluent neighborhoods and much poorer ones. By contrast, I’m inclined to suspect that — for example — the LA Unified School District is too large, and has passed the critical tipping point at which the forces of self-sustaining bureaucracy have taken over and are running the asylum.

  21. Sorry – meant to say “rural or urban”. I should proofread better, no doubt a side effect of my rural Kansas education.

  22. I was fortunate enough to attend a private school for GT kids, from 4 yo to 11 yo (end of 5th grade). My brother started kindergarten the same year I started 5th grade, and my parents realized they couldn’t afford to have both of us there, so we went to public school after that. Through junior high (6/7/8th grade), I was one of the smarter kids in public school. It was nice, for a while, until I got to HS and college. I realized my intellect (and I say that with all due modesty) could only get me so far, there’s only so long you can skate before you inevitably fall and skin your knee. I had *no* idea how to navigate college, which is a much more academically rigorous environment (for me, anyway) than HS. I’d never learned proper study habits because I never needed to before, everything came so easily to me that there didn’t seem much need to put any actual effort into learning.

    I agree with the folx who say that we need to pay more attn t the students who either aren’t cut out for, or really don’t want, a college education. It’s disappointing when a five year old tells his mother “I want to be an electrician when I grow up!” and his mother gasps in horror and says “Don’t you mean, an electrical engineer?” So he (and/or his parents) goes deep into debt to finance a degree he didn’t really want, and now he’s in his mid-twenties and in a career he didn’t really want, when if his mother had just “allowed” him to be a journeyman electrician right out of HS, he’d have a career he enjoyed without all the debt. And the only reason it didn’t happen is that little Johnny’s mother would have been “embarrassed” to have a mere electrician as a son.

  23. My district does a relatively good job of equalizing funding (I said RELATIVELY — way, way better than the districts where a rich neighborhood equals a rich school, full stop), but it’s still not enough. Everyone’s underfunded, and the richer-neighborhood schools (who get way less per-pupil money) try to make up for it with six-figure auctions and the like, but they can’t spend auction money on buying down class size or whatever, so a lot of it goes on extras that basically end up being partly conspicuous consumption. (They can fund an after-school art class, but not a proper full-time art teacher, that kind of thing.)

  24. Sometimes I wonder if I’d have had a better head on my shoulders if I’d gone that route instead of finishing up high school in my small hometown, or at least skipped a grade to get more of a challenge. I got super bored and distracted from 8th grade on because I caught on quickly as to what was being taught to me. The teachers I had were good, but most tended to teach the minimum amount required. Added to that, all the money went to the football team and we had no real creative extracurricular groups other than the school band and chorus. The end result was that I coasted through my last 5 years of public school doing the minimum required, because that was what was expected. I got into college easily, but the end result was that I was totally not prepared for taking it seriously at all. I think if I’d been challenged more by a private school (or like I said, skipped a grade), things would have turned out different. It took me a LONG time to grow out of that.

  25. At 50 years old I still wonder if I failed or if the system failed me. Both I figure. How can you blame a third grader for their performance in school? They tested the crap out of me. In third grade I tested tenth grade vocabulary. Sixth grade my parents received two letters from school. One asking to put me in gifted class and another telling them I would have to repeat sixth grade. Throw in being teased mercilessly for being poor and benign neglect at home and it isn’t going to lead to a good outcome. I think teachers are people. Some are better than others. My second grade teacher was an evil bitch with tenure. One of my sixth grade teachers was a sweet heart with 25 other kids to teach. High school was an equally mixed bag. Major jock culture in the faculty. My tenth grade remedial English teacher was the wrestling coach. His solution was to expel me and send me to continuation school. My Mom wasn’t in favor of that and neither was I. More testing and they dumped me into special ed. Not the gifted special ed, the short bus special ed. With the exception of some history and ceramics I didn’t learn a thing the rest of my time in high school. They gave me a diploma anyway.
    So how does a teacher/system deal with a smart kid who is messed up? How do you judge the quality of a teacher? How do you get rid of the ones who shouldn’t be teachers? How do you keep the good ones from burning out? What do you do about the places where creationism is taken seriously?
    Trades are an under appreciated route but a college education is good thing no matter what you do for a living. Why should a plumber not have a four year degree? A mechanic? How much of what you learn in college directly applies to what you ended up doing for a living?
    How much of what you learn in college sticks? I have met a lot of college grads who were remarkably ignorant.
    I have rambled on too much and left out all the details of how I was a teachers nightmare. Calling me a willful little brat would be an understatement. Lazy and arrogant also come to mind. Despite all of this I still have a had a decent life. Glass blower for 5 years, I worked on the Aptera, a highly efficient EV that ended up just a prop on the Star Trek reboot movie. Now I am in aerospace and the customer that gives me my greatest pride is SpaceX. I’ve made parts that went on almost every Falcon9.
    I am still learning. My views are still changing. I started out very conservative, financial not social, and have moved pretty far left.
    TMI? I think maybe….

  26. Sorry. The point I tried to make was that this is a complex problem involving real people that will not be solved by simple solutions.

  27. I agree with @JohnC.Bunnell. We keep thinking of the “U.S. School system” as if it’s one big entity, but it’s not. A patchworked system is going to get patchworked results, especially when such a large chunk of funding is so often tied to local economies.

    Washington State is up against a State Supreme Court mandate to overhaul its unequal public school funding. Currently our legislature is being fined $100,000 PER DAY for not making headway on the issue, and still can’t manage to come together and solve this problem. They can’t even agree to start spreading what we do spend more evenly and efficiently.

    There’s no wise or fair reason for wealthier areas to get four times the money just because their tax base is higher; but there’s also no reason my poorer county should need to pay 16 different superintendents to oversee a student population 1/5 the size of Seattle’s. We need a compromise that tackles both those things: richer districts having to funnel a portion of their levies to the poorer districts, but the smaller, poorer districts forced to consolidate into larger districts.

    It’s true that we’ll never be able to fix the patchwork problem completely. But I would like to see us require a minimum district size to qualify for full state funding. Because access to quality education is not just a funding issue, it’s also a function of who ultimately sets the educational directives of the school. (I’m willing to bet that unlike here, the governing board of your elite school had at least one person with a college degree or advanced training in a STEM field.)

    If we were to consolidate districts even a little, it would water down the local agendas enough to allow for some of the progress we so desperately need. I mean, Texas is still gonna Texas, but there are plenty of areas where this would be a big step toward improving overall quality. Washington is especially well set for this because with the court order in play, everyone is looking for a way out that doesn’t raise taxes. Giving districts a choice, consolidate or raise taxes, might actually work.

  28. Rembrant: That’s pretty much my point, too — that, and the corollary that there is no single solution, because there are too many different and parallel systems in place, and ideas that may work well in Oregon could very well be disastrous if implemented in Illinois.

    One consideration often missed or overlooked is that what we mean by “universal public education” has changed dramatically over the past century. The “universal” component has expanded dramatically; we now accept (indeed, require) a vastly larger and more diverse pool of students to attend school than was the case before 1900 or even 1950. In my grandparents’ day — and even stretching into my parents’ — public education was often complete at age 16 or the end of eighth grade, because that was when you needed to go help Dad on the farm or in the family business, or to make your own way in the world. A host of skills we now teach to one degree or another in public school — balancing a bank account (aka “personal finance”), basic cooking and housekeeping (“home economics”), and fixing things around the house (“wood shop”, “auto shop”) — used to be things you learned at home from your parents. And you entered trades such as construction, plumbing, or a variety of skilled crafts via apprenticeship of one sort or another.

    On the flip side of this last, 19th and early to mid-20th century public school graduates — whether they were college-bound or not, and a lot of them weren’t — were taught and expected to be well grounded in classic Western literature, English grammar, American and (parts of) European history, a fair bit of practical science, and such practical skills as elocution (which is not quite the same as public speaking). Yes, this looks more than a little mono-cultural by today’s standards, but recall that the student population in those days was also a lot more mono-cultural.

    Today, our stated goals are to teach more curriculum to more students from more varied social and cultural backgrounds — many of whom wouldn’t have been offered free public schooling in prior generations — than at any time in US history. This is a laudable, worthwhile goal…but too many people really don’t realize the enormous scope of the challenge.

  29. It seems as though the point of the NYT article, and the linked study, have been missed. It wasn’t the funding of the school, but the social class of the school society, they were emphasizing. It was not primarily academic preparation, so much as preparation for the social rules of college that seemed to provide the advantage to the ‘privileged poor’ in the elite universities written about.

    I’m not sure I can explain why, but I think it’s a matter of – moving from a milieu where your priority has to be to help those in urgent need, or to aid others in a web of interdependence to build up credit so they help you when you’re in urgent need – to one where your priority is expected to be your own advancement, and that’s what you’re judged on and succeed by.

  30. Leafy: agreed; the article was about social class and its benefit to students. But if we’re talking about how to make that accessible to more students, you do have to talk about both funding and community leadership.

    You can absolutely create that “prioritize your own advancement” mentality within any school. For poorer communities that requires equal access to quality educational curriculum and faculty ($$) and school governance that is sufficiently autonomous/academic to withstand the local politics that would compromise its educational goals.

  31. Looking back, I wonder if high school didn’t try to cram too many subjects into the day. Did we really need that fourth year of English class? Gym? Language?

  32. I feel like in some ways I got lucky with my education and in other I got let down. It’s a big factor into why I homeschool my daughter. I went to an art focused high school and I felt like the entire goal of the art program was just focused on getting us to pass the AP test and to create a portfolio that would get us into college. There was no focus on what to do when you get there or how to pay for it. I still think it would have benefited us all greatly to have at least one class period where they took time to teach us how to price our artwork, approach a gallery or submit work to anywhere.
    I also felt that the guidance counselor office was a huge let down too, because they would tell you “ask your guidance counselor for help finding scholarships.” When you did though you got handed 2 sheets of paper stapled together that had instructions for making an account on Fastweb.
    Of course being able to homeschool is also a privileged situation, and I acknowledge that too.

  33. Agreeing in re: that schools/parents/society at large need to give more respect to trade schools/apprenticeships and the associated careers. (My mom–who was a college counselor at a couple prep schools–talked a lot about this.)

    That said, college, and boarding school in my case, serve a couple of useful social purposes: they often get you away from your parents, away from your hometown, and exposed to new people and ideas. Lots of people use that transition as a way to reinvent themselves to good purpose; many LGBT kids with repressive parents find supportive communities and the ability to come out at college or boarding school; many of the rest of us just learn how to take care of ourselves and that our folks aren’t always right and don’t always have to know.

    *That* said, student loans until you’re fifty are a high price to pay for that kind of experience, when it doesn’t translate into the kind of job you want, and while those skills are useful in life, they’re not necessary for all jobs.

    @John C. Bunnell: Never learned any of those in school, actually. I don’t know if that’s a facet of the schools I went to or the time when I went to them (late 90s), but none of mine ever offered home ec/shop/personal finance/etc. (I learned to cook by trial and error, basically, and likewise personal finance, but my approach to fixing anything is still “Step 1: Put a bucket under it. Step 2: Call the super,” and it works well for me.) I wish they had, and I think students would benefit more from courses in typing and checking fucking Snopes occasionally than they do from Hawthorne or trig. (Also, exercise is great, learning about varying kinds of exercise is great, but volleyball is not a life skill, so I’m with Dana on PE, at least as it’s taught in many places.)

  34. I hear ya, Rembrant. 50-something here as well and still wondering if I failed the system, did the system fail me, or was it a little of both? I know now that 18 year old kid wasn’t prepared for college. I made a lot of bad life decisions back then too when given free rein of my life. One can analyze this to death, such as how much of it was biological(ADHD et al), how much social, etc. etc.. A complex problem that is likely systemic as well as unique for each individual. Of course, one should not consign it to the Ineffable Trash Bin of Society with the Nuance stamp. Solving the problem falls to the very real: find the variables that compose the actual problem equation, find the constants that define the situation and solve for x. Then again, I think we have a good idea how to improve upon the situation, if not solve it, but lack the ‘infrastructure’ and collective will to see it through.

    We are into the third or fourth day of the teacher’s strike here in Seattle with a large segment of parents supporting the teachers. A start?

  35. Considering the prevalence of monolingualism among Americans who aren’t either immigrants or children of immigrants themselves, I should bloody well think Languages is necessary for high school students. Many high schools don’t even require beyond two years of foreign language study. To propose cutting that even further is unbelievable.

  36. This makes me think of the differences between myself, my best (non-wife) college friend and my wife. We all met in college. I attended a public school in a very well-off town. It was a very good school. My wife attended an elite private prep school (and received serious financial aid). My friend attended an excellent NYC catholic prep school. In terms of class growing up, it went Friend (lower-middle class?), Wife (middle class), Me (upper middle).

    Most prepared for undergraduate work: my wife. This is partly because she is awesome. But it’s also because her prep school pushed her hard for four years. She was a math/tech type who could write just as well as a liberal arts type. She showed up in one of our History classes and kicked our asses (turns out that if you’re smart, capable *and* you work hard, you do well. Amazing, that). The professor tried to talk her into majoring in History.

    Next: my friend. But he did the somewhat typical nearly screw it up freshman year because Beer! But he rallied and by the end he was clearly going to grad school. Later, he got his PhD and is a professor at an excellent university. In his graduate work, his HS education showed it’s worth: he’d had latin, and that was really helpful in studying medieval Europe.

    Next: me, not that I was ill-prepared. I actually started off well, because my habits were solid. Beer! wasn’t a factor at first. But my worst habits (beer being secondary to coasting/bullshitting instead of seriously engaging with the material) dragged down my performance and though I graduated with a perfectly respectable GPA, I think I got the least out of college of the three of us. The fact is that by senior year of high school, I was bored and done. I was so ready to get out of there. If I’d have been at either of their high schools, I’d have been challenged right the way through. I have a lazy streak, and if I can coast, I’ll coast. If you push me, I respond. Not a “self-starter” sadly.

    I don’t know what this all means for the US education system, really. We’re a really big country, with major divisions along geographical, class and racial lines. While I think there are many good ideas put forth in this thread, I also tend to think we ask entirely too much of our schools/teachers. They can’t fix all the things in our society that are broken (deliberately so, in some cases), but we basically demand that they do so.

  37. @Dana: I wonder if high school didn’t try to cram too many subjects into the day.

    I don’t know if the typical American high school day is too crowded, but if I were king I’d have a few different things taught. At the top of the list would be something along the lines of practical reasoning and decision making: how to evaluate an argument; how to make a case for some outcome; the basics of logical reasoning; how to think about probability; how to interpret statistics and graphical presentations; and so forth.

  38. One of the rare things we do really well in Oklahoma is our Career Tech system, which does indeed prepare students for trades, and also for some health care jobs. People come from all over the world to take a look at it.

    Now if we could just get the governor to accept the Obamacare Medicaid expansion…

    Also I get the frustration with the patchwork that is US education, but for people who think local control is the best thing ever, it’s a feature and not a bug.

    I teach English at a two-year college that focuses on high-tech trades, and it seems to be, in some ways, the best of both worlds that some of the commenters are hoping for.

    (I added my middle name — another Dana has cropped up here! *waves*)

  39. sojournerstrange: I agree in principle, but I personally have always found it basically impossible to learn languages (and believe me, I’ve tried). I went to an extremely selective public high school (this was not in the US BTW) that actually gave you your rank out of your entire year (in hindsight, something I think is a terrible idea). Of a class of 178, I came first in music (we did a lot of exams for music transcription and the like) and 178 out of 178 in foreign language. I dropped it as soon as I could.

    Which has always made me very aware of a privilege I have that no one ever brings up: White privilege I get, male privilege, etc. But I’m also acutely aware that I have Anglo privilege. I can go almost anywhere in the world at this point and find someone who speaks some English. If I’d grown up speaking Basque or Hungarian of Karen or some other weird language almost no one speaks, I’d be screwed.

  40. @Rob in CT: On the flip side of that, though, I and many of my friends who went to prep school were, by senior year, not so much bored and out of there as burnt out and out of there. For myself, and one of my friends agreed verbatim with the sentiment, I’d put in my four years of work to get into a good college, now I was *in* a good college, and fuck doing any more work than I actually had to.*

    Now, arguably because prep school had done its job giving me the proper tools, I was able to coast along quite well and emerge with a respectable GPA. And I don’t actually feel bad about the coasting in most situations–what I got out of college was a diploma that would open doors, a bunch of good friends, and four years of socializing and making contacts, and I probably wouldn’t ask for more–but I was definitely less engaged than a lot of people.

    *I’m also a classic minimalist. Unless I really like doing something or it’s for a good cause, I’ll put in exactly as much effort as I need to and resent any attempt to get an atom more out of me. (I was going to add “unless my performance is directly tied to getting paid or laid”, but no, pretty minimalist there too–I just calibrate for a higher goal.)

  41. Clearly, better academic preparation is going to help with college. The under-appreciated aspect is that even more so, cultural values help with success in college and success afterward (or hinder). And immersion in the culture that helps with success, at high school age, can often transfer that help. It makes sense: teens are developmentally ready to begin to reject the values of their parents in favor of the values of their peers. If they are then dropped into a culture where they can pick up values of the upper class or upper middle class, they will be acculturated to those values.

    But this poses a question for us to consider at a higher level: Is this really a good thing? Does requiring people to focus on their own success primarily, and only secondarily on helping others in need, in order to be successful, help people overall improve? Can it even conceivably scale? Or does it help a minority of individuals who can be given this advantage, but then fail to help others? Possibly by continually pulling a few individuals up the class ladder it can promote more of the culture of their childhood to take root in the self-interested culture, where they then want to help those who didn’t have the good fortune they did; but also possibly that effect will be drowned out. Maybe it would be better for colleges to be less focused on rewarding those who are out for their own advancement, and more on those who are there for their community in need. Then again maybe that’s just not achievable.

    I feel a lot of this personally. I come from a middle class background (going up and down from upper-middle to lower-middle and back to upper-middle as my mother got divorced and then remarried) and always had the cultural training to look out for myself first. My husband, though, grew up in a poor family and I saw first hand how his relatives spend all their money, then ask the ones who make more / know more about finance to lend them some, never pay it back, etc. There is always someone in his family of eight siblings, most with children, one with already fourteen grandchildren, who needs help, needs money, is going to be kicked out of their home, is going to have their power or water turned off, who can’t afford medicine, who can’t pay their debt, or didn’t realize they were eligible for EIC on their taxes, or went to a payday lender and racked up a several thousand dollar repayment on a loan of a few hundred. He copes by basically telling them to ask me and I cope by refusing to loan them any money, instead I give them a gift of on average ten percent of what they asked for as a loan, ‘this is all I can afford.’ I prioritize our retirement savings over their needs. I prioritize my kids’ braces over their emergency room bills. But I’m not sure this is actually better for our society as a whole.

  42. I went to a shitty rural high school that did not even offer any AP classes. Took algebra from the football coach and Spanish from a woman who spoke no Spanish. Went to college my senior year, on early admission, and the high school forgot I was technically still enrolled. Received no counseling to speak of … if a person did well enough on the SAT it was assumed they would go to college, and if the person was female it was assumed she would major in the humanities, and become either a teacher or a Mrs.

    Well, I did major in the humanities, and then I went to grad school, and then I got a good job, and I’ve done fine. I think one problem with education in the U.S. is inequality and waste in funding, another is overreliance on and misapplication of standardized testing, but the biggest is our cultural dissonance between the myth of meritocracy and the popular hatred of the “intellectual elite.”

    The truth is, our society spends more on professional sports than it spends on education, and no amount of political theorizing will fix that.

  43. @Whomever: I get that, and in fact non-English second-language education should be happening *much* earlier than high school to be really effective (rather than just something kids slog through for x years and then promptly forget). As a linguist I also question the accuracy and effectiveness of a lot of language teaching, whether that’s second-language acquisition or first-language toolkit refinement.

    But you don’t see people proposing that math ought to be dropped or reduced from high school curricula just because some kids are — innately or otherwise — bad at math and hate it and would find it more personally productive to learn other things.

  44. 19th and early to mid-20th century public school graduates — whether they were college-bound or not, and a lot of them weren’t — were taught and expected to be well grounded in classic Western literature, English grammar, American and (parts of) European history, a fair bit of practical science, and such practical skills as elocution (which is not quite the same as public speaking).

    We imagine that to be the case. The reality was quite a bit different. When the NY Times surveyed 7000 college freshmen in *1943* a fair number of them put St. Louis on the Atlantic Ocean, Portland on the Mississippi, and didn’t know who Lincoln, Jefferson, Roosevelt, Jackson, and Hamilton were. That’s a little bit later than your dates but I can pull up a 1917 piece that complains how little high school students knew then.

    Basically, the US is always panicky about its education system, always has been panicky about its education system, and likely always will be panicky about its education system. The actual state of the education system is usually entirely independent of the panic.

    (I think you need an account to see this)

  45. I arrived at the University of Chicago a couple of years after John, from a middle class background with a public education I’d rank as “decent,” on a full honors scholarship that gave me some confidence that yes, I really belonged there and holy crap, I really struggled my first quarter. I almost transferred back to the state school where most of my friends had gone.The kids from the elite high schools were kicking my butt academically without breaking a sweat, and I didn’t understand the new world I was in all that well. I felt lost.

    A few random chance things combined to get me the help I needed adjusting and the leveling up in study skills I needed to make me succeed academically, and I stayed, and even thrived. I credit my college experience with setting me on the path that has made me financially comfortable and really quite happy with my life. (Note: I think I *could* have gotten on this path if I’d transferred back to the state school- I know people who did! But I’m not sure *I* would have.)

    My college experience made me very aware of how unequal our schooling system is, and what strong consequences that can have. Sending my own kids to school has given me more insight into how that inequality happens, even when the parents involved have no explicit ill intentions. I live in San Diego. Our schools are in a citywide district (although there are suburbs with supposedly better schools and that makes homes in the Del Mar or Poway districts more expensive). Funding is theoretically “the same” across the entire San Diego district… but that doesn’t take into account the PTAs. My kids are in a public magnet school that is near our house. Because it is a magnet school, it pulls a diverse group of kids, both racially and economically. This means that it is a title 1 school, but that there are enough wealthier families that our PTA does fairly well raising money and we have an art program, science night, and things like that because of it. We have friends that live in the areas for some of the “better” public schools. They get letters from their PTA asking for recommended donations of $500-$1000 per kid, and they say the social pressure to make the recommended donation is intense. When I donate something similar, I get a phone call from the PTA president checking to make sure I didn’t make a mistake and add an extra zero.

    Imagine what the other title 1 schools in my district get, the ones that aren’t magnets and so don’t have the economic diversity our school has.

    So even when you share the official funds out equally, parents will donate to their own schools, and you’ll still have inequality in funding, which will translate into inequality in educational experiences. Watching all of this play out has made me increasingly cynical about people lamenting inequality in this country. When push comes to shove, a lot of people don’t WANT equal education. They want the best for their kids, and the other kids get lip service, if that. I’m not sure I can even say I’m any different. We try to match our donation to our own school with a donation that will go to help the less wealthy schools in our district, but when we have to cut back, it is that second donation that gets smaller. I’m starting to think the only fair thing would be to say you can only donate to the district fund, not directly to your school. But I can imagine the outrage that would cause, so I don’t think it would ever happen.

  46. The talk of trade school paths worries me, if not outright frightens. The key question is ‘who decides’?

    The parents? Congratulations, you’ve given them another way to railroad their kid.

    Some undefined authority? I suspect it’ll end up as one other commenter above put it, the people going into the trade school paths will be subject to the biases and prejudices of the deciders.

    The kids? I can only speak for myself… but what I planned on studying when I went in bore no relationship to the degree I ended up getting, and my early job history didn’t track with either one of them. (Planned on getting a CompSci degree to be a programmer, actually got my degree in journalism, and ended up working as a computer graphics person for a screenprinting shop – at least that was based on experience in working on the student newspaper.) My takeaway here is that you need the broader experience to decide what you’re good at and what you’re interested in doing – and getting tracked into a ‘trade school’ path denies you that experience.

  47. Well, I at least am not saying that people should be tracked, but that a) jobs that really don’t need four-year liberal arts degrees shouldn’t require them, and b) society and parents shouldn’t be looking down on those jobs. From my background (prep school, prep school teachers for parents, college) I saw many kids who would’ve been perfectly happy going to State U and/or learning how to refit sinks, whose parents couldn’t see anything other than Ivy League, Medical Degree, and whose lives were pretty wretched as a result. (One of my high school friends was the only sixteen-year-old I’ve ever heard of with a bleeding ulcer.)

    And while I agree that aspirations and interests and so forth change, at the same time, pressuring kids to do things they don’t want to do because maybe they’ll change their mind later…enh. I’m not thrilled with it as a parenting technique when it only means a season of wasted nights at Little League, or as an in loco parentis distribution requirement *at* college when it means a couple terms getting a C in Rocks for Jocks*; when it means a four-year time commitment and thirty years of debt, I’m thinking either we can trust eighteen-year-olds to make adult decisions *or* we shouldn’t be shoving them toward a huge financial burden.

    (Countries that have free four-year degrees are different, and awesome, and I think we should do that. But until we do…)

    *Picked my college specifically because they didn’t have that bullshit–my only requirements came from my major, and frankly the 8 AM modern novel section was quiiiite enough pain. When I wanted to learn interesting random stuff, I did take the geology gut course, and enjoyed it/learned more than I would have if I’d been made to do it.

  48. @Leafy: Chronically unlucky relatives are my favorite argument for a minimum income (and single-payer health care).

  49. Travis Butler

    Talking about trade schools, I’d go with what the kids want. That’s most likely to set up a good match. Sure, some kids will figure out being a plumber isn’t for them. So, let’s create paths out of the trades. How about one or two year community college tracks to retrain these people, with the focus on keeping it affordable? Don’t like being a plumber? How about spending a year learning how to be an MRI tech, with a starting salary of 60K? That ain’t bad at all. Especially because neither learning how to be a plumber nor how to run an MRI machine will saddle students with an insane debt load like 4 year schools can.

    As for high school, at least when I was there (mid 90s), your ability to read was the most important skill to have. It would be nice if everyone was a great reader, but it’s not realistic. Some people learn by listening, talking, or doing.

    High schools should track kids by how they learn – by reading, listening, talking, or doing. I am not saying that kids be taught in only one mode, but we should give more weight to evaluations performed in a manner congruent with a student’s preferred learning style. And, we should give kids specific strategies to manage their learning style weaknesses.

    Also, I echo some of the thoughts upstream about basic skills every kid needs. There is nothing wrong prioritizing basic skills over foreign language or the arts. Sure, I’d like both in all schools, but not all kids have the time or ability in high school. It’s OK that some of those experiences happen later. But things like – Can I construct a personal budget? Can I evaluate the basic logic of an argument? Am I able to identify and understand basic science principles (like gravity)? Do I understand and can I express my personal strengths and weaknesses? These are all general things that need to happen in high school. You want to go down the academic rabbit hole and learn about Jacobin France in AP European History junior year, that’s great, but you shouldn’t be doing that in place of having the skills to be a functioning adult after high school.

  50. I’m a math instructor, curriculum developer, and I’ve recently started working on continuing education for teachers and let me second everything you’ve said.

    The more you are involved with students at the college level (whether they are in the remedial courses or calculus), the more frustrated you become with the systemic abuse of their education in the pre-post-secondary levels. When trying to fix the issue of education in America, it becomes even more difficult because everything you do to address one facet of the problem is expected to improve everything across the board, when in reality, you are just doing your best to bail water from a leaky boat.

    Every once in a while, you try to plug a hole, but then the people doing the plugging are criticized because water is still coming in, and sometimes the water is so deep you can’t tell whether your plug even worked. Not to mention, it takes about 12-16 years for you to really be able to tell if you’re making a difference or not (products of the new system have to become new producers before we can make a definitive judgement; i.e. students taught the new way have to become new teachers).

    It’s incredibly frustrating and daunting.

  51. Foreign language is not an “extra”. We live in a multilingual world. More than 10% of the US population alone speaks Spanish. Granted, if you’re requiring kids take Attic Greek or something, there’s some unusual prioritization going on there, but something like Spanish or Chinese IS a basic skill. It’s just that Americans are so entrenched in their English Is All mentality that they can’t seem to get their heads around it.

  52. I know funding is a popular hobby horse to beat, but it’s really a red herring. Above a certain point, there is no correlation between funding schools and academic success. That is to say, you can not buy academic success, but you can absolutely impoverish a school to failure.

    Student success correlates to one thing from a finance standpoint, though. It’s not if the school is well funded, it is if the parents are well funded. That is, a generally well off middle class kid will do well even if you put him in a crappy school, and poorer kids tend to track below their well off counterparts regardless of their academic environment as well. American schools are generally as competitive as any in the world, right up until the kids hit puberty. That is when they fall off the map. Well off kids generally see the value in an education and therefore pursue it. That’s what they learned by watching mom and dad.

    All of that leads to the conclusion that the problem isn’t financial, it’s cultural. There are large segments of society, both urban and rural, that lionize stupidity as “street smarts” or “common sense.” Being well educated is looked at as “elitist” and denigrated. No amount of money can fix that.

  53. sojournerstrange

    Foreign language is an extra, if you are dealing with the reality of prioritizing how to help kids who lack other ,more fundamental skills. Like it or not, English is the default language used by the world.

    An entirely separate question is whether or not learning a language is worthwhile for other reasons.

  54. Fundamental skills like comprehending the physics of gravitation? Which, of course, will be of such urgent use to the average non-scientist/non-engineer going about their daily business, as opposed to being able to communicate with one’s customers or neighbors?

  55. You want to go down the academic rabbit hole and learn about Jacobin France in AP European History junior year

    You’re right, because learning about a fractured political system that gave rise to massive protest movements eventually leading to a reactionary crackdown is SO inapplicable to anything *at all* going on now.

  56. I think more than a few people have really hit the nail on the head with their comments about school districting, at least from my personal experience. Too many communities are unwilling to regionalize their school with other, nearby communities, and most of the time the problem comes down to the need of a community to relinquish some degree of local control over the education of their children.

    I was raised in a disproportionately poor town. We’re small to start off with (about 1800 people over somewhere between 400 and 500 households), but we’re in worse financial situations than many towns our size, because about 48% of the town’s land mass is non-taxable: the vast majority of it being owned by a non-profit organization. In a state where the majority of school funding is raised by property taxes, that creates a huge burden on the community where funding is concerned, even if the community doesn’t actually have a large need for the schools (we average 150-180 kids in our K-6 school at a time, and a similar number at the regional high school).

    The town was required to join a regional school district almost 80 years ago, because the state determined that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to fund a k-12 education… the cost of doing so would have, under the most generous predictions, have rendered the town insolvent in short order. It was not a particularly easy pill for the townspeople to swallow at the time, but a neighboring towns was told the same thing, so at least we had company. Even together, we couldn’t have provided k-12 education, so we ended up partnering with three other communities which were going to do it anyways.

    Of consequence, while we might grumble about only having one representative on the high school board (each town remains solely responsible for k-6, and so we totally control our own board there), and being unable to exert much influence on the curriculum, our students receive an exceptionally high quality high school education. Having a wide variety of views on the high-school board has resulted in advocacy for different areas of education by each group, which has just made a stronger education for the students over all, while avoiding the incessant feuds and bickering that plague the k-6 school board made up of just townies.

    Even leaving aside the problem of an insular group making a decision that is going to affect kids who haven’t even been conceived yet, the difference in having to adjust to dealing with a larger peer group size and needing to socialize with people who you haven’t known since you were a child, has a huge impact on how successful the students from both schools who do go on to college find themselves to be.

  57. Starting with my elementary school principal telling us of meeting a college graduate who didn’t know there was a country called Canada, that was to the north and bigger than the U.S. (the grad answered my principal’s wife by saying, “Is that so, Madam?) I have heard as many incredulous-sounding stories of innocent Americans as stories of Ugly American, but still, reading this list of comments makes me really want to go into disbelief. It’s just—wow.

    Now that I have a passport I can cross the largest undefended border in the world and see for myself. So I will. A passport? Yes, despite the efforts of border state congressman, thanks to Homeland Security you now need a passport to cross in either direction. And talk of lack of skills in basic something or other— When the head of HomeSec, holding down a grave responsible position, publicly said that some of the 9/ll guys had crossed into the U.S. from Canada, none of the responsible citizens asked her to resign. If she can make a mistake that big, and get away with it, then yes, passports and other mistakes will be made too. (It could be worse: her peers disbanded the Iraqi army)

    For those who learn by talking or listening as much as by reading (I myself am an oral learner) I would urge you to talk with Canadians to increase your perspective.

  58. @Isabel: No argument about requiring liberal arts degrees for jobs that don’t need them, or society looking down on those jobs. My argument is, simply: how the *hell* are kids gonna know that’s what they want to do – or, more to the point, that there isn’t something else that they’d enjoy more – without the chance to at least sample various interests and potential careers?

    I was a hobbyist programmer in high school, and I went into college determined that I was going to become a professional. Then after taking my first serious 300-level courses, I found out that getting good enough to be professional-level would (for me, at least) require a total commitment – giving up everything else I was interested in to focus on programming. And I wasn’t willing to do that. (Later on, well…) At the same time, my exposure to writing – once I escaped the pain of my illegible handwriting through word processors – showed me that I had some talent for it and actually enjoyed it. Something I’d never considered before, and that turned into a journalism degree.

    My ideal, pie-in-the-sky secondary education curriculum would involve a pretty thorough grounding in tools for learning and tools for practical survival. It would involve a certain amount of ‘survey course’ requirements to give a basic exposure to at least the major disciplines. But then… it would devote a substantial time to electives. *True* electives that give kids a chance to sample areas of interest, not the kind of electives-in-name-only that make up various college prep tracks. So that when it comes time to focus on career paths, kids can make informed decisions.

    I got a somewhat… odd view of the Metro Nashville Public Schools, in the year and a half I worked for their inventory department, seeing some of the things the various schools had. One high school had a cosmetology program, with barber’s chairs and a storage room housing hundreds of wigs. Another had a full automotive program, with capital equipment that couldn’t be moved like those large hydraulic lifts. And of course, being Nashville, several schools had extensive music programs. I never saw them in use, so I don’t know how well the various programs worked, but it certainly looked impressive.

  59. @Travis: In general, I agree–and in general, I feel like high school might be better served by width than breadth, with people deciding where to specialize in either later high school or post-secondary ed*–so I think it’s mostly the question of college, or at least the US-system of hideously-for-profit colleges and diploma inflation, where we disagree.

    I mean, on a more general philosophical level, at some point we all decide what to do with our lives, and that closes off many other opportunities, and everyone has to make that decision without sampling a lot of the possibilities that might arise. Where that point should be in terms of careers, and how many of those possibilities are practical to sample beforehand, is…a complicated question, and more so when we’re dealing with the US and its…ideological approach to both funding and curriculum.

    * Like, everyone needs the basics of reading and writing, plus the fundamentals of math and science. I’d also argue for typing, critical thinking, and taking care of yourself/locating and using available resources, exercise and nutrition, sex ed, and exposure to art and music. I would say it’s more important after that to sample various possible skill sets: people who want to learn about trig, electrical engineering, or Chaucer should be able to, but not everyone needs to know that.

    All of that said, I’m not any kind of education expert. I know that helicopter parents are bad, nobody should ever make students read their projects aloud and certainly not in college classes**, and if you take notes assiduously and say things confidently, the TA will assume you’ve done any of the reading. That’s my expertise. ;)

    **Oh my God, wide-eyed freshman feminists and the intersection of The Odyssey and Ulysses, I damn near gnawed my own leg off.

  60. We imagine that to be the case. The reality was quite a bit different.

    David: You’re right that the NYT article you cite is behind a paywall. But that’s not especially relevant, because you (and it) are responding to a claim I didn’t make. What I did was to describe a curriculum — which I can do with some confidence, at least on an anecdotal level, as I have public school teachers on both sides of my family running at least three generations back. I did not claim that students in those 1890s to 1940s classrooms were qualitatively better achievers as a group than students today. There have always been and always will be good students and mediocre or poor ones, quick learners and those for whom school is difficult.

    The interesting thing about that curriculum (and the schools in which it was taught) is that while it looks like one to us, educators back then did not consider it a “college prep” program. Those were the lessons taught to farm boys and society girls, to grocers’ daughters and lawyers’ sons — whether they went into their parents’ trades, found apprenticeships in others, enrolled in college, married into wealth, or drifted into poverty.

    Public schools have (not unreasonably, in many cases) added a great deal to that curriculum over the last several decades, and — of necessity — trimmed off parts of it in order to make room for the additions. But that process has been remarkably haphazard, highly politicized, and most often specific rather than holistic. That is, there has been very little opportunity for anyone to step back and carefully design a balanced, comprehensive K-12 curriculum which would leave the successful student well-prepared to become a productive citizen of their community.

    Of course, even if such an ideal 21st-century curriculum existed — and it would be a real challenge to develop one for today’s diverse student population — it would be difficult to impossible to see it implemented fully and consistently in school districts across the nation (see “thousands of jurisdictions” comment upstream). But I’d encourage anyone with thoughts of “there should be more X” taught in public school classrooms to consider their proposals in light of the full academic alphabet.

  61. @Duncan: Don’t be skeptical about increased need for remedial courses–the need is real, and it has been for at least the 40-some years I’ve been in and around the university. I designed and taught a “basic skills” remedial-writing course in 1976, for a program aimed at incoming students who were acknowledged to be underprepared. About the same time, my wife taught in a program intended to move minority students into pre-med. Both were part of the university’s effort to reach out to what they saw as underserved populations. (I don’t know how many of my students made it past freshman year–neither performance nor degree of cooperation made me hopeful.)

    Since then, we have seen universities dip ever deeper into the pool of college-age prospects, anxious to keep up their numbers (which, for most state schools, provide the basis for funding). When you attempt to increase the size of your freshman classes from a fixed pool of candidates, entry standards are going to change, and less-prepared students (and don’t kid yourself, they are often not well prepared) will lead to some combination of higher drop/fail rates, lowered standards, and remedial offerings. Of these, the last is seen as the least-bad option, though it is not guaranteed to make up for deficiencies of the K-12 system or the social and economic conditions that discourage or minimize academic achievement.

    About the public-school environment in general: Reading the posts here make me suspect that I’m on the other side of some kind of demographic/historical/sociopolitical divide. The small-town central-school system that I graduated from in 1962 was progressive, well-funded, and (within the limits of American culture of the time) minimally class-bound. Plenty of blue-collar and farm kids went to college (thanks to New York State’s excellent public university system and the Regents Scholarship program), and the majority of my non-college-bound classmates managed to have pretty good lives.

    On our fiftieth class-reunion website, the happy-ending stories covered the full range of academic tracks. Of course, we occupied a fortunate place in history and geography: placid, small-town/rural central New York in the prosperous decades between WW2 and Vietnam. But I think that the school system got a lot of things right.

  62. American schools would be much better if they weren’t run by and for the benefit of teacher’s unions, a/k/a Dem/Prog shock troops. School choice the only route to meaningful reform.

  63. @ sojournerstrange

    You are obviously passionate about language, being a linguist. And I agree that foreign language skills can be beneficial. But not for many Americans, in high school. Their time would be better spent on other subjects. Don’t completely cut foreign language study. Make it purely elective. I took six years of French in middle and high school (two being required). Looking back, I am sure my time would have been better spent in other classes. I know many people who have expressed a similar sentiment. And yes, understanding gravity, or the related frictional force, within the context of real world problems like – How can I best move furniture? – is more useful than years of French for a person who will never or almost never encounter a French speaker at their job.

    High school doesn’t need to be the place where kids are required to specialize like that. You know why I chose French? Because my brother and dad studied it. I didn’t think about what I might actually use at work, or even what I might like. None of my teachers even talked about that with me. We had to complete two years, and our options were French, Spanish, and (if there was space and a foreign teacher) maybe German or Japanese. I continued French because I wanted to earn college credit and make college cheaper for me. I regret that choice.

    @ DAVID

    LOL. You make a fair point about my example, but the wider context of my criticism is – many kids would benefit more from a class on US civics that taught them how to vote and be engaged in the local political process, than a history class examining a specialized period very distant in time and geography. High school is the place for the focus to be more local, especially when so many American high school graduates lack basic skills like knowing how to register to vote.

    I hear story after story from colleagues and recent high school grads, about wasted time and boring classes in high school. Let’s see life skills get mastered, and a few electives pursued during junior or senior year. STEM type courses should be taught within the context of everyday problems. We need more comprehensive and mandatory sex-ed. Focus high school curriculum, and increase the availability of post-high school schooling.

  64. As someone who has copyedited college textbooks for over 35 years, I concur with Russell Letson about the level of knowledge of current college students and the need for remedial courses. It’s been depressing to experience the dumbing-down of written English in college texts and the amount of remedial math that is called for in introductory algebra textbooks, even in comparison to 10 or 20 years ago.

    Todd Stull, I disagree about language in high school. The human brain learns language best at younger ages, and high school is already a bit late for that. I think elementary school kids should be taught a language that isn’t the one they speak at home (and in practice, that does happen a lot because so many kids in the United States now come from homes where English isn’t the first language). It’s not so much that French itself (or another language) is of practical use for high school students–though Spanish is increasingly so in the United States–but that training the brain to learn a new language is good for wiring the brain to learn language and other things. I took French and Latin in high school (because I wasn’t allowed to take French and Spanish), and though I don’t use either of those languages (or, for that matter, the Russian and Polish I learned in college), the learning process itself was valuable. The grounding in Latin in particular was useful for understanding English. I agree about civics in high school, but I don’t think everything being taught should be of immediate practical value. Learning how to learn is also important, and some of those skills don’t have immediate payoffs.

  65. Just a quick note to very strongly endorse BW’s post just above. Second-language acquisition seems to be easiest in the years sometime after 6 or 7, and Latin is a very strong aid in understanding English vocabulary and even grammar (despite its dissimilarities with English grammar). And much of what I learned in high school and college had little immediate, practical applicability (four years of philosophy and theology, for example), but I find myself using the habits of mind developed in those courses–and often, surprisingly, the specific content. (Of course, not everyone cares to argue theological matters with evangelicals and Biblical literalists.) And my rather specialized doctoral work in literature taught me a lot about research and writing, so that when I lost my teaching gig, the transition to biz-and-tech journalism was practically effortless. (The money still sucked, but I was good at the work.)

    Now I gotta run off to sit in with the university jazz-ensemble class–lifelong learning, eh?

  66. I grew up poor, in a poor small town. Our school did not have many options. I was not well prepared for college. But that had less to do with school and more to do with other issues. The bank foreclosed on us while I was growing up. Having that hang over your head for years warps the family dynamic in a very, very bad way. I was just trying to survive. I went to college, did OK for a semester or two, and then did horrible for a semester or two, and then got it back together and eventually graduated. My first job with zero experience was making more than either of my parents who had been working for many years.

    I am a big advocate for free college for everyone. And a big advocate for better high school. And I think anyone who says we can’t afford it, might as well say we can’t afford to plant seeds for next year’s crops, let’s just eat what we have till it runs out.

    I don’t have a problem with trade school, but I think a lot of people pushing trade school are people who think college is about getting a degree in underwater basket weaving. And that’s as dumb as the “we can’t afford it” group.

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