One big idea animates virtually all of today’s earnest education reformers: the conviction that great schools can spur social mobility. Voucher supporters, charter advocates, standards nuts, teacher-effectiveness fanatics—we all fundamentally believe that fantastic schools staffed by dedicated educators can help poor kids climb out of poverty and compete with their affluent peers. And then Charles Murray comes along and throws cold water all over the idea.
Can fantastic schools staffed by dedicated educators actually help poor kids climb out of poverty and compete with their affluent peers?
This was my reaction last month when Murray visited the Fordham Institute to talk about his latest book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Among his many interesting and provocative comments about the rise of a “new upper class”—one inhabited by the winners of America’s meritocracy—he made this rather disturbing statement: “The better the meritocracy, the faster social mobility will decline.” Checker Finn, our president and moderator, did a double-take. “Say it again?” So Murray did. “The better the meritocracy, the more efficiently you identify and reward talent, the faster that social mobility will decline over time.”
As it turns out, this wasn’t the first time Murray has made that argument. An earlier version can be found in his controversial book, The Bell Curve, written with Richard Hernnstein, and then restated in a 2010 Washington Post op-ed:
The more efficiently a society identifies the most able
President Obama’s remarks on inequality, stoking populist anger at “the rich,” suggest that the theme for his reelection bid will be not hope and change but focus on reducing class disparity with government help. But this effort isn’t limited to economics; it is playing out in our nation’s schools as well.
The issue is whether federal education efforts will compromise opportunities for our highest-achieving students. One might assume that a president determined to “win the future” would make a priority of ensuring that our ablest kids have the chance to excel.
To Obama, however, as for President George W. Bush, such concerns are a distraction at best. Last year the Education Department’s civil rights division announced that it would investigate local school policies that have a “disparate impact” on poor or minority students — signaling a willingness to go to court if department officials think that school systems have too few of such children in gifted programs or Advanced Placement courses. This bit of social engineering ignores the unseemly reality that advantaged children are statistically more likely to be ready to succeed in tough classes than are low-income children raised in households with fewer books and more television.
The result is a well-intended but misguided crusade to solve via administrative fiat the United States’ long-standing achievement gap: the dramatic differences in
Last week, the Departments of Education and Justice released new guidance for school districts and institutions of higher education on constitutionally-sound ways to encourage racial diversity and avoid racial isolation. As I’ve written before, I’m a fan of well-conceived efforts (like “controlled choice” a la Kahlenberg) to promote school integration, and I think Washington, D.C. is sorely in need of such an approach. (That’s what D.C. parents should be fighting for–not an end to school choice.)
Furthermore, on “local flexibility” grounds, I’m willing to give school districts some leeway if they want to make school integration a high priority.
That said, the guidance for elementary and secondary education includes some odious and potentially damaging suggestions for America’s 150-odd academically-selective public high schools–including powerhouses like New York’s Stuyvesant and Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson:
Some school districts have schools or programs to which students apply and are selected through a competitive admissions process. School districts seeking to achieve diversity or avoid racial isolation may develop admissions procedures for competitive schools or programs to further those interests.
Example 1: A school district could identify race-neutral criteria for admission to a school (e.g., minimum academic qualifications and talent in art) and then conduct a lottery for all qualified applicants rather than selecting only those students with the highest scores under the admission criteria, if doing so would help to achieve racial diversity or avoid racial isolation.
Example 2: For students who meet the basic
As part of the release of our new study, Do High Flyers Maintain Their Performance: Performance Trends of Top Students, we are hosting a forum for experts to respond to its findings. Today's guest is ASCD's Jessica Hockett .
This report attempts to answer the critical and largely-neglected question of how high-performing students are faring in the NCLB-era classroom. The findings speak to the messy and inconvenient reality that individual students' abilities are not fixed, nor their development predictable. For better and worse, changes in a learner's academic achievement occur both?because and in spite of what and how he or she is taught.
Systematic reform efforts of the past two decades have fallen far short of encouraging teachers to expect the best from and provide high-end challenge for learners across the academic spectrum. Unfortunately, many children below, at, and beyond grade-level standards are settling for less than the highest quality curriculum and instruction in the name of serving struggling students well.
Our schools would surely see more growth at every performance level if educators were provided with training and support in how to teach all learners as though they were the highest of flyers. At minimum, all teachers should be equipped to plan lessons that emphasize conceptual understanding and application, leverage classroom-level formative assessment results, and use strategies that attend to individual differences. The culprit of stagnation and
About the Editor
Michael J. Petrilli
Executive Vice President
Mike Petrilli is one of the nation's foremost education analysts. As executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, he oversees the organization's research projects and publications and contributes to the Flypaper blog and weekly Education Gadfly newsletter.
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