A firsthand account of the Great American Education War being waged from coast to coast.
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Class WarfareBesieged Schools, Bewildered Parents, Betrayed Kids and the Attack on Excellence
By J. Martin Rochester
Encounter BooksCopyright © 2004 J. Martin Rochester
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHow I Became a Soldier in the Great American Education War
"Together, we will reclaim America's schools, before ignorance and apathy claim more young lives." -President George W. Bush, Inaugural Address
The math wars, the reading wars, the testing wars, the voucher wars, and all the other schoolyard fights reported in the news today are part of a much wider conflict that is occurring throughout the United States over the meaning of educational excellence and how to achieve world-class schools. Before explaining how I became a combatant in The Great American Education War, allow me to provide a bit of biographical background. I am 56 years old, an early baby boomer, not a late one, having been born on November 24, 1945, one month to the day after the founding of the United Nations that ushered in the post-World War II era. Most of my childhood was spent growing up in a modest area of Baltimore. My father was a pharmacist in those more innocent times when drug stores had soda fountains and the delivery vehicles were bicycles; I doubled as soda jerk and delivery boy. My mother was a schoolteacher, when those same innocent times provided few other career options for women.
My parents sent me and my brother to the public schools. Both the elementary and junior high schools I attended took their name from nearby Pimlico Racetrack, which was only about fifteen minutes from my house if I walked with a fast gait. In contrast, Baltimore City College High School, my next stop, was located several miles across town. I relied on public transportation, which meant my spending an hour each way, as I had to transfer from one bus to another in making the daily trek between home and school. This "busing" was a fact of life for me and my friends. It was the price one had to pay for the quality of the education the high school had to offer. "City" was one of the best schools, public or private, in the entire metropolitan area. For those of us enrolled in the special college preparatory program, the venerable institution-it is the third oldest public high school in the country-rewarded our long commute with masterly teachers and cherished traditions but most of all with a dedication to academic excellence. I graduated in 1962 and went on to earn a bachelor's degree in political science from Loyola College of Baltimore in 1966 and a Ph.D. in political science from Syracuse University in 1972.
Since 1972, I have been a professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, a state university with an enrollment of some 12,000 students, making it the third biggest institution of higher education in Missouri. Although the campus address is Natural Bridge Road and the school mascot is the Riverman, the place is several miles from the banks of the Mississippi River, with the only nearby body of water being the local duck pond called Bugg Lake (named for the first chancellor of the college). Owing to its origins as a campus designed to provide a college education for St. Louisans who could not afford to leave home, it is primarily a commuter university, with only a few dormitories and a relatively small percentage of residential students. The university has attracted its share of very bright students, especially after the creation of the Pierre Laclede Honors College in 1989, but the student body as a whole tends to be a working-class clientele consisting mostly of students who work many hours a week to pay their tuition (and hence are necessarily only part-time students), who are often the first in their family to attend college, and who not only come from St. Louis but are likely to remain in St. Louis after graduation.
My professional life has primarily been spent teaching and writing about international relations, including authoring a textbook that has been used at places like Duke, Stanford, and the U.S. Naval Academy as well as community and state colleges. Among my writings is a book on the United Nations calling for improved global institution-building (not world government, but better mechanisms for cooperation among sovereign states). I was recognized in 1995, on the fiftieth anniversary of the UN, by the St. Louis chapter of the United Nations Association of America as one of fifty local "people who have devoted their lives personally and professionally to the values of peace and justice within their own communities and throughout the world." In the pages that follow, I will utter some "politically incorrect" statements, but I can hardly be accused by the PC watchdogs of being insensitive to diversity and not understanding multiculturalism.
As suggested by my scholarly interest in the UN, I have spent much of my adult life as a liberal-participating in the civil rights movement and the anti-war protests of the sixties, delighting in the Republican downfall over Watergate in the seventies, speaking out against some of Ronald Reagan's Cold War policies in the eighties, and even privately wondering whether impeachment was the right punishment for Bill Clinton's sexual dalliances in the nineties. All the while, however, I sensed that, as I was aging, I was becoming more and more alienated from the left. In the circles I travel in, such a confession can raise eyebrows if not hackles, given the overwhelming liberal bent of professors in academia. I have a good explanation for this personal metamorphosis. It is not that I have abandoned liberalism. Rather, liberalism has abandoned me. It is not uncommon to experience such a revelation; the "liberal disillusionment" of the 1920s experienced by John Dos Passos and others, as well as the "neoconservative" conversion of Norman Podhoretz and the New York School in the 1970s, come to mind.
In my case, it was "progressive education," which is closely associated with modern liberalism, that provided the breaking point. Currently in control of the education establishment, progressives have long dreamed of classrooms where children work independently and cooperatively, relatively free of adult direction, grading, and other such "constraints." The more I have seen of progressive pedagogy at work, the more disenchanted I have become. The utter failure of our schools under progressive rule has provoked a backlash, as the public has called for increased standards and accountability. This in turn has produced a backlash against the backlash, mounted by educators on the defensive. If my eclectic ideological history as well as my lifelong commitment to teaching is not enough to convince the reader that I can offer a fair, informed analysis of the contemporary education scene and the war that is now raging, there is one other credential I can furnish-that of a battle-scarred parent.
My Enlistment in the Cause
What perhaps most equips me to comment on the state of precollegiate education, aside from my vantage point as a college professor who annually sees the finished, or not-so-finished, products that are being produced in our schools, is my experiences as a father of two children who recently completed their education. I do not claim to speak for all parents. I can only tell my own story, but there is reason to believe that it is not unique to me. It is a parent's perspective as much as anything else that informs this book.
Certainly, my earliest interest in K-12 educational issues stemmed from my participant observation of what was happening in my kids' elementary school and middle school in the 1980s. I was living then in University City, an established St. Louis suburb that was founded in 1906 by one Edward G. Lewis, a quixotic sort who envisioned creating nothing less than the intellectual capital of the earth. He proceeded to build a number of imposing structures designed to reflect the varied architectures of the world, including a recreation of an Egyptian temple and an ornate, octagonal tower in the Second Renaissance Revival style that became city hall, whose claim to fame until recently was that it had the largest rooftop searchlight on the planet, supposedly having been procured from the Czar of Russia. Lewis' dreams were dashed when he ran out of money, but not before he had laid out a street grid in which most of the avenues were named after colleges and universities. My wife Ruth and I lived with our two children on Vassar, and the neighborhood elementary school was named Delmar-Harvard, since it was situated at the intersection of Harvard Avenue and Delmar Boulevard. The home of Washington University, the municipality was a magnet for academics attracted to the charm of the stately older homes and the bohemian flavor of "the Loop," the downtown row of shops, bars, and eateries. We had bought the house on Vassar from a UM-St. Louis colleague of mine, who had taken a job at the University of Oregon.
U. City at one time had the reputation of being the best school district in the entire state of Missouri. Although long committed to diversity, it had been in actuality a mainly white municipality, with an especially heavy Jewish presence, over many decades. Like so many older suburbs, it started experiencing demographic shifts in housing patterns during the 1960s, which produced greater racial integration of the public schools followed by white flight on the part of many parents concerned about the future of the district. Rightly or wrongly, there was the usual concern whether kids coming from poor households lacking in intellectual sophistication would lower the quality of education. By the time we moved to U. City, black enrollments had already overtaken white enrollments in the district, and the district was in decline at least in terms of the perception of outsiders. Nevertheless, we arrived with the typical idealism and cosmopolitanism that academic families are known for, and that U. City was known for.
These qualities were to be increasingly tested over time, as the enrollment of African-American students was to climb within just a few years to over 85 percent of the district-wide total in a community which remained residentially 50 percent white, yet was not only abandoning the public schools for private schools in droves but was also becoming geographically divided between the predominantly black hall living north of Delmar and the predominantly white hall living south of Delmar. We lived just north of Delmar, in one of the few truly integrated parts of the city. The St. Louis metropolitan area has always had a strong private school, including parochial school, tradition-it has the highest percentage of school-aged children enrolled in private institutions of any major metro area in the country-but U. Citians, with their liberal, egalitarian personae, were assumed to be above educational privatization. Judging from the rapid abandonment by whites, as well as middle-class blacks, of the U. City public schools, liberalism in U. City went only so far, as parents were unwilling to make their children martyrs to the cause.
Ruth and I gave the U. City public schools our best shot. We became active in the PTO and worked hard with other parents to improve the entire school community. We remained in the system for several years, long after many of our friends had left. By the late 1980s, our older son, Stephen, had made it through Delmar-Harvard Elementary School and was in the seventh grade at Brittany Woods Middle School, while our younger son, Sean, was in the third grade at Delmar-Harvard. On the whole, they had received a very fine education along the way, with many superb teachers who were throwbacks to the days when U. City was known for academic excellence. They, in fact, were performing well in their classes and on standardized tests. I started noticing, however, that, as time went on, the newsletters sent home by the school principals and the curriculum statements endorsed by the school board contained fewer and fewer references to words such as "rigor," "homework," "standards," "merit," and "discipline" and more and more references to "equity," "diversity," "self-esteem, "inclusion," "multiculturalism" and all the other buzzwords that are now recited with rote monotony by K-12 educators. At first, these buzzwords sounded innocent enough. After all, who could possibly be against "equity" and "diversity"? However, I gradually began to realize that these words represented a sea change in K-12 thinking that was moving the U. City schools away from a commitment to academic excellence toward a commitment to academic mediocrity.
When I say sea change, I am referring to the fact that, following the Soviet Union's success at placing Sputnik in outer space orbit in 1957, there was a growing recognition that America's schools needed to be upgraded, particularly through offering more "accelerated," special college prep classes in junior high and high schools for high-achieving students (especially in math and science) if we were to catch up with and surpass the Russians. The K-12 establishment took the advice of the 1959 Conant Report, produced by a committee chaired by the former president of Harvard University, which advocated the practice of grouping students by ability in specific subjects. Although one might rightly question whether these "tracking" policies were excessively exclusive and failed to address the needs of the majority of children who were placed in lower tracks, they produced a level of rigor that was almost unprecedented in U.S. education, even for traditionally strong institutions such as Baltimore City College High and U. City High. I was fortunate to be placed in one of these accelerated programs and to be exposed to a curriculum that was incredibly demanding for a fifteen-year-old high schooler. As just one example, in my senior English course I wrote an eighty-page paper containing over one hundred footnotes on the subject of the sixteenth-century philosopher Erasmus and secular humanism, gleaned from pouring over stacks of books and taking prolific notes in the Baltimore Public Library on weekends. I could not help but laugh when my son's principal tried to convince me that the new direction the district was going in would provide a "richer," "more challenging" curriculum compared with the past. I was to learn that what was meant by this was, among other things, stream-of-consciousness "journal writing" where the student is expected to make a daily entry in a diary based not on reading but "reflections," free of worry about the use of standard English conventions or any of the other strictures associated with good writing.
When I became involved in University City schools as a parent, I found that they were moving 180 degrees from the thinking that prevailed back then in the post-Sputnik era.
Excerpted from Class Warfare by J. Martin Rochester Copyright © 2004 by J. Martin Rochester. Excerpted by permission.
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