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Thoughts on the one percent education

January 22, 2012

The Education Life section of the New York Times, published once each quarter is one of the real gems of the “paper of record” that sets it apart from almost every other newspaper I know.

This quarter, the section really delivered with Neal Gabler’s Once Percent Education, a thought provoking idictment of the current educational system with its focus on pre-determined merit, college admissions, and endless striving for perfection and individual accomplishment.

Here are a few quotes from the article:

The emphasis on personal achievement has done more than turn the admissions process into a race to rack up résumé points; more important, to the extent that elite colleges set the pace, it is turning the educational culture into one that stresses individual perfection instead of one that stresses social improvement.

Some may see this obsession with perfection as the culmination of a long trend; tiger moms have been pushing their children to be intellectual decathletes for generations. But it may actually be a reversal of an even longer trend. At the turn of the last century, the influential philosopher John Dewey saw education as a democratizing force not just in its social consequences but in its very process. Dewey believed that education and life were inextricably bound, that they informed each other. Education wasn’t just something you did in a classroom to earn grades. It was something you lived.

There is a big difference between a culture that encourages engagement with the world and one that encourages developing one’s own superiority.

Finally, a culture that rewards big personal accomplishments over smaller social ones threatens to create a cohort of narcissists.

In the end, 1 percent education is as much a vision of life as it is a standard of academic achievement — a recrudescence of social Darwinism disguised as meritocracy. Where the gap at the country’s best schools was once about money — who could afford to attend? — now there is the pretense that it is mostly about intelligence and skill. Many 99 percenters are awed by the accomplishments of 1 percenters, especially as the gap between rich and poor in SAT scores and college completion widens.

And here is the most powerful ending:

The danger isn’t just that people who are born on third base wind up thinking they hit a triple; the danger is that everyone else thinks those folks hit triples. One percent education perpetuates a psychology of social imbalance that is the very antitheses of John Dewey’s dream.

As product of public school and very modest means, who has now spent his entire teaching career working at elite private schools, I think I will be pondering the implications of this article for some time to come.

Here are just a few thoughts I’ve been having:

I would love to make an article like this part of the college process for students. At its worst, the college process for strong high school students becomes a completely individualistic exercise, steeped with competition (“you’re my best friend, but you better not apply to the school I’m applying to and take my spot”), devoid of a wider sense of the history or meaning of the process, and couched in completely hyperbolic terms—”If I don’t get into school X, my life is over.”

Why can’t we use the college process to help students better understand themselves, reflect on the opportunities they’ve been given, and understand the wider culture and history of this experience? We could teach students that the entire focus of college admissions of character—the admissions essay and the focus on extracurriculuars was cooked up in the 1920’s as a scheme by the Ivy League to identify and exclude Jews from admission, because academically, Jewish applicants were outscoring their preferred WASP counterparts. Add in some readings from the somewhat recent Gratz vs. Bollinger decision on Affirmative Action in college admissions, and findings that diversity is most beneficial to the majority students.

While we’re at it, I’d love to have students read excerpts from Shop Class as Soulcraft, to see the incredible value and satisfaction to be found in work that you don’t need a college degree to do. Let’s also bring math into the mix and do a few lessons on exponential growth by studying inflation in college tuition costs.

Then I’d like my students to consider Jonathan Kozol’s The Shame of the Nation, and help students to see that schools today are almost as segregated as they ever have been. While we are free to study physics with the latest lab equipment, focused mostly on critical thinking and deep reasoning, other, equally promising students find themselves in run-down, overcrowded schools, taking classes in sewing and hair braiding rather than APs.

I like to think that if we brought these lessons into the college process, students would have a greater sense of what an incredible privilege it is to spend four years studying ideas on one’s own, and a greater sense of responsibility to do something with that education. I’d like to think that these lessons would also significantly diminish in all the trivia of the college process: USNEWS rankings, $400/hr SAT prep and trying to figure out which school has the best party atmosphere.

I’ve written a lot about the ideas of Cal Newport and working to help student realize they have the power to change the world even in high school. I strongly encourage you to read Cal’s beautiful treatise on what the college process could be: The Race to Somewhere: How to Make the College Admissions Process the Foundation for a Well-Lived Life. Properly framed, I think these lessons about the college process can help students escape the the treadmill of individual resume building and instead focus on helping students to develop a happy life, founded on a true love of learning and desire to use one’s talents to make the world a better place, starting now.

I’ve found the differences between public and private school students and teachers to be much less than one might think. There are extraordinary teachers to be found everywhere, and the same is true for students. To me, the principal advantage of private school for teachers and students are much smaller class sizes, the freedom for teachers to set the curriculum as they see fit and of course, the incredible resources private schools are able to allocate to its students. The difference in resources is staggering (I’ve taught at schools where the tuition is over $40,000/year, and the actual cost to educate a student is 10-15 thousand more). A former headmaster of mine worked relentlessly to help students see the incredible inequality in our society (he exposed me to Kozol), and he went a step further to ask students that given this inequality, what could possibly justify a school devoting so many resources to so few students? His response to the question was always simple and direct—this investment in students comes with the greatest responsibility—using these resources to change the world for the better and reduce inequality.

Note: A day after reading this, I thought of one course at my school that is doing just what I describe above—engaging students in cooperative endeavors to make their community a better place. Synergy 8, a trans-disciplinary, project based, problem finding and solving course focused on community issues”, taught by colleagues and friends Bo Adams and Jill Gough. This course is helping 8th grade students to take a break from chasing grades and instead focus on tackling real issues in their school, from the somewhat mundane lunch line efficiency, to more significant issues of how to address childhood obseity in the greater Atlanta area.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. January 23, 2012 8:26 am

    Sad but true points. I think what scares me for my own students as they get to their senior years, in many ways, is exactly what you’re describing – they work hard, they check off the little boxes for their resumes for college, they take classes that are either too hard or that they’re not interested in (e.g., AP courses), they get tutors, they struggle to do better than their peers, and then they go into the college application meatgrinder. Which then only prepares them for more striving, more individual “accomplishment”, and less engagement with the world. (And let’s leave aside, for now, the number of students who go through all of this, get to college, and burn out quickly.)

    I want to know this – where is the college that is going to finally say, enough! We don’t want to see a resume, we don’t want to see perfect SAT scores (that would frequently indicate that you are a person of reasonably high socioeconomic status, who had access to serious tutoring), we want to know who you are as a person – what have you done, what do you care about, what you can offer to the world? Can you think? Can you solve problems alone AND in groups? Do you play nicely with others?

    I don’t see colleges moving in that direction, because it becomes a game-theoretic-kind of issue – who is going to be the first to jump off the ledge, so to speak? Which “name” school will be the first to finally say – this application process is bogus, we can do better?

    • January 23, 2012 10:17 pm

      I do think colleges, in their own, glaical way are moving in this direction. Over 850 schools are now score optional. And if you talk to a college admissions officer, after they get done bemoaning all the fakery they see in in applicants, they’ll light up and tell you about a few true gems—students who really do have a compelling, authentic story free of fingerprints from overbearing parents and college counselors. I think of the kid I knew who grew up on a dairy farm and had a passion for judging dairy cattle that would cause him to bubble over with enthusiasm when talking about various breeds of cattle. When it came time to have conversations about this kid with colleges, I think the words “no brainer” were used by the admissions office.

      The problem is these students are truly rare. Once you’ve admitted the handful of real kids, along with the cadre of development, legacy and athletic recruits, you still are left with nearly a thousand or more slots to fill in the average undergraduate class. And so, you turn to the meat grinder. Show me the kid that has survived 10 APs, and is captain of the debate team and president of the class. She’s got to add something to our campus, right? She isn’t too-stressed out, is she?

      I think colleges are desperate to get more of these real kids. If for no other reason, their campuses are becoming filled with fragile students who crumble at the first signs of adversity and tax the counseling services of the college to the near breaking point (now more than 1/3 of students visit have mental health counseling during their 4 years of college). WhileI think it’s great that the stigma for mental health counseling is disappearing and more students are comfortable seeking help, it’s equally clear that stress contributes tremendously to this trend.

      Certainly, there are colleges that are making big strides to reform their application process as as well. Before scandal hit her, Marilee Jones, the former admissions director of MIT was on a crusade to restore sanity to the process, focusing on even the smallest details, like cutting the number of spaces for listing extracurriculars from 10 to 4 so that students wouldn’t feel compelled to list 10. Tufts has also gotten quite a bit of press for its efforts to reform the college admissions process—an option to turn in a short YouTube video with their applications led one applicant to turn in this video of how to dance math graphs.

      So the path forward for students seems clear to me. Avoid the meat grinder—find your own path, develop your deep interests, use your talents to make the world a better place and you’ll be amazed by how appealing you can be to colleges.

  2. Mr. Jacobs permalink
    January 23, 2012 8:30 am

    Another side effect of this “1%” idea that I see is the overselling of AP classes. I work in a diverse public high school. We have dozens of kids go to Ivy League & similar universities every year. We also have students who are not such “high achievers.” Yet all of these students are pushed into AP classes, with the administration screaming at them: “You won’t get into college otherwise!”

    I have students with severe math, science, and reading deficiencies pushed into my AP Physics C course, where they struggle and fail to master the AP curriculum. Instead of honing their basic math skills, they are pushed in above their heads and spend every day of school floundering and failing, and they are told that dropping the class is tantamount to mortgaging their educational future.

    I think these students should be doing something better with their day, and learning to love education instead of learning that it’s not “for them.”

    • January 23, 2012 10:25 pm

      Absolutely right. When I was a public school student, I felt that APs were my chance to level the playing field and show that the work I did at my high school (where only 50% of students went to high school) was every bit as rigorous as elite private and public schools. Now, as many elite private schools are dropping the AP entirely, I’m not sure this is the wisest move, and while I do think we should be striving to see that more students can enroll in challenging AP level courses (though I have major problems with AP), I think the frenzy that one journalist who shall not be named has created to rate students and schools by the number of APs they take has done tremendous harm to education in the past 10 years.

      • January 25, 2012 12:16 am

        Yes, and it is worse that he only counts exams taken, not exams passed, so schools are pushing kids who are totally unprepared for AP courses into them.

        • January 25, 2012 10:48 pm

          yes. It’s the most ridiculous metric of quality I’ve ever seen.

    • January 25, 2012 12:15 am

      Physics C is still a very rare AP course. Students who are being pushed into it without adequate math skills are being mistreated. The ‘gather every AP you can’ meme has become very strong in high schools—much stronger than it is in college admissions offices!

      • January 25, 2012 10:47 pm

        I agree. Physics C still has a decent amount of cachet among APs. And I also agree that the AP arms race is out of control. I think many colleges are starting to regret their “take the most difficult course load” you can advice, since realistically, that’s just been translated into take the most number of APs you can. I bet non of them answer the “should I take an AP and get a B or a honors class and get an A?” question with the “take the AP and get an A” answer anymore.

  3. January 27, 2012 10:40 am

    I’m not sure I have much to add to this conversation, but wanted to say that this post has been turning over in my mind all week. I am also a product of public school and very modest means, but most of my close friends went the private (or essentially private) high school -> elite Ivy college route, and I often wonder where I would choose to send my own (currently hypothetical) children. I do think that the actual education my friends received was a step up from my own, particularly in terms of the support they had and the ways in which they were pushed to develop their intellectual abilities (so was the pressure worth it? maybe). Despite having the same or better SAT scores, grades, and AP scores that they had, I was repeatedly discouraged from applying to anything other than land grant universities, because kids from where I was from just didn’t. My high school was in one of the best public districts in the state, and my professional choices since college have been driven by the fear of what happens to students at all the other public schools we were supposed to be better than.

    • January 27, 2012 8:08 pm

      Grace,
      I would agree. Many of my classmates in my public high school were very similarly matched in terms of talent and work ethic to the students I now teach, but there is a difference in terms of the resources that private school provides, the individual attention it can afford, especially to middle of the pack students, and the shared expectation that everyone will succeed. One thing I am starting to wonder is now that access to experts and information is becoming easier and easier, will this lesson the advantage conferred by the resources of private school? Or, as this post argues, will it widen the gap?

      Also, one interesting anecdote that still leaves me puzzled about the difference between the private/public school world—in public school, I can remember an obsession with taking career placement test. I still remember taking some test in middle school that was supposed to tell me what career I would have, and I think almost every student took the Armed Services Placement Exam. Recently, a classmate of mine from high school who now has children in middle school took a career test, and her children recommended to be a stunt double and a bartender. I’m not fully sure what to make of this, but these career-focused tests are completely absent from the private school world.

  4. February 1, 2012 1:20 pm

    My former headmaster, the one I mention above, also wrote a beautiful response to “the One Percent Education”, to transcend the college admissions frenzy and “inspire students to be citizens, leaders, agents of moral and spiritual change in our world.”

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