On Political Books

January/ February 2014 Class Conscious

How high schools condition students to accept their lot.

By Richard D. Kahlenberg

From these very different experiences, students come away from high school with considerably different ideas about how they will fit into the adult world. At Highridge, says Cookson, “leadership is the watchword” and the students are expected to become part of the global social elite. It is little surprise, then, that the last five major U.S. presidential candidates all attended elite private boarding schools. Pupils at Meadowbrook take on “the mantle of merit,” and see themselves as part of a global business elite. At Riverside, the narrative emphasizes hard work, traditional values, and fitting into the regional economy. At Patrick Henry, students learn to labor, will likely marry someone from the local community, and often have little awareness of the outside world. The school’s leadership style prepares students for a life of employment where “there is a clear chain of command.” At Roosevelt, meanwhile, the system teaches students that they are powerless and unlikely to move beyond the confines of their poverty-stricken neighborhood. Leadership is out of the question, says Cookson, and instead students engage in something much more basic, and poignant: “the search for an elusive dignity.”

Having painted a vivid, if highly depressing, picture of American schools, Cookson does not venture into public policy solutions other than to say that we should look to nations like Finland, whose schools are both egalitarian and high achieving. Finns have much lower student poverty rates than the United States, and the extreme socioeconomic school segregation that we experience here is absent. Cookson acknowledges his initial skepticism of taking lessons from Finland, given its small size and relative homogeneity, but he argues that there is much to learn from the way Finnish teachers are trained and treated. And, of course, the U.S.’s relatively higher poverty and segregation levels are not immutable facts of life but stem from policy choices.

In the U.S., a number of school districts—now more than eighty—are taking steps to break down economic school segregation in order to raise academic achievement for students. But Cookson’s research makes clear that economically integrated schools can not only improve educational results but also alleviate the profoundly undemocratic ways that children are socialized into different adult roles.

It is an affront to our democracy that our education system is divided into schools that create leaders and schools that create laborers. Cookson’s powerful book poignantly raises the question first asked by educator George Counts eighty years ago: “Dare the schools build a new social order?”

Buy this book from Amazon and support Washington Monthly: Class Rules: Exposing Inequality in American High Schools (Multicultural Education)

Richard D. Kahlenberg , a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, is the author of "All Together Now: Creating Middle-Class Schools Through Public School Choice" and the editor of "The Future of School Integration: Socioeconomic Diversity as an Education Reform Strategy."

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