At the core of most of the debate over American education is the clash between excellence and equity and the former is losing, argues political science professor J. Martin Rochester in Class Warfare: Besieged Schools, Bewildered Parents and the Attack on Excellence (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2002).
Rochester writes, “We have been so busy turning our schools into social science laboratories, social work agencies, churches, psychiatric wards, wellness clinics, parenting surrogates, and day care centers that we have completely lost sight of what is uniquely their mission—giving students a solid foundation of knowledge and understanding, a love of learning, and the tools for pursuing that learning.”
One example of this tendency is the growing movement towards untracked classrooms. In schools using this untracked system, students are not separated into several different classrooms according to their ability and merit, as they would in tracked (or homogenous) systems. The policy of untracked classrooms has led to classes where even the most disruptive and remedial students are kept alongside the most dedicated, advanced, and talented of their peers. “Progressives” claim that the untracked classrooms do not harm the learning of the most advanced and talented students.
Yet this utterly defies common sense—of course an honors student in the midst of a class on World War II will lose time learning if he has to hear fellow students asking the teacher, “Was she hurt?” when told about the bombing of Pearl Harbor. This is doubly the case if another student misbehaves by beating his classmates. One cannot seriously argue that the presence of such disruptive students enhances the academic education of their peers.
As Rochester mostly discusses students with severe physical, behavioral or mental disabilities, he seems at first glance to be somewhat insensitive to students who have learning disabilities but have at least average levels of intelligence and do not disrupt the classroom atmosphere. When I spoke with Rochester and asked him about such students, he said that in the book he was referring to the very severely disabled and not those with learning disabilities that one would not immediately notice, such as dyslexia.
An underlying theme of Rochester’s book is educational progressives’ unfortunate tendency to take what were valid, fine ideas and ruin them, mainly by stretching concepts well beyond their original meaning.
For instance, many have long argued that education should not consist solely of the memorization of hard facts, but should also include learning how to think critically. Knowledge of facts is useless without the ability to use the facts to make and criticize arguments, and critical thinking is impossible without a core of knowledge. In other words, the two are mutually dependent. Yet educational progressives, Rochester says, have taken the idea that education should not be “rote memorization,” and perverted it to mean that there need be no memorization of facts at all.
Similarly, Rochester notes, progressives were right to confront the fact that students from lower and middle-class backgrounds generally receive a poorer education than the most talented of students. “They have overcorrected, however. In the 1980s, they invented the slogan ‘every child can learn.’ In the 1990s, this sound principle became stretched to the point of absurdity, to where the reformers now claim, as one local St. Louis elementary school recently trumpeted, ‘all kids are gifted—some just open their packages up later.’”
Parents concerned about their children’s ability to do basic math and spell common words under such regimes—parents who urge the schools to focus more on inculcating the most basic of skills—are sometimes labeled right-wing extremists. Due to this and other tactics, Rochester writes, true progress in education has been mostly impossible to achieve.
Rochester offers a more pedagogical critique of America’s education system than do other critics such as Sol Stern, but one that is still quite interesting and valuable. And this remains the case even though there do appear throughout the book a number of rather disconcerting errors mostly on matters unrelated to education which Rochester uses to provide analogies.