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Pursuing elite education without standardized tests, austere school budgets

Dr. Bill Smith, Community Voices • Feb 9, 2020 at 5:30 AM

In 1980, educational researcher Jean Anyon published “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work,” an article based on her observations of fifth grade classrooms during the 1978-79 school year.

The five northern New Jersey schools she studied served children from a range of social class backgrounds. Most of the students in two schools were from working class families, and the children in another were primarily middle class. The other two schools were in well-to-do communities, but Anyon saw them as somewhat different. One was suburban and upper middle class, with most parents employed in professional roles, so Anyon characterized it as an affluent professional school. Because most working parents in the fifth school were executives in major corporations or financial institutions, she called it an executive elite school.

Anyon described learning in the working class schools as routine, mechanical, and boring. Children had little opportunity to make decisions or choices, and teachers rarely explained to them the reasons for assignments or the rationales for prescribed steps and procedures, as in math computation, for example. Even in social studies and science, rote learning was the dominant approach and usually involved copying and memorization of notes written on the board.

Children in the middle class school had more opportunities to make decisions and choices. There was a greater focus on understanding concepts, and teachers often asked students to explain how they arrived at answers. Grammar lessons were somewhat more advanced, and writing activities were more meaningful. For example, the children wrote business letters and thank you cards, something Anyon did not observe in the working class schools.

In the affluent professional school, the central focus was on creative activity and the expression and application of ideas. Students often worked independently and received many opportunities for decision making. In a study of ancient Egypt, they produced a film. One child wrote the script, and the class acted it out. For language arts, students wrote editorials about local issues and plays they then performed for the school. They conducted science experiments far more often than in the middle class school.

In the executive elite school, children were continually challenged to analyze problems, offer well-reasoned opinions and produce intellectual products. Math consisted primarily of problem solving, with the teacher encouraging students to consider multiple solutions and then explain and defend their choices. Writing was sometimes creative, but more often related to research in science or social studies. Language arts also involved students developing and presenting lessons and then critiquing each other’s performances. Social studies was project oriented, and science was hands-on.

Anyon conceded that the sample for her study was too small to permit generalizations. Nonetheless, I think most educators would agree that the nature and quality of children’s school experiences is often influenced by the social class backgrounds of their student populations.

It’s also clear there is a powerful relationship between the types of learning children experience in school and the work they do as adults. For example, it’s unlikely that the students who endured the rote learning and rigid control of Anyon’s working class schools ever became business or professional leaders. Conversely, students who attended the affluent professional and executive elite schools had every opportunity to acquire the skills and dispositions for success in these fields.

In the 40 years since Anyon’s article was published, accountability measures have standardized public school curricula, and testing pressures have kept teachers from deviating from these standards. Although there has been some effort in recent years to include higher-level learning expectations in mandated curricula, the inherent limitations of standardized testing make it unlikely that many of today’s classrooms — even in the most well-funded schools — can provide the rich, engaging learning experiences children had in the affluent professional and executive elite schools Anyon studied.

Clearly, our nation’s leaders know that. Barron Trump, the President’s son, attends St. Andrews Episcopal School in Potomac, Maryland. Tuition is $40,975 per year, enabling the school to boast a student-teacher ratio of 7:1. Its stated mission is to “know and inspire each child,” a goal that is far more achievable in a classroom of 10 students than a classroom of 30 or more.

Like Trump, Democratic leaders have sent their children to elite private schools. Chelsea Clinton, Al Gore’s son, President Obama’s daughters, and Joe Biden’s grandchildren attended, or now attend, Sidwell Friends School in Washington. Current tuition is $44,280. Class sizes are small, and the educational philosophy includes a statement affirming the school’s commitment to “the joys of exploration and discovery.” Students do not take standardized tests.

We all want the best for our children, and the wealthy and powerful have every right to pursue as positive an educational experience for their children as they can afford. However, as Nikhil Goyal wrote in 2016, it’s noteworthy that most of our politicians have enrolled their children “in schools outside the wrath of their own education policies.” Austere budgets and high stakes testing measures that narrow the curriculum and diminish the joy of learning are good enough for our children, but not for theirs.

That’s worth remembering whenever you hear politicians yammering about how they’re going to eliminate the achievement gap with $7,000 vouchers and more incentives to raise test scores.

Dr. Bill Smith of Johnson City is a retired educator and public school advocate.

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