I sympathize with Freddie deBoer’s spirited defense of the American public school system. When my parents moved back to the States, I transferred from a tony private outfit to the local public high school. It was an intimidating experience, but I was pretty complacent about my academic prospects. I assumed that American schools were filled with burn outs, drug dealers, and semi-literate jocks. I planned to coast through on the strength of my ability to write in complete sentences.
Turns out I was dead wrong. There were a lot of smart kids enrolled at the local high school, and the upper-level Advanced Placement (AP) and Honors courses were pretty damn rigorous. I still managed to coast through (yeah, I was one of those assholes who “tested well”), but the experience left me with a great deal of respect for the scale and efficiency of the American public education system. Granted, a place like Fairfax County can afford to throw a lot of money at the local school board, but the end product was still pretty impressive. West Potomac had it all: academy and shop courses for the kids who weren’t academically inclined; an impressive roster of sports teams and facilities; a wealth of extra-curricular activities, and challenging upper-level classes for college-bound students.
There was one glaring difference between my experience at a private international school and my time at West Potomac, however. As students got older and AP classes got tougher and more numerous, more and more kids dropped out of the honors circuit. By the time senior year rolled around, you were pretty familiar with the type of kid who’d sign up for advanced courses. A striver (or at least a smart slacker), undoubtedly college-bound, probably from a middle-class background. And yes, my fellow APers were overwhelmingly white.
In many respects, my high school could have doubled as a sociological experiment. The school district included both upper-middle class neighborhoods and low-rent housing developments, but every student attended the same extremely well-funded institution. Unsurprisingly, equal access still resulted in dramatically unequal results. The composition of my AP courses reflected this underlying reality.
So yes, I think many American public schools are fine institutions. But it’s difficult to overcome students’ preexisting deficits in social capital. And while vouchers sound attractive, I’m not sure private institutions are equipped to overcome disparities in students’ socio-economic conditions, either. Recently, there’s been some interesting commentary on Finland’s superb public school system. I actually started high school in Finland, and although I was enrolled at an international school, the uniform excellence of Finnish education is pretty obvious to any outside observer. However, a recent influx of immigrants has actually exposed some of the limitations of the Finnish system, as students drawn from different socio-cultural contexts present different educational challenges:
Traditionally, many immigrants in Finland hailed from Russia and Estonia, but with growing refugee communities from Somalia, Turkey, and Iraq (thanks to America’s war there), race and religion are becoming bigger issues. When I visited Helsinki last week as part of a group of American education writers hosted by the Finnish government, I sat in on a special-needs nursery school class with just two students. One little girl was of Turkish descent, the other Somali. Yet the lesson plan revolved entirely around Christmas rituals and songs. Later in the week, while visiting a first-grade classroom, we Americans were greeted with a cheery “Merry Christmas!” in excellent English. The children were charming, but when it comes to the demands of multiculturalism, Finland has a lot to learn.
I’m enough of a small government sympathizer to balk at the prospect of the state becoming a surrogate parent, but one reason I’ve always found the idea of universal pre-kindergarten attractive is because it has the potential to rectify disparities in social capital – basic reading and writing skills, a willingess to participate and pay attention in the classroom etc. – at a formative age, when differences are still miniscule and children are still willing to listen. Obviously, there’s no single answer to education reform, and the socio-economic achievement gap will probably remain as a long as we live in a society that isn’t perfectly egalitarian. But given the danger of systemic, inter-generational poverty and the difficulties we face in assimilating students from a multitude of different backgrounds, I think universal pre-kindergarten is a solution worth pursuing.