Friday night’s “EIF Presents: XQ Super School Live” television special was intellectually bankrupt or deliberately ahistorical–and perhaps both. The premise of the 1-hour program was that the American high school is hopelessly and dangerously behind the times. This was demonstrated in a clever graphic using cars, phones and high schools: An early model-T, an early operator-assisted phone, and a high school classroom; then a car from the 1950’s, a dial-phone, and essentially the same high school classroom. Finally, a high tech car, a whiz-bang smart phone, and–yes–that same high school classroom.
The message couldn’t have been more obvious: high school has been standing still for too long. However, that is demonstrably false. The American high school has been a battleground for intellectual and social issues for at least 65 years… let me begin to count the ways high schools have changed, and changed, and sometimes reverted to form…
1. Since James B. Conant published “The American High School Today” in 1959, we have gone from small high schools to huge consolidated high schools and, thanks largely to the Gates Foundation, back to small high schools. That seesaw continues
2. Since the Supreme Court Brown Decision in 1954 outlawing school segregation, we have gone (or tried to go) from segregated high schools to integrated/desegregated high schools and now, sadly, back to segregated high schools. Those chaotic times included all-white separatist ‘academies’ and ‘freedom schools’ for black children when school districts and the entire state of Virginia invoked ‘massive resistance’ and simply closed their public schools.
3. Since the passage of PL94-142, The Education of All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, we have gone from high schools that excluded handicapped kids to high schools that included them but kept them in separate classes to today’s high schools with ‘least restrictive environments.’
4. Since 1960 we have gone from rigidly tracked high schools (the one I taught at in the mid-60’s had FIVE tracks) to high schools that are—supposedly—almost track-free, except for ‘honors’ divisions.
5. Since the publication of ‘A Nation at Risk’ in 1983, we have gone from high schools with minimal requirements for graduation to high schools with much more demanding standards, followed now by high schools with ‘two-tier’ diplomas.
6. Since 2000 we have gone from high schools with no exit exams to high schools requiring students to pass an exit exam to graduate, and back to high schools without exit exams.
7. Since 2008, high schools with graduation rates in the low teens have raised their rates considerably. Overall, the nation’s high school gradation rate has climbed from 70 percent to 83 percent. Some of that increase was due to close personal attention to students in danger of failing and dropping out, a caring approach that no doubt brightened many futures. Unfortunately, most of the increase can be traced to three reprehensible strategies: 1) persuading students to leave voluntarily to–supposedly–enroll in GED programs; 2) dubious on-line ‘credit recovery’ computer-based programs that allow students to ‘earn’ a semester’s worth of credit in less than a week’s time in front of a screen; and 3) widespread cheating by adults that boosted failing scores over the passing bar.
8) Since 2013, we have gone from high schools in which virtually every student fell in line and took whatever exams the school district required to high schools in which as many as 80 PERCENT of students have refused to take certain standardized tests. And this is ongoing….
The latter may be the most important change of all because it is coming from the ground up, from the students themselves…and because it’s ongoing.
Last night’s star-studded (Tom Hanks, Viola Davis and many dozens more) program was a production of the XQ Institute, which was founded by billionaire Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, and Hollywood’s Entertainment Industry Foundation, which regularly gets behind ‘safe’ social issues. It was an odd marriage that could have used some counseling, ideally from a few education historians.
As I see it, the program wanted to look bold without criticizing the ‘school reform’ crowd that still controls most of what happens in schools. It could have been bold. It could–and should–have said “Most high schools treat kids like numbers, their scores on standardized tests. That has to change…and here’s how it can happen, how it is happening.” But in order to do that, the narrative would have had to renounce and reject not just Republican education policies of “No Child Left Behind” but also those of the Obama Administration’s “Race to the Top,” widely supported by Democrats for Education Reform and other traditional ‘school reformers.’ Given that Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan now works for Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective, that wasn’t going to happen.
Last night’s program was high energy and cute without being daring. For example, it had a clever ‘red carpet’ segment but with teachers as the stars. Lots of cheering, but that was it. That’s sadly timid. Imagine if Melissa Rivers, the host on the red carpet, had asked teachers the question she always asks the Hollywood stars: “You look marvelous. What are you wearing tonight?’
And picture a male teacher responding: “These old things? I bought these khakis 12 or 13 years ago. I was going to buy a new pair for tonight, but I just spent $380 on basic supplies for my classroom. Oh, and would it be rude of me to ask how much your outfit cost?”
Imagine a female teacher responding, “What am I wearing? Actually, I’d rather talk about tomorrow’s field trip….I’m taking my kids to the Getty Museum, where they will….. see provocative art and meet contemporary artists. And the next day my students will be on Skype, talking with students in a high school in Paris about climate change. We’ve been measuring the air quality here and sharing the data with them for purposes of comparison and analysis. But I have to charge the kids for the bus to the Museum and I had to ask some wealthy parents to pay for the scientific equipment because the school district has been cutting our instructional budget.”
And another teacher could have said, “To be honest, I’m happy for this attention, but I can’t help but thinking about the fact that you make 17 or 18 times more money per year than I do.”
“EIF Presents: XQ Super School Live” was difficult for old-fashioned television watchers to avoid because Hollywood and Powell Jobs had bought or otherwise arranged for one hour–8-9PM–on all four networks CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox. Maybe they were harking back to television’s monopoly days, thinking this would guarantee a captive audience. That’s old-fashioned thinking, because most TV viewers today have hundreds of channels to chose from and are quick to use the remote. My bet is that millions of people watched “Washington Week” on PBS, the US Open tennis tournament on ESPN, or a movie on Netflix. I hope that many more millions read books, had family conversations, or took walks around the neighborhood to enjoy the full moon.
The program asked viewers to text a certain number to get involved, and perhaps XQ will be taking bolder steps. (I signed up). That’s a long shot, based on the program’s timid content.
In the end, the program tried to have it both ways. The high schools they showed, funded by grants from XQ and the Emerson Collective, looked interesting. They seemed to give students much more control over their own learning, which is highly desirable. If that is what XQ wants for all kids, they need to face the fact that this approach is not the system’s M.O. because our system was designed to sort kids. The schools in the XQ film do not do that. Those schools seem to ask of each child ‘How are you intelligent?’ and then build on those interests to see that every student receives a well-rounded education.
Unfortunately, most of our schools continue to ask the question they have always asked: “How intelligent are you?” They determine the answer by testing….or by parental income and race. After that comes the sorting into what crudely could be called ‘winners’ and ‘losers.’ That is the elephant in the room that has to be addressed and changed. Unfortunately, “EIF Presents: XQ Super School Live” wasn’t up to meeting that challenge.
Woulda, shoulda, coulda….