December 16, 2006

The "New" Commission and Jurgen Herbst

Achieve, Inc.-National Center on Education and the Economy smackdown program notes: Has anyone else noticed that the redesign recommendations of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce are just a wee bit inconsistent with Achieve Inc.'s American Diploma Project? End high school as we know it at the end of grade 10 versus boosting the academic demands of high school.  Maybe it's time for that Marc Tucker-Lou Gerstner WWF headliner. But let's get to the more substantive comments on the New Commission report...


The New Commission's structural recommendations are close to the shift that Jurgen Herbst recommended in The Once and Future School (1995), the high-school history that came out about the same time as Bill Reese's Origins of the American High School (1995). Herbst said the period of state-subsidized universal schooling should start and end earlier and, lo! and behold!, that's what the New Commission recommends, too (or maybe "recommends 2" since it's the Commission Mark II). I'm not going to expect to see any citation of Herbst in the full report (which I haven't seen since it's not online). But you shouldn't be surprised at the failure to know the historical literature, since this type of commission usually has a faux historical perspective, if any.

The best argument in favor of such a shift is not that globalization requires restructuring (these commissions never recommend economic policy changes) but rather that it conforms better to the needs of families: A much larger proportion of mothers are working at preschool ages than several decades ago, and so preschool and daycare are the experiences of the vast majority of children in the U.S. Given that, and the downward shift in academic expectations, having state-subsidized preschool experiences would piggyback on the expectations of families anyway (which is that children will be in institutionalized environments earlier than decades ago). On the upper end of the age range, a substantial proportion of 17- and 18-year-olds work part-time during the school year, and a substantial minority of juniors and seniors work long enough hours to interfere with serious schoolwork. You can fight that in a number of ways (reducing the hours that minors can work, for example), or you can "go with the flow" and eliminate the pseudo-universal claims of high school's last two years.

Herbst's proposal for a downward age shift was informed by his comparative perspective (he's also written a comparative book, School Choice and School Governance, which came out this year on, well, ... just reread the title, okay?), and I suspect that the New Commission Mark II also was, but from a more superficial angle.  (Hey, Marc: Put your full report online so I don't have to guess!) In Herbst's case, it's a case of "the current system isn't inevitable; get over yourself and structure the system to work better." In the case of most commissions, the comparative perspective is often phrased as a "let's see what our competitors do and then respond to them" argument; the 1980s was full of shallow "let's mimic Japanese education" arguments. (Note: does anyone on these commissions know what the social role of Japanese preschools has been? Those in the U.S. will probably be surprised, if you don't know already.) This set of recommendations isn't quite as crass, and the New Commission's staff-produced and -commissioned papers (a Commission's commission? hmmn...) are decent descriptive pieces, if a bit pedestrian, but I have the sense that they were used to flesh out a predetermined structure rather than to inform discussion. For example, Lynne Sacks and Betsy Brown Ruzzi's Overview of Education Ministries in Selected Countries contains the important note that not all countries have a national curriculum, but does that inform the recommendations, and will anyone pay attention?

There are a variety of concerns many will raise about recommendations of the New Commission Mark II, Junior. (For one of the first out of the chute, see AFT's response.)  One that was rehearsed in the 1980s—when other comparatively-derived proposals looked at European tracking practices as a model—is that tracking students' educational careers at age 16 will make the inequalities in the current system harder to root out. Right now, many systems have a semi-soft tracking system: a substantial minority of students are actively encouraged to take challenging courses, while others are either actively discouraged (or encouraged to take non-challenging or remedial courses) or just not told about opportunities. That's the underlying purpose of Jay Mathews and other advocates of AP classes, to push schools to actively encourage students to take challenging academic classes in high school. Some school systems have started to soften that implicit tracking, encouraging a broader range of students to take AP and other challenging classes. If we end high school at age 16 and then track students into different types of institutions, we will risk increasing the inequalities in educational opportunities. As Fairtest head Monty Neill wrote yesterday,

If 16 year olds will be separated based on test scores, barring not only changes in school and in preschool but also in a wide range of other societal aspects, low income kids, kids of color, those whose first language are not English, those with disabilities, will be sorted out into some pretense of voc training (like McDonalds as was previously posted).

I don't know if Education Trust has weighed in yet on the recommendations of the New and Improved Commission Mark II, Junior, but if I were a betting man, I'd predict that they'll oppose it on these grounds.

A second argument against the structural recommendation for adolescents is about adult supervision of minors. If 16-year-olds are not only not required to attend school but are signaled, "Here's where school ends," then you'll have a much larger proportion of teenagers who will end their schooling. In the last several decades, young adults have had higher unemployment rates than adults over 25, so one possible consequence is a larger number of teens (maybe a little larger, maybe much larger) having nothing to do. I suspect that school boards will argue that if the common curriculum ends at age 16, crime will increase.

The appeal of a third argument is superficial, but I suspect it will be more important than the others in sinking the recommendations of the New and Improved 5% More Free! Commission Mark II, Junior:  If you end the standard school program at 16, there go high school athletics and much of the extracurricular activities that millions of Americans remember as the best part of high school. That common experience helps create what David Tyack and Larry Cuban have called the grammar of schooling, or what Mary Metz called the "real school" script. To many adults, a "real school" has a football team, cheerleaders, a high school newspaper, senior prom, a yearbook, etc. Efforts to end the common academic program at 16 will have to fight the positive memories of millions of Americans and a century-plus discourse on the need to appeal to (and sometimes appease) the tastes of teens. 

This is not to say that we shouldn't rethink the structure of schooling: we certainly should, regularly. As I've written before, there are significant historiographical flaws in Tyack and Cuban's Tinkering toward Utopia (1995), an historical brief for incrementalism. But at a first glance (i.e., the executive summary and some of the attached papers), the New and Improved 5% More Free! Commission Mark II, Junior, has gone about the redesign effort in the all-too-common ahistorical and narrowly-framed way.

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Posted in Education policy on December 16, 2006 10:57 AM |