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Too Many Choices?


A century ago, fewer than 10 percent of young Americans went to high school and only 2 percent received degrees. Except for the handful who received a “classical education” in Latin and Greek, most students simply learned reading, writing, and arithmetic in the proverbial one-room schoolhouse before going to work in factories or on farms. As immigrants poured in between 1880 and 1920, schools emerged as the institutions that introduced English, transmitted a sense of American history and government, and made possible assimilation into the melting pot. In the 1920s and 1930s, progressive practices—inspired by the writings of the philosopher-educator John Dewey—arose as a counterforce. Progressive schools devoted greater attention to the child’s interests, offered electives, and tilted the curriculum toward social studies. Yet by mid-century, the influence of progressive education—which had rarely infiltrated the American heartland—had waned.

During the last fifty years, two trends have come to dominate precollegiate education in America. The Supreme Court’s 1954 decision that segregated schools are inherently unequal, along with the various civil rights laws enacted in the succeeding decade, led to an official bipartisan consensus to the effect that every American child—regardless of race, ethnicity, or class—deserves a quality education. It is a goal that remains very far from being fulfilled; but for the first time, sanctions are invoked against jurisdictions, schools, and even particular teachers and students who fail to meet academic standards. This promotion of a common ideal—the “centripetal” tendency—suggests that it is the nation’s, perhaps the federal government’s, job to make sure that higher standards are achieved. The Bush administration’s education bill calling for annual “high-stakes” testing in reading and mathematics in the elementary years is the most recent and most blatant example of this tendency.

An opposing “centrifugal” trend has arisen with perhaps even greater sharpness. Millions of Americans believe that public education is inadequate and that they should do more to secure a better education for their own children. America has always had families that gravitated toward independent schools, religious schools, or more idiosyncratic forms of learning. Yet until the 1960s, all but a small proportion of citizens accepted their local schools as adequate, rarely questioning curricula or teaching methods. Following the civil rights movement and general unrest of the 1960s, various “alternative schools” were launched, such as magnet schools designed to encourage integration. By the turn of the century, Americans have witnessed a great many new choices, the best known of which are the hundreds of charter schools that have arisen across the country and the growing number of voucher programs that make it possible for students to enroll in the public and, in some cases, the private schools of their choice.1

At present, the struggle between “centripetal” and “centrifugal” trends is becoming more and more intense on the American scene. Yet this struggle may ultimately be refashioned by economic, social, and technological forces that transcend national borders.

For those of a centripetal frame of mind, the right course for American precollegiate education is clear. There should be clear standards of accomplishment to which all students must be held accountable.2 Inspired by the examples of high-scoring students in East Asia and in parts of Europe, some authorities call for a national curriculum and for the establishment of “one best system” throughout the US.3 Some who are sympathetic to this approach are willing to allow each state its own standards, so long as it is possible to make comparisons among them; or to allow pedagogical and curricula experiments, so long as students can demonstrably pass standardized tests. This seems to be the mentality reflected in the education act recently passed by Congress.

Many others fear the heavy hand of uniformity in our schools. Educational leaders in the progressive tradition such as Theodore Sizer and Deborah Meier call for locally fashioned standards—“so I can look into the eyes of those who set the standards,” Sizer likes to remark.4 He and many others see nationally fashioned tests as clumsy instruments that inevitably involve arbitrary compromises over who and what is to be tested. They argue that they force schools to “teach to the test” instead of encouraging more exploratory and imaginative kinds of learning. Indeed there is considerable risk that high-stake tests will become de facto curricula, with property values becoming yoked to the mean scores of a school district. Many who speak for minorities also call for curricula that reflect the history and interests of particular racial or ethnic groups; as a result, schools may pay more attention to fostering a sense of cultural identity in students than to their mastering standard texts or tests.5

With its flexible education regulations, America in 2002 may well have a larger set of educational choices than any society at any time in human history. Though close to 90 percent of students still attend public schools, these schools can be charter schools, magnet schools, pilot schools, schools for the specially talented, or schools for those with mental or emotional handicaps. Catholic parochial schools serve an ever larger number of students in the inner cities. Well-to-do Americans send their offspring to increasingly expensive independent schools. Close to one million youngsters are now being schooled at home, mainly by their parents; they join many others in using materials available on the Internet. Vouchers offer choices to students in several cities and states, and for-profit companies have now entered the educational market place, often promising a superior education at less expenditure per pupil.


Books and articles about this bewilderingly complex educational landscape typically present facts about enrollment, funding, test results, and legislation aimed at improving the performance of students. When political candidates talk about education, they mainly discuss the kinds of tests they support, and the resources they would make available to disadvantaged youths. Yet families with children often have quite different questions in mind. What, they ask, are the actual experiences of children at school? What is it like to go to a charter school, to be home-schooled, to be an immigrant student in a largely native population, a Jewish or Muslim student at a parochial Catholic school, or an inner-city black student in a school attended largely by suburban whites? What are the longer-term consequences for students of these very different arrangements?

Two recent books provide revealing perspectives on experiences of those Americans who venture beyond the traditional local school. One concentrates on the experiences of children, the other on experiences of their families. Both raise searching questions about community, personal identity, and the role of powerful institutions in the coming years.

By the mid-1960s, a sizable number of black families in inner-city Boston were dissatisfied with the local public schools, which, in Jonathan Kozol’s unforgettable phrase, brought about “death at an early age.”6 It is worth noting that this dissatisfaction was manifest some years before the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, and a full decade before court- mandated busing was instituted in Boston in 1974. Drawing on the state’s Racial Imbalance Law of 1965, with financial support from the state government and the concurrence of several suburban communities, these families initiated the METCO program—Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity.7 METCO children were bussed each morning, in trips that frequently lasted an hour or more, from downtown Boston to Newton, Wayland, Belmont, and other well-funded suburban school systems. For over thirty years, with continuing if modest support from the state, steady numbers of black students sat in classrooms with white students by day and then returned at night to inner-city homes.

In light of difficulties over forced integration in the North and the South, the METCO program has been an important experiment. Its record should tell us something about how well black youngsters with ambition and courage have done in schools where, literally and culturally, they make up a minority. Surprisingly, until recently, there have been no studies of what has happened to METCO graduates in the long run. It seems possible that neither METCO’s supporters nor its detractors wanted to know too much about the success or failure of the program. The first attempt I know of to assess the program has been made by Susan Eaton, a Boston-based journalist. For her doctoral dissertation, she conducted in-depth interviews with sixty-five former students who had participated in METCO over the past thirty years, asking them to evaluate the costs and benefits of their involvement.

By and large, METCO emerges as a success. The participants sought a better education, and most report that they benefited from the program. Perhaps more strikingly, even those who described mixed or negative experiences say they would enroll again and, if given the opportunity, would enroll their own children in METCO. (In fact, several have.) The program currently has a waiting list of some 13,000 children.

Still, it was not easy to take part in METCO. The students had to rise early in the morning, travel to a town where they were clearly regarded as outsiders, and then return at night to a poorer world, where they were again treated by some as an outsider or even a turncoat. Most METCO youngsters had been strong students in Boston; few stood out academically in the suburbs, and some struggled just to pass. Some encountered overt racism; and nearly every student reported incidents where their schoolmates treated them insensitively. They remembered discussions where they felt that they were “silenced.” They encountered stereotypically negative views of inner-city Boston on the part of students and teachers, and little interest in black accomplishments and the positive aspects of African-American history—except, perhaps, in music, food, and clothing.

As a reader whose own experiences have been close to those of the suburban hosts, I was particularly touched by two passages. In fourth grade, a girl who is here named Patricia Baxter was paired for an assignment with a white classmate. Over twenty years later, Baxter vividly remembers what happened:

My partner was so fascinated with the fact that I was black…. She, you know, picked up the eraser off the board, and she started to put the chalk all over my face. The teacher immediately ran up to control her. At the time, I didn’t really understand what was going on. Then, after I got out and started to grow, that story always kind of came back to me, because I started to realize what was going on with them. They were so isolated, we were strange to them. I didn’t understand at the time how really isolated they all were.8

Baxter came to see how exotic she appeared to this white youngster. One is curious to know what thoughts went on in the teacher’s mind, and one would like to think that over the years Baxter became less mysterious to her classmates.

Reflecting on his years in a suburban high school in the Sixties, Dwight Stephens remembers that “people were on your back all the time” about deadlines and requirements for college. Such information and pressure came from friends, teachers, posters, parents, in class, in the hallways, on the playing fields, and on weekend sleepovers:

  1. 1

    See Howard Gardner, “Paroxysms of Choice,” The New York Review, October 19, 2000, pp. 44–49.

  2. 2

    For a sympathetic view of a clear set of standards, see William J. Bennett, Chester E. Finn Jr., and John T.E. Cribb Jr., The Educated Child (Touchstone, 2000); E.D. Hirsch Jr., The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them (Doubleday, 1996); Diane Ravitch, National Standards in American Education: A Citizen’s Guide (Brookings Institution, 1995).

  3. 3

    See Nicholas Lemann, “Ready, Read!” The Atlantic, November 1998, pp. 92– 104; Marshall S. Smith and Jennifer O’Day, “Systemic School Reform,” in Susan H. Furhman and Betty Malen, editors, The Politics of Curriculum and Testing: 1990 Yearbook of the Politics of Education Association (London: Taylor and Francis, 1990), pp. 233–267.

  4. 4

    Theodore R. Sizer, Horace’s School (Houghton Mifflin, 1992); Deborah Meier, The Power of Their Ideas: Lessons for America from a Small School in Harlem (Beacon, 1995).

  5. 5

    See James A. Banks and Cherry A.M. Banks, editors, Multicultural Education: Issues and Perspectives (Wiley, 2001); Catherine Cornbleth and Dexter Waugh, The Great Speckled Bird: Multicultural Politics and Education Policymaking (St. Martin’s, 1995); Ronald Takaki, editor, From Different Shores: Perspectives on Race and Ethnicity in America (Oxford University Press, 1994); Henry T. Trueba, Raising Silent Voices: Educating the Linguistic Minorities for the Twenty-First Century (Heinle and Heinle, 1988).

  6. 6

    Jonathan Kozol, Death at an Early Age (Houghton Mifflin, 1967).

  7. 7

    I have seen published references to METCO as beginning in 1963, 1965, and 1966.

  8. 8

    The choreographer Donald Byrd has used similar imagery in one of his dances.

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