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:

It was just part of the scenery out there, like the trees. You see a tree? You see a poster about when you are supposed to take your SATs. And then you’re getting ready for a game and people are talking about it…. It’s one of the main topics of conversation, which then I found really pathetic. But you’re swimming in it. Then you go back to Boston and it’s tenth grade and your friends are saying, “What’s an SAT?” In tenth grade? Not knowing when the SATs are, what they are? That’s sick.

Eaton leaves little doubt that METCO students acquire a considerable amount of what is now called “social capital.” Going well beyond immersion in a world punctuated by tests, requirements, and deadlines, these students acquired firsthand knowledge about mainstream American culture. They became comfortable in dealing with people who had money as well as knowledge about how things get done. They made helpful social contacts, not only with influential white families but, more importantly, with present and future leaders in the black community. They came to know firsthand the views and prejudices about blacks held by future members of the Establishment.

Many are ambivalent about how they acquired this capital. More than half remember wanting to drop out at one time or another. Nearly all METCO students report that they felt estranged at times from their home community. Not only were they beneficiaries of opportunities unavailable to neighbors and relatives in downtown Boston; but they often felt that their interest in the concerns of those back home was fading. Several said they came to identify strongly with the majority culture or that they felt confused about their identities or embarrassed by the differences between the two communities. Most went on to mainly white colleges and to careers that were more lucrative than those pursued by other inner-city black youths.

Yet, in what sounds like a happy ending, the METCO graduates testify that their estrangement did not persist. Most have returned to their home communities and in their interviews with Eaton they reaffirm connections with their African-American heritage. A large-scale survey conducted in the mid-Nineties of the METCO program by Gary Orfield, with whom Eaton worked, turned up two additional points: (l) signs of overt racism in the suburbs seem to have significantly diminished; (2) there is active lobbying in the suburban schools for including in the curriculum topics that capture the African-American experience.9 Both of these developments seem to fit with national trends.


METCO families are pursuing an American educational dream—sending their children to first-rate suburban schools. A contrasting and rapidly growing vision inspires the home-schooling movement. While there are now about 350,000 youngsters enrolled nationwide in charter schools, there are by most estimates between 700,000 and a million youngsters being taught at home. Their families emerge as a fiercely committed group who dedicate themselves tirelessly (often at considerable cost) to the education of their children; they proselytize for the benefits of a highly personalized education that many parents can often carry on more effectively than anyone else.

Mitchell Stevens, a sociologist at Hamilton College, interviewed forty home-schooling families in depth, and spoke less formally to several dozen others. Stevens also surveyed the growing literature on home-schooling and spent time with several people who are important in the state and national organizations that promote home schooling. Unlike Eaton, he writes as well about a national movement.

In the press and on television, home-schoolers are portrayed mainly as white Americans of strong Christian background, most of whom are right-wing fundamentalists. Stevens’s study confirms this generic picture, yet his study helps us go beyond it. First of all, the intellectual origins of home-schooling are surprisingly nonsectarian. For many years the chief theorist for the movement was the late John Holt, a progressive New England– based educator who taught at independent schools and often wrote for The New York Review of Books. Toward the end of his career, Holt became disaffected with formal schools and called for a movement that “de-schooled” society.10 Yet his own ideas share more with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Dewey than with the Bible or contemporary fundamentalist dogma. He wanted to bring out the individual genius in each child and to encourage children to explore a variety of subjects and achieve their own mastery of them, avoiding formal curricula and tests. While Holt himself (who died in 1985) is less well known today, home-schoolers continue to draw inspiration not only from his work but also from that of other academic thinkers who do not easily fit under the tent of Christian conservatism.

Stevens introduces a useful distinction between “believers” and “includers.” About 80 percent of home-schooling families make an explicit link to Christian belief, though they differ widely in the extent to which they tolerate other faiths. The remaining 20 percent—who generally want the practice of home-schooling to include people of different beliefs and political tendencies—make no explicit link to religion, and many are better described as liberals or libertarians who were influenced by the ideologies of the 1960s and are wary of hierarchy.

Most home-schoolers (nearly all in Stevens’s sample) are white. For an activity that would seem individualized, even isolated, they have a dizzying amount of organization and entrepreneurship. In addition to several hundred associations and several thousand local support groups, there are regional centers, correspondence courses, and, of course, Web sites. Not surprisingly, the believers are better organized than the includers; there are also tensions between the camps, with the includers resenting the better organization of the believers, the believers questioning the motives and actions of the more free-wheeling includers. When federal legislation seemed to threaten home-schooling, the believers set up an amazingly effective political lobby; but this gambit dwindled in importance once it emerged that the legislation had not been drafted with home-schooling in mind and would not affect it.

In the METCO study, the children felt the most acute pressures; in Stevens’s account it is the families that are strained. Home-schooling, it turns out, is really maternal schooling. Though the leaders of the state and national organizations are often men, with relatively few exceptions mothers do the day-to-day instruction. And to do so they often must give up the prospect of careers of their own while also carrying out much of the household work. Often with the help of home-schooling associations, they obtain many of the textbooks that local children use and they follow a curriculum that, whatever else it does, prepares children for college entrance tests as well as for the tests that home-schoolers must take in some states. The workload of the mothers creates a conflict that many home-schoolers have been unable to resolve. Should mothers accept—or even take pride in—this state of affairs? Should they declare that it is their biblical duty? Should they reveal how much work they actually do or promote the myth that their children are learning on their own? What messages are being sent to the children—boys and girls—and to the wider society about the ways women can develop their own possibilities?

What of the academic quality of home-schooling? One often hears about families who send their home-schooled offspring to Ivy League schools. In fact, average SAT scores for home-schoolers in the year 2000 were impressive—1100, compared with a national average of 1019. A study at the University of Maryland documented high average scores on another standard test. However, these statistics must be treated with caution. Home- schoolers are not randomly selected from the population (their parents are more concerned with education than most); many home-schoolers don’t take such tests; and far more families sample home-schooling than stay the course.

Still, it would not be surprising if home-schooling proves more effective, on the average, than mass schooling. Until I worked with my adolescent son on schoolwork for two hours each day last summer, including weekends, I had not fully appreciated the greatest advantage of home-schooling: one can stop each day at what seems a good point and pick up there the following day. In contrast, mass schooling is almost inevitably a Procrustean affair: one either strains to keep up with others, or slackens one’s pace to avoid antagonizing the less able.


Neither home-schooling nor voluntary busing to suburbs is going to be a widespread solution to the challenges of American education today. Yet the two approaches to education point up four dilemmas.

The first concerns neighborhood schools. Ideally, it is desirable to attend a school located near one’s home. Yet to the extent that Americans don’t like their local schools and have the means to venture beyond them, an ever smaller number of youngsters will walk to school. In all likelihood, youngsters will receive at least some education on the Internet, and more and more of them will have splintered educations—for example, going to one school for the basics, a second for extracurricular activities, perhaps a museum-like setting for arts or computing. Instead of knowing fifty children and adults very well, youngsters will know hundreds more superficially. To borrow an image from sociology, Americans are likely to grow up with fewer ties that are deep and long-lasting, and to have a large number of weak ties to a variety of people and institutions. School fund-raisers may ask themselves: To which reunions, if any, will tomorrow’s students gravitate?

A second dilemma concerns the child’s emerging sense of identity. When the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson wrote about the adolescent search for identity some fifty years ago, he anticipated that most children would emerge with a primary identity—one that made sense to them personally while being accepted as well by the community around them.11 In America, young people from immigrant families and minority groups would be influenced by the powerful image of the melting pot and, over time, their traditional heritage would recede in importance. Today American cultural imagery penetrates throughout the world, but the concept of a definite American identity has lost its appeal. Indeed, a variety of educational experiments challenge the notion of a single sense of identity, anchored in a single school, a single neighborhood, a primary cultural and ethnic setting. Groups—whether or not “true believers” in a particular faith or ethnic tradition—want their own identities, and they also want others to appreciate those identities; as the sociologist Nathan Glazer has written, “We are all multiculturalists now.”12

In this sense, the experiences of METCO youngsters are telling. They go to considerable lengths to improve their opportunities. Yet they are concerned that they may lose their ties to the African-American community, and after they graduate from college many return geographically and psychically to their community of origin. They may gain the benefits of absorbing two cultures while losing a single, integrated sense of identity. While Asians may follow the assimilationist path of earlier waves of immigrants, many Latinos and Native Americans seem closer to the African-American model. Moreover, it seems clear that the tendency toward such blended identities—whether people are comfortable or anxious about them—will shape the future.

A third issue relates to how children acquire social (or human) capital. In this rapidly changing era, where success is typically defined by economic status, children must master linguistic skills as well as develop habits of persistence, the capacity for “lifelong” learning, and knowledge of how major institutions work. Moreover, they must establish membership in one or more networks that will help them to find a desirable position in a community that they can accept—and that can come to the rescue should things not work out at first.

METCO youngsters gain access to social capital that is readily available in the Boston suburbs. In contrast, students who are home-schooled may well have little access to such capital unless their families already have it. So the families of home-schoolers often join powerful networks—religious, community, and state-wide associations—that are now virtual as well as tangible. As the old-boy network wanes in influence, we can expect that enterprising Americans will try to find new ways of securing social capital.

Finally, it is critical to monitor the influence of powerful institutions—corporations, philanthropies, and government—in the changing landscape of American education. Should these institutions support centrifugal or centripetal forces? Should they help young people and families to form strong identities, create ties within and across different communities, and secure financial or social capital? Should they allow these decisions to be made largely by market forces?

While ethnographic and other studies can provide relevant data, they cannot provide answers to questions of value. My own view has been that these powerful institutions should help young people (and their families) steer a course between centrifugal and centripetal forces. In a country as large, diverse, and complex as America, I doubt we can ever arrive at a single, best educational system—and we may start an uncivil war if we try. I despair, though, of an “anything goes” system, where every school or home can simply do what it wants, where oversight is lacking, and where central lessons about citizenship, democracy, tolerance, and responsibility are likely to be neglected. My own suggestion has been to outline a menu of a half a dozen or so K–12 pathways from which all American families can choose.13

Recently, however, I have come to believe that worldwide forces may overwhelm educational trends and decisions within our borders. Whether you are growing up in Detroit, Denmark, or Delhi, you have to deal with various manifestations of globalization. Every nation’s economy has become intermeshed with that of other parts of the world. Most developed nations now confront regular waves of legal and illegal immigration, a highly mobile population, and the prospect of a society that is far more multicultural and multilingual than it was fifty years ago.14 An increasingly computerized society means that many unskilled jobs are now automated and that those who want to succeed in the new economy must master new sets of basic skills.15

We can expect that the emerging generations will have to deal personally and electronically with people from remote cultural backgrounds, while at the same time youth the world over are affected by the same movies, news sources, shopping choices, and models of living and dying, including (alas) death by biological or technological error. Finally, it seems possible that genetics, with its possibilities for both therapy and engineering, will present young people with personal choices that seemed the stuff of science fiction a few decades ago.16

What do such developments mean for education in America and other developed countries? There will be an increasing premium on educational systems that can travel more easily across borders and meet the needs of globally organized businesses and social services. For example, the well-known Geneva-based International Baccalaureate secondary school program is now used in several hundred schools throughout the world; and the International Baccalaureate organization is now developing elementary and middle school curricula. Such trends and systems may not directly challenge individual and cultural identity; indeed their success across the globe presupposes that they do not clash with local values in Detroit, Denmark, or Delhi. At the same time, however, they may loosen people’s sense of belonging to a particular network, neighborhood, or nation.

Should such possibilities unfold, we will face a paradox. Education will become more centripetal—students will receive similar educations that allow them to deal with the challenges and opportunities of an internationally linked society. At the same time, just as the careers chosen by young professionals have become far more differentiated from one another, so, too, educational lives may also become more centrifugal—each family or group trying to create its own identity, secure its own capital, make its own connections. We lack at present both leaders and institutions that can make sense of these conflicting forces. But as experimenters in new patterns, the METCO families and the home-schoolers—so different in so many ways—may each be harbingers of the future.

This Issue

April 11, 2002