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Hoover Institution Survey Finds Diminishing Support for Charters, Which is GOOD News… Continuing Support for Testing, Which is SAD News

August 15, 2017 Leave a comment

The lead story in today’s Education Week feed by Arianna Prothero provides an overview of the results from a recent survey conducted by EDNext, a journal published by Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. The survey was designed to determine support for and opposition to various public education policies. The good news for those of us who oppose the expansion of charter schools and the privatization that it facilitates, is that broad public support for charter schools is falling. The somewhat troubling news is that “…opposition toward school vouchers and other similar policies that direct public aid toward private schools has softened.” a finding that is somewhat mitigated because support for vouchers has not increased.

From my perspective, though, the worst news in the survey was described as an afterthought that didn’t even warrant a header in the column:

Testing and holding schools accountable for student performance continues to have broad support across members of both parties. About two-thirds of respondents agree with the federal requirements to test students in math and reading every year from the latter elementary grades through middle school and once in high school.

To me this finding is disturbing on several levels. It shows that a solid majority of voters equate “test results” with “education quality”. It’s framing insinuates that “grade levels” based on age cohorts are a “given”— that time must be constant and performance must be variable. And it implies that the public still believes there should be some kind of consequence associated with schools that enroll students who do not fare well on standardized tests.

In short, the governance of schools remains fluid in the minds of those composing the survey and those responding to the survey, but the structure of schools remains fixed: they must be organized by age-based grade levels. Until the structure of schools is called to question, summative standardized testing will remain entrenched and performance will vary among age cohorts. Once we are free from the factory paradigm, we can move toward mastery learning based on formative assessments and structured teacher observations.

ESSA Does Provide an Opportunity to Expand Mastery Learning… Will States Seize the Chance?

August 12, 2017 Leave a comment

25 years ago when I was beginning my second term was Superintendent in MD, my staff members and I decided we would make an earnest effort to introduce the concept of mastery learning to our district. Our plan was to develop an “Essential Curriculum” that would identify the sequence of skills every student needed to master in subject areas and then develop performance assessments to determine if students had mastered the plan. Students would progress through the sequence at their own pace, based on our credo that performance would be constant and time would be variable. Letter grades would be abandoned in favor of periodic progress reports and “grade levels” might ultimately be abandoned in favor of “families” or “pods”. It was an ambitious plan that was ultimately set aside because the State began launching what would ultimately become the Maryland State Performance Program, a precursor to the the kinds of state level tests that NCLB mandated. As the State Department began developing its guidelines for testing, it became evident that time would remain constant and performance wold be variable. That is, all tests would be administered during one time period to grade level cohorts defined by the age of students. While this state initiative did not derail our efforts to develop an Essential Curriculum, it DID undermine the direction we hoped to head in terms of assessing and grouping students. In effect, the decision to administer state-wide standardized tests flew in the face of mastery learning…. and not just in Maryland, but across the nation once NCLB was put in place.

NCLB testing did not extend to high schools, and some states, most notably Vermont and New Hampshire, passed regulations that enabled high schools to award credit for something other than “seat time”, opening the door for mastery learning to be introduced at the high school level. This open door led to partnerships with post secondary institutions, the introduction of on-line non-profit and public school sponsored on-line courses, and opportunities for students to gain credit for experiential learning.

My misgivings about ESSA are well documented in this blog, especially given the GOP dominated statehouses across the nation who might use the state level flexibility to re-impose failed ideas like VAM and using tests as the sole or primary metric for “grading” schools. But, as Kyle Spencer reported in yesterday’s NYTimes, ESSA DOES provide an opportunity for schools and school districts to achieve the concepts our district in MD set out to implement 25 years ago. In “A New Kind of Classroom: No Grades, No Failing, No Hurry”, Mr Spencer describes precisely the kind of program we hoped to implement… and it describes the kinds of resistance we ran into apart from the state standardized test program. The exemplary program Mr. Spencer profiled in NYC’s MS 442 allows students to progress at their own rate, gives them and their parents timely feedback as the progress through the course sequences, and makes performance constant and time the variable.

But programs like the one Mr. Spencer describes, as he notes, does engender resistance from several sources. Parents who want to know the child’s “grade” are befuddled by the system that tracks progress through a sequence of skills. The high schools, who seek a percentage score as an admissions criteria, are flummoxed by the skill reporting as well, forcing the cadre of NYC schools using the mastery approach to develop an algorithm to assign such “grades” to its students. Teachers who find the change of approach mind-boggling have left the schools where mastery learning has been introduced.

Mr. Spencer’s article captures the ways that mastery learning is a radical departure from the dominant “factory” paradigm and how it plays out from the student’s perspective and emphasizes how the emerging grassroots mastery schools movement is necessarily different from school-to-school. He also describes the two factors that are making mastery learning possible now more than ever: ESSA… and technology:

…The rise of online learning has accelerated the shift, and school technology providers have been fierce advocates. It’s no surprise that schools adopting the method are often the same to have invested heavily in education software; computers are often ubiquitous inside their classrooms.

He also describes the reasons that mastery learning might be compromised: by focussing on cost-cutting; by devolving into a checklist mentality for all courses; by assuming that the metrics used to measure “mastery” are perfect;

Mastery-based learning, of course, has its critics. Amy Slaton, a professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia who studies the history of science and engineering in education, worries that the method is frequently adopted to save costs. (When paired with computers, it can lead to larger classrooms and fewer teachers.)

Jane Robbins, a lawyer and senior fellow at the American Principles Project who has written critically about mastery-based education, said she finds the checklist nature of the system anti-intellectual. While it may work to improve math skills, it is unlikely to help students advance in the humanities, she said.

Others question the method’s efficacy. Elliot Soloway, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Education, contends that students learn by slowly building on knowledge and frequently returning to it. He rejects the notion that students have learned something simply because they can pass a series of assessments. He suspects that shortly after passing those tests, students forget the material.

But the advocates for mastery learning, which include your humble blogger, see it as an imperfect but potentially better way to reach all students more effectively. This quote reflects my thinking:

In any event, advocates argue, the current education system is not working. Too many students leave high school ill prepared for college and careers, even though traditional grading systems label many top performers. Last year, only 61 percent of students who took the ACT high school achievement test were deemed college-ready in English. In math, only 41 percent were deemed college-ready.

Mr. Spencer’s article is a balanced presentation on mastery learning and it implicitly emphasizes the complications schools will face in implementing such a program. But the traditional factory paradigm is clearly failing large numbers of children in our country and, Mr. Soleway’s rejoinders notwithstanding, does not afford opportunities for students to “… learn by slowly building on knowledge and frequently returning to it”. Indeed, if time is constant and performance is variable, the relentless march to “cover” the curriculum precludes any chance for “…slowly building on knowledge and frequently returning to it”! 

I am heartened to see the NYTimes reporting on this movement… and hope that as other schools and districts read this they, too, will consider moving in this direction.

 

 

A Skeptical Blogger Looks at Horace Mann’s Factory School and Proposed a Heretical Fix

July 28, 2017 Leave a comment

The Medium feeds me articles of interest in a wide array of topics ranging from sports to public education, and one of their posts introduced me to a skeptical analyst of history named William Treseder. In a July 4 post titled “One Man Created the Education System Holding You Back “, Mr. Treseder provides an overview of the history of public education that rings true, emphasizing that the system created by Horace Mann was designed to help with the transition from an agrarian economy to a industrial one. But, Mr. Treseder asserts that the values Horace Mann’s ideal school system inculcated are no longer relevant:

Education isn’t really about learning! More specifically, it isn’t about learning how to learn. It’s about learning how to conform. Predictability is the ultimate goal.

This idea should scare you. And even if it is only partially true, the idea explains a lot. We are struggling in the 21st century because conformity is no longer that valuable to companies. Software and hardware increasingly shoulder those burdens. Now the economy wants something else. Something unique, and creative. Something our education didn’t cover.

Later in the article Mr. Treseder provides this synopsis of how the Horace Mann’s “job factory” worked:

It’s worth reminding ourselves now about the key characteristics of the industrial era, and how we can see them manifested in the education system that continues to operate across America to this day:

– Schools focus on respecting authority
– Schools focus on punctuality
– Schools focus on measurement
– Schools focus on basic literacy
– Schools focus on basic arithmetic

Notice how these reinforce each other. You enter the system one way, and are crammed through an extended molding process. The result? A “good enough” cog to jam into an industrial machine.

Mr. Treseder believes that the “good enough” attitude was baked into the factory model espoused by Horace Mann in several ways, but that “good enough” attitude contradicts the needs we have today and results in schools inculcating habits that are counterproductive to success in today’s world. He offers five examples of practices that he believes need to be eliminated and five habits that could replace them. Here are the five that need to be eliminated, a list that resonates with me:

  1. Filling up the day with time-bound activities
  2. Accepting whatever you’re assigned
  3. Completing projects at the last minute
  4. Obsessing over quantified ranks and scores
  5. Sitting still for 8+ hours per day

And in their place, Mr. Treseder suggests we emphasize the following principles and practices:

  1. Replace time-bound activities with outcome-based activities. Focus on meetings — the worst culprit — and the decisions you want out of them. If you can’t think of a decision, don’t have the meeting.
  2. Summarize the goals of a new project to the person who asked for it, making sure you know exactly what is supposed to be accomplished, and why.
  3. Plan to complete a v1.0 of each project by the 50% mark. This is a chance to get valuable corrective feedback from other people, despite how uneasy you may feel with your “ugly” project.
  4. Focus on the “Why?” of each project and knocking it out of the park. Take time at the beginning of the project to get inspired by the work of others, then shut out the rest of the world.
  5. Get off your ass.
 As #5 indicates, Mr. Treseder’s essay is written in a smart-aleck tone, but as the list indicates he is definitely insightful as to the deficiencies of public education today…. and the tone may reflect his abiding belief that making the kinds of changes he advocates will be daunting.

A Swedish School with One Rule Offers a Disruptive Perspective on the Workplace and Schools

July 24, 2017 Leave a comment

Lisa Gill, a corporate consultant who reimagines workplaces, wrote a post last week describing Glömstaskolan, a uniquely designed and operating school located south of Stockholm. A schools whose pillars are “collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and communication“, Glömstaskolan is designed to provide opportunities for flexible learning spaces for large group instruction and tutorial sessions, and everything in between. It offers specialized spaces as well: a music room is in the centre of the school (with soundproof walls, of course); a green room to make films, 3D printers, and a concrete jungle outside.

As Ms. Gill writes, the school has one rule which is (roughly translated): “I want it to be good for you and I will do what makes you good.” From my perspective, it is roughly equivalent to the Golden Rule, which is a common thread through all religions: ‘Never treat others as you would not like to be treated yourself.’ In the case of Glömstaskolan, Ms. Gill cites the inspiration as coming from elsewhere and can be applied as a means of developing a student directed self-imposed discipline code: :

It’s a mantra inspired by football coach Pia Sundhage, who led the US women’s football team from 2008 to 2012, resulting in two Olympic gold medals. You can engage students (and indeed teachers) in a thoughtful discussion about any behaviour by using this one rule. For example, as winter was approaching, children began to ask if they were allowed to have snowball fights in the yard. Teachers encouraged the students to think about it in relation to the rule and so they began discussing options — maybe it would be ok if there was a predesignated area where it was ok to throw snowballs, supervised by a teacher… Of course throwing ice would be dangerous so that wouldn’t be ok… And so on. It’s a very adult-to-adult approach, giving students the freedom to influence how things are so long as they accept the responsibility for the outcomes.

And the approach extends to faculty members as well, who need to change their approach if they hope to succeed in the unorthodox structure of the school. Ms. Gill cites the work of a “visiting architect, Peter Lippman, who consults in the operation of the school. Mr. Lippman’s philosophy about the two most important questions we should ask in life serve as an overarching governance principle. Those two questions:

1) Why?, and 2) Why not? Most schools (or indeed institutions) never bother to ask these questions yet children ask them all the time! This was how the snowball fight situation arose — why couldn’t they have snowball fights? Because they’re dangerous. So what if measures could be taken to make them safe? Then there’s no reason why not.

Ms. Gill shows how these questions applied to practices applied to children who like to learn lying on the floor instead of at a desk, and “standard practices” like parent-teacher conferences and weekly newsletters. As an organizational consultant, Ms. Gill offers several lessons she learned from visiting Glömstaskolan, which are summarized below:

1. Workplace design — Give people a choice about where and how they work and you’ll see them thrive.

2. Minimum Viable Bureaucracy — Could you scrap your rules and policies in favour of just one principle as Glömstaskolan have done? If that’s too radical, you could take inspiration from the WD-40 Company which asks each employee to take a learning maniac pledge and each year asks employees worldwide to vote for the stupidest HR policy. If the leadership team can’t justify or clarify a policy, they kill it. In other words, they ask Lippman’s questions: “Why?” and “Why not?”

3. Social pedagogues — Ms. Gill described “social pedagogues” as individuals who work with children who are out of sorts. She poses the question: “What would a social pedagogue look like in an organisation? As our work becomes more complex and dependent on collaborating with others, our social needs are increasingly important. Companies like Spotify or self-managing healthcare organisation Buurtzorg (14,000 employees, 0 managers) are choosing coaches over managers — individuals who support and liberate the potential of individuals and teams, rather than control or micromanage them.” What if schools did the same thing?

4. With great freedom comes great responsibility — There are so many stories of ‘difficult’ children failed by the rigidity of traditional schools who have thrived in alternative schools where they are given more freedom. What if ALL schools began with the assumption that children who are given freedom are more willing and able to accept responsibility?

5. Talk about what’s under the surface — The teachers at Glömstaskolan have learnt to talk about previously taboo interpersonal issue, which has led to new depths of communication and collaboration as a team.

Organizational theorists have much to offer public schools in countries like Sweden… but in our country, obsessed with test results and competition, it seems unlikely that concepts like “collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and communication” will gain traction and, alas, even more unlikely that the one rule we would follow would be: I want it to be good for you and I will do what makes you good. 


 

“Grade Levels” are an Administrative Convenience…Standardized Test “Grade Levels” are a Statistical Artifact… and BOTH Block Mastery Learning

July 21, 2017 Leave a comment

I am bewildered by the fact that most of the general public and most people associated with public education believe that “grade levels” linked to age cohorts are a natural, biological and developmentally appropriate means of grouping children and, because of that fact,”grade levels” linked to age cohorts are a fair, equitable and valid means of categorizing students for the purpose of measuring their performance.

But here’s are two facts: the grouping of students into “grade levels” based on their age cohorts was a practice instituted in the early 1900s for administrative convenience. Once it became THE “standard” means of grouping students, it also became the basis for scoring “standardized tests” that became the basis for creating homogeneous “ability” groups within those grade levels, norm-referenced tests that used scale scores to determine if students were performing “at grade level”.

In the late 1900s it appeared there might be an opportunity to replace norm-referenced standardized tests that sort and select students with criterion referenced tests that help determine if students have mastered the material presented in class or learned outside of the classroom .The technology was emerging that would make the use of such tests feasible, and, had the hoped for conversion to mastery learning taken place it was possible that student directed learning would have replaced test-driven learning.

Since NCLB, the administratively convenient standardized tests have moved to the forefront. Predictably, their results, which would necessarily yield a bell curve, demonstrated a large number of “failing students” and, just as predictably, those “failing students” were housed in schools serving children raised in poverty whose test results correlated strongly with the income of their parents.

Now that these “failing schools” require “take overs” by the State, and given that the State Departments of Education do not have the wherewithal to oversee all of the schools identified as “failing” based on standardized test scores, the “failing schools” are turned over to private contractors who promise to get better results on tests in exchange for a waiver of regulations and relief from the “administrative burdens” imposed by teacher unions.

When Congress repealed NCLB by passing ESSA, the misnamed “Every Student Succeeds Act”, and President Obama signed it into law, there was SOME hope in my part of New England that given the flexibility built into ESSA that they might be able to institute some mastery-learning and/or student-directed learning into their state plans. When the bill passed, I was hopeful of that outcome for Vermont and New Hampshire, the two states I worked in before I retired… but also dreading how other states might use their flexibility to impose things like “value-added” measures and school choice. I was also fearful that those states who rejected the Common Core might feel liberated and impose Creation Science requirements or limit the teaching of climate change

Now… several months later, it is clear my hopes will not be realized in either Vermont or– especially in New Hampshire… and my fears about the direction other states would take were well founded. Worse, as reported in yesterday’s Politico Morning Edition for education it appears that after declaring that the USDOE would give states flexibility in determining their accountability measures— which MIGHT have given them some flexibility— the USDOE is rejecting any metrics that move away from standardized tests based on grade levels. Here’s Politico reporter Benjamin Wermund’s analysis of on state’s experience at trying to move away from the “traditional” model of accountability by using scale scores instead of “grade levels”:

Connecticut, in its updated plan, stands by the use of scale scores to measure academic achievement, rather than grade-level proficiency. Scale scores convert a student’s grades to a common scale – for example, 300 to 900 – enabling educators to distinguish the relative performance of students at the high and low ends of the same proficiency level. The Education Department told Connecticut in June that the law requires a greater focus on whether students are performing at grade-level. And a team of federal reviewers, who separately provided notes on the plan, said the state’s approach to grading schools “lacks transparency.”

But Connecticut officials disagree. “Webster’s dictionary defines proficiency not only as a state of being proficient, but also as an advancement in knowledge or skill,” they write in their revised plan, which calls scale scores “the most accurate measure of a student’s proficiency.” Connecticut’s new plan says that “characterizing a student’s achievement solely as falling into an achievement level is an extreme oversimplification,” and “solely relying on a binary proficient/not proficient approach encourages unsound educational practices.” Colorado and Massachusetts also want to use scale scores. Massachusetts received similarly discouraging feedback from the Education Department, while Colorado is still waiting. Read Connecticut’s revised plan.

If ESSA does require “a greater focus on whether students are performing at grade-level” then there is yet another reason to lament it’s passage. Scale scores are not a perfect means of determining mastery, but they DO move the thinking of educators, parents, and decision-makers away from the statistical artifact of “grade level scores” and compel them to be more open-minded to different forms of accountability and instruction. If ESSA does NOT explicitly require “a greater focus on whether students are performing at grade-level”, then I hope that Lamar Alexander and other Senators will speak out against this interpretation by USDOE. If ESSA’s intent is to fulfill Betsy DeVos’ stated ideal of pushing for  “…reforms locally that will help to ensure all children, no matter their zip code, have access to an education environment that works for them”, allowing states to set their own accountability standards is a step in the right direction.

D.A.R.E. is NOT the Solution to Drug Abuse… Interagency Cooperation IS!

July 13, 2017 Leave a comment

I just finished reading two articles in succession that illustrate the right way and wrong way to prevent and treat the use of drugs. Matt Ferner’s Huffington Post article, “Jeff Sessions Wants to Bring Back D.A.R.E”, describes the Attorney General’s throwback solution to dealing with drug abuse, resurrecting D.A.R.E., an idea developed in the 1980s and promoted by Nancy Reagan and many Chambers of Commerce and local police forces. The idea behind D.A.R.E. was appealing: have local police officers come into schools and teach children about the evils of drug use, the kinds of drugs that are available, and how to Just Say No to drugs when someone is trying to encourage you to use them. Here’s Mr. Ferner’s description of the program:

D.A.R.E., originally created in 1983 by the Los Angeles Police Department, placed uniformed police officers into classrooms around the nation to speak to children about the dangers of drug use and to tout the benefits of a drug-free life.

It was immensely popular and remained so for years, eventually reaching 75 percent of U.S. school districts and 52 countries around the world, according to the program’s website. Black T-shirts and bumper stickers with D.A.R.E. splashed across them in bright red lettering became iconic symbols of the 1980s and Nancy Reagan’s broader “Just Say No” to drugs campaign.

But D.A.R.E. had one big problem: it didn’t work. As Mr. Ferner summarized later in his article:

But despite Sessions’ advocacy, research over several decades has found that the program didn’t actually make much of a difference in preventing drug use by youth.

“D.A.R.E. does not work to reduce substance use,” a 1998 National Institute of Justicereport to Congress reads. “The programs’s content, teaching methods, and use of uniformed police officers rather than teachers might each explain its weak evaluations.”

A 2003 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which analyzed six long-term evaluations of D.A.R.E.’s elementary school curriculum at the time, found “no significant differences in illicit drug use” between students in the fifth or sixth grade who received the program and students who did not. GAO also reported that five of six evaluations reviewed found “no significant differences” between the students’ attitudes toward “illicit drug use and resistance to peer pressure.”

While two of the evaluations did find D.A.R.E. students showed “stronger negative attitudes about illicit drug use and improved social skills about illicit drug use” about a year after receiving the program, those effects diminished over time.

In an administration that cares little for evidence based decision making and a lot about optics, the return of D.A.R.E. with police cast as “good guys with guns” makes good political sense. But if we had government leaders who cared about results, they might take a look at what has happened over the past few years in Laconia NH and try to replicate what has transpired there. As reported by Benjamin Rachlin in the NYTimes, the police department in that small city has assigned one individual, Eric Adams, to be “Prevention, enforcement and treatment coordinator” for the community, a position they created and funded when they realized that drug addiction was a disease and not a legal problem. The result?

In the nearly three years since, as overdose rates have climbed across New Hampshire, those in Laconia have fallen. In 2014, the year Adams began, the town had 10 opioid fatalities. In 2016, the number was five. Fifty-­one of its residents volunteered for treatment last year, up from 46 a year before and 14 a year before that. The county as a whole, Belknap, had fewer opioid-­related emergency-­room visits than any other New Hampshire county but one. Of the 204 addicts Adams has crossed paths with, 123 of them, or 60 percent, have agreed to keep in touch with him. Adams calls them at least weekly. Ninety-­two have entered clinical treatment. Eighty-­four, or just over 40 percent of all those he has met, are in recovery, having kept sober for two months or longer. Zero have died.

How did this happen? Inter-agency collaboration and coordination. The article doesn’t state it this succinctly, but here’s a description of Mr. Adams’ first days on the job:

As soon as he began the job, Adams researched what social-­service organizations the region had to offer and drove to their offices to introduce himself. A few employees at places like these knew one another from previous referrals, but many didn’t, so Adams went about acquainting them. At health conferences, he arrived to the quizzical frowns of social workers and realized that, of some 200 attendees, he was the only police officer. A network gradually sprouted around him. 

I have long advocated the need for greater interagency cooperation, particularly between law enforcement, social workers, and public schools (see this, for example). In my experience, it is rare for formal communication channels to be established among these agencies and as a result the services and support provided to children in need are disconnected and uncoordinated.

My advice to Mr. Sessions: Instead of spending time and money resurrecting a program with a proven record of insignificance, find ways to replicate the Laconia Police Department’s efforts to coordinate efforts among those local agencies trying to address addiction.

Bryce Covert’s Review of Richard Reeves’ New Book Exposes His Timidity, Underscores Need to Reformat Schools

July 6, 2017 Leave a comment

Bryce Covert, the Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress and columnist for The Nation, wrote an insightful review of Brookings Institute’s Richard Reeves’ new book Dream Hoarders. The premise of Mr. Reeves’ book is that the top 20% (i.e. those who earn roughly $117,000 or more) has experienced as many benefits from the economic expansion as the top .01% yet they— and the politicians— erroneously think of themselves as “middle class”. As a consequence, when politicians promise to “protect the middle class” from tax cuts they define the “middle class” as anyone making less than $250,000. Furthermore, as Mr. Reeves points out, those in the top 20% are not being asked to make any sacrifices when it comes to helping improve the opportunities for the bottom 80% to advance. Ms. Covert writes:

While, Reeves notes, individual members of the 1 percent can swing their money around to great impact, the upper middle class as a bloc has outsized influence. “[T]he size and strength of the upper middle class means that it can reshape cities, dominate the education system, and transform the labor market,” he writes. When their interests are threatened, the members of this class have the social capital to fight back….

Pretending that people making six figures are middle class, and then promising to protect them from any tax increases, means politicians are unable to ask these families to pay a tiny tax into new universal benefits like paid family leave. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Real solutions to exponentially increasing income inequality will require extensive public investment. And the tax revenue required can’t all come from the top 1 percent... “[M]ore money can be raised from the upper middle class without plunging them into near poverty…,” he notes. “[I]f we need additional resources for public investment, it is reasonable to raise some of them from the upper middle class.”

But Ms. Covert asserts that it is not sufficient to ask the top 20% for only higher taxes, and she believes that while Mr. Reeves’ recognizes this reality, he fails to offer the tough recommendations needed to change this reality:

(Reeves) also sees this class as not just defined by income, but by better health, education, occupational opportunities, and even different family structure. The upper middle class then uses these assets to hoard opportunities for itself, perpetuating an unfair system: Its members fight to preserve zoning laws that keep the good schools free of poorer children, find ways to pay their children’s way into elite colleges (he takes particular umbrage with legacy admissions), and trade favors to get their kids into unpaid internships. The rich skew the game so that American class structure stays entrenched.

In this way, Reeves accurately names a problem that too often goes unacknowledged. But his solutions for the problem are weak at best.

While he admits that his suggestions for how to solve perpetual class stratification are just a starting point, the lack of teeth is telling. He suggests providing low-income Americans with better access to family planning and home visits from nurses for new parents, ignoring the fact that single mothers fare a whole lot better in countries that actually spend enough on their social safety nets. He wants better teachers in K-12 schools, a less complex college loan process, more support for vocational training, and the end to legacy admissions at elite universities, but stops short of calling for a full-scale overhaul of the educational system, one that would put an end to racial segregation and ensure adequate funding for all…

He doesn’t want the Department of Housing and Urban Development to ensure that communities comply with fair housing rules or even to make upper-middle-class areas accept more high-rises; he just wants more three-story buildings. On taxes, he believes, “As a general principle, it is better for people to be able to spend their own money rather than have it taken away from them,” which leads him to endorse merely limiting some tax deductions used by the well-off.

Ms. Covert believes that “...for all his talk of a rigged system, Reeves doesn’t actually want to transform it“. Rather, Ms. Covert believes that Mr. Reeves wants to ensure that every child born into poverty has an equal opportunity to move into the upper 20%, a possibility that he believes is close at hand. Ms. Covert sees Mr. Reeves’ perception as flawed on two levels. First, it assumes that our economy must be a zero-sum game where there will always be a 20/80 split and secondly, it naively assumes that women and minorities are currently afforded the same opportunities as men and whites. In short, Ms. Covert does not share Mr. Reeves beliefs that a true meritocracy is close at hand. She concludes her review with these paragraphs:

Meanwhile, meritocracy is more often to blame for perpetuating discrimination than heralding its end. One study found that when an organization explicitly calls itself a meritocracy, managers favor male employees over female ones. If a workplace, or a society, believes that all one needs to get ahead is talent, it quickly ignores anything else that might keep someone from rising.

Reeves says he wants upper-middle-class Americans like himself to pay more so that the playing field is leveled for all. But his solutions suggest he’s not willing to take that instinct very far. His class wouldn’t have to pony up very much for the milquetoast solutions he puts forward. Even after his ideal revisions, the basic structure of America’s ruthless market-based society would remain intact. In his world, being a member of the lower classes, even with more mobility, would still destine you to destitution.

I believe Ms. Covert’s analysis is accurate: in order for those born into poverty, especially the young women born into poverty, to succeed, some deep changes in our economic system are necessary, changes that could be presaged by changing the format of our schools. As long as school boundaries are set by socio-economic demographics we will continue to reinforce the rigid 20/80 split in place making it increasingly difficult for those in the lower 80% to advance into the professional class. The imaginative use of technology might make those boundaries disappear… but only if we can make our current format of education— whereby children are grouped by age-based cohorts called “grades levels”— disappear as well.