What American educational oligarchy looks like in 2015

It seems like the fact of drastic educational inequality is becoming more widely known in the United States of 2015.  At the same time, gaps of race and class are widening and normalizing.

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 And we refuse to do anything about it, basically, preferring to accept, if not celebrate our entrance into Thomas Piketty’s world.

Fieldston logoCase in point: a heartbreaking This American Life story, “Three Miles“.  Take the time to listen to the stream, or at least read through the whole transcript.  “Three Miles” follows several poor, nonwhite New York City people from being K-12 students to entering adult life, tracing how their educational fate was powerfully determined – i.e., restricted –  by race and especially class.

Listen/read carefully to this opening depiction of a yawning gulf between two nearly neighboring schools:

Lisa Greenbaum’s school, University Heights High School, is a public school. It’s 97% black and Hispanic. It’s located in the poorest congressional district in the country, the South Bronx.

Angela Vassos’ school, Fieldston [full name: the Ethical Culture Fieldston School], is also in the Bronx, but it’s one of New York City’s elite private schools. It’s 70% white. It’s known as a progressive school. One in five kids gets financial aid, which is helpful, because last year tuition was $43,000.

That’s where this starts.  Realize that UHHS isn’t the worst high school – there aren’t any metal detectors, for example.  We don’t follow the normal paths of UHHS children, in fact, but trace several extreme outliers.  Unusually ambitious and talented students, apparently well supported by their schools, aim for the academic stars, get broken, then fall back to where they started.

Here’s the main character of the story describing her reaction to visiting Fieldston:

Melanie I know I looked at it and I said, well, I know that we’re only being taught to flip burgers in Burger King or McDonald’s or to hold doors for students like them that will probably live in those buildings on Madison Avenue, and we’ll be wearing the uniform, servicing these people.

Chana Joffe You thought that when you were at Fieldston?

Melanie Definitely.

The good work of the POSSE Foundation stands out in this story, but it’s far too small to change the real problem of inequality.

There’s more to the story, and you should read it.  Then place it alongside another glimpse of education and inequality, the New York Times and its love affair with the 1%.  Remember that this is not only America’s “newspaper of record”, but is also a leading Democratic/liberal organ to some degree.  Nonetheless, or because of that, the Times is all about celebrating the elite.

ITEM: a fawning piece on the children of rich and powerful Hollywood families.  Its title refers to “a Spielberg and a Goldwyn”, assigning them the role of aristocracy.  As Naked Capitalism observes.  But the Times goes further, carefully laying out not only their biological lineage, but their educational bona fides:

Ms. Spielberg and Ms. Goldwyn first met as 6-year-olds.

“We took a ‘spirituality for kids’ class together,” said Ms. Spielberg, who called it “the most L.A. thing ever.”

Later, they crossed paths at summer camps in Maine and Idyllwild, Calif., before cementing their friendship during five years spent at the private all-girls Marlborough School in Los Angeles.

By 2012, Ms. Goldwyn had graduated from Stanford and was working as a writer’s assistant on the short-lived NBC sitcom “Up All Night.” Ms. Spielberg was a senior at Brown University. They reconnected and began to collaborate.

Advanced classes at elementary school?  Check.  Private schools as teens?  Check.  The 3rd and 30th richest universities in the United States?

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 Check.  Then it’s off to media gigs and bowing and scraping from the New York Times.

ITEM: a charming piece about the 1%’s children learning how to buy some of the richest real estate in the world.  It begins with a kid coaxing his parents into buying a new apartment for about $14 million.  You know, like the rest of us.

The Times carefully notes that these are the richest families, using the gentle code of “children in certain precincts of Manhattan.”  And mentions one kid with his own baby grand piano: “[O]ne teenager… told his mother that the C line would be better because of his baby grand piano.” Ultimately, he and his Steinway carried the day.”

Of course it’s a Steinway.  Nothing but the best for our oligarchs.

There’s even a story about the low end elite:

“I had clients who were looking at places that were under $3 million, and their daughter, a high school junior, went online and found a visually stunning place on the Upper East Side that was $3.5 million,” said a broker who requested anonymity so as not to scuttle a deal in progress. “She got her parents to go look at it and they loved it so much they decided to raise their price point.”

How does this connect with “Three Miles”?  One anecdote in the NYTimes piece refers to a family looking for a building with a doorman: “Mrs.

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Haggerty, who is looking for a doorman building, preferably on the Upper East Side, with a live-in super, two or three bedrooms, a gym and, if possible, some outdoor space.”  In contrast, the poor kids from the Bronx expect to become doormen.  Remember the passage above? “[W]e’re only being taught… to hold doors for students like them that will probably live in those buildings on Madison Avenue, and we’ll be wearing the uniform, servicing these people.

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ITEM: the Times urges schools to keep on with massive amounts of testing, despite the many, well understood problems it occasions.  NB: that’s an editorial from the entire editorial board, not from some lone, outside writer.

In early 2015 America is becoming a nation increasingly cloven into two peoples, separated by the combined forces of class, race, and education.  I’ve referred to this as a Gilded Age 2.0 future.  It seems like we’re heading towards it at full speed.  The idea of education as an academic equalizer and a way for poor folks to vault into the middle class seems to be fading away.  Maybe that’s a 20th-century relic, like low income inequality.

How should educators respond?  If you’re affiliated with an academic institution, how is your campus responding?

PS: along these lines, I hope to read Robert Putnam’s new book soon, despite its apparent flaws.  Would anyone like to read it with me?

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16 Responses to What American educational oligarchy looks like in 2015

  1. I’d read Putnam with you.

  2. VanessaVaile says:

    Reblogged this on As the Adjunctiverse Turns and commented:
    We already know what the educational oligarchy looks like from inside the profession, as a workplace. Let us not forget: we are not alone on the wrong side of the widening gap

  3. skjandrews says:

    I’d try to read Putnam with you, but the problem I have with “Our Kids” right now is that my daughter has to start sleeping through the night before I have any time for extra reading.

  4. Sebastien says:

    I’ve toured Fieldstone (upper and lower), Bryan, and regularly spend time in NYC public and charter schools. The contrasts are stark. In the private schools, aside from top notch facilities, kids have trusted master teachers and progressive pedagogies; far from a curriculum of obedience, where the governor, mayor, public and private sector are at odds.

    I do wonder whether there are patterns or heuristics that lower income kids could be exposed to in order to prepare them for the rigors of high ed. The same kinds of patterns that one might adopt when, say, participating in a MOOC, or personal learning.

    It’s also worthwhile mentioning that NYC public school zones also also income driven, with extremely wealthy NY’ers moving into zones distinguished by their schools. Another flavor of income segregation.

  5. Sebastien says:

    I was struck particularly by the comments regarding informal learning spaces (library), or lack thereof. What the lower income kids do get are highly controlled rooms (1 point of focus, no choice in seating), and government/publisher curriculums.

    Electives at Fieldston (another example of choice) include top notch labs, orchestral/choir, swimming, parquet floor gyms, fine art studios and pottery kilns. The lower income kids spend a good part of their time learning about standing in line and respect.

    Not mentioned is that Fieldston is an all-through school (Pre-K through 12), a community with a clear vision. The lower income kids cycle, new buildings in K-5, 6-8, and 9-12, coupled with schools within schools – same building, different arrivals/departures, diff. administrations & floors. Even kids in a K-8 can be displaced after grade 5 to make room for out of zone kids segregated through GT programing. Of course, we all know much about this already.

    I do see improvements, Bryan, but with more private and public charters scheduled to open it’s a daunting task for anyone to address. The governor’s political ambitions appear to influence his edu policy to a fault. Monetary investment still appears to be the key. I would add the all of the adults appear to have abdicated their responsibility. It’s also a shame that the municipal government doesn’t have the courage or vision to experiment with new models.

    • Thank you once more for such detailed reflections. I’m heartbroken to see that opposition between informal learning and electives… versus obedience.

      “The governor’s political ambitions”: is Cuomo fighting hard to win over Wall Street so he can run for president in 2020?

      • Sebastien says:

        Yes, that is the concern. I did ask a friend’s son who attended a NYC K/8 public school and now attends Bard high school about the diff. between himself and his peers who attended elite private schools. He answered resilience and exposure. I do hope they serve him well.

      • That sounds like deskilling for online learning, among other things.

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