Imagine yourself in a heady discussion about elementary and secondary education with a group of educators, politicians, business leaders, and foundation officials.
Chances are the group would spend most of its time talking about issues falling under the broad heading of policy. Things like test scores and accountability, teacher training and salaries, experiential learning and direct instruction, text books and the Internet, and the debate over vouchers and charter schools.
Which is to say, if the setting is a conference room, if participants are pros of one kind or another, and especially if there’s a reporter taking notes, it’s a safe bet that the focus of such a meeting will be on issues that seem most amenable to governmental solutions of one kind or another.
Now imagine yourself having a conversation about education, not around something long and mahogany, but with family and friends around a kitchen table, or perhaps over drinks and dinner. How might this exchange be different?
If my guess is correct, chances are you would talk about things barely addressed by the politicians and other distinguished folks in the more formal setting. I’m thinking of critical, practical, yet often elusive matters like the state of hard work and personal responsibility on the part of students. Perverse peer pressures. And naturally, the presence or absence of a mother and father in a child’s life and home.
In other words, while the “conference table conversation” might dwell on comparatively safe topics, of the sort that presidential candidates prefer to tease on the stump, the “kitchen table conversation” likely would stress more sensitive issues, the kind that most people believe instinctively to be at least as important in determining whether kids actually learn and thrive. These problems have less to do with policy than with culture, less to do with programs or budgets than with the stuff of spirit and lessons drawn from the very air. Frequently served up at kitchen table conversations are four-star flammable issues, the kind most likely to get people riled up.
The kitchen table/conference table metaphor recalls the writings of historian Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, whose work deals with emotionally drenched subjects like out-of-wedlock births, divorce, and sex education. Her research is exceptional for a host of reasons, but especially because she has a keen eye for the more intangible aspects of the hardest problems facing our nation.
How might Whitehead’s insight aid the work of foundation leaders and program officers? How might kitchen table candor inform conference table deliberations, in this instance, about education? Consider the implications of those relatively rare works of scholarship that parallel and add weight to the most private and trusting of conversations.
Elijah Anderson is a superb sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania. His 1999 book Code of the Street is a continuation of his longtime study of Philadelphia’s least forgiving neighborhoods and the often brutal, but more often heroic and persevering, people who live there.
“For many alienated young black people,” he writes, “attending school and doing well becomes negatively associated with acting white.” With each passing year, he claims, “the school loses ground as more and more students adopt a street orientation, if only for self-defense in the neighborhood.”
Anderson discusses how such schools are corrupted into “staging areas” for the streets. Any “trophies” up for grabs in such places are not academic. Rather, they are those of the street, with the most esteemed prize being respect, over which kids kill and get killed.
Anderson emphasizes that “most young people in these settings are inclined toward decency.” But when the code of the street rules, “they are encouraged to campaign for respect by adopting a street attitude, look, and presentation of self.” He writes, for example, of a 15-year-old boy who, once safely out of his mother’s view in the morning, sheds his “square clothes” for a black leather jacket. And then, in a further effort to look “street,” he hides his books under the jacket.
Now consider a project by my favorite think tank, the Heritage Foundation, called No Excuses, which is grounded in the conviction there is “no excuse for the academic failure of most public schools serving poor children.” How to reconcile the good news reported by the Heritage Foundation—which has ferreted out remarkable success stories from around the country—and the gloomier picture reported by Anderson?
First, the law of averages suggests that among the thousands of schools serving disproportionately poor and minority students in the United States, some will be uncommonly strong. There are always going to be a few schools that are led by rare educators, men and women of boundless dedication and true genius.
It’s also incumbent to applaud Heritage, as well as other institutions and individuals, that demand that not a single school be let off a single hook. I thank them for leading the nation toward academic rigor, halting as that trek is. Likewise, I respect their unconditional faith in the ability of all children to make it.
Still, I don’t believe most observers adequately appreciate just how tough education in poor communities can be. One just can’t overemphasize the importance of the dozens of trap doors strewn in the path of inner-city children and educators. I’m also deeply skeptical about how such conventional analyses and prescriptions often overplay the capacity of secular institutions—public schools—to overcome what are secular problems only in part.
Ask yourself this: whose take on inner-city education is most likely to be the grist of a good, reasonably sophisticated kitchen table conversation? That of my friends at the Heritage Foundation? Or Elijah Anderson’s? My bet is on Anderson.
Yet the point is not that the perspective of only one treatment has something to add to conference table conversations, where funding and other key decisions are made. The point is they both do. It’s equally true that it would be helpful if the hearty trail and flavors of the best of kitchens occasionally wafted their way into those same boardrooms.
Mitchell Pearlstein is president of Center for the American Experiment, a conservative think tank in Minneapolis. He is also chairman of the St. Paul-based Partnership for Choice in Education.