"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Why Our New Leaders are Excellent Sheep

I taught for a long time in three very different high schools, one of them a highly prestigious public school in a highly prestigious community. I met very different kinds of students from all walks of life, economic conditions, and various ethnic groups. However, there was always one group of students that always intrigued me, but not necessarily for positive reasons. Most of these particular students came from, surprise, that highly prestigious and competitive high school from that highly prestigious and competitive community. I called them “excellent sheep”.

They took as many AP courses as they could accumulate without any love of the subjects. They did all the same extracurriculars. They were tutored to get the highest SAT scores possible. They either had coaches or had “ghost”writers help them write their college essays They had all figured out how to play the academic game of success without taking risks but many couldn’t do simple tasks like get on a commuter train to NYC. These students were the epitome of a saying one of my “regular kids” put on a  t-shirt we made up one year: “Be Different. Just Like Everyone Else.” They followed the script to get the highest grades, the highest SAT scores, and to get them into the most elite universities in the country. And get in they did.
Then, while working as a Fordham University mentor with 19 TFA corps members for four years I discovered the same thing. Although more diverse than most think, several of my corps members also fit this description. From Ivies or other Ivy like colleges, they had always been top students because they had played the game by the rules, gotten top scores, and thought of themselves as “ the best and brightest”. I always asked best and brightest what? They were often the ones who had the most trouble adapting to the far less than perfect conditions in the schools to which they were assigned, and were the most rigid in following the TFA line and had the hardest time in following the more practical wisdom I was providing them based on real experience.
In fact, in one of my earliest blogs I claimed that there were many corps members who, in the spirit of extracurricular activities accumulation, saw TFA membership as a similar escapade to many of the things they did while in HS (pay to be in a program that built a school in Costa Rica) to get them into the elite college of their choice. However this time it was to get them into the graduate program or job of choice. I said of them, “They would have gone to the Peace Corps in Africa, except their mothers didn’t let them.”
Last week, I read William Deresiewicz’s, Xcellent Sheep: The Miseducation of The American Elite. The title certainly sounded familiar. It was a phrase I had used years ago. Deresiewicz taught for years at Yale, one of the top Universities in the country. I taught for 18 years at Scarsdale High School, one of the top public high schools and Yale feeder schools in the country. He wrote about the same type of students I had taught and some of the TFA corps members I had worked with who did not stay in teaching, but have put themselves on the education public policy path to become the next Arne Duncan. I was captivated by the similarities in findings he had at the University level to what I had discovered on the high school level. I would recommend it to anyone looking to see why those in our leadership class are more followers than leaders.
Deresiewicz describes them as, “smart, talented, driven, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity, and a stunted sense of purpose; trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they are doing but with no idea why they are doing it.”

1 comment:

  1. I really think it is dangerous to group any people together into one cohort such as "elite"

    not exactly sure if that means those with financial resources to purchase expensive private schools?

    intellectual curiosity can be found in any person, rich or poor

    the poorest, uneducated people were at the forefront of the greatest progressive developments in the course of history time and time again and the wealthiest played their role as well, good and bad people in both economic situations

    If that's the case, you are dead wrong - rich, poor, middle class, homeless, it really doesn't matter much

    Not sure I see the issue in terms of what's happening in public education

    rich, poor have to unite, not be further divided and this type of blog post is divisive