In Plato's Shadow: Curriculum Differentiation and the Comprehensive American High School

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  • This article was downloaded by: [University of Southern Queensland]On: 07 October 2014, At: 11:54Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH,UK

    Educational Studies: A Journalof the American EducationalStudies AssociationPublication details, including instructions forauthors and subscription information:http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/heds20

    In Plato's Shadow: CurriculumDifferentiation and theComprehensive American HighSchoolSuzanne Ricea & Kipton D. Smilieba University of Kansasb Missouri Western State UniversityPublished online: 28 May 2014.

    To cite this article: Suzanne Rice & Kipton D. Smilie (2014) In Plato's Shadow:Curriculum Differentiation and the Comprehensive American High School, EducationalStudies: A Journal of the American Educational Studies Association, 50:3, 231-245,DOI: 10.1080/00131946.2014.907165

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  • EDUCATIONAL STUDIES, 50: 231245, 2014Copyright C American Educational Studies AssociationISSN: 0013-1946 print / 1532-6993 onlineDOI: 10.1080/00131946.2014.907165

    In Platos Shadow: CurriculumDifferentiation and the Comprehensive

    American High School

    Suzanne Rice

    University of Kansas

    Kipton D. Smilie

    Missouri Western State University

    This article examines the emergence and persistence of curriculum differentiationin the comprehensive high school. We argue that curriculum differentiation hasroots in Platos Republic, where it is proposed that education (and later work,especially the work of ruling) should be distributed on the basis of ability. Theconcept of ideology is used here to help explain why the practice of curriculumdifferentiation has remained a definingand largely unchallengedcharacteristicof the comprehensive high school. The persistence of curriculum differentiationmatters because it is a means by which different groups of students are given accessto different kinds of knowledge. Not all knowledge is equally valued, and access tocertain kinds of this educational good has implications for young persons well-beingthat extend well beyond their formal schooling.

    One of the most unfortunate of the cognitive dichotomies Ive been discussing, par-ticularly in the lives of young people, has been the distinction between the academicand the vocational. This distinction characterized the high school curriculum formuch of the past century and has defined entire courses of study. . . . It is the aca-demic curriculum, not the vocational, that has gotten identified as the place whereintelligence is manifest. (Rose 2009, 8182)

    Correspondence should be addressed to Suzanne Rice, University of Kansas, Educational Leader-ship and Policy Studies, 421 JRP, 1122 W. Campus Rd., Lawrence, KS 66045. E-mail: srice@ku.edu

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  • 232 RICE AND SMILIE

    The modern comprehensive high school is the most common type of publicsecondary school in the United States. Of the 23,436 public secondary schoolsin the United States as of 2007, there were roughly 15,000 comprehensive highschools. (US Department of Education n.d.). These are schools serving studentseither in grades nine through twelve (14,324) or grades ten through twelve (719),excluding vocational, alternative, and special education schools. Whatever theirdifferences, a feature common to these schools is the differentiated curriculum(Angus and Mirel 1999; Oakes 1985). Although specifics vary between schools(and classrooms within schools), the aptly named practice of curriculum differen-tiation entails treating different groups of students differently in terms of subjectcontent, content delivery, and/or, less frequently, evaluation of learning. In themost general terms, the primary rationale for differentiating curriculum is thatdoing so better meets students academic needs.

    Today, the most common forms of curriculum differentiation are ability group-ing (in elementary schools) and its corollary, tracking, which is widely practiced inmiddle schools and is pervasive in comprehensive high schools. Perhaps the mostfamiliar manifestation of ability grouping is found in elementary-school readinginstruction, for which students in a single classroom are divided into, typically,three groups, based on their perceived reading ability. Tracking entails groupingstudents on a much larger scale and is accomplished in a variety of differentways in different schools. In a typical high school, students will be grouped forrequired courses of study, such as English, math, and history. In each of thesesubjects, there will usually be three groups: honors, college prep, and techni-cal or business. In some schools, students will be divided into ability cohortsand have honors, college prep, or basic courses in all required courses. In otherschools, students are grouped into distinct programs, such as college bound, busi-ness, and vocational/technical. Additional practices and programs associated withcurriculum differentiation include gifted education, special education, vocationaland vocational/technical, business and practical math and English, and advancedplacement, among others. Comprehensive high schools typically include severalsuch practices and programs.

    An array of means is used to deliver differentiated curricula, but typically, thesewill include dividing and grouping students according to particular characteris-tics. The student characteristics upon which grouping decisions are made also varysomewhat in the particulars, but usually these characteristics are intended to repre-sent the construct ability. According to Jeannie Oakes, three considerations almostalways come into play: These three are scores on standardized tests, teacher andcounselor recommendations (including grades), and students and their parentschoices (Oakes 1985, 9).

    Numerous authors have argued persuasively that curriculum differentiationemerged in the United States during the Progressive Era and reflected one strandof the Progressive Movement in education, that strand which sought educational

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  • EDUCATIONAL STUDIES 233

    efficiency above all else (Callahan 1962; Cremin 1964; Krug 1964; Rothstein1994; Tyack 1974; Tyack and Cuban 1995; Tyack and Hansot 1982; Violas 1978).We are in fundamental agreement with historians of education who see curriculumdifferentiation as reflecting the values of the efficiency experts of the ProgressiveEra. What we argue is that curriculum differentiation actually has even deeperroots, in Platos (1974) Republic, where it is proposed that education (and laterwork, especially the work of ruling) should be distributed on the basis of ability.In the United States, this proposal was nurtured and eventually implemented byeducational theorists and policy makers who shaped ideas about schooling ingeneral and the comprehensive high school in particular. For Plato, in-born abilitywas a guiding principle; he was interested in identifying those persons who, bynature, had the potential to rule wisely and justly. It is worth stressing at the outsetthat Plato sought to identify individualswhowere true lovers ofwisdom, regardlessof wealth, status, or even gender. In contrast to Platos ideal, although ability hasalso figured prominently in educational policies and practices in the United States,understandings of this attribute have historically reflected such factors as racism,classism, and sexism. Thus, although we in the United States have shared withPlato a keen interest in abilityand the idea that educational resources such ascurricula ought to be distributed on the basis of abilitythe concept of abilitymeans something different in these two contexts (Hatt 2012). Plato provides theguiding principleeducation ought to be geared toward students abilitybut asit has been put into practice, this principle has supported educational arrangementsthat seem contrary to what Plato recommended. We believe that this is becauseability has been defined, in part, in ways that accommodate existing prejudicesand power arrangements. The concept of ideology is used here to help explain whythe practice of curriculum differentiation has remained a definingand largelyunchallengedcharacteristic of the comprehensive high school.

    The persistence of curriculum differentiation is a significant educational issuebecause it is a means by which different groups of students are given access todifferent kinds of knowledge. Not all knowledge is equally valued, and accessto certain kinds of this educational good has implications for young personslife chances and well-being that extend well beyond their formal schooling. Inaddition, the practice of curriculum differentiation makes it difficult for students,parents, and others to challenge existing patterns of knowledge distribution. Oncecaught up in the system of differentiation, it increasingly appears to be natural andbeyond question.

    Historians of education trace the idea of curriculum differentiation to theProgressive Era, roughly between 1890 and 1920 (Callahan 1962; Cremin 1964;Krug 1964; Rothstein 1994; Tyack 1974; Tyack and Cuban 1995; Tyack andHansot 1982; Violas 1978). Secondary schools were relatively few and far betweenuntil the late 1800s, and they were certainly inadequate to educate a growing pop-ulation of US-born youth, let alone the huge numbers of immigrant youth entering

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  • 234 RICE AND SMILIE

    the country. Yet several different factionsfactions with sometimes competinginterestssaw the reformed high school as a possible solution to their disparatedesires. Business and labor, middle class and poor parents, university administra-tors and recent immigrants all pinned their different hopes on the reformed andexpanded high school (Oakes 1985). Why all these different groups looked to theinstitution of schooling to address their desires and fears is not entirely clear. Butgiven that they did look to schools, it is not surprising that, in most cities, theinstitution that took shape was the specifically comprehensive high school. Oakesexplains that such an institution could accommodate disparate aims:

    The solution ultimately settled upon was the comprehensive high schoola newsecondary school that promised something for everyone, but, and this was important,that did not promise the same thing for everyone. Gone was the nineteenth-centurynotion of the need for common learnings to build a cohesive nation. In its place wascurriculum differentiationtracking and ability groupingwith markedly differentlearnings for what were seen as markedly different groups of students. (Oakes1985, 21)

    Although there have been antagonists to curriculum differentiationincludingJohn Dewey, Americas best-known educational philosopherthe practice of cur-riculum differentiation has remained widespread since the Progressive Era. Re-flecting on the educational reforms of the 1960s and 1970s, Angus and Mirel(1999), conclude that, despite protests against many educational practices of thetime, very little changed in relation to curriculum organization. They conclude:The idea that high schools must meet the needs of youth through increasinglydifferentiated programs dominated virtually every important policy decision in-volving American high schools [through the 1970s] (159). Surveying the educa-tional landscape in the 1980s, Oakes sees several changes in schools, but she isin fundamental agreement with Angus and Mirel (1999) in regard to one of themost striking manifestations of curriculum differentiation, tracking. The deepstructure of tracking remains uncannily robust. Most middle and high schoolsstill sort students into different levels based on judgments of students ability(Oakes 1985, xi).

    WHY DOES CURRICULUM DIFFERENTIATION PERSIST?:THE POWER OF IDEOLOGY

    The concept of ideology helps to explain the continued widespread practice of cur-riculum differentiation, including ability grouping and tracking. The term ideolog-ical is often used in an effort to discredit particular ideas or beliefs, but ideology,per se, can also be described as a feature of human perception and sense-making.

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  • EDUCATIONAL STUDIES 235

    Briefly, an ideology constitutes a kind of lens that helps one make sense of theworld and ones experience in it. An ideology comprises beliefs, attitudes, justi-fications, explanations, and assumptions, among other attributes, that shape andcolor perception (Eagleton 1991; Geertz 1973). To count as an ideology, this com-plex of beliefs, attitudes, justifications, etc. must inform perception about a widerange of phenomena. (Feminism, for example, colors its adherents perspectiveson practically all social policies and practices, including heath care, education,law, religion, and family. Many ideologies comprise different strands, e.g., liberal,socialist, and poststructural feminisms). Ideologies that are long-lasting tend toevolve over time. For instance, the liberalism familiar to Thomas Jefferson is oftencalled classical liberalism to specify a particular web of beliefs, attitudes, andthe like, and to distinguish these from more contemporary webs in the liberaltradition. There is a family resemblance between the older and newer webs thatallows for the recognition of both (as well as intermediate versions) as instancesof one ideology, liberalism.

    Usually, ideologies are tightly woven into the fabric of day-to-day experiencein the form of language and common, unremarkable practices. Ideologies oftenappear natural or beyond questionif they appear at all. One characteristic ofvery well established ideologies is that they are hard to perceive as ideologies(Eagleton 1991; Geertz 1973). The less apparent an ideology is, the more easilyit is reproduced over time. When we are informed and come to accept that acertain aspect of the world is thus and so, we help make that aspect of the worldconform to the explanation that has been given. (Think of how the ideologies ofracism and sexism help create and perpetuate oppression of different racial groupsand women from all groups.) Ideologies in this sense are creative forces; theyhelp create a particular social order (Geertz 1973). We simply are not moved toquestion, let alone resist, that which we do not perceive as being problematic.And left unquestioned and unchecked, ideologies tend to reproduce the conditionsthey explain and justify. But ideologies are creative in another way. as well. Thereare numerous examples, various feminisms among them, of ideologies helpingto mobilize people to challenge oppressions and bring more humane conditionsinto existence. Again, ideology, in and of itself, is neither socially progressive norregressive. However, for various purposes, it may be useful to assess the interestsserved by particular ideologies.

    The relation between ideology and curriculum differentiation is complex. Cur-riculum differentiation is supported by a constellation of ideologies and deeplyrooted beliefs about intelligence and ability more broadly. Specifically, aspectsof the ideologies individualism, rationalism, and meritocracy, combined with theview that intelligence is an inborn, static quality, converge in the practice of cur-riculum differentiation. Curriculum differentiation is not an ideology in itself, butit partakes of ideologies and other beliefs and the seeming naturalness of the prac-tice would likely be hard to sustain in their absence. And curriculum differentiation

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  • 236 RICE AND SMILIE

    functions like an ideology in the sense that it helps explain and justify the unequaldistribution of educational goodsabove all, curricula and the knowledge theyembody (Apple 1979).

    Other ideologies figure into the practice of curriculum differentiation indirectly.As noted previously, such ideologies as sexism, racism, and classism have beenwedded to dominant conceptions of intellect and ability. To the extent that decisionsabout which curricula (ability groups and tracks) are most appropriate for differentgroups of students are made on the basis of students perceived ability, these otherideologies come into play.

    The distribution of the knowledge contained in curricula is a matter of greatimportance because different kinds and bodies of knowledge are valued differently,in school and in society more broadly. With few exceptions, knowledge associatedwith intellectual work enjoys higher status than that associated with physical workand is generally rewarded accordingly (Rose 2009). In school, compared withstudents taking vocational, business, or regular courses, those taking high-statushonors and advanced placement courses are often given extra grade points fortheir efforts. There is also evidence that more advanced courses generally offermore engaging coursework. Students in such courses are far less likely than theirpeers in so-called practical courses to be given an academic diet of drill andpractice. Beyond high school, students who were placed in academic tracks havegreater access to funding for postsecondary education, and, following that, tobetter paying, higher-status jobs and all the associated benefits.

    Given all the advantages that are available to those who are well-placed inthe school hierarchy, one may wonder why more students (and their parents) donot press school personnel for access to top-tier courses and tracks. In the factthat they do not, we see ideology at work. Few parents or students take issuewith course or tier placement because such placement is widely seen as fair andappropriate. Why do they have this appearance? As noted previously, test scores,teacher assessment, and parent and student and choice are all factors in determiningstudent placement in the differentiated curriculum. From the time they enter school,judgments are made about students abilities. When these judgments are informedby tests (especially those that appear to be objective) and/or the expert opinionof teachers and school psychologists, they have a great deal of legitimacy. Thesetests and expert opinions are used as a basis for determining students curricularneeds. In the elementary school, meeting these perceived needs usually meansdividing students into ability groups. Sometimes a single grade-level is dividedinto high-, middle-, and low-level classrooms of students; sometimes grouping ismade only at the classroom levelas where there are three ability-differentiatedreading groups.

    Testing and teacher assessment are constant elements in student placement.But parent and student choice rarely comes into play in decisions at the elemen-tary level. In middle school and high school, such choice figures much more

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  • EDUCATIONAL STUDIES 237

    prominently. By this point in their formal education, students typically receivesome form of counseling in relation to preparation for postsecondary education orwork. And also by this time, students have typically spent between eight and tenyears in the differentiated system. During that time, they have received instructionthought appropriate to their ability, along with all sorts of messages, informal aswell as formal, about that ability. So although students and parents have choices,it is important to be aware that these are hardly independent; indeed, these choicesare informed by testing, expert options, school counseling, and years of studentexperience in the differentiated system. Once placed in this differentiated system,over time, students tend to confirm their need for advanced, average, or watered-down curricula, just as was initially predicted; moreover, their own choices tend toconfirm the accuracy of the original placement. To pick just one example, childrenplaced in a low-ability reading group in elementary school rarely end up choosingadvanced placement English classes later on when they attend a comprehensivehigh school. All those years spent in remedial reading groups with other slowreaders tends to create young people who do not read very wellregardless ofwhatever ability they may have had early in life. And most young people whohave experienced year upon year of remedial courses will judge themselves to bepoor students.

    Curriculum differentiation, as noted previously, is alliedwith aspects of individ-ualism and a particular understanding of intelligence (and ability more broadly).According to this view, intelligence (among other abilities) originates in individ-ual children in contrast to, say, particular social relations and practices that findexpression in individual children. Added to that is the widespread understandingof constructs such as intelligence and ability as static characteristics. To mostobservers, these attributes appear as a stable characteristic of individual persons.

    In short, curriculum differentiation is widely accepted, and persists, because itappears and feels so rational.

    PLATOS CONTRIBUTION TO CURRICULUMDIFFERENTIATION: THE REPUBLIC

    Platos (1974) Republic is among the most widely read and influential works inthe Western philosophical tradition. Nearly all the major figures in that traditionmention the dialogue and many discuss it at length. To this day, the Republic isread and debated in college classrooms and among scholars in such disciplines asphilosophy and political science. The dialogue also addresses numerous topics ofeducational concern, including the nature of knowledge, the role of censorship,and curricula and pedagogy. But for present purposes, it is the particular division oflabor, its accompanying meritocratic arrangement of education, and assumptionsabout human intellect and ability in general that are most significant.

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  • 238 RICE AND SMILIE

    How a society might best organize its members in relation to work, governance,and other undertakings is a perennial concern. In contrast to writers who stress thevalue of enabling people to participate in a wide range of work and other activities,Marx and Rousseau for example, Plato envisions a society in which each personengages in those activities particularly matched to his or her talents. Plato asksrhetorically, Does aman do better if he practicesmany crafts, or if, being oneman,he restricts himself to one craft. . . . Both production and quality are improved ineach case, and easier, if each man does one thing which is congenial to him, doesit at the right time, and is free of other pursuits (Plato 1974, 40).

    As the dialogue unfolds, we learn that Platos imaginary city-state comprisesthree classes. In the largest of these are those who supply basic human needs forfood, shelter, and clothing, such as animal husbandmen, builders, and weavers.Also in this class are other workers, such as artisans and carpenters and those whosupply tools andmaterials needed by handworkers. No doubt, Plato intimates, sucha state would be envied and vulnerable to attack, and hence a second social classis imagined: guardians, a cadre of men and women to safeguard against enemies.At the very top of this social hierarchy are rulersphilosopher kingswho lookout for the interests of all. To readers first encountering the Republic, it is oftensurprising to discover that Platos society is intended to make all three classesequally happy. The key to this happiness, and indeed to social justice, is ensuringthat each member of the social whole is placed in the class that best matcheshis/her in-born talents.

    Education plays a key part in creating and maintaining the society Plato envi-sions. Plato rejects the idea that accidents of birth should determine individualsfutures, noting that sometimes geniuses are born to intellectually average parentsand athletes to parents who are weak and slow, and vice versa. He argues that, be-ginning in early childhood, all youth should be extensively observed and evaluatedfor evidence of their intellectual and physical attributes. This sort of testing wouldgo on for years if necessary to assess, accurately, each childs inborn strengths andweaknesses.

    As a result of such assessment, for educational purposes children would firstbe divided into two groups. The education of children who demonstrate averageor below average intelligence and physical strength and grace would be givenover to practitioners in the various skilled, semiskilled, and unskilled vocations,trades, and labor. These youth would receive something akin to vocational train-ing or apprenticeships. The education of children who demonstrate above averageintelligence and physical strength and grace would be far more liberal, with em-phasis placed on music, which would include art, mathematics, and literature,and gymnastics, and complemented with a great variety of physical and strengthtraining. The education given the class of potential future guardians would beaccompanied with still more testing to determine those few youths among thispromising group who are the most gifted of all. The guardian class, itself, is thus

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  • EDUCATIONAL STUDIES 239

    divided into two smaller groups, one of which would receive education in prepa-ration for guarding the city, and one, the auxiliaries, who would be prepared tobecome rulersthe philosopher kings.

    Plato (1974) realizes that creating and maintaining a republic such as the onehe envisions requires the consent of the ruled. Rule by brute force can be sustainedonly so long. In one of the most famous passages in the Republic, the Myth of theMetals, Plato recounts a story intended to provide a rationale for the particularsocial order he imagines. This myth, which Plato proposes be widely promulgated,is roughly as follows: Regardless of what we all may now think to be true, wehave only been dreaming, and the reality is that we all are brothers and sisterswho share a common mother, the Earth. While developing inside our commonmother, God infused each of us with a certain metal: gold, silver, iron, or bronze.Once born, our abilities will vary depending on the metal with which we wereinfused. Children of gold are born with those attributes needed for ruling; those ofsilver with those needed for guardianship; and those of bronze or iron, with thoseneeded for physical labor, farming, and craftsmanship. Yet despite the God-givendifferences between us, we must always remember that we are brothers and sisterswho share a common mother, and must defend one another as such.

    Plato and his companions acknowledge that such a myth is unlikely to beperceived as the truth by those who first hear it. But as the myth is told to eachnew generation, they believe that it would pass more and more easily as truth. Itwould become commonsense.

    Platos (1974) Republic provides a compelling rationale for differentiating cur-riculum. Such an arrangement is presented as being not only efficient, but alsomeritocratic and aligning with peoples natural, in-born abilities. And althoughPlatos Myth of the Metals sounds far-fetched to modern ears, it is worth question-ing the extent to which IQ and other tests in use today better reflect the qualitiescalled intelligence and ability.

    THE EARLY AMERICAN HIGH SCHOOL AND EMERGENCEOF THE COMPREHENSIVE HIGH SCHOOL

    William Reese (1995) argues that the American high school began as an institutionprimarily devoted to serving the upper classes. Wealthier families were able tosend their children to high school, but, as a matter of survival, their less fortunatecounterparts often had to send their children out to work. The classical curriculumof early high schools frequentlymirrored those of colleges, leading some observersto classify them as one and the same. High school teachers were sometimes ti-tled professor; the buildings were generally clean and well-ordered, and suchformal proceedings as graduation took on an air of pageantry. All were character-istics of colleges, and all, of course, were quite far removed from the simplicity

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  • 240 RICE AND SMILIE

    and utility of the common schools promoted by such early reformers as HoraceMann.

    Reformers in the Progressive Era reacted against the perceived elitism ofthe early high school, their chief complaint being that the high school wastoo academic, too exclusive, too tied to the preparation of the college bound(Reese 1995, 260). This perception served as a spur for the creation of a compre-hensive high school: A new educational institution was needed if the country wereto meet the needs of all its students. In one of the ironies of American education,those who fought against the elite and classical curriculum of the early Americanhigh school and who fought for greater inclusivity and equality did so while mir-roring, perhaps unwittingly, Platos (1974) Republica work, no doubt, that waspart of the early high schools classical curriculum.

    The most influential group among those seeking to shape the new compre-hensive high school were comprised of those known collectively as the efficiencyexperts. Historians generally acknowledge two different strands of this group:those concerned with the administration of the school and those concerned withthe social function the school was to serve. Callahan (1962) sets the general scene:

    In the years between 1911 and 1925, educational administrators responded in avariety of ways to demands for more efficient operation of the schools. Beforethe mania ran its course various efficiency procedures were applied to classroomlearning and to teachers, to the program of studies, to the organization of the schools,to administrative functions, and to entire school systems.Most of these actions before1916 were connected in some way by educators to the magic words scientificmanagement. (95)

    Here we are more concerned with those experts who were interested in thesocial role of the school and who saw the school as integral to an efficientlyrunning societya kind of efficient school writ large.

    By placing students in curricular groups and tracks that corresponded roughlyto students future adult roles, the society itself, efficiency experts believed, wouldfunction more efficiently and effectively. David Snedden, who taught at Teach-ers College on two different stints (19051909 and 19161935), and who alsoserved as Commissioner of Education in Massachusetts, became the nations fore-most authority on social efficiency. In 1898, Snedden published Social Phases ofEducation in the School and Home; as his biographer Walter Drost (1967) pointsout, this work set forth his social service point of view (4849). Drost definesSneddens idea of social efficiency as the position in education that calls for thedirect teaching of knowledge, attributes, and skills needed to shape the individualto predetermined social characteristics. It presumes to improve society by makingits members more vocationally useful and socially responsible (3).

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  • EDUCATIONAL STUDIES 241

    At the turn of the nineteenth century, Snedden and his followers saw that theworld was rapidly-changing and decided, seemingly taking a cue from Plato, thatthe best response was to first identify the needs (particularly for workers of variouskinds) of an efficiently operating society, and then to place students in those slotscorresponding to students abilities. Sneddens plan promoted efficiency on twolevels: the curriculum worked efficiently as no students would waste time incourses irrelevant to their future roles, and the society itself would function moreefficiently as all members would be well-trained for their specific position in thesociety. Snedden even imagined a utopian society whose guiding principle wasefficiency:

    [Snedden] offered as his ideal planned society the mythical Province of Zond, a placewhere each person was specifically trained for his particular niche in life and foundsatisfaction and security there. In moving America toward this ideal he envisioned adepartment of domestic police having as its function to force people to the kind ofeducation predetermined for their special needs. (Drost 1967, 187)

    Sneddens particular utopian vision was never instantiated, but his influencepersisted nevertheless.

    The idea of social efficiency was not uncontested. The educational thoughtof John Dewey, arguably Americas most famous philosopher, is thoroughly in-consistent with the sorting and tracking the efficiency experts envisioned. Moreconcretely, the policy recommendations of the Committee of Ten, chaired in 1892by Charles Eliot, were also at odds with the pro-efficiency camp. The Committeeof Ten, a group of educators (primarily from colleges and universities) who cametogether to set out the curricular course for American schools, decided that all stu-dents should follow the same curriculum, no matter their future work roles. Theirrecommendations followed the academic-oriented humanist curriculum of the col-leges: Students were to take multiple years of English, math, history, and science.Noting that these academic courses provided a natural pathway for students toenter colleges, critics argued that the Committee of Ten was unduly influenced byhigher education.

    Opponents to the efficiency movement, however, were in the minority. Indeed,the idea of social efficiency was contagious and, where actual schooling practiceswere concerned, all but overwhelmed even the most philosophically sophisticatedalternatives, including John Deweys. And despite Eliots initial support for a hu-manistic curriculum for all, he too, jointed the advocates for efficiency. Eliot wasable to defend the idea that different groups of students should receive differentkinds of education without sounding self-contradictory by appealing to a partic-ular understanding of democracy. This understanding was coupled with a staticconception of ability, according to which intellectual and other characteristics arepresent at birth and remain more-or-less constant throughout life.

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  • 242 RICE AND SMILIE

    An important function of the public school . . . is the discovery and development ofthe gift or capacity of each individual child. This discovery should be made at theearliest practicable age, and, once made, should always influence, and sometimesdetermine, the education of the individual. It is for the interest of society to makethe most of every useful gift or faculty which any member may fortunately possess.. . . There is no such thing as equality of gifts, or powers, or faculties, among eitherchildren or adults. (Tozer, Violas, and Senese 1998, 113114)

    Whatwas at the heart of Eliots seemingly radical philosophical transformation?Kliebard surmises:

    If the humanist values he cherished could not be instilled in the entire school pop-ulation . . . they could at least be preserved in that segment whose destiny it wasto go on to college. [ . . . ] With the tide of educational change running against them,humanists seemed to be reaching an undeclared detente with the social-efficiencyeducators, whereby the traditional academic curriculumwould be preserved, but onlyin connection with a select portion of the school population, increasingly defined ascollege-entrance students. (Kliebard 2004, 105106)

    In this compromise, we can see the force of the Republic (Plato 1974) in Eliotsthinking. Maintaining a humanistic curriculum for that select portion of theschool population striving for higher education (and destined to become socialleaders), we perceive remnants of Platos philosopher-kings and the Myth ofthe Metals. At the same time, we can see Platos concern for justice and harmonybetween social classes. The comprehensive high school aims to allow studentsof all perceived abilities to find their particular niche. Eliot helped to build thefoundation of this institution in Platos shadow.

    PLATOS IDEAL AND THE IQ TEST

    To separate children into their proper tracks, Plato (1974) recommended that theybe observed and tested as they engaged in various mental and physical exercises.But Plato was more interested in making an argument on behalf of a particulartype of educational and social order than he was with the practical means bywhich individual youngsters would be selected for different educational futuresand social roles.

    In contrast, the Progressive Era efficiency experts had at their disposal whatwas perceived to be a highly sophisticated means of sorting children. IQ tests, usedwidely in World War I to assess the general intelligence of US troops, quicklymade their way into American schools once their potential as a sorting mechanismwas realized. Louis Terman, who developed the Stanford-Binet IQ test, touted thisas one of the tests benefits:

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  • EDUCATIONAL STUDIES 243

    Preliminary investigations indicate that an IQ below 70 rarely permits anythingbetter than unskilled labor; that the range from 70 to 80 is predominantly that ofsemi-skilled labor; from 80 to 100 that of the skilled or ordinary clerical labor,from 100 to 110 or 115 that of the semi-professional pursuits; and that above allthese are the grades of intelligence which permit one to enter the professions or thelarger fields of business. . . . This information will be of great value in planningthe education of a particular child and also in planning the differentiated curriculumhere recommended. (Tozer et al. 1998, 114)

    In a nation where all men are created equal served as a guiding principle, thepractice of sorting students into different categories needed justification, whichintelligence tests provided. Ellwood Cubberley and the other efficiency expertshad Americas growing faith in science on their side; and this was a faith theyno doubt shared. In effect, the IQ test enabled the efficiency minded Progressivesto marry Platos ancient philosophy with modern science, as illustrated in thisexcerpt from Cubberleys classic tome on American educational history:

    Instead of being born free and equal, as our political maxims had taught us, wenow found that we were born free but unequal, and unequal we were forever toremain. . . . From the use of these tests we now know that the school cannot createintelligence; it can only train and develop and make useful the intelligence which thechild brings with him to the school. While environment is undoubtedly a factor inmental development, it is a factor largely limited in turn by native mental capacity,and this is a matter of the pupils racial and family inheritance, and nothing withinthe gift of the schools or our democratic form of government. (1934, 700)

    In describing the new high school (in which different tracks of students areeducated together in the same building), Cubberley stresses that curriculum dif-ferentiation is even more important for high school aged youth than for children:

    The American high school . . . has been conceived of as pre-eminently a placefor trying out young people, developing tastes, testing capabilities, opening uplife opportunities, and discovering along what lines pupils show enough specialaptitude to warrant further education and training. The same principles that apply tothe differentiation of elementary-school courses to meet individual needs . . . applywith even greater force to pupils between the ages of fourteen and eighteen. Thisinvolves freedom from hard and fixed courses of study, a rich and varied offering ofcourses from which to select, and intelligent guidance of pupils toward preparationfor a life of useful service. (Cubberly 1934, 631)

    Cubberley uses language here that could have been taken directly from PlatosRepublic.

    But one need not have ever read Plato, nor Snedden, Eliot, Cubberley, or anyother the countless others who have drawn on Platonic philosophy to be influenced

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  • 244 RICE AND SMILIE

    by his ideas. Once these ideas took root in actual educational practices, includingthe elementary school ability-based reading group and the tracked comprehensivehigh schoolthey were lived, and thereby made themselves familiar even tothose who have never heard of, let alone read, Plato. The seeming naturalness ofthe differentiated curriculum and the comprehensive high school in general arecoupled with a lack of visible alternatives. There is a peculiar of course-ness aboutthe view that different students have different abilities and that education ought tobe organized in a way that matches individuals abilities and instruction.

    For the most part, high schools are not intentionally modeled after Platosdesign; indeed, whether by intention or accident, in certain respects, the compre-hensive American high school deviates considerably from the Platonic ideal. Mostnotably, if we assume that intellectual ability is equally distributed regardless ofeconomic class, culture, and gender, then, on Platos model, we should expect tosee far more poor, ethnic minority, and female students in high ability and honorstype courses. That we do not reflect the fact that racist, sexist, and classist beliefshave influenced understandings of ability in such a way as to favor White men.As we have emphasized repeatedly, Plato (1974) sought to identify true lovers ofwisdom, regardless of these individuals status or power.

    Yet important elements of Platos (1974) thought are part of a wide-spreadand rarely questioned common sense regarding education, and these elements arereflected in comprehensive high schools. Specifically, Plato thought that educationshould be differentiated on the basis of what he understood to be students naturalabilities, with different groups of students receiving different educational goodsin preparation for their different adult roles. Plato also sought social stability. Buthe realized that differentiation could work against social stability, if, for example,individuals rebelled against their assigned place in the educational or social order.A significant part of his writing on education in the Republic is concerned withreconciling these two potentially conflicting aims: educational differentiation (andsubsequent social stratification) and social stability.

    Throughout the twentieth century in the United States, the comprehensivehigh school reflected these twin aims, aided in no small part by ideology.That different groups of children receive such different curricula seems rea-sonable and rational, given beliefs about intelligence and its distribution. Thatchildren and their parents have the freedom to choose (with the help of schoolexperts and their scientific tests) between different curricula lends stability tothe differentiated system. That poor and minority students are overrepresentedin vocational and lower-tier tracks, and middle class and wealthy students areoverrepresented in college prep and advanced placement courses, appears unprob-lematic to many observers and to many students themselves. They are receivingan education perceived to be appropriate to their needs. Widely overlooked is thefact that these needs are at least partly created by the differentiated curriculumitself.

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  • EDUCATIONAL STUDIES 245

    REFERENCES

    Angus, David. L. & Jeffrey L. Mirel. 1999. The Failed Promise of the American High School,18901995. New York: Teachers College Press.

    Apple, Michael W. 1979. Ideology and Curriculum. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.Callahan, Raymond. E. 1962. Education and the Cult of Efficiency: A Study of the Social Forces that

    have Shaped the Administration of the Public Schools. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Cremin, Lawrence. A. 1964. Transformation of the School. New York: Vintage Books.Cubberley, Ellwood P. 1934. Public Education in the United States: A Study and Interpretation of

    American Educational History. Cambridge, MA: Riverside Press.Drost, Walter. H. 1967. David Snedden and Education for Social Efficiency. Madison: University of

    Wisconsin Press.Eagleton, Terry. 1991. Ideology: An Introduction. London: Verso.Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.Hatt, Beth. 2012. Smartness as a Cultural Practice in Schools. American Educational Research

    Journal 49: 438460.Kliebard, Herbert. M. 2004. The Struggle for the American Curriculum, 18931958. 3rd ed. New

    York: Routledge.Krug, Edward. 1964. The Shaping of the American High School. New York: Harper & Row.Oakes, Jeannie. 1985. Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality. New Haven, CT: Yale

    University Press.Plato. 1974. The Republic. Translated by G. M. A. Grube. Indianapolis, IN. HackettReese, William. J. 1995. The Origins of the American High School. New Haven, CT: Yale University

    Press.Rothstein, Stanley. 1994. Schooling the Poor: A Social Inquiry Into the American Educational Expe-

    rience. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.Rose, Mike. 2009. Why School?: Reclaiming Education for All of Us. New York: New Press.Tyack, David. 1974. One Best System: A History of American Urban Education. Cambridge, MA:

    Harvard UP., and Larry Cuban. 1995. Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform.

    Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP., and Elisabeth Hansot. 1982. Managers of Virtue: Public School Leadership in America,

    18201980. New York: Basic Books.Tozer, Steven E., Paul Violas, andGuy Senese. 1998. School and Society: Historical and Contemporary

    Perspectives. 3rd ed. Boston, MA: McGraw Hill.USDepartment of Education. Institute of Education Science. n.d.Table 100: Public Secondary Schools,

    by Grade Span, Average School Size, and State or Jurisdiction: 200607.Washington, DC. RetrievedMarch 12, 2010 from http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d08/tables/dt08 100.asp.

    Violas, Paul. C. 1978. Training of the Urban Working Class. Chicago: Rand McNally.

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