Tearing Down the Gates?

— Debby Pope

Tearing Down the Gates:
Confronting the Class Divide in American Education
By Peter Sacks
University of California Press, 2007, 388 pages,
$17.95 paperback.

PETER SACKS DESCRIBES Tearing Down the Gates as a work about the staggering injustices in the American educational system. Sacks utilizes a seldom-employed tool to analyze the educational system in the United States: the role of class. Importantly, Sacks understands class in a multi-faceted way, discussing not only the money a family has but its income-producing capital and its educational background and what he describes as its “cultural capital.”

He identifies this “capital” as the most potent predictor of a child’s academic future, explaining considerably more difference in achievement than money alone. Progressive and left critics frequently view educational inequities through a prism of race and gender distinctions, ignoring class except as an incidental byproduct of endemic racism. Although he by no means dismisses racism and sexism as unimportant, Sacks focuses on the ruling elite’s desire to maintain and further its class privilege as the driving force behind many of the structural changes in American education.

His book describes the recent evolution of this process. Sacks sees Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society as the last real attempt to diminish the inequities in our educational system, particularly in higher education.

A variety of case studies, including a few which would surprise less cynical readers, illustrate his contention. One such case involves California’s Berkeley High School, the single public high school serving a town renowned as a bastion of liberal and progressive thinking. The largely white upper-middle-class and wealthy parents are trying to institute and maintain an exclusionary tracking system which will keep their children from having to take academic classes with the riff-raff who, in their opinion, are going to drag down the level of rigor that their own kids need and deserve.

In general Sacks views tracking as a way to pretend we are not talking about class, instead making it seem as if the divisions we set up are based on some abstract agreed-upon definition of merit. He cites studies that show while in some instances tracking may increase the achievement of the top students marginally, it largely serves quite a different function — maintaining and exacerbating education inequalities.

This leads Sacks to raise a very interesting question: What is the role of public schools in a democratic society? Are public schools there to serve individual interests or should these be secondary to public interests? Sacks’ belief is clearly that the good of the public, including poor children and their families, should be the guiding light.

He also asks whether “academic rigor” is used as a justification for sorting and separating students by race and class and provides several illustrative cases, especially one math and science academy directed and funded in considerable part by the big business interests in Boise, Idaho. In the analysis that follows, he answers that second question with an unequivocal “yes.”

Leaving Children Behind

Sacks’ previous book, Standardized Minds: The High Price of America’s Testing Culture and What We Can Do to Change It, attacked the misuse of standardized testing. In Tearing Down the Gates he again goes after such testing, focusing particularly on the College Board’s SAT.

A substantial section of the current book is devoted to pointing out the insidious way that SAT tests, which greatly favor children of the wealthy, are used as a key determinant in college admissions even though considerable research shows that these test scores are, at best, a mediocre predictor of a student’s success. Factors such as grade point average and what is sometimes referred to as “whole picture” analysis are actually better predictors of future academic success and considerably less skewed by class biases.

Although it is not a major focus of the book, Sacks attacks both the Nation at Risk Report from the Reagan years and its indirect descendent, the No Child Left Behind Bill (NCLB), a severely underfunded “accountability bill” enthusiastically touted by both Democrats and Republicans. According to Sacks, NCLB perpetuates and fortifies the wrongful notion of punishing underachieving schools rather than assisting poor families and their children to achieve by providing them with a quality education, eliminating the financial and other barriers to college for them.

Another problem with NCLB is how test-driven accountability encourages “passive” factoid accumulation rather than active, hand-on inquiry based learning. Sacks cites numerous situations where the poor are taught by the former methodology, while the rich are privy to the latter.

He contends that any program to eliminate or even significantly mitigate class inequities will require “creating schools that promote a lifelong love of learning not schools that simply prep kids for the next standardized test. It means overhauling the admissions procedures of colleges and universities, not rigging admissions rules so that affluent students almost always win and disadvantaged students almost always fail.”

Sacks also points out that federal need-based assistance has become increasingly loan based rather than grant based. Most of these loans take the form of unsubsidized Stafford loans, a large proportion of which go to middle-class students and families. This shift has led to huge graduation debt for low-income students and the specter of such debt, especially in a difficult job market, has a chilling effect on the educational dreams and decisions of low-income youth.

As most low-income youth did not grow up with the automatic confidence and assumption that they would go to college, many understandably become discouraged and give up trying early in high school. As an inner-city high school teacher I have seen this fatalistic phenomenon, particularly among my undocumented students, who face an even greater challenge since they are barred from government financial aid.

Sacks points out interestingly how Ronald Reagan’s rhetoric and policy contrast sharply with that of FDR or even LBJ. The latter two attempted to create optimism and sustain faith in the capacity of 20th-century capitalism to expand services to segments of the populace in need. Reagan, on the other hand, created a sense of scarcity and insecurity as he cut taxes and drastically increased the federal deficit. He then used this insecurity and near-panic to justify slashing spending for education, poverty programs and other social spending.

Sacks seems somewhat naïve in thinking, perhaps wishfully, that if we only explain the true benefits of equity clearly enough the ruling elite can be persuaded to relinquish their privilege. Nonetheless, Tearing Down the Gates is an insightful work written from a critically important perspective.

ATC 143, November-December 2009