Monday, August 20, 2007

Peter Sacks's "Tearing Down the Gates"

Peter Sacks is an author, essayist, and social critic who writes and speaks extensively on education and American culture. He is author of Generation X Goes to College: An Eye-Opening Account of Teaching in Postmodern America and Standardized Minds: The High Price of America's Testing Culture and What We can do to Change it. His essays have appeared in The Nation, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Boston Review, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and other publications.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to his latest book, Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide in American Education, and reported the following:
At first, when Marshal asked me to do this, I read page 99 and thought, “Oops, it’s not very sexy.” There were a lot of other pages of interesting writing and storytelling that I would have picked to reveal my book’s whole. But I discovered that Ford Madox Ford was right in a sense. I looked more closely at 99, and there it was, the genetic code of my book. In fact, I could pick any page at random, and I would be able to find the same strands of DNA that held my book together.

My 99 comes in Chapter 5 of my book, Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide in American Education. I call that chapter “Public Schools, Private Privilege,” and it ties together a couple of earlier narrative chapters in which I tell the stories of some students and teachers at schools in Berkeley, California and in Boise, Idaho. Politically, the towns and the school systems couldn’t be farther apart. One is an American archetype of political liberalism and the other is as red-state conservative as it gets.

But I picked Berkeley and Boise to write about the class divide, not the political one. In that sense, the two towns shared far more in common than either Berkeleyites or Boisians would dare admit. I found that class differences transcended politics. Class transcended race, and also ethnicity. I found that, when it comes to schools, affluent liberals in Berkeley had a lot in common with with affluent conservatives in Boise.

Bear with me as I explain what page 99 is about in my book. Americans like to think of schools as the great equalizers of educational opportunity. But in both Berkeley and Boise, schools were doing just the opposite. They were deeply engaged in practices that actually made the class divide worse. Despite official policies supposed to close the achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students, schools were heavily committed to programs that accomplished just the opposite.

How could this happen? I found that schools in Boise and Berkeley were under constant pressure from affluent and well educated parents to create various havens of privilege for their own children, including gifted and talented programs, advanced and enriched classes, elite math and science centers, and so on.

But while schools were providing the already-privileged children with a Mercedes education, they were content to provide a Ford education to the ordinary children on the other side of the class divide.

Page 99 began to intrigue me in ways that I hadn’t thought about before, simply because it was among the more pedestrian of the pages in my book. On my page 99, I referenced the classic work of Jeannie Oakes, an education professor at UCLA, whose 1985 book, Keeping Track, revealed the widespread use of tracking in American schools to sort the supposedly bright kids from the dull ones. It just so happened that the “bright” kids were also the economically, socially and culturally advantaged kids. Back then, schools were blatant about their tracking systems. What’s different now is the subtlety of all various sorting devices that separate the smart kids at the top from the dumb kids at the bottom. As I write that sentence, I’m reminded of another book that I referenced in that chapter. The author is Ellen Brantlinger, whom I’ve never met but feel that we have a lot in common, just as I feel that there’s something deep within me that shares what Jeannie Oakes has deep within her. It’s odd to think that each of our page 99’s, however much they differ in style or method, share some essential traits that define us as people, and as authors. In her 2004 book, Dividing Classes: How the Middle Class Negotiates and Rationalizes School Advantage, Brantlinger describes how highly educated professionals in "Hillsdale," the pseudonym for a university town in the Midwest, manipulated public schools to serve their best interests, at the expense of working-class or poor families. Because smart and dumb are thought to be objectively measurable in the universe of public schooling, who could possibly argue with these self-serving arrangements?

My page 99 is essentially about tracking, in a broad sense. Generally, tracking is the practice of sorting students into different levels for the same course based upon “ability.” It’s hard to find a school administrator who will admit to doing it nowadays. Schools call it by other names. Take the Treasure Valley Math and Science Center in Boise, Idaho, actually a very cool public school for the best and brightest math and science students. To gain admittance to this wonderful school, students must pass standardized tests that are pre-ordained to identify the most culturally and socially affluent children -- such as the sons and daughters of the Micron Corp. executives that gave the Boise school district $1 million to start the school.

As handmaidens to elite interests, the schools were behaving in exactly the manner that social reproduction theorists, such as Pierre Bourdieu, would predict. The elegance of this system of self-perpetuating privilege is its widely perceived legitimacy. Backed up with “scientific” aptitude testing and other methods, the Boise school district could claim educational legitimacy in providing a wonderfully enriched learning environment for a few elite kids versus the dumbed down and boring schools it provided for all the other kids.

I probably gave Marshal far more than he wanted. But the question he posed began to really intrigue me. If just one page, page 99, revealed the essence of my 350 page book, which took me three years to complete, did I need to write the other 349 pages for readers to get my point? Why do we need books anyway, whose arguments can be condensed into a single blog post?

But can a book’s essential quality really, truly be revealed in a single page? Ford was right but he was also dead wrong. Yes, my page 99 contains a basic idea that winds its way throughout my book: that the class divide in American education is no accident and that it is perpetuated according to a systematic process of institutions -- schools, colleges, universities, even the government -- responding to the demands of political and economic power.

But to believe that a strand of a book’s genetic code reveals all there is to know about the whole is to say that I can know my yellow lab, Diego, from just his chromosomes. Dogs -- and people -- are more complicated and beautiful than that, and so are books, because books, not pages of books, nor blog posts of books, reveal who we are as both authors of books and readers of books and characters in books.

On my page 99, you will never know Ashlea Jackson or Gillian Brunet or Dayle Mazzarella, people whose stories I tell on other pages of my book. You’ll never know my book without knowing who they are, and you’ll never know me without knowing who they are. You’ll never know about us from single page or a blog post. And most important of all, without books, you’ll never know you.
Read more about Peter Sacks and his writing at his website and his blog. See a description of Tearing Down the Gates, the table of contents, and praise for the book, at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue