When the culture war comes for the kids

I went back and forth and back again, and finally decided to support the new plan. My view was gratuitous, since the change came a year too late to affect our son. I would have been sorely tested if chance had put him in the first experimental class. Under the new system, a girl at his former bus stop got matched with her 12th choice, and her parents decided to send her to a charter school. No doubt many other families will leave the public-school system. But I had seen our son flourish by going to an elementary school that looked like the city. I had also seen meritocracy separate out and demoralize children based on their work in fourth grade. “If you fail middle school,” our daughter said, “you fail life.” It was too soon for children’s fates to be decided by an institution that was supposed to serve the public good.

I wanted the plan to succeed, but I had serious doubts. It came festooned with all the authoritarian excess of the new progressivism. It called for the creation of a new diversity bureaucracy, and its relentless jargon squashed my hope that the authors knew how to achieve an excellent education for all. Instead of teaching civics that faced the complex truths of American democracy, “the curriculum will highlight the vast historical contributions of non-white groups & seek to dispel the many non-truths/lies related to American & World History.”

“Excellence” was barely an afterthought in the plan. Of its 64 action items, only one even mentioned what was likely to be the hardest problem: “Provide support for [district] educators in adopting best practices for academically, racially & socioeconomically mixed classrooms.” How to make sure that children of greatly different abilities would succeed, in schools that had long been academically tracked? How to do it without giving up on rigor altogether—without losing the fastest learners?