Sunday, September 29, 2013

Q&A with author Peter W. Cookson Jr.

Peter W. Cookson Jr. is the author most recently of Class Rules: Exposing Inequality in American High Schools. His other books include Preparing for Power, Exploring Education, and School Choice. He is managing director of Education Sector, and teaches at Columbia University's Teachers College and at Georgetown University.

Q: Why did you decide to write Class Rules, and what impact do you hope it will have on the education debate?

A: In one sense I have been writing Class Rules since Caroline Persell and I published Preparing for Power: America’s Elite Boarding Schools in 1985.  High schools are theaters where the drama of class reproduction gets played out every day. This is the deep curriculum of high schools that is largely unexplored by scholars and ignored by reformers.

I have wrestled with the problem of how classes reproduce themselves for most of my career; the concept of collective memory helped me to understand how young adults internalize class values and why this deep socialization so powerfully shapes their worldviews.  It is a story that needs to be told if we are going to be honest with ourselves and begin the task of creating genuine equality of educational opportunity.

I hope Class Rules awakes reformers, educators and the public to the real problems we face in education and together we can begin the process of building an excellent and equitable system of schools for all students.

Q: Why is socialization such a key piece of the high school experience?

A: Social control begins in the human mind and heart. While we don’t like to think of schools as instruments of social control, they are. Young adults are in a formative period of development; the culture of the high school they attend --- particularly the class culture --- influences them deeply. 

Think of it this way, when most of us think back to our high school experiences, generally we have weak memories of the manifest curriculum (lectures, textbooks and tests), but very strong memories of the deep curriculum (our friends, our hurts and our yearnings). As Richard Rorty says, socialization goes all the way down.

Q: How did you pick the particular high schools you studied, and how representative are they?

A: The high schools in the study are representative of schools like them. I have been doing research in high schools for many years and have studied scores of schools arrayed along class lines. Four out of the five schools in the study I have known for many years; the fifth school I came to know more recently. 

When you study high school samples according to the social class backgrounds of their students you discover they are much more alike than different, especially in terms of their socialization effects on students.

Q: You mention Finland as a country that has implemented successful educational reforms. Are the other examples that you feel could be relevant for reform in this country?

A: We have some unique challenges and opportunities. Our Jeffersonian tradition of local control places public education in the hands of the community, which is a good thing. At the same time this radical decentralization means that we don’t have a national vision of education as James Madison advocated.

I look to reforms and policies that unify us behind public education as our most powerful national opportunity to bridge the class and race Grand Canyons that divide us. Democratizing reforms such as access to open source online materials for all students and programs to develop critical thinking are small but important steps in getting young people to get control of their own learning and lives.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: In education I am writing a book on blended learning for teachers. I continue to be fascinated with the issue of inequality and I am writing another book on extreme wealth and concentrated power in the United States today.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Just that I remain optimistic and hopeful that as Americans we will keep faith with the Founders and create a system of schools that serve all students and that foster the qualities of democratic participation we so desperately need today.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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