The cult of esoteric reading

Here’s what a Straussian reader might take from Fredrik deBoer’s The Cult of Smart: The key to improving education is aggressively filtering out low-performing students. We can make schools places where high-ability students can thrive. But we’re too sensitive to charges of exclusion and demographic inequity to do it. What we need to do is prune student rosters more while making noise about how only an impossible-to-achieve socialist utopia can help those who can’t hack it in school.

That’s a malicious interpretation, of course, but it kept nagging at me as I made my way through the book. Should we want more filtering by ability?

One of its recurring themes is that most “successful” educational programs aren’t what they seem. One way or another, they’re excluding low-performers. Here is deBoer on charter schools:

This is why many charter systems, such as Success Academy, resist “backfill,” the process of enrolling new students into their schools to replace students who drop out or are expelled. Doing so undermines their carefully manicured student bodies.

And here is a similar comment about private schools:

People involved with the private high schools liked to brag about the high scores their students received on standardized tests—without bothering to mention that you had to score well on such a test to get into the schools in the first place.

deBoer is critical of these practices. But his negative attitude toward them seems at odds with some of the other positions he takes in the book. For example, in the introduction he describes how he came to appreciate the “weed-out” classes in engineering (and other) programs:

What had seemed like cruelty to me was in fact an act of mercy… I grew to think that rather than representing a failure of educators to do their jobs, these classes that screened out students performed a necessary if unfortunate function for institutions dedicated to training young people for their futures.

And he notoriously calls for 12 year olds to be able to legally drop out. He frames this in terms of benefits to the dropouts, but does acknowledge that it might positively affect those who stay in school:

[T]here will always be a portion of adolescents who have no interest in continuing formal schooling, and forcing them to do so not only impinges on their freedom but wastes time, energy, and resources better spent on those who want to be in school.

This raises the question: is ability-based filtering merely a way of gaming metrics, or does it make education better for those who survive the process? deBoer says that having entrance exams is “akin to having a height requirement for your school and then bragging about how tall your student body is,” but I’m not sure this is a great analogy. Having short students around surely doesn’t prevent tall students from becoming taller. But it is plausible that having weak students around holds back the strong students.

In fact, I think that should be our assumption. I come from a family of educators, and I think every one of them would agree that the presence of a single student that doesn’t “want to be in school” can wreck the classroom experience for every other student. They would recoil at the idea of letting 12 year olds drop out, but would probably be happy with the effects of such a policy.

I’m curious as to whether deBoer would endorse this view. Is he critical of existing filtering practices because they’re dishonest? Would he favor them if school performance wasn’t so bound up with the ability to obtain food and shelter? If not, why not - and how does this square with the admiration for weed-out classes?

The Cult of Smart is a fantastic book, and I’m glad to have read it. Parts of it made me want to stand up and cheer. Other parts made me want to throw it across the room. But every part of it kept me engaged, and I’ll be thinking about it for years.