To begin this post, two anecdotes.

The first one comes from Shamus Khan’s Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School. In the book, Khan recounts the following story about a graduate of the uber-elite St. Paul’s school in New Hampshire:

“I don’t actually know much,” an alumnus told me after he finished his freshman year at Harvard. “I mean, well, I don’t know how to put it. When I’m in classes all these kids next to me know a lot more than I do. Like about what actually happened in the Civil War. Or what France did in World War II. I don’t know any of that stuff. But I know something they don’t. It’s not facts or anything. It’s how to think. That’s what I learned in humanities.” 

“What do you mean, ‘how to think’?” I asked.

“I mean, I learned how to think bigger. Like, everyone else at Harvard knew about the Civil War. I didn’t. But I knew how to make sense of what they knew about the Civil War and apply it. So they knew a lot about particular things. I knew how to think about everything.” (44)

The second anecdote is mine.

A couple of months ago, I had lunch with a colleague who works at an elite tutoring company in Manhattan. We started chatting about what makes the best tutors so effective, and at one point in the conversation, my colleague mentioned somewhat sardonically that the more clients paid, the more they wanted to be yelled at – a statement to which I immediately and knowingly nodded my assent. I was very familiar with the phenomenon, but I’d never heard it expressed in quite such stark terms, and the comment stuck with me.

I find these two anecdotes particularly telling because they perfectly capture two sides of the same coin. On one hand, schools – particularly elite private schools – tout the wonders of progressive education, the sort of schooling that goes beyond “mere facts” and “rote memorization” and teaches students to think; and on the other hand, those same students who spend their school hours gathered around Harkness tables (or even just desks dragged into “clusters”) expounding on The Great Gatsby or I Have a Dream while a teacher walks around the room facilitating, not infrequently spend their after-school hours at Kumon or at the side of highly compensated professional tutors who provide the sort of direct instruction that is largely missing in the classroom.

Discussions of equity and test prep are virtually always predicated on the assumption that wealthy students do well on standardized tests because they are able to afford classes/tutors who can teach them specialized “tricks.” As I’ve written about before, the definition of a “trick” is an awfully slippery one. I suspect part of the reason the whole idea of tricks is so appealing is that no one can – or wants to – imagine that well-off students could possibly need help with the basics. Yet that is all too often the case.

Part of the reason that top schools can get away with eschewing fundamentals is of course that many of their students tend to have highly educated parents, and/or are exceptionally motivated academically. The University of Chicago Lab School, which was founded as a laboratory for John Dewey, the patron saint of American progressive education, now has a student body composed of more than 50 percent University affiliates. (As a side note, Dewey spent only two years teaching high school and one teaching elementary school before deciding he wasn’t cut out for the classroom.)

Students in that category tend to either naturally absorb, or be taught by their parents, a good deal of basic and not-so-basic knowledge that other students must obtain in school. As a result, they can come through twelve years of group work and project-based learning relatively unscathed, and schools can continue to securely promote the philosophy that the classroom is a place for exploration and the development of each child’s unique qualities.

The problem, however, comes when students who have failed to naturally “catch” some of the basics, and who have been asked to work at a faux-high level that is well beyond what their actual skills allow, are suddenly placed in a high-stakes situation that requires them to have mastered certain fundamental skills and suddenly cannot perform at the level they are expected to.

Likewise, when high schools attempt to be “rigorous” by assigning college-level reading and writing assignments without explicitly giving students the tools to complete, them the result is typically procrastination, frustration, panic, parent-child screaming matches, and all-nighters (with the last two usually occurring simultaneously).

The inescapable fact is that if schools are not spending enough time ensuring that students master the basics, and students want to – or need to – master those basics, someone still needs to teach them.  

And that is where the tutoring industry steps in.

I know this for a fact because I was the person called in to help teach the basics, be it subject-verb agreement or how to write an introduction – over and over and over and over and over again. I witnessed the screaming matches (at midnight!) and the panic and the meltdowns. All the things teachers don’t get to see.

So largely thanks to people like my former self, schools can remain blissfully shielded from the shortcomings of ed-school theory. In fact, everything teachers and administrators observe is a testament to its efficacy. If students struggle, the problem must be with them. Perhaps it’s undiagnosed ADD, or an executive functioning problem – something that can be conveniently be made someone else’s problem, and not infrequently medicated away. The basic pedagogical orthodoxies are never questioned.

Provided they can get the help they need, though, the students who are obviously struggling are in some ways lucky. As for the kids who seem to be coasting through just fine… Well, that’s how you end up with rising Harvard sophomores who don’t know what, like, actually happened during the Civil War. (But hey, it’s Harvard, so grade inflation.)

Let me be clear, though: this is not just an elite phenomenon, although it is often most exaggerated in that environment. Given all the standard rhetoric about “drill and kill,” “rote learning,” and the droning lecture of boring teachers (who could of course be gotten rid of if only those pesky tenure regulations were overturned), I think that the extent to which the American education system has been shaped by progressive principles is difficult to grasp for someone who has never spent time a classroom in a genuinely traditional system.

Read any report on education in virtually any American publication, though, and you’ll see an almost compulsive insistence on the idea that the primary goal of education is to develop that elusive quality known as “creativity.” (What exactly does mean, by the way? Finger-painting? Designing video games with loud noises and cool graphics? Creating an app for pre-cooked, organic meal delivery?)

To cite a typical example, consider this quote from an article about the importance of handwriting, which recently appeared on the PBS website:

If teachers required students to take their own notes or (on top of that) requested that they handwrite them, students could perform better on tests—and they might even feel empowered to be more creative throughout the learning process, too. 

Even this most traditional of skills must be presented in such a way that confirms the accepted worldview. It is not enough to learn skills because they are important and aid the learning process – they must be spun as promoting creativity, no matter how tangential the relationship. The edu-speak is a fallback, signaling there is no other acceptable way to think of think about education.

As E.D. Hirsch has explained, for nearly a century now, the shortcomings of the education system have been attributed to “rote learning,” with more progressive pedagogies inevitably proposed as the solution. When the latter methodologies prove to be ineffective, the result has inevitably been to double down and insist either that they are not being implemented properly, or that they are not being implemented at all.

But the less direct instruction students receive in class, the more they need to seek it elsewhere. The need for it doesn’t disappear – it just moves elsewhere, out of the public domain and into the private.

And if parents cannot provide it, then many of them can at least pay for it.