A review of Academic Success and Social Power: Examinations and Social Inequality by Richard Teese, University of Melbourne Press, 2000. ISBN 0 522 84896 6
The title of Richard Teese’s book – Academic Success and Social Power – presages a familiar, if bleak, account of the advantages that schooling confers upon the few at the expense of the many. The site of Teese’s work is Australia and more specifically, Victoria; but its critique that “the institutions that create academic success condemn large numbers of students to failure’’ is one that applies more broadly – perhaps even to Canada.
Teese’s argument has several facets. Underpinning school curricula are assumptions about students, the knowledge and experience that students bring to school, the objectives of study, and often the means of achieving and assessing these objectives. Universities – especially elite institutions – exert inordinate influence upon public school curricula through entrance requirements that privilege particular disciplines and ways of knowing. School curricula and the teachers responsible for them attempt to cultivate the knowledge and dispositions required for successful admission: “the capacity for abstraction, the ability to synthesize, analytical skills, creativity, imagination, the capacity to develop perspective and so on” (p. 4).
Teachers, Teese argues, are challenged to cultivate these capacities because the capacities are, in turn, dependent upon a range of cultural demands that cannot be fulfilled under routine classroom conditions: “Language facility, attentiveness, achievement motivation, self-confidence in learning, personal organization and self-direction, capacity to learn for intrinsic satisfaction rather than extrinsic interest” are all attributes necessary for scholastic success, but less evident among those living in poverty, at least according to Teese. Teachers are stretched to bridge the divide between conceptual structure and family structure: “they it is who have to compensate for the gaps between what the curriculum expects to find in students – conceptual depth and a scholarly outlook and habits – and who students really are” (p. 6).
Mathematics and science – manifestations of academic authority – have become the paramount considerations in determining admissions to university, criteria that post-secondary institutions are reluctant to change. Their use is justified, they claim, because they identify the brightest students – those with “real ability from whatever background” (p. 112). The institutional practices and resistance to change are codified into an institutional “. . . pecking order by commanding the channels of professional and managerial training and recruitment, by drawing on the most successful students – and, therefore, aligning themselves to the most socially advantaged strata of the population – and by exercising intellectual pre-eminence in the most highly ranked fields of knowledge” (p. 214).
Teese’s allegation that abstraction, synthetic and analytical abilities, creativity and imagination are less well developed among the poor is reminiscent of Oscar Lewis’ description of the socialization of poor, Mexican-American children into a “culture of poverty”. It finds more nuanced and contemporary expression in a range of authors from Michael Apple to Terry Wotherspoon. Edgerton, Peter, and Roberts reprise the arguments in their analysis of the Canadian data from the OECD’s 2003 Programme for International Student Assessment that shows the distribution of achievement in Canada reflects socio-economic inequalities.
Teese proposes broad policy shifts aimed primarily at reducing the stranglehold that universities exert on school curricula, strengthening vocational educational opportunities, reforming school curricula and pedagogy, reducing class sizes, and reforming teacher preparation. While I share sympathy for many of the changes Teese proposes, I am not sanguine about focussing Canadian efforts in the same areas.
Policy responses to the persistent relationship between scholastic achievement and socio-economic inequality must complement educational interventions with policy initiatives beyond the boundaries of the school and school systems. People’s lives are not divided up into departments like governments or universities. Although public schools are the obvious places to address the connection between social and educational inequalities, they are not the only places. Public schools require support from complementary social policies designed to support families and communities. Such policies include addressing poverty and strengthening families and communities through decent minimum wages, generous parenting policies, universal daycare and early-childhood education, fair employment standards, and health care. These policies help to reduce inequalities, enabling schools to maximize their contributions in the areas for which they are most qualified.
 Oscar Lewis, Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty (New York: Basic Books, 1959).
 J. D. Edgerton, T. Peters, and L.W. Roberts, “Back to the Basics: Socio-Economic, Gender, and Regional Disparities in Canada’s Educational System,” Canadian Journal of Education 31, no. 4 (2008): 861-888.