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No Quotas, No Elite Public High School

In late September I attended a memorial service for William M. Fitz-Gibbon [1], a retired public school teacher who had passed away a few weeks earlier, just short of his 78th birthday.

Without doubt Bill Fitz-Gibbon—“Fitz” to everyone—was the individual who had the greatest academic influence on my life, and my feelings were shared by many others, with hundreds of his former students from the last 35 years attending the service, held at Walter Reed Junior High in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles. But what made his achievement so remarkable is that his decades of teaching had almost entirely been spent—with only mixed success—trying to climb up the down escalator of American education.

Unlike most MIT science graduates with exceptional IQs, he was drawn to teaching, first at private schools in Switzerland and England and later in suburban Los Angeles. He decided the existing system was inadequate for the most able and saw the need for an academically elite public school similar to Stuyvesant and Bronx Science in New York. So in 1971, with the approval of his principal and working with two other teachers, he established his major legacy, the Individualized Honors Program (IHP) at Reed in North Hollywood, taking in some 30 seventh graders, mostly from the local area but with some drawn from across Los Angeles.

When these students moved up to the eighth grade, a new group of seventh graders was enrolled, and this was repeated again the following year, with IHP now containing three teachers and close to 100 seventh through ninth graders, representing the tiniest sliver of the half-million-plus Los Angeles Unified School District. And I had become part of that sliver, entering IHP as a seventh grader in 1973.

Within a few years the program had begun to achieve impressive results, with eighth and ninth graders passing Advanced Placement exams for college credit, the same sort of APs normally taken only by the top 11th and 12th graders at other leading schools. Reed’s IHP became the first and only junior high school in America where a sizable fraction of the students were doing college-level work. The obvious next step—part of the plan from the very beginning—was to extend the program to the upper grades, thereby creating a public school whose achievements would rival those of any in the world. But over three decades it never happened, and therein lies a tale.

 

Although LA schools had never enjoyed the reputation for academic excellence found in some East Coast cities, they had also never faced the same sort of bitter racial struggles. The suburban Valley was entirely middle class and well over 90 percent white in those days, and although the 1965 Watts Riots had been horrifying, they had taken place 30 miles away over the hills—events you saw on television rather than experienced in daily life.

But the ideological tide of the late 1960s had begun seeping into the public education system, gradually replacing the post-Sputnik push for rigorous academic quality with a focus on “experimentation,” with “New Math” and “Whole Language,” while the benchmark for success shifted from excellence to “equity” or “diversity.”

change_me

Meanwhile, a long political battle over proposed forced busing for racial integration—possibly involving daily round-trips of 50 miles or more—became the absolute centerpiece of educational politics and provoked a white exodus from the schools. Unlike on the East Coast, virtually all ordinary Angelenos had traditionally attended local public schools, but over a decade or so a substantial fraction nervously switched to newly established private academies. By the time the busing proposals finally died in court, the LAUSD had suffered a huge loss of its previous middle-class enrollment, and the school board had become ideologically polarized to an extreme degree.

 

This was the landscape in fall 1984 when I returned to California as a Stanford grad student in theoretical physics, after having spent years away on the East Coast and in England. With the IHP track record now long and impressive, I believed the time might be right to create the intended high school, and working with the IHP teachers and a couple of other IHP alumni, we began the project.

At first, things went extremely well. IHP’s academic results were amazing, but had never been noticed by the media, so sending out a few simple press releases quickly attracted outstanding coverage, including a front-page story in the Los Angeles Times [2] and a full-page article in Time [3].

With such strong media coverage, we gradually recruited an impressive advisory board of supporters, including six Nobel Laureates, the president of Caltech, the president of the American Physical Society, a past chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, and a former president of the Harvard Law Review. Leading local high-technology companies endorsed the effort, and prominent university professors expressed interest in teaching at the school part-time, including a Caltech Nobel Laureate.

By 1986, we had developed an outline of our proposed School for Advanced Studies and its full curriculum. Even more importantly, we had attracted the backing of the Los Angeles-based Weingart Foundation, which offered to provide $3.5 million in supplemental private funding to help establish the program.

All that remained was receiving authorization from the Los Angeles School Board, but that last hurdle proved insurmountable. For nearly two decades, the board had been bitterly split down the middle between right-wing and left-wing factions. Although the conservatives generally supported our effort, they hardly considered it a major priority, while some of the “progressives” hated it, viewing it as the worst sort of educational elitism.

In particular, they demanded that students be selected by strict racial proportions, which we believed would destroy the program. One of the front-page newspaper articles [4] quoted board member Jackie Goldberg as saying, “If they don’t want quotas, they don’t want a public school.” With LAUSD refusing to allow the school, we explored various other options, but none of them materialized, and our efforts eventually faded away.

The Los Angeles School Board members went back to fighting over unionization issues and planning their future races for city council.

Bill Fitz-Gibbon spent another 20 years teaching at IHP, always hoping to extend the program to high school, but with no more luck than before.

[5]And I became so disgusted at our failure that a college friend finally persuaded me to take a summer job writing software on Wall Street, a decision that unexpectedly marked my permanent defection from a planned academic career in theoretical physics.

The only long-term consequence of our years of effort was that ABC soon created a successful television sitcom called “Head of the Class,” which ran from 1986 to 1991 and featured ten ultra-bright students in a public school program called “IHP.” The show launched the career of Robin Givens, Mike Tyson’s future wife, while one of the other students was actually played by a Reed IHP graduate.

Naturally, the show itself was set in New York City, since everyone knows that a high-powered academic program like that could never exist in an educational backwater such as Los Angeles.

Ron Unz is publisher of the The American Conservative and founder of Unz.org.


18 Comments (Open | Close)

18 Comments To "No Quotas, No Elite Public High School"

#1 Comment By Bob Jones On October 30, 2012 @ 4:59 pm

I would say that the mistake you made with the effort was trying to do this in an overly politicized, unwieldy school district like Los Angeles. You might have been better to look to partner with one of the smaller suburban schools districts to set a standard that could be replicated, which would eventually have been adoptable by LAUSD. Our district out in Riverside has been pursuing various types of such experiments in terms of designing both instructional focused and elite style schools and academic programs within existing schools. Whether that be an IBB program, and emphasis on arts-based education (including solid music programs down to the elementary school level as well as visual arts and performing arts programs, as well as the development of a district-wide STEM academy, which starting next year will extend from 5th through 12 grade.

I think there are distinct advantages to working on these types of programs in a district with only 45,000 students vs a behemoth like LAUSD, in which school board members represent a variety of political factions with priorities everywhere but on the preparation of young people to learn and develop into successful and educated adults.

#2 Comment By Karen On October 30, 2012 @ 5:16 pm

Here is a review of the Barack Obama Preparation Academy on GreatSchools.com: “hi my dauther goes to this school i dont think that for the first year it went good at all the with staft and teachers they didn’t had no control on the students i dont now what happen with our principal she was good when she was in forshay with our students on deciplem now the students get to schhool late and they close all the bathroom during classes so when they need to go they can find them open when they switch to another class so they arrive late to class the teachers close there doors and dont let them in even if they see the student running to class.”

Barack Obama Preparation Academy cost for its 170,000 square feet on 7 acres was $78,900,000, says its architect. Capacity of the school is 1,400 students, although many don’t show up. The actualy Obama Administration has a plan to fix what’s wrong with Barack Obama Prep, which they feel is too much discipline. Quotes for how many African Americans can be disciplined or suspended have been established. Los Angeles schools, in a nutshell.

#3 Comment By Fred Smoe On October 30, 2012 @ 7:43 pm

Hopefully the tide has turned. Or, in stock market terms we have reached the bottom. (I’m hoping that 2006 was the low point – Pelosi and Reid. And that the election of President Obama was based on attempts by some whites to soothe their conscience, not based on a – further – move to the left by the populace. Too bad: all three caused a lot of problems.)

Socialists have taken over the Democratic Party and have forced Liberals into the Republican Party – Arthur Davis. There is now a battle in the GOP for control between the Libs and Conservatives.

#4 Comment By MEH 0910 On October 30, 2012 @ 8:51 pm

“a decision that unexpectedly marked my permanent defection from a planned academic career in theoretical physics.”

Do you still have any interest in theoretical physics?

#5 Comment By Steve Sailer On October 30, 2012 @ 9:16 pm

Thanks.

Here’s a historical curiosity about Walter Reed: during John McCain’s acceptance speech at the 2008 Republican National Convention, a picture of Walter Reed Middle School was projected 50 feet wide behind McCain:

[6]

#6 Comment By Cornel Lencar On October 30, 2012 @ 10:01 pm

These american public schools are incredibly “egalitarian”. I grew up in a socialist country and the educational system there would have appalled any “progressives” in the US. It was entirely meritocratic and affected high ranking officials’ offsprings.

#7 Comment By Rambler88 On October 30, 2012 @ 10:16 pm

School administrations, liberal or conservative, share one fundamental objection to any such advanced education program: such programs imply early graduation of significant numbers of students. That means fewer students, less funds from the government, and less patronage power for the school administration. Also, with the best students leaving early, the overall achievement numbers for the school will drop. This, under the present bureaucratic regime, will lead to all sorts of funding and compliance problems for the school.

#8 Comment By Richard William Posner On October 31, 2012 @ 12:07 pm

While I think that meritocratic systems of education are completely acceptable, even desirable, they bring with them an inherent tendency to promote elitism and a deeply discriminatory class system.

How can we ensure that students who pass through such systems will not look with disdain and contempt upon the majority that do not possess their scholastic acumen?

How do we avoid producing generations of petty tyrants who feel it’s their right to dominate and exploit those beneath them?

How can we be certain that their education includes, as a very high priority, the subjects of fairness, compassion, equality before the law and justice?

What of those who possess great native intelligence but cannot conform to the rigid disciplines of formal academia?

How can we hope to create an equitable and free society while pursuing policies that serve to further stratify the population?

Shall we trust to the ancient concept of Noblesse obligé? One need only give history a cursory glance to see how well that has worked.

How do we, concurrently, create an extremely polarized class system and promote the general welfare?

#9 Comment By Charlie Rosenberg On October 31, 2012 @ 3:56 pm

I read this article in the latest print issue of the magazine (my first, since subscribing). The school board’s demand for quotas is ludicrous. Still, if the School for Advanced Studies consistently has an almost entirely “white” population, and lacks significant numbers of African American, Hispanic, Native American, Pacific Islanders, etc., that is also a valid concern. Unless someone has hard evidence that, after all, individuals of these demographics just are, across the board, congenitally incapable of advanced academic thought, then something is wrong.

(I have contributed dozens of biographical articles to African American National Biography which certainly disprove that, congenitally, across the board, this could possibly be true.)

Instead of quotas, what such a school would need is a Dr. Charles Drew program, feeding from elementary schools into the middle school, and from other middle schools, into the high school. You could add words like “intensive” or “advanced” or “accelerated” to the name, but I think these would be superfluous.

Why Dr. Drew? As you may know, Charles Drew… no, he did not INVENT from whole cloth the process for collecting and preserving blood plasma. His doctoral thesis was a synthesis of the work of many researchers in a number of specialized fields, providing a blueprint for a practical process to do exactly that.

Anyway, as a professor at Howard University Medical School, he made a point of never cutting his students any slack because of their background. He would put in extra hours to help them catch up, to work through material they found difficult, but they didn’t get any breaks on mastering the material. That is the approach necessary to bring more students from sub-cultures built around darker skin color and related ethnicities into full participation in the School for Advanced Studies.

IF despite the most strenuous efforts to do this, few students with higher epidermal melanin concentrations apply, stick with the program, or meet the standards, then, maybe they just don’t want to be part of it. But I can offer a long list of largely unknown counter-examples, or role models. A few would include:

Elaine Brown Jenkins
Frederick McKinley Jones
Eugene Clay Holmes
Frederick Madison Roberts
Earl D. Shaw
Mary Styles Harris
Shirley Ann Jackson
Clarence “Skip” Ellis

But the questions Posner offers are more difficult. Students who have advanced capabilities in science, or math, or any number of other fields should have the opportunity to pursue those abilities. But that should not be the basis for social separation from students whose abilities lie in other directions, nor grounds for a sense of superiority. My father taught college level chemistry all his life, but one of the best things my parents did for me was buy a home on the far corner of town from the university, where my playmates fathers worked in paper mills, at the wire works, drove delivery trucks, ran a home heating business, worked as a mason, etc. Call it diversity… it is healthy.

Footnote to Fred Smoe: If the Democratic Party was in any sense socialist, I would have far more respect for it. I would agree that there are liberals in the Republican Party… in the sense that Ronald Reagan was a classic Gladstonian liberal.

#10 Comment By Chris mahoney On October 31, 2012 @ 6:46 pm

The tragedy is that gifted white and Asian students are unusually discovered and nurtured, whereas gifted black and latino students are left to stew in their own juices at the public warehouses, never to be found. No one cares about them, certainly not the unions.

#11 Comment By Gina On November 1, 2012 @ 8:48 am

I read this article in the latest print issue of the magazine (my first, since subscribing). The school board’s demand for quotas is ludicrous. Still, if the School for Advanced Studies consistently has an almost entirely “white” population, and lacks significant numbers of African American, Hispanic, Native American, Pacific Islanders, etc., that is also a valid concern. Unless someone has hard evidence that, after all, individuals of these demographics just are, across the board, congenitally incapable of advanced academic thought, then something is wrong.

You’re contradicting yourself. If quotas are ludicrous, then why are you stating that a school should have “significant numbers of” other ethnic groups? How do you make a demand for “significant numbers” of minority enrollment without instituting quotas?

Also, what is your evidence that academic ability is equally distributed among all ethnic groups? If the school can’t find enough black and Hispanic students to fill the quota, should they lower their standards, as schools, universities, and employers across the country are repeatedly forced to do?

#12 Comment By Richard William Posner On November 1, 2012 @ 2:17 pm

@ Chris mahoney;

I think someone cares about everyone, but not always for the right reasons.

It is my own opinion that the students you note, being “…left…at the public warehouses…”, are, in many cases, being oppressed with malice aforethought because very powerful interests care to see to it that they can very rarely rise to any position of power.

To certain individuals and groups, diversity is so completely antithetical and repugnant that complete segregation is evidently preferable.

#13 Comment By Paul Emmons On November 1, 2012 @ 4:00 pm

>Socialists have taken over the Democratic Party and have forced Liberals into the Republican Party – Arthur Davis. There is now a battle in the GOP for control between the Libs and Conservatives.

When did this happen? I’m thinking of the days when the Republican tradition in my native Wisconsin was in the LaFollette mold. Great Republicans in Pennsylvania were Scranton, Heinz, and Specter. New York had Rockefeller and Lindsey. Today’s governors Walker of Wisconsin and Corbett of Pennsylvania are like creatures from outer space by comparison. Who are those Republican liberals you have in mind, and when did one stop calling them RINOS? Have there been any high-profile defections of liberals to the GOP comparable to that of Specter to the Democrats (which he did only because he would have lost in the Republican primaries)?

>How can we ensure that students who pass through such systems will not look with disdain and contempt upon the majority that do not possess their scholastic acumen?

Convert them to the church. That’s what baptismal vows are supposed to prevent. I have two master’s degrees etc. But if I had to restore electric power to my neighborhood in the middle of high wind and rain, I’d probably electrocute myself in short order . Those burly linemen who checked into the hotel after driving 500 miles east were a welcome sight, and I felt like kissing their boots. Why shouldn’t they be as well paid and respected for what they do as I am for my work?

#14 Comment By Richard William Posner On November 1, 2012 @ 5:03 pm

@ Paul Emmons

Such conversions are more easily spoken of than accomplished.

As to your last sentence; damn straight!

But, would you like to sit down to dinner with them in your favourite eatery, or theirs, and talk?

If your honest answer is yes, then hail fellow well met.

#15 Comment By MEH 0910 On November 1, 2012 @ 8:03 pm

From the [4] Ron Unz linked to that touches upon quotas:

Integration is another key issue, though Unz maintains the school would have a strong minority recruitment program and would take a disadvantaged background into consideration.

“That and free transportation would ensure a substantial minority population and fully integrated environment,” said Unz. “It’s an important goal, but numerical quotas we don’t support.”

(The Bronx School in New York City, which the proposed county school would most resemble, is not subject to quotas, according to spokesmen there. It’s enrollment is 58 percent white, 20 percent Asian, 14 percent black and 8 percent Hispanic.)

#16 Comment By RB On November 2, 2012 @ 4:18 pm

RWP wrote:
“How do we avoid producing generations of petty tyrants who feel it’s their right to dominate and exploit those beneath them?”

Have you been in a DMV or before the county zoning board lately? Petty tyrants can come from anywhere, and dominate and exploit without the benefit of an elite education.

Not withstanding a small handfull of examples to the contrary, trying to create “elite-style” education within the paradigm of public school systems, teachers’ unions, and government money is a losing proposition. We need to be working towards the elimination of government schools and letting a free market in education serve those who seek higher achievement.

#17 Comment By JD On November 4, 2012 @ 1:41 am

Interesting perspective from a person that is NOT teaching at the school. The IHP program is inundated with White and Asian students and virtually NO minority representation. The students are given unwavering access to any program they want, financial resources, and special programs like Music that are not required to share any of their revenue with the larger school. ALL of the students repeatedly violate school rules only to be excused because they are “IHP.” To praise a teacher for starting a meaningless program of AP classes (your AP credit means little to nothing for a college app) and encouraging students to take college level classes with uncertified teachers is a joke!! There are NO efforts to provide equal access to any of the high performing minorities at this school. The IHP program should at least mirror the student population, yet Hispanics make up roughly 68% of the student population and less than 1% of the IHP population. Similar numbers are confirmable among African-American students as well. The teacher you hold is such high regard did not teach “those students.” If he were so skilled then why not reach out to the high performing minority students as well. After all, shouldn’t a public school provide appropriate access for all? Or are you longing for the days of Plessy v. Ferguson. The LAUSD School Board is an out of touch hinderance to anything meaningful in the district, but there is some localized control and sadly the decisions made at Reed are much more divisive and exclusive, than inclusive.

#18 Comment By S.H. On March 6, 2017 @ 3:40 pm

What would it take to try again? If the high school was a magnet it could appen. My daughter will be in the IHP next year. Do you think any of the past advocates could share their knowledge with us? Do you think any of the previous donors would be willing all these years later?