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Dare the Schools Build a New Social Order?


Dear Deb,

We do agree: Violence is not the essential reason that schools are unsuccessful. We agree that violence is not caused by schools, and that in every community the schools are the safest environment that students are likely to encounter. That was not the point, however, that I was making. The point was that we live in a society where authority of all kinds has been eroded, that the media regularly and consistently undermines adult authority, and that schools are no longer safe from the intrusions of the street and the popular culture. No matter whether schools are progressive or traditional (are there any such?), no matter what their curriculum, they still must worry about knives, guns, disrespect, theft, drugs, alcohol, pregnant 14-year-olds, and what happens in the bathrooms. It ain’t “Little House on the Prairie” anymore.

OK, that’s just the way it is. We have learned, these past few decades, to lower our expectations, even our ideals. We have learned to tolerate intolerable behavior.

I also wrote that this climate change was not a function of whether a school was traditional or progressive. You responded to my post with a ringing defense of progressive schools, and I was left to ponder a conundrum. We have in the past disagreed about where to place the burden of social reform. Sometimes I have argued, perhaps too strongly, that schools—or rather, great education—could build a better social order (echoing the famous 1932 challenge of George Counts to his colleagues “Dare the Schools Build a New Social Order?”). You, Richard Rothstein, and many others, have taken the opposite tack, that schools—no matter how wonderful—cannot alone reverse the corrosive effects of poverty. Over time, I have altered my views about what schools can accomplish on their own and about their limited ability to replace or compensate for other social and economic policy changes. They can provide educational opportunity but they cannot build a new social order.

Thus I am left confused and dumbstruck—well, not really dumbstruck—when you switch gears and propose that the problems of disconnected, angry adolescence can be solved by creating the right kind of progressive school. I am not persuaded.

Last week, I went to hear Professor Richard Pring, the director of the British evaluation team called the Nuffield Review. He spoke passionately about the wrong turn that British education has taken in the past generation. His complaints about over-testing and about the marginalization of teachers would have heartened you, I feel certain. He had a few choice words for Sir Michael Barber, who moved rather smoothly from advising the government of Tony Blair to working for McKinsey & Company, where the mantra is (and I paraphrase): “What matters most is what can be measured; whatever can be measured can be controlled.” Professor Pring commented that Barber was bringing to America the same dismal regime of testing and accountability that had proved so toxic and ineffective in England (see my earlier blog in which I released—with his permission—Pring’s unpublished letter to The New York Times). He also was amused that the New York City Department of Education was paying several millions of dollars to British educators (the Cambridge Education Group) to evaluate the schools, because their “expertise” is no greater than that of local N.Y.C. educators. And his comments about the Orwellian nature of the business language that has invaded the vocabulary of educators were priceless.

At one point in the discussion, a teacher asked Mr. Pring whether he was proposing that schools should make up their own curriculum, and he said he was not. He said that there must be a framework, some overarching agreement on what should be taught in school.

I like that idea. What would such a framework look like? That would be a good starting point for our next exchange.



Diane and Deb:

I have been following this conversation for awhile, and I am getting confused. I understand that the format of this blog is something of a point/counterpoint and that the two of you are of differing minds on issues and this makes for interesting reading, and is a good way to explore topics.

But I am continually frustrated by something that you, Diane, said today, and a view that Deb put forth recently. This is the "schools don't cause violence" and "schools are safer than the neighborhoods the kids come from," attitude. I don't know that there is much mileage to be gained by trying to figure out who does cause the violence. There is probably research to link violence to despair in the midst of plenty. I also recall reading somewhere once that crime escalates during time of war. These things may be true--I don't know.

But what I feel that I must point out is this assumption that the schools are somehow not a part of the larger society. Whether progressive or traditional, they sit in their little boxes and educate students "from the neighborhood" from roughly 8 am 'til 3 pm and then everybody goes home. I'm sorry, this doesn't even approach the ability to build a new world order--it is the way to build a fantasy land, walled off from the rest of the world.

I hear it in my home district where the superintendent talks about problems that "started in the neighborhood," but which the school must now deal with. Don't get excited about any social re-engineering--usually this refers to fights growing out of arguments, especially if any non-students have become involved.

While McKinsey's mantra may elicit Orwellian visions of thought control, I rather suspect that it refers more appropriately to controlling the various "inputs" of education. By inputs I mean not the students (one of the current assignations/excuses for poor "outcomes"), but all of the various manipulable elements of education, from the hours in the day to the specific pedagogies, or underlying theories regarding progressivism, constructivism, instructivism or traditionalism.

But even shifting our understanding of what McKinsey/Barber are aiming at doesn't quite get at the problem that we seem to be totally blinded to. This is that schools are a part of the larger society, in which we all live, and as such a part of "the problem." While we like to focus on the various bits (poor neighborhoods or other neighborhoods, the media, the education community), the larger society really encompasses them all. The conditions that exist in poor neighborhoods are a direct function of choices that are made elsewhere. And schools perpetuate the divisions. This is how they are designed--albeit hidden from view in a complex system of local control issues, union issues, state issues and federal issues.

This is what we have because this is what we believe in. Where the rubber hits the road we reject equal access to education, because that means that we sacrifice the "right" of parents of means to get a better share for their children. Our schools lack authority because we don't want to be seen as "authoritarian," and we especially do not want to submit to any authority.

So--can schools build a new world order? I don't know. I think the first task is to admit the role that they have taken in building and maintaining the old one.

If you haven't read the post of Molly (a high school student) after Deb's last entry, I strongly suggest it...


"We have learned to tolerate intolerable behavior?" I sure hope you're wrong about this one. Every time a teacher turns their back on an incident or an administrator subscribes to the philosophy, "If I pretend for a long enough time that a problem doesn't exist, maybe, just maybe, it will go away," our schools and our society are irreparably harmed.

I know, someone is going to insist, you have to pick your battles. Pick your battles, my ar$e! These are kids you're talking about, children, and their behavior is ruining your day? Your mood? Your outlook on school and life? I feel sorry for teachers/adults who allow students to ruin their lives. If a student, a child, is doing something wrong or breaking a rule in school, and you as the teacher turn your back on it or let it go, you're contributing to the demise of your school’s culture.

If I learned nothing in 37 years in the classroom I learned that kids want boundaries, they want someone to establish limits and hold them to it, they want structure in their lives, many demand it in the craziest of ways, they even test you on it but they still want it. They want these parameters. It's their safe heaven. Often times they get it nowhere else but school, and if their teachers don't insist on it, demand it, kids from the toughest situations experience inexorable dismay, even grief to the point where they behave even worse.


Can schoooling help social problems? Yes. Can school solve all social ills? Most assuredly not.

Our "either/or" dialogue on schooling too often ignores the potential that effective schooling can have on dramaticaly improving our children's lives. This is particularly so for those that grow up in impoverished neighborhoods. But to assume that schooling can/should completely eliminate the entirety of our social ills, places undue burden upon our schools.

That being said, our schools for the most part are rather ineffective, even for our best and brightest students as Molly so clearly articulated in her response to Deborah's last post.

To address one of your points, it is not the lack of autocratic "authority" that prevent our schools from succeeding in enagaging and teaching our children but the lack of content.

Would it suprise you, given your critques of the school system, that the lack of content would result in children disengaging from school and "acting out" in inappropriate ways? Surely, you wouldn't expect our children to sit through dull, contentless lectures/meaningless activities without repercussions?

If our schools have nothing to teach our children why should they waste their time in such vapid and mind numbing experiences?

Baby sitting would be cheaper.

Erin Johnson

As much as I love the other discussions, I hope this one continues. Its one of the most important topics in education, and rarely does it get discussed publically. (and our discussion is much more temperate than similar ones on other blogs during the last few days)

Reflecting on the exchanges, I see how manytimes I’ve addressed street culture, school culture, the culture of policy analysts, and liberal and conservative political culture, and that is always tricky. But I have also stressed simple logistics, and I don’t think that that side is given equal weight.

My metaphor about a hospital that would have to close its wards, treating everyone scrambled together, was primarily about practical logistics. Such a hospital would quickly be overwhelmedd trying to keep things straight. Its failure would be due to being overwhelmed by practical realities, and there would be no need to assess blame for failing to do the impossible.

Teachers tended to repeat the same truism that 85% (or 80% or 90% or whatever) of the work is created by 15% (or 10% or whatever) of the kids. This creates the unintended implication that we want those challenging kids to disappear. Perhaps we should phrase the issue in terms of decisions we have to make. The vast majority of the decisions we make on a daily basis involve a very small minority of students.

Then we could ask what would be the best decisions for those kids. I agree with Debbie that "rarely" are students sent to alternative schools for their benefit. On the other hand, there is little reason to believe that we are helping those kids by keeping them in chaotic schools. Chicago research, as I recall, showed that young middle school students with a certain amount of failure and absenteeism have about a 15% chance of graduating. Can't we make better decisions with outcomes better than that?

Paul wrote a great paragraph,

"If I learned nothing in 37 years in the classroom I learned that kids want boundaries, they want someone to establish limits and hold them to it, they want structure in their lives, many demand it in the craziest of ways, they even test you on it but they still want it. They want these parameters. It's their safe heaven. Often times they get it nowhere else but school, and if their teachers don't insist on it, demand it, kids from the toughest situations experience inexorable dismay ..."

But I don't think teachers are in a position to demand that society defer to our experience.

Similarly, Debbie is correct that we would not need nearly as many alternative slots if we had far more resources - provided we invested them wisely. When I say that it is utopian to believe that high poverty schools can't improve under today's policies, I mean that in the context of budgetary realities. There is no limit to what we could do if we had the capacity and the will.

So at the risk of getting back to culture, and perhaps repeating myself, I'd like to suggest that opposing the expansion of alternative schools, without offering affordable alternatives, is partially due to a misunderstanding. Many progressives are like we liberals were in the 1970s in opposing the expansion of prison cells, under the the logic of build em and we'll fill em. (we applied the same logic to highways, mental institions, etc, and MOSTLY we we right). But we don't want to be like an HMO that rations health care. As Paul notes, kids through their behavior are crying for help. When we listen to ideology and not their pleas, we are denying them services.

One day it dawned on me: economic assistance leads to dependence, education to independence.

I wasn't an education major and never considered teaching until I was a junior or senior in college, when I became infatuated with the idea of schools having the ability to change the social order. Educational inequality leads to economic inequality and economic inequality leads to educational inequality—yes—but this apparent Catch-22 can be surmounted if we acknowledge the radical potential of schools to shape lives. This sounds authoritarian, I’ll be the first to admit, but I emphasize the word acknowledge. Schools DO play a crucial role in shaping the personalities of their charges, irregardless of our intentions—how can they not, when children spend seven or eight hours a day in schools, leaving about six to be spent with families before it’s bedtime?

It was by harnessing this radical potential of schools that institutionalized education became a covert means of social planning—the factory-model movement of last century. If we offer different kinds of education to different “intelligences” (a factor determined primarily by parents’ income level), we generate a diversified labor force and thus the built-in division of labor needed to keep the economic wheels of this country turning. From my take on current educational trends, there is no longer a proactive justification for a certain kind of a education, just a reactive one (schools are failing, let’s fix them, etc.). However, if I had to characterize the kind of education we have today, I would say that it purports to be neutral. School as a sorting mechanism is now politically untenable, so we must see school as an equal-opportunity training ground for any and all walks of life. This means that we must cram everything in. How to make sure that this happens? Individual teachers are micromanaged by principals who are micromanaged by state boards of education who are micromanaged by Washington policy-makers. Schools are held accountable to so many persons and in so many ways, your average, nervous teacher doesn’t have the time, energy, or will to delve in-depth on a certain topic, to be spontaneous, or to be passionate.

Like Molly said so well (http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/Bridging-Differences/2008/04/dear_diane_youve_opened_a.html#comment-24983), school is BORING. Anyone who has graduated from public high school within the past ten years will, I think, appreciate how dead-on her criticisms are. Yes, I’m sure my high school teachers hit all the state learning standards. But there were very few who were able to do this while at the same time exuding the (contagious) passion that makes school a pleasant and interesting place. Everyone else seemed to adopt the “We’re jumping through these hoops together,” attitude, an attitude which made me feel perfectly justified in sleeping through math class, not doing my physics homework, memorizing answers before the bell rang and regurgitating them a few minutes later on the economics quiz, and coming out with a 4.2 grade point average--not really an accomplishment, as probably 30% of my graduating class was able to boast of a 4.0 or better.

Let me bring this around to my original point. Schools do affect the social order, whether this is their stated purpose or not. The way I see it, the apathy and materialism of the current generation is a direct product of the schools in which they were educated. Instead of going the route of delivering exciting content, teachers try to motivate students by highlighting the utilitarian purpose of an education, its long-term economic profitability. They have to do this because the students aren’t intrinsically motivated, and the students aren’t intrinsically motivated because the content isn’t exciting. The content isn’t exciting because it satisfies the standards, not the passions and interests of the individual teachers.

Instead of pretending that schools shouldn’t and don’t mold students after themselves, let’s acknowledge that they do. Instead of trying to achieve the impossible, schools that are object-neutral and will train members of the upcoming generation for any career, let’s confer on schools the following purpose: turning children into citizens who think critically, act independently, and live passionately.

This is all well and good from a theoretical standpoint, but how to make this happen in practice? I don’t know. That’s why I became a teacher. I believed in the relationship between institutionalized education and social change, but didn’t know how to go about making things different, except at the grassroots level of one classroom, twenty kids at the time. There’s a problem with the top-down approach, however noble the intentions of those at the top. Diane, I love your work as an educational historian and as a steadfast critic of the educational bandwagon. I am sympathetic to your arguments for a centralized curriculum, especially when it comes to math, but believe that you overlook the practical side of things when it comes to implementing this curriculum. More centralization leads to more bureaucracy. More bureaucracy leads to less freedom for the individual teacher. Less freedom leads to less passion. With the accountability systems we have in place now, we are suffocating teachers and students alike. I just can’t believe you’d want more of the same, which is what a centralized curriculum would lead to. I am an enthusiastic exponent of a liberal education (college was, quite literally, a transformative experience for me), but I believe that if you impose it on teachers, you’ll effectively drain out all of its sweetness. I know how you feel about textbooks, Diane. More standards—no matter what their actual content—will lead to more profiteers creating their own jack-of-all-trades K-12 literature series that panicky administrators can buy for their schools and wipe the sweat off their brows, knowing that when it comes time for state inspections, they’ll be able to say that their school-wide curriculum is coordinated, properly sequenced, and standards-aligned.

Instead, how about—gasp—no accountability beyond graduation statistics, student-teacher ratio, etc.? Ushering the liberal arts into American high schools doesn’t need to happen through policy. In every community, offer free seminars to teachers and administrators on Plato and Joyce, Buddhism and environmentalism, poetry in Argentina and dance in Ghana. Offer other free seminars that teach teachers how to orchestrate those exciting educational experiences that will turn kids into self-motivated, lifelong learners. I don’t know if this will bring about mass social change. But I do know that more standards will lead to more of the same. And since schools DO build the social order (that’s not even a question in my mind), we educators have the responsibility of examining the social order with a critical eye, and perhaps radically changing our practices if we don’t like what we see.

This discussion is too late. The horse is out the barn door. Put all the pieces together. The media mostly dumb down the news. Television consists of 'reality' shows. Parents don't set limits for their kids, and half of all families are broken, and it seems too late to fix it. The culture is coarsening and our country is no longer monocultural but multicultural. The melting pot is politically incorrect. And the baby-boomers were spoiled and are spoiling the next generation. We've forgotten that rights come with responsibilities. We're entitled and irresponsible.

It's too late.

As a student, I would have to concur with some points you have made. Violence is certainly not the main and particular reason that is destroying the success and curriculum of schools. Higher expectations will always be made about all schools, but will eventually be let down. All schools will always have the same problems with drugs, alcohol, guns, etc. Some schools depend on the neighborhoods students come from. Sometimes, their life at home may influence the way they are as a person and as a learning student. Some come from broken up families that may influence their perspective of school and generally life. It could also eventually deal with and relate to many school's problems. Schools' curriculms and environment will always affect the learning portion, but not everything.

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