WHAT ARE SCHOOLS FOR?

Teachers that I talk to often complain that everyone thinks they can do a better job, even though such folks never spent five minutes in a real school.  Politicians, neighbors, pushy relatives, all tell teachers loudly and repeatedly that it would be easy to fix schools.  Teachers often point out, sometimes publicly, sometimes only in teachers’ lounges, that those folks would never talk that way about other professions, like medicine or law.  But since everyone went to school, everyone thinks and talks as if they’re experts in school reform.

I think the teachers’ complaint makes a lot of sense.  I work with a lot of smart people who are planning to become teachers.  A lot of them are very well educated, very smart, very hard working, and very eager to help people by becoming teachers.  There is a huge difference in the way these folks view schooling and education reform before they start teaching, and once they’ve got a taste of life in real classrooms.  Many of them come into the teachers’ education program confident that they will be a new kind of teacher, one who doesn’t water down hard ideas for students, one who doesn’t take any guff, one who doesn’t softpedal the hard facts of intellectual life for students.  After they’ve tried it, even for just a few weeks, they often relate stories of shock and sometimes depression at the sheer impossibility of accomplishing their lofty goals.

Maybe it would help the conversation if everyone had to teach for a few years before they could suggest ways to fix schools.  But that’s not likely to happen.  Especially in the case of ambitious politicians, there will always be those who think they have a simple panacea to fix America’s schools.

In addition to the fact that some of these schemes demonstrate a profound ignorance of the realities of schooling, there is another enormous problem with all these reform ideas.  Depending on who’s talking, the fix for schools might be more discipline for those lazy kids.  Or it might be less discipline for those creative yet hounded students.  It might be less public money to encourage competition and entrepreneurialism.  Or it might be more public money for better teacher pay and student conditions.  Like a blanket pulled in every direction at once, with all these varied prescriptions, reform can go nowhere.

This is not incidental to the nature of American schooling.  America’s notions of the proper role of schooling have always pulled not only in different directions, but in precisely opposite directions.  Like a tug-of-war in many directions, this has resulted in short bursts of movement, followed by correction, and often accompanied by messy pileups.

As David Tyack and Larry Cuban argued in their 1995 essay “Tinkering Toward Utopia,” Americans have long held contradictory ideas about the purposes of institutional schooling.  In Tyack’s and Cuban’s words, Americans have always wanted schools to do lots of different things for their children:

“to socialize them to be obedient, yet to teach them to be critical thinkers;

“to pass on the best academic knowledge that the past has to offer, yet also to teach marketable and practical skills;

“to cultivate cooperation, yet to teach students to compete with one another in school and later in life;

“to stress basic skills but also to encourage creativity and higher-order thinking;

“to focus on the academic ‘basics’ yet to permit a wide range of choice of courses.”

To muddy the waters even further, I think it will be more accurate and more helpful if we change Tyack’s and Cuban’s ‘yets’ and ‘buts’ to ANDs.  That is, Americans have wanted both ends of these apparent dichotomies in their schools.  When one side appears to have worked itself into absurdity, public pressure grows to emphasize the other end.

In terms of the endless bickering over whether our schools need to be more “progressive” or more “traditional,” this multiplicity of ideas about the nature of schooling means that everyone can find something to be angry about at any time.  For example, a progressive, democratic parent or teacher can find lots to complain about if he or she wants schools to do a good job of teaching students to be cooperative.  Especially in these days of high-stakes standardized testing, students can spend most of a school day learning that the function of school is to move quickly through academic material.  Like the end of a zombie movie, students learn that the most vital notion of schooling is to keep moving.

On the other hand, parents, teachers, administrators, and students who hope for more “traditional” schools can gripe that schools do nothing but “fluff.”  They don’t prepare students with the real-world skills they’ll need to get and keep good jobs in a competitive economy.

Both sides can keep on talking, since they can both be right at the same time.  Both can claim the justice of having the vast majority of people on their sides (“Every intelligent teacher I know agrees with me”) while also claiming to be a victimized minority (“Why don’t the powers that be every recognize these obvious truths about school?!?”)

Perhaps this pull toward the middle is a good thing.  It might be far more terrifying if one group of zealous educators could simply seize control of America’s schools and declare a dramatically new direction.  As it is, the notion of “school” is tied up with so many conflicting and contradictory notions that it is more likely to maintain its basic structure than it is to change rapidly or dramatically.

 

Further reading: David Tyack and Larry Cuban, Tinkering toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995).

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