Posted by: Andrew | August 26, 2007

Eternal recurrence: Blaming Schools, Part…

The other day I picked up the September 2007 edition of Harper’s while waiting with a friend to see ‘Superbad,’ and noticed that it contains the latest article by Peter Schrag, “Schoolhouse Crock: Fifty years of blaming America’s educational system for our stupidity.” More on the film Superbad later. For now, a few thoughts on a different kind of supposedly super-bad, i.e., American schools.

Schrag provides a brisk recounting of American school reform efforts over the past half century. He points out that the Soviet Union’s launching of Sputnik in 1957 created a crisis that led not only to NASA and the American space program, but also a widespread belief that improving education was going to be key to maintaining American international supremacy. Even before Sputnik, as Schrag acknowledges, traditionalists and progressives had been engaged in a long-running battle over the aims of schooling, curriculum, and so on. But the injection of the international dimension – in the form of a national security ‘crisis,’ no less – helped to change and intensify the nature of the debate over schooling. Our national fortunes were now taken to depend heavily on how well our schools worked, and this belief has persisted in the decades since, even though the international environment has changed significantly over the past 50 years. Throughout this time, there’s been a litany of school improvement efforts, curricular initiatives, new school organization models, persistent political controversies over curriculum, constant conflicts between teachers and administrators and other interest groups, and so on:

The list is long: new curricula like the SMSG (School Mathematics Study Group) program (i.e., the “new” math), PSSC (Physical Sciences Study Committee) physics, plus similar programs in chemistry, biology, and the social sciences, nearly all devised by academics at Harvard and MIT in the late 1960s and early 1960s; compensatory education programs for disadvantged students; Head Start; magnet schools; “computer-assisted instruction”; “open schools”; team teaching; class-size reduction; new programs for special education; bilingualism and Ebonics; calls for bigger high schools; calls for smaller high schools; more homework; less homework; laptops for all students; constructivist math; Discovery Learning; Direct Instruction; merit pay; voucher plans; “Whole School Reform”; Success for All; charter schools; KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) schools; Edison Schools; Accelerated Schools; school accountability; adequate yearly progress; high-stakes testing for promotion; exit exams; plus an alphabet soup of similar programs…Along the way there have been endless battles over the power of teachers’ unions, creationism and “intelligent design,” “secular humanism,” sex education, and, of course, school prayer.

Reading a list like this, one comes to appreciate a bit the exasperation of a journalist or scholar who’s responsible for covering American school reform. Such a crazy quilt of ideas and initiatives! How confidently these ideas are proposed – and on the basis of such little evidence! How can one keep track of it all! Yet, Schrag’s overall perspective on this is pretty familiar to anyone who’s read the Tyack and Cuban classic, Tinkering toward Utopia. Tyack and Cuban point out that over the past hundred years – much less fifty – Americans have been indulging their taste for utopian schemes in education. Someone will come in and say, here’s the next big idea/model/program/teaching method that will improve our schools and bring the benefits of a sound and effective education to all of our children. These ideas trotted out, (sometimes) implemented, and after a few years, disappear or are reabsorbed into more traditional and conventional patterns and practices of schooling. This doesn’t mean, according to Tyack and Cuban, that schooling has been immune to change – it’s just that it’s changed much more slowly than anyone would expect. Instead of marching toward some utopian state of affairs, we’ve been ‘tinkering’ around the edges, introducing piecemeal innovations and improvements at the margins rather than changing the core practices of schooling, which have displayed a remarkable stability and continuity over the past hundred years.

Of course, it’s easy to carry this message too far: the desegregation of public schools was a watershed change, for instance, even if the legacy of Brown and related education and civil rights legislation remains problematic and unsettled. Students with special education needs, too, have it much better than they did even one or two decades ago. But these are, as Schrag points out, changes in ‘input’ rather than ‘output.’ There’s little to no evidence that federal initiatives – ranging from the creation of the Department of Education to the Clinton Administration’s Goals 2000 program to the current NCLB regime – have made much difference in improving student achievement and academic performance. The same holds true for many of the initiatives listed in the quote above. What’s remarkable, however, is that instead of learning from all of this dubiously effective / failed initiative, what we are still trying to do is to demand that schools perform at even higher levels than before. In February 2007 the American Chamber of Commerce and the liberal Center for American Progress, otherwise political opponents, joined together in issuing a report that, in an echo of 1983′s A Nation at Risk, referred to a ‘looming educational crisis’ that risks America’s long-term economic prosperity. Meanwhile, private organizations and non-profit groups such as the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce called for a system of independent school districts run by private contractors in order to catalyze school improvement in order to ensure international competitiveness in the face of the growing threat posed by China, India and other Asian economies. More of the same: the first time, tragedy; the second time, farce.

Schrag argues, correctly I think, that international comparisons are simply misleading. First, there’s no clear link between educational performance and international economic competitiveness and standing. We were wringing our hands during the 1980s, believing that the Japanese were overtaking us because of the superiority of their educational system. Then, in the 1990s, with the U.S. and Japan’s economic situations reversed, we came around to the belief that Japanese schools were producing dull students lacking in initiative and creativity (but no one claimed then that our improved economic fortunes were the result of improvements in our schools). As Schrag argues, our educational system is required to educate not only an extremely heterogeneous and diverse population, but it’s also quite possible that we’ve assigned it a variety of social and institutional responsibilities that other countries assign to other bureaucracies.

a lot of such international comparisons lack context and are therefore debatable. Because of the relative paucity of social services in this country – as opposed to the universal preschool, health care, and similar generous children’s services provided in other developed nations – our schools are forced to serve as a fallback social-service system for millions of American children. In addition to teaching a far greater diversity of children than is the case in other nations, our educational workers must address countless medical, social, and family problems before they can even begin to think about teaching math, reading, or history…

Schrag doesn’t say this in exactly these words, but I would agree that our schools do serve not only as fallback mechanisms for delivering social welfare and social provision, but also as sites for debating and realizing a fair share of our beliefs and aspirations about the nature and character of our democratic polity. We attach to schools our aspirations and beliefs regarding social mobility and democratic equality (hence the emphasis on academic achievement as necessary for ‘getting ahead’ or reducing social disparities), for communal attachment and continuity of tradition (hence the school prayer, creationism battles), and so on. In fact, there is little evidence to suggest that school performance has direct effects on any of these goals – even though no one disagrees that we need better schools, with better teachers, who do a better job of producing better students. But beyond this baseline agreement, we continue to use schools and school peformance as proxies for our heated and ideologically-charged political debates about our society, its economic and communal health, and its prospects in an uncertain future.

From a sociological perspective, my main interest is in this ‘political productivity’ of the educational system. There’s a growing branch of studies in international and comparative education known as policy-borrowing studies that focuses on how international comparisons are used to generate ‘educational crises’ in order to score domestic political points. Thus, we say: look at how well the Russians / Japanese / Europeans are doing! We need to match them, or we’re going to lose our place in the world. These kinds of claims carry enough surface plausibility to generate political capital for ‘reform efforts,’ which are then of course attached to particular political agendas, platforms, parties, and actors who are interested in realizing their own power positions.

I think this perspective is useful in its broad strokes, but the policy-borrowing tradition focuses on why certain educational systems borrow ideas from foreign educational systems when there’s no reason to think why those ideas would be effective in a different national and cultural context. In the case of the United States, however, there’s no appreciable ‘borrowing from abroad’ to be explained; most of the ideas and initiatives have been internally generated and circulated. We need, therefore, to develop better models and understandings of how the U.S. educational system serves as a kind of domestic supplier of political capital, and how that political capital is used or expended – at the local, state, and national levels.

In this connection, I thought of a lecture I attended some months ago. The lecture was by Carl Kaestle, the noted educational historian, who used the American Political Development approach pioneered by Karen Orren and Stephen Skowronek. Orren and Skowronek emphasize that events are generated out of ‘multiple institutional orders’ and temporalities; there’s no single ’cause’ to any given feature of the American political order, but multiple overlapping causes (something which they describe using the rather unfortunate term ‘intercurrence‘) that give American political order or polity its distinctive dynamics and rhythm. Applied to education, Kaestle suggested, what we have seen emerge over the past fifty years is a kind of growing overlap of institutional forces. Whereas education up until the 1950s was a genuinely local affair, in part because local communities were fairly isolated, the introduction and intensification of the federal role helped to change the character of the American educational polity. Now, not only federal actors but the courts, national interest groups, academics and universities, and so on are each involved in the same ‘political discourse’; so while it remains true that the American educational system is still decentralized in its legal structure, the same is not entirely true about the polity as a whole – the more comprehensive framework of actors and arguments that are involved in debates about schools and education. at this level, the polity has become at once centralized and yet also multivocal, plural, and dissonant. As a result, what we have now is a kind of disequilibriated order, i.e., an order that’s constantly searching for, and constantly failing to find, an ‘equilibrium’ point from which to issue stable policy recommendations. I thought that this was an extremely suggestive line of analysis, and one that deserves to be taken up further by those who are interested in analyzing our ongoing, agonizing debates over ‘school reform.’


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