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David Labaree on Schooling, History, and Writing: The Attractions of Doing School

This post is a new piece I just published in Kappan.  Here’s a link to the original.  It’s a response to an essay by Jal Mehta proposing a new US grammar of schooling, and it refers to a piece I wrote for Kappan with my take on understanding the roots of this grammar.  In it I explore why it’s risky to try to transform this grammar, since it meets so many normative and practical needs of schools and families.  See what you think:

In a recent essay that was part of Kappan’s Possible Futures series, Jal Mehta paints an attractive portrait of a proposed “new grammar of schooling” for American education. Instead of the current system, based on a rigid process of direct instruction in self-contained classrooms that moves students through an age-graded hierarchy, he argues for a more humane system, based on self-directed knowledge acquisition in flexible contexts that foster authentic learning and supportive community. This sounds great, but would it work?

As I argued in a recent Kappan article, “The dynamic tension at the core of the grammar of schooling,” the current grammar arose, decades ago, to maintain a balance between two compelling concerns: to structure schooling around widely accepted social goals and to do so in a way that is organizationally manageable for school systems, students, and families. The problem as I see it is that the proposed grammar of schooling would cause problems for both the value and the viability of public education.

Mehta posits that the central goal of schooling is to promote the learning of socially valuable knowledge and skills. But history suggests that systems of public schooling were not established primarily to promote learning but to provide communities for socializing citizens of emerging nation states. Once a system was in place and the state was comfortably secure, schools came to assume a broad social function as mechanisms for preparing children to assume adult roles in society. For society, this meant social efficiency (providing the values and skills needed to assign graduates to disparate positions in the occupational structure). For students and families, it meant social mobility (providing opportunities for children to demonstrate their competence and thus attain access to the best available social positions). The glue that held together the social and individual functions of schooling was a meritocratic process of schooling and social selection, which offered individuals the chance to get ahead on merit and offered society the legitimacy that arises from this process.

In addition to purpose, the grammar of schooling is grounded in organizational feasibility. The current grammar offers a lot of advantages to school systems. Age grading allows schools to move large numbers of students up through the structure on an annual basis, to measure out curriculum in gradually increasing levels of complexity by grade, and to train and assign teachers by subject and level. Course grades and annual promotion provide transparent ways to signal the meritocracy of the school’s process of achievement and attainment. The system also offers advantages to students and their families. You know where you stand in the system (I’m a third grader) and within your cohort (my scores are above or below grade level); you know what you need to do to move ahead (get passing grades); and the structure seems roughly fair (it rewards merit but merit is not unduly difficult to attain).

Mehta, however, would justifiably point out that this process of advancement offered by the current grammar of schooling comes at the expense of serious learning, and that is certainly the case. The system fosters “doing school” more than getting an education. It rewards the student for figuring out the answer the teacher wants and giving it to her, learning what’s going to be on the test rather than learning what’s interesting or useful or inspiring. It reduces education to an exercise in formalism — accumulating grades, credits, and degrees.

For students, however, the tradeoff may be worth it. The current system provides a reasonably visible and understandable system of status attainment. You know what you have to do to get ahead, and it’s not terribly difficult. And the same is true for teachers. If you teach the text, grade students on how well they reproduce it, and move them on to the next level, you’re succeeding at your job. For both students and teachers, formalistic schooling is not very inspiring or engaging, but it’s doable without breaking a sweat and it provides a clear path to social advancement for one and professional success for the other. Doing school is easier than authentic teaching and learning, and the desired outcome (moving students through the grades) is more reliably won.

The issue is that schooling is not just about optimizing quality learning, which Mehta’s new grammar of schooling seeks to facilitate and which the current grammar tends to stultify. For students and their families, the more compelling concern is for schooling to provide them with opportunities for social advancement. Learning is great, but getting a good job and thereby living a comfortable life is higher in priority. The current grammar provides a proven pathway toward status attainment even if this comes at the expense of a rich and enjoyable learning experience. So a key message to reformers of the grammar is, don’t mess with my kid’s future. Better the devil you know than the angel you don’t.

Devil and Angel

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David Labaree

David F. Labaree is Lee L. Jacks Professor at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education and a professor (by courtesy) in history. His research focuses ...