08 August 2009

Social Reproduction

Schools do not really "prepare our children for the future." Schools, by their very nature, tend to help society reproduce itself - passing the structures, morals, habits, customs, preferences, and even manners of one generation on to the next, or at least strongly attempting to do that.

Much of what we do in schools is designed to further the mission of "social reproduction" - one generation effectively reproducing itself in the next. We create "grade level expectations" based on the performance of children of the past and hold contemporary students to that - holding them back or trying to rush them forward - but holding them. We enforce our own technological preferences, frustrating and limiting the possible success of students most pulled toward future possibilities. We enforce a system of manners created by and for a power structure which existed two generations ago (back when administrators and legislators went to school). We grade homework which guarantees that those children with the most successful parents will do better in school. We evaluate learning using test forms and test content most familiar to the children of the ruling class. And, of course, teachers and administrators - typically among the "best" students of the previous two generations - recreate the classroom and school environments in which they succeeded. From the "old school tie" to "no baseball caps" to reading A Separate Peace, to memorizing times tables, to creating proper footnotes.

In other words - as expected - we prepare our children for our own adulthood. An adulthood in which society - with its present "winners" and "losers" - is essentially unchanged.

If that was not frustrating enough for those of us who might imagine a future of equal opportunity and equitable treatment, many of the "reforms" currently being championed in education are designed to maximize social reproduction, not reduce it.

Charter Schools, for example, whatever their positive impacts, further the divide between those with "motivated" parents and those without. If you agree that Charters provide new opportunities you must also admit that sending a child to a charter requires active parental decision-making, and often significant parental commitments in terms of transportation and costs (there are costs to getting a child to an 'out-of-district' school, both direct and collateral - time lost for working, etc). So charters, if they succeed, continue the American pattern of offering better educations to students based on the student's parents behavior - thus continuing to doom children on the basis of the accidents of their birth. You can't get more socially reproductive than that.

Standards-based Accountability, as another example. When standards are "raised" and "enforced" these are the standards of the previous generations, and the standards of those in power. As are our methods of measuring children against these standards. Our tests do not measure contemporary search or communication skills. They do not measure creativity. They do not measure social skills. Rather, they measure a stunningly narrow selection of skills and content which school leaders are good at and school leaders know. It is as if we have determined that the standard for success in our society are the test question writers at the College Board. That means that we are measuring our students based not on the skills and knowledge they will need during their lives, but rather measuring them on their personality proximity to those born to attend private schools and Ivy League colleges and born ready for good jobs in their daddy's company.

Remember, measuring is only "fair" when two things are true: First, the starting line must be the same for all those being measured. And we all know that in a nation with gigantic disparities in wealth, resources, and power - such as the United States - that this is impossible in education. Second, what is being measured must be measurable by some universally understood "code of practice." As Danish novelist Peter Høeg says, "When you assess something, you are forced to assume that a linear scale of values can be applied to it. Otherwise no assessment is possible. Every person who says of something that it is good or bad or a bit better than yesterday is declaring that a points system exists; that you can, in a reasonably clear and obvious fashion, set some sort of a number against an achievement." Think about it: Is completing a test in 60 minutes provably superior to completing the same test in 72 minutes? Is knowing the narrative behind a bad John Knowles novel from the 1950s provably superior to knowing the narrative behind World of Warcraft? Is being able to use the Dewey Decimal System provably superior to being able to conduct efficient Google searches? Is typing on a keyboard using ten fingers provably superior to typing on a keypad with your thumbs?

If your "code of conduct" is solely based in personal - or even generational - preference, you are being unbearably socially reproductive.

Homework and Zero-Tolerance are a third example. Three students bring the same third grade (8-year-old) homework home from school. Student "A" come home to a college-educated parent, who sits down with the student and works through the assignment with him. Student "B" leaves school and walks her kindergarten brother home, then takes care of him until bedtime. Single mom comes home at 10 pm from her job at Walmart. Student "C" brings the homework back to a home where no one speaks or reads English. Whose homework is likely to look "better" to the teacher?

Many "reformers" argue for things like "more homework" and stricter behavior policies as a way of improving schools. These "increased standards" are somehow supposed to solve all the social and economic problems of the last generation which our schools and our societies have failed. Forcing parents with few skills, no resources, and no time, to become instantly "responsible" as the US President hopes (imagines?).

Student "A" comes from a loving, middle-class home where both parents have more than a month of vacation time per year. Student "B" has an alcoholic parent who beats him. Student "C" is part of a homeless family, sleeping in various shelters each cold night and in the car on warm nights. Which student is more likely to run afoul of school rules each day?
Back when he was mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani promoted a theory of policing called "One City" - an idea, which holds great appeal to many Americans, that everyone be treated "equally." But "equal" isn't always fair, or reasonable, or moral. As a previous - and far more moral -New York mayor once said, "Suppose I have two children, and one is very, very sick and the other is perfectly healthy, is it reasonable if I treat them as if there is no difference?" (I paraphrase the late John V. Lindsay here. Mr. Lindsay also promoted the classic phrase for improving our communal society, "Give a damn.")

"Equal" is not "equitable." "One standard" is not fair, neither is one set of requirements or assignments. Treating children "equally" guarantees that the results for this generation will pretty much match the results for the last generation.

This is political.

"School reformers" who find themselves allied with the American right-wing - whether Ted Kennedy who found common cause with George W. Bush on "No Child Left Behind" or economically left-wing minorities who jump on the Charter School, KIPP, and Michelle Rhee bandwagons - need to look around and wonder why these people are marching alongside them.

Because education is the most political of all issues, and if a person identifies themselves as a "conservative" - that is as someone who either does not want society to change or wants society to revert to a previous state of existence - then an inherent part of that is ensuring the current status of groups within that society - especially the poor (think America before the Great Society or before the New Deal), minorities (think America before the Civil Rights Act), and the "disabled" (think America before the ADA and Section 504). Let's face it - the past was only a sweet memory if you were white, middle-class or better, and typically-abled.

In order to change relative status within a society that society must actually change in significant ways. In order to change relative status within a society education must be the least socially reproductive that is possible. In order to change relative status within a society people must be treated according to their needs, not according to the pronouncements of those seeking to maintain their own power.

So consider this, in everything you do in education - are you measuring students and their learning, or are you measuring parents and their status. If you keep that question in mind at every decision-point, you will probably find that you need to change most of what you do.

Which, as you know, is my target.

- Ira Socol


Matt Townsley said...

"are you measuring students and their learning, or are you measuring parents and their status."

Glad you ended with this suggestion, Ira. I'm moving towards a system (difficult to make LARGE change given the 'system', but that's for another day) that de-values homework as influencing a students' grades. I, too, believe that a student's "grade" should reflect a student's level of knowledge, not some hybrid combination of how much they completed, were able to have their parents help with, and copied from a friend in the hallway. You can read more about it here: http://bit.ly/dmL4x I'm guessing that my "standards-based" approach is not one you're in favor of though. :) I admit that I have not seen a practical way of "grading" in a math classroom that hits on your thoughts related to homework which does not include "standards." I wanted to end in saying that I agree with much of your post, aside from the "standards" bit, because I have yet to see a practical model that encompasses every single one of your suggestions. "Standards," to me, make sense and create a means for moving towards the rest of your "code of conduct."

v said...

the other day my brother was telling our 18 yr old nephew to work hard in school (we were doing farm work, which is pretty hard manual labor) so he wouldn't be an expendable drone. then he was asking me about me daughter. he referred to his old school days and said "i did well in school...for the tard class." i tried to convey that there is new thinking in education- that is doesn't matter if a student has trouble with skills like spelling or reading or writing, what we are trying to do is get to a student's ideas and let them out. i didn't have a lot of time to talk, we were busy working (on the family farm), but it just made me think about how things might have been different for my brother if udl had come along earlier. my brother is doing alright he is using his brains and creativity to make his business work. all those skills he was tested as deficient in don't really matter now. so anyway, keep up the good work.

Carl Anderson said...

I agree that the fact that a parent has to actively enroll their child in a charter school makes charter schools unwittingly places that serve students with this common advantage. However, in most states they are the only alternative to traditional schooling. That traditional system is prone to always maintaining the status quo which is why charter schools were envisioned in the first place. Now, of course charter schools are as varied as salad dressing at the super market. Some are progressive and others are built for the explicit purpose of serving the interests of those who would benefit from aspects of our society to continue to be reproduced. However, there still are a lot of charter schools that push the envelope and force positive change in traditional systems. The existence of a charter school, for whatever purpose it purports to serve, acts as a catalyst for breaking societal reproduction within traditional systems by forcing a reaction. The same can be said of other public choice options. That is the same reason that the public health care option is being discussed right now in congress as a way to reform the health insurance industry. Healthy competition decreases complacency.

I am not married to the idea that charter schools are wonderful but I have yet to hear any opponents of them recommend another way to break this cycle of social reproduction. What suggestions do you have? If not charter schools then what?

Anonymous said...

Life is unfair, always has been and always will be. We can only move forward as a society. The schools cannot be accountable for every child if the parent does not even take that responsibility. A long time ago, immigrants knew that it would take generations to advance their social status. Now people want it instantaneously. When I was young you were left back if you didn't meet the standards. You got another chance to succeed paid by the taxpayer. Now everyone is supposed to pass - when they aren't learning at the same level. Everyone is never going to be the same. We need to be proud of the innovators in our society and not look at every individual person. It is a what about me world. People should just be proud of others accomplishments as well. I lost my parents in h.s. and now I am working on my PhD. No one came to help me. I didn't expect handouts. I just accepted life is unfair. Poor me. Move on and make the best of it.