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
- About Ira David Socol
- Freedom Stick and Firefox Accessibility
- The Change.Org Posts
- IdeaChat 11 February 2012
- Counting the Origins of Failure
- Technology: The Wrong Questions and the Right Questions
- Today's "School Reformers" vs Real Change for Education - I
- Today’s “School Reformers” vs Real Change for Education - II
- The Toolbelt and Universal Design - Education For Everyone
- "Evaluate that!" - Schools for Children