28 September 2010

Designed to Fail - Education in America: Part Four

part one   part two   part three    part five

Social Reproduction.
"The basic reproductionist argument was that schools were not exceptional institutions promoting equality of opportunity; instead they reinforced the inequalities of social structure and cultural order found in a given country. How they were understood to do so depended on the theoretical perspective of analysts, the sites they prioritized for study, and a varying emphasis on top-down structural determination versus bottom-up agency by individuals or small groups. Early research on educational reproduction provided structuralist accounts, identifying systematic features of language, culture, and political economy, which were reflected in the conduct and organization of classrooms and curricula and assigned a causal role in perpetuating linguistic, cultural, and economic inequalities (Bernstein 1975, Bourdieu and Passeron 1977, Bowles and Gintis 1976)."

"Although the reproductive thesis is simple to state in academic terms, it has been and continues to be quite unpalatable to many of those who work in schools or educational systems more generally (Rothstein 2004). This is probably because it presents a direct challenge to meritocratic assumptions and seems to dash egalitarian aspirations. Early arguments and analyses of reproduction were also of their era, the 1960s and early 1970s, when economic and social stability seemed more secure than it has in recent decades. They were also formulated with a structuralist intellectual confidence that has not survived the intervening decades of reflexive, postmodern uncertainty (Bauman 1997). By the early 1990s, there was a turning away from arguments about social reproduction and education, whether focused on economic, cultural, or linguistic dimensions. This is puzzling in some respects because the problem of inequality remains a central feature of the contemporary world, within nations and on a global scale (Henwood 2003; Stiglitz 2002), and the centrality of straightforward economic factors in school performance appears little changed over more than 40 years (Coleman 1966, U.S. Dep. Educ. 2001)." - James Collins, Social Reproduction in Classrooms and Schools (2009)
"This is probably because it presents a direct challenge to meritocratic assumptions and seems to dash egalitarian aspirations." Indeed. Social Reproduction is not commonly discussed in American education, and the socially reproductive systemic designs of Henry Barnard and Ellwood Cubberley are not discussed - even by the type of elite educational leadership which resides at Stanford University, perhaps because it is(a) so uncomfortable, (b) so challenging to American Civil Religion, and (c) because it makes education seem, in deep ways, hopeless.

But how do we solve the persistent problems if we refuse to engage the basic issues?

Say what I will about Diane Ravitch, and say it I have (welcoming her to the fight, but still very bitter over the damage she and her collaborators wrought in the 1980s and 1990s), but when she tweeted on Sunday night, "Focus on teacher evaluation is red herring spurred by Billionaire Boys Club & Duncan to avoid social, econ[omic] issues," she was absolutely right.

In fact, today's "educational reformers" will discuss absolutely everything except the system of American education and its social reproductivity. They will argue for and against teacher training (teachers are not well-trained enough, six weeks of Teach for America training is plenty), for and against increased teacher pay (it is essential, teachers are paid too much), for and against privatization (we must use the business model, federal involvement in education is required), but they will not touch the essential unfairness of American society or its economic system.

America had better things to do with its lower class children than to educate them.
Child coal mine workers, 1900
And so both Ellwood Cubberley and Social Reproduction have vanished from the conversation, and even those who should really know better, like to trumpet the memory of Woodrow Wilson - a clueless racist whose international naiveté led directly to World War II - and the "progress" of his age. It is, of course, the progress of the Wilsonian age, the conceits of White American superiority and our belief in measuring the world against that, which still bedevils us almost a century later.

It is important to recall that the system designed was never intended to educate all equally, and the structure developed was designed to ensure that.

The Eton lads get their education,
so do the kids at Sidwell Friends
When Wilson said, "We want one class to have a liberal education. We want another class, a very much larger class of necessity, to forego the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks," we know which groups were automatically consigned to the latter class - African-Americans, Catholics, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, and anyone who would today be considered "disabled."

In fact, the system was designed to fail most, dumping three-quarters of students before they ever reached high school. The Prussian System of age-based grades replaced the individually structured, multi-age, peer tutored one-room schoolhouse model because it would give students the means to defeat students who might learn at a different rate. The accompanying industrialized model of mass education was created to consign non-compliant students to the lowest paying jobs in society. The results were clear. On the verge of American entry in World War II only 25% of Americans had completed high school, and less than 5% had completed college. It would only be after the liberalization of education and the integration of the 1960s that high school graduation rates would cross the 50% mark. Students, then as now, fell behind when measured against the "ideal" standards of "age-based" learning, and, unable to catch up in the graded, age-segregated system, dropped out as soon as that was possible or legal.

America, in the century after 1840, as Wilson, Cubberley, Adams, and Barnard all said, needed little in the way of 'distributed leadership' and - from the top - wanted less. Unschooled tinkerers (Edison, Ford) were one thing, but an educated population - as Germany and France were proving - and land-grant education in the US was suggesting - seemed to create socialists, and union leaders, and potentially an angrier agricultural class which might overturn the system. [1]

So that imported Prussian System, with its age-based steps and grade-level standards, was introduced as a filtering system.  As Jefferson had noted at the start of the 19th Century, the separation by ages would find the gems and give the rest, "an education proportional to the condition and the pursuits of his life," which, in the Social Darwinism of Wilson and Cubberley's time, meant the capabilities to be a miner, a millworker, a railroad construction crew member, a shipyard worker. Get to eighth grade (or not) and you went to one of those laboring jobs. Get through high school and you could work on Main Street. That five percent who went to college - they would lead.

Setting the standards for those age-based grades, then as now, was critical to maintaining the nation's class structure.

The standards? It is difficult to imagine how, if the age-based standards are accurate measures of anything, the majority of children could be "below grade level." Since all of our achievement levels, from the IQ test through every large assessment, is based in an "age-based norm" - shouldn't that "norm" at least be the median?

67% of Fourth Graders are at or below "proficient" for reading. How is "proficient" defined for this age?
Yes, it is "a median," but not "the median." The age-based standards are developed based on upper-middle-class white children living in suburbs or expensive urban neighborhoods and functioning "normally" - that is, without "disability," without language issues, without safety issues, without poverty issues, without family stress, etc. The class Wilson and Cubberley were willing to educate in the days of the Great War, are still the socio-economic class we create schools for.

And this is exactly what the powerful get out of an education system designed to fail: They get (a) to control the measuring devices and design them for themselves, and they get to (b) reduce economic competition.

By establishing "measuring sticks" which declare their own superiority, the wealthy and powerful - the Ivy Leaguersof America - get to win before the race they so enjoy is run. And by winning, they get to preserve the fruits of victory for themselves and their offspring - the best schools, the Ivy League educations [2], the top-paying jobs in the economy, and the agenda-setting jobs in government.

[Considering top university admissions, "the odds of getting into the pool of credible candidates for admission to a selective college or university are six times higher for a child from a high-income family than for a child from a poor family; they are more than seven times higher for a child from a college-educated family than they are for a child who would be a first-generation college- goer," While at Ivy League and 'Ivy equivalent" institutions, "Low-income students constituted about 11 percent of those admitted to the nineteen institutions that were studied; first-time college goers made up 6 percent. Students who fit both categories made up just 3 percent of enrollment at these schools, even though such students represent roughly 19 percent of the U.S. college-age population."]

In simple terms, the system works remarkably well for those who currently have wealth and power. When people decry the educational system in the United States they are really not discussing Scarsdale, New York or Greenwich, Connecticut or Sidwell Friends in Washington or Evanston, Illinois or Santa Barbara, California or St. Ann's in Brooklyn. All of these schools do fine, public or private, unionized or not, longer or shorter school days/years, and no matter the teacher pay structure.

The schools which are struggling - and educators, from William Alcott then to Deven Black, Alice Mercer, Dan McGuire, Dave Britten now, know this - are struggling because of a lack of resources, and/or having differing resources - in the students' homes, in the community, and in the school itself. The students "in trouble" rarely enter with fewer skills, they enter with different skills, built to function in a different environment.

Here is the "colonial" issue: The English child raised on the estate in Essex, with parents speaking "The Queen's English," begins that "race to the top" half-way there. This child knows the language, the rules of rugby, the proper way to drink tea. The child growing up in Derry or Bombay, Lagos or Port Elizabeth, comes with differing language, differing sport, differing eating habits. If school is about that British language, those British customs, and those British manners, the children from "the colonies" begin way behind. Unless that kid from Essex falls asleep under a tree, as in The Tortoise and the Hare, and has no one to wake him up, it is simply inconceivable that the colonial kids will ever catch up.The best they can hope for, if they run all their lives, is to be second-class Brits.

Michelle Rhee laughs about
taping kids' mouths shut, and her audience
laughs with her.
Similarly, the child raised in Scarsdale or Greenwich or Santa Barbara, or at Sidwell or St. Ann's, begins the race more than half-way there. They know the language, the rules of classroom play (including how to bully), the proper way for a parent's note to excuse them from work or school itself. And if they mess up, they have the resources to escape any trouble. The child attending school with Deven or Alice, Dan or Dave, knows how to navigate city streets, often how to function on a highly adult level, often how to be their own caregivers, how to communicate in a wide range of circumstances. But they do not know what that first group of kids knows, and if they get into trouble they are on their own, and if they are abused, people will joke about it. So unless the kids in Scarsdale or Greenwich or Santa Barbara, or at Sidwell or St. Ann's die, the best these colonial kids can be, if they run all their lives, is second-class Americans.

The problem is, if these "colonial" schools leveraged these differing entry abilities, and supported differing learning paths with equitable resources, then the path to homogeneity, to the "one America" - behaving consistently no matter what race or ethnicity or national origin, would not come into existence. Remember Francis Adams? "The school has more to do than to educate the children: it is the mill, so to speak, into which go children of English, Scotch, Irish, German, Russian, Italian, and Scandinavian parents, and come out Americans. Africa contributes its negroes, and now Asia is sending its Chinese. All must learn English, and the result will soon be that the population of the United States will be the most homogeneous of nations." And this was echoed Monday morning by NBC's David Gregory and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie: "@GovChristie: RT @davidgregory: Education reform is a new form of patriotism; it's not just about our kids but our country." About our country, yes, but not about learning or our children, rather, it is about U.S. worker consistency and national "competitiveness." The perspective comes from the U.S. Secretary of Education, who opened the "Education Nation" conversation by saying, "What the president fundamentally gets is we have to educate our way to a better economy."

And yes, if the colonial children could leverage what they bring to school, if they might find their own path to success rather than stumbling along in another's wake, well they might not just compete, they might come out on top (see Irish Literature within the English language for proof of this).

So that path is blocked. While "white" kids get creativity and stories in their early grades, teaching them about the world and giving them dreams, "poor" kids get KIPP and scripted instruction, chants and memorizations. If they ever get past that, they find themselves so far behind their "white" peers that continuing the race seems genuinely hopeless.

Next: What we know and why the U.S. isn't doing it...

- Ira Socol

[1] The one place in 19th Century America where the need for 'distributed leadership' was seen as essential, the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy, ran their own institutions of higher education.

[2] I'm not much of a Gladwell fan - doubting his typical statistical analyses, but this is an interesting meta-analysis of Ivy League admissions - and consequences. You might also want to read Atkinson and Pelfrey on the question of Ivy League admissions, also Caroline Hodges Persell and Peter W. Cookson, Jr. "Chartering and Bartering: Elite Education and Social Reproduction" - Social Problems Vol. 33, No. 2 (Dec., 1985), pp. 114-129, and Paul William Kingston and John C. Smart. "The Economic Pay-Off of Prestigious Colleges."


Anonymous said...

It is Resolved! [*]


Dan McGuire said...

Ira, you're nailing the essential issues we're facing. Thank you for your clear and strong voice.

The huge discrepancies in how kids are supported by their world outside of the school is evident daily in my class and in our school. I have U of Mn professor's kids, major business leader's kids, and people who have none, and I mean none, of the those advantages in the same class. My class is representative of the school and our school is actually very representative of our district.

We have a great school with phenomenal teachers who've made that dynamic work for the benefit of all for many years. Which is not to say that we're perfect; knowing that the capacity to fail is ever present, as Wendell Berry so eloquently expresses in his STANDING BY WORDS, is as necessary for true success teaching as it is in writing a poem or in marriage.

It is only because we have each other to support one another in our daily work that anything like success is possible. A union, in all that that word means, consciously made and tended, is essential.

Thank you for being so inclusive.

Anonymous said...

I have to build off of what you noted on this page: "In fact, today's "educational reformers" will discuss absolutely everything except the system of American education and its social reproductivity. They will argue for and against teacher training (teachers are not well-trained enough, six weeks of Teach for America training is plenty), for and against increased teacher pay (it is essential, teachers are paid too much)..."

I have read and thought much, as a doctoral student of Curriculum and Teaching (ironically, at Cubberley's alma mater, TC), about the role of our schools and curricula and teacher training to reproduce the social order. Just taking on teacher training, I (and many, many others) have read this as an act of making curriculum teacher-proof. If we take on teacher ed programs, they're not trained "well" enough because there are too many variables. People want teachers to simply deliver prepackaged standards and materials. When that doesn't happen "properly," the teachers weren't well trained. TFA is fine, because: (a), the teachers recruited tend to be from Ivy- and Ivy-caliber colleges and so they "know" the material; the actual teaching and pedagogy piece is thought of as immaterial.

The same is true of pay, particularly when tied to "student learning" -- how well did a teacher (re)produce a student in the mold of what those in power say are "standard" skills and knowledge, as reported by the results of a test, designed by those same elites. (Not to mention that the results are meant to be curved to a normal distribution, which is an erroneous way to standardize any test of anything one might even remotely classify as having to do with one's cognitive abilities.)

I don't mean to ramble, but the job of unpacking the ways in which we reproduce the social order through our schooling is immense, and I just wanted to add my own two cents to the party. Thanks for your work.