American Kids, American Schools

This is a little plea for anarchy and for tolerance in how we run our schools. I say anarchy knowing that our nation already feels at the verge of disintegration, the competing forces pulling us apart seeming almost to have torn us asunder at the seams. And yet anarchy is what we need, not perhaps or most likely in individual school buildings (many of which could do with a little more order while others could do with a little more noise) but in our attempts to force upon a cacophony of different institutions and levels of government a single common hymn.

The simple fact is that there is no one way to improve our schools, nor are the needs of school systems any more universal than the needs of the five and six and seventeen year olds entering them each year. We are a wealthy nation- as rich as any country that has ever been- where most kids in the public school system are designated as poor, eligible at least for free or reduced price lunch. We are a nation that has always been predominantly white- in fact the country where “white people” was arguably invented as a collective identity- where the majority of public school students are now black, Latino, Asian, or mixed race. And we are a nation that has, at least over the last several decades, viewed its schools as an almost continuous crisis and concentration of failure, even as pouring in more far expenditure  per student any comparable country.

The solutions proposed for this continuous crisis are well-known, even if they are allocated to different political voices at different times. Conservatives have argued for choice and competition, for charter schools and vouchers for private schools and easier homeschooling, as well as kneecapping the power of teachers’ unions and the ability of districts to expand their budgets at will. Liberals have argued not just for more funding and smaller class sizes but for conscious programs of socioeconomic integration and racial desegregation. Technocrats have argued for more precisely measured indices of teacher and school performance, and serious-minded centrists have argued for higher academic standards and more challenging tests. A million different providers of curricula and interventions (perhaps literally) have argued for their particular programs and methods as the singular agent of change that will transform the schools.

I’ve tried to weigh these different options and provide some background research about the evidence for them in other posts, but the truth is that the race goeth not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong- it is not simply a matter of adding up the merits of one and the demerits of another and announcing the now we have determined what is to be done. The public school system makes sense not as a service to parents (and still less as a service to kids) but as a service to the community at large. It’s important not to be too sentimental about what this service entails, which is in no small part about warehousing kids and keeping them off the street long enough for them to grow up. But it’s up to the community to figure out what they want.

Barack Obama’s Administration was marked in many ways by a closer relationship between all levels of the educational system (from preschool to graduate school) to the federal bureaucracy than previous presidencies, and  it is probably not a surprise that it also marked a major increase in the level at which our public school system became nationalized, even when it was not, theoretically, federal legislation or federal regulation doing the nationalizing. We got value-added modeling-based teacher evaluations all across the USA over the last ten years, along with Common Core-based tests in most states, even if neither was the subject of an explicit federal decree: the Obama Administration put its chips on the squares where the smart money of foundations and ed schools and Time Magazine Cover Stories were already betting.

Racial and class-based achievement gaps are not going anywhere, and it is likely that as the nation’s schools become more obviously poorer and less white than the nation as a whole that the sense of crisis that has been our shared narrative will be more and more appealing, to all participants in the political system. Education is purported to be the “civil-rights issue of this century,” as some of my friends and former colleagues from Teach for America are fond of saying, and though I think this is deeply confused as to the nature of rights and the capacities of the state, I also know that to be a teacher is to experience yourself as the guardian and shepherd of that Beloved Community of which Martin Luther King spoke, among the small desks and small people, in your little domain between the pencil sharpener and the air conditioner. The truth is that the aspirations of shared purpose and common quest is what keeps schools and classrooms, those societies in miniature, functioning to the extent they do, and I cannot in good faith resent the tendency for educators in particular to apply that same vocabulary to the nation as a whole, even if I believe it to be misplaced.

But again, anarchy and tolerance is what we need. This is not merely true because we will only find out what “works” (though again, nothing will “work” more than contingently, partially, occasionally) by trying different things at different times, but because the desiderata of one community are not the desiderata of another. Obama’s decree earlier this year (the “Dear Colleague Letter” from the Justice Department and Education Department jointly) that children who decide they belong to one gender should use the bathrooms corresponding to that gender would be, I expect, perfectly well-suited to the hippy-dippy middle school in Manhattan’s Lower East Side where I taught for the majority of my career, in the sense that insofar as any community can come to consensus around such issues, this one could, and this decision would be accepted as as good as another. But generalizing that same decision across all ten thousands of schools across the mighty continent strikes me as the height of folly.

As for the culture war, so for the curriculum, as for the curriculum, so for the tests, as for the tests, so for the shared aspirations for who will go to college, who will take up vo-tech, who goes to Special Ed. The Federal government has exerted its greatest force over schools over the last several decades not in shaping policy directly but in creating categories of kids, and then making sometimes infinite, impossible demands as to what should be done with them. The majority of these demands are not going anywhere, but to add to the list doesn’t help any category of kid.

An acquaintance was the Superintendent of a wealthy suburban district, who made the mistake of telling the local paper that Rawlsian ethics suggested that the district should redistribute as much of its property tax revenue as possible to its poorer neighbors, and was soon given a ticket to a job as a private school principal in a distant tropical state. I won’t say he was right or wrong to make this case, but I will say that the district was within its rights to fire him for doing so.

American education is a frustrating, imperfect thing, not only in its execution but in its nature, and the scope of schools to solve the problems of American society is limited at best. Even the most successful possible incarnation of American schooling will not look like “success,” even if many parents and kids and teachers will feel successful; it will not look like Singapore’s schools nor produce especially impressive test scores.  It will look- and will be- unjust and unfair as well as unequal. There is the occasional Platonic philosopher king in the American school system, but she is busy teaching first grade. For the rest of us, all we can do is acknowledge that our neighbors and countrymen are not always so unwise or unkind as we sometimes pretend, and try for tolerance of them, as well as of our intrinsically and necessarily chaotic system.

As Italo Calvino wrote at the end of Invisible Cities:

The hell of the living is not something that will be: if there is one, it is what is already here, the hell where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the hell and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and learning: seek and be able to recognize who and what, in the midst of the hell, are not hell, then let them endure, give them space.

4 thoughts on “American Kids, American Schools

  1. Good article. There are similar problems in Britain. The difficulty is that from the early 60s onwards, a fairly efficient and well-functioning education system was obliterated. There were public schools (private and fee-paying), grammar schools which selected their pupils at 11 via examination and slightly rickety secondary moderns with occasional technical schools. There were standardised examinations to some extent, but most schools were fairly autonomous. It’s always amusing to read about W.H Auden or Evelyn Waugh coming down from Oxford and immediately finding some minor school to teach at, where they could teach however they liked and no questions asked! The difficulty is that so much of this system and the very high standard of education it promoted was a very complex organic growth and fiddling about with it tended to end disastrously.

    The grammar schools system was set up under the Education Act 1944, but the provisions for technical schools were never really carried out. This wasn’t too bad, as most working-class and unintelligent people could find a manual job easily enough. Leftist attempts at changing and buggering about with textbooks was successful and both parties, particularly the Labour secretary for education Anthony Crosland who memorably declared “If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to destroy every fucking grammar school in England. And Wales and Northern Ireland.” I can’t be bothered to describe the ideological reasons, which were moronic, but by 79, comprehensive schools which were non-selective accounted 90% + of all schoolchildren.

    Bear in mind that the system was so good that Britain had a near-continous brain drain to the United States. Auden when he taught in the U.S. during the 40s thought that American education was dreadful because it had to focus on integrating children rather than educating them and thought that there was an anti-education ethos in the schools. I’ve read similar thoughts from people in the 50s. I remember, but can’t cite, a UN report from the mid-50s which unequivocally said that British under 11s primary education was the best in the world!

    All gone now, of course. The government regularly fiddles about, plastering over cracks, supporting voucher schemes, trying to make exams tougher &c. The real problem is that the institutional expertise that could reform the system has now gone. Most teachers over 50 are reasonably competent, but teachers under 30 are as clueless and uneducated as the pupils. Discipline is shocking, which drives out the more sensitive teachers who probably still have plenty to offer. The problem is that the system is unreformable now, it’s like beating the shit out of somebody, breaking their nose and crushing their skull and then deciding to patch them up with surgery. It can’t be the same again. I do wonder what will happen once all of the boomers who were educated under a half decent system die.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. There are no solutions, only tradeoffs. There is a way, though, to deal with the one sized fits all problems that you note, of federal mandates coming down from upon high. We should return to local control of schools with state oversight. Sure, it means that some schools will be left behind, and others might flourish, but that’s no different that what we have now.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It sounds dismal on the surface. Since the traditional, high status professions don’t have any shortage of highly qualified candidates, I’m not that worried. I mean worried that there will be no one to do Medicine or Law. Or engineering. Or HR.

    I’m not sure how technology will impact things. We went through a period where personal computers were introduced into a traditional work environment. It took a lot of skilled people to change workflows and another group to work with flawed technology. Microsoft, for example, by introducing beta like software into organizations required a lot of people to make and keep it running. One view of the 90’s is that technology reduced productivity in a lot of organizations — and the net effect was to create a boom. Regardless …. all this stuff simply works a lot better than it did. I don’t even know if personal computers will be around in the future. Or rather, that they won’t be the important part.

    We are moving to a service economy .. because thats how economies evolve. Right now, it takes a couple percent of the population to grow food. What half the population did a century ago. So it is services … which range from the best to the worst jobs. Interesting that ‘service’ as in servants were a major category of workers a century ago. But with a commitment to some level of equality, service work needs to add more value to justify a lessoning of inequality. The ‘so what’ of this is that I think people will figure it out.

    As far as what I see that strike me as really important changes are High School AP exams. These have taken on a life of their own. They have essentially defined what a real college prep curriculum looks like. But it is more of how it emerged than what it is. This is the real common core for a big chunk of high school students. If it takes brute force to agree on something — maybe it shouldn’t be agreed upon.

    For the bottom 50th Percentile, the most important skills are showing up, the ability to follow directions, etc. High School demonstrates that they weren’t in jail and they didn’t otherwise disqualify themselves from participating in the economy. Beyond that, I don’t know what someone needs to know. But definitely how to get along.

    Education has been burdened with a lot more than it can deliver. The quantification of outcomes is unfortunate, because the results and the truth isn’t what a lot of people want to hear.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is definitely your beat. You could probably get a job writing about education in the NYT or something equivalent. On the other hand, you say so many sensible things on so many other subjects, it might be too high a price to pay.

    You’re going to have an influence. Of that I am sure.

    Like

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