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.