Can schools really reform society?


(By Michael Williamson/The Washington Post)

It’s not uncommon to hear people say that schools are the best way to transform society. But is this really true? In the following post the issue is considered by Larry Cuban, a former high school social studies teacher (14 years, including seven at Cardozo and Roosevelt high schools in the District), district superintendent (seven years in Arlington, VA) and professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, where he has taught for more than 20 years. His latest book is “As Good As It Gets: What School Reform Brought to Austin.” This appeared on his blog.

By Larry Cuban

In an article on Joe Giradi, manager of the New York Yankees baseball team, Gay Talese wrote: “Like religion, the game of baseball is founded on aspirations rarely met. It generates far more failure than fulfillment” (p.41). Insert “public schools” in place of “the game of baseball” and you have concisely summarized the history of school reform in the U.S.

The similarity between religion, baseball, and public schooling of “aspirations rarely met” is apt since in the U.S. going to school and acquiring credentials is, indeed, a secular catechism invoked daily by parents with their children, teachers with students, and reform-minded U.S. Presidents in debates with opponents.

And “aspirations rarely met” also applies to school reform. Here is John Dewey in 1897:

I believe that education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform.

I believe it is the business of every one interested in education to insist upon the school as the primary and most effective instrument of social progress and reform in order that society may be awakened to realize what the school stands for, and aroused to the necessity of endowing the educator with sufficient equipment properly to perform his task….

Building a better, more equitable, society through reforms in school organization, curriculum, instruction, and, yes, technology has inspired generations of reformers since Dewey’s Pedagogical Creed through the Great Depression of the 1930s — recall George Counts’ “Dare the School Build a New Social Order“– to a freshly-minted novice teaching fifth graders in Harlem and an academic blogger who says: “Universal education is a public good that should serve to correct the historical and current failures of society, such as economic inequity, racial injustice, and gender inequity.”

Aspirations, however, were (and are) rarely fulfilled.

Why is that? Because historically, some reformers have viewed schools as places for building a more equitable society yet other reformers, just as determined and well-intentioned as the former, viewed schools as places where pressing national economic and political problems, rather than social ones, had to be solved. Examples of these latter reformers help.

*When school reformers worked hard in the decades between 1890s-1920s to create vocational education, they had in mind preparing U.S. boys and girls to enter a manufacturing-based  economy competing with Britain and Germany; they did not seek to rid society of social injustice.

*When school reformers worked hard in the 1950s and 1960s to create more math and science curricula, they had in mind preparing U.S. boys and girls to become engineers, mathematicians, and scientists to better compete with the Soviet Union during the Cold War; they did not seek to rid society of racial, ethnic, and gender inequities.

*And since the early 1980s, U.S. school reformers have worked hard to raise academic standards, create demanding curricula, and spark higher student performance to counter those  Asian nations that have surged ahead in the global marketplace as U.S. students have lagged behind Asian students on international achievement tests. In toughening up U.S. schools, school reformers assumed that high school and college graduates would be better prepared to enter a knowledge-based (not manufacturing) economy where gathering and analyzing information and problem-solving skills dominated the job market. Such graduates would out-compete and out-innovate Chinese and Korean ones and the U.S. economy would thrive.

In these previous instances of school reform, policymakers saw schools as serving the economy and protecting the nation, not as Deweyan agents of “social progress” in reducing social injustices. While rhetoric and actions of current  reformers seek to insure that poor and minority students trapped in failing schools would have equal educational opportunity through expanded parental choice in schools and everyone going to college, both aim at rescuing individuals from poverty and preparing them for better jobs, not arming graduates  to fight for a more equitable society.

In 2012, reformers remain split over the direction that schools should take just as they were over a century ago when John Dewey wrote his Pedagogical Creed. Much of the boiling rhetoric among school reformers, I believe, is due to this conflict over the answer to the question of whether schools can (or ever do) reform society. Which is why in schooling, like religion, “aspirations [are] rarely met” and attempts at reform generate “far more failure than fulfillment.”

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.



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Valerie Strauss · October 10, 2012

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