Educational goals Organization Theory School reform Teaching

The Dynamic Tension at the Heart of the Grammar of Schooling

This post is a new piece I just published in Kappan.  Here’s a link to the original, which appears in the October edition of the magazine.

In this essay, I explore an issue about the “grammar of schooling” that bothered me over the years as I was teaching about this subject.  The concept was originally introduced by David Tyack and William Tobin in a 1994 AERJ paper and then more fully developed in a 1995 book that Tyack coauthored with Larry Cuban, Tinkering Toward Utopia.  

Tyack and Cuban define the grammar of schooling as the organizational and pedagogical forms of schooling that have persisted over the years and resisted efforts to reform them, shaping the structure of teaching and learning in much the same way grammar shapes language. And like the grammar of language, the grammar of schooling operates at such a deep level that its rules become invisible, just part of the way things are. If a person uses bad grammar in speech, it just doesn’t sound right; and when a school violates the grammar of schooling, it doesn’t feel like a real school.

The chronic problem for me in working with this concept (Larry tells me he wrestled with this as well) has been to establish the foundation upon which it rests.  Why are some school practices more resistant to change than others?  

Over the years, I’ve raised this question countless times with students and colleagues, and we always seem to get bogged down in circular logic: Something that’s part of the grammar of schooling is resistant to change; something that’s resistant to change is part of the grammar of schooling. You know it when you see it, but it’s hard to determine how it got there. It has felt like a black box, reliably foiling the efforts of reformers but never revealing the secret to its strength. We know the what but not the why.

Here I suggest that the most deeply entrenched school practices — the ones that have proven to be hardest to budge, like age-graded classrooms and teacher-centered instruction — strike a balance between what we want our schools to do and what those schools can realistically accomplish. These two forces are continually in tension, and their constant pushing and pulling, back and forth, drives the slow evolution of American education and leads, every so often, to meaningful change. I argue that the elements of schooling that get embedded in its grammar have two key features: They meet the schools’ larger social purposes, and they meet the organizational needs of the school system.

The grammar of schooling, then, is not a fixed characteristic of the system but the result of the need to balance the tension between two components of the system, which can’t be resolved but must instead be continually negotiated.  

See what you think.

Grammar Image

The dynamic tension at the core of the grammar of schooling

By David F. Labaree

Why are certain elements of schooling so resistant to change?

It’s no secret that the American system of schooling has been remarkably resistant to change. Innovative reform efforts bombard schools constantly, but they nearly always seem to bounce off the classroom door, having little to no effect on how teachers teach and students learn. Over many decades, various core elements of K-12 education — such as teacher-centered pedagogy, tracking and ability grouping, and the batch processing of students by age group — have proven to be remarkably durable. As David Tyack and Larry Cuban (1995) famously observed, they make up something like a basic, underlying “grammar of schooling.” (On this and related topics, see Cuban’s recent interview in Kappan; Heller, 2020.)

Tyack and Cuban’s concept has inspired a lot of scholarship over the last 25 years (including, most recently, a special issue of American Journal of Education on “Changing the grammar of schooling”; see Mehta & Datnow, 2020), nearly all of it focusing on what it would take — and why it’s so difficult — to dislodge those core practices that seem to stand in the way of more progressive approaches. And in a recent article, David Cohen and Jal Mehta (2017) find that while educators do sometimes make dramatic changes to their curriculum, instruction, and other practices, those changes tend to be confined to discrete organizational niches and programs, rather than prevailing across whole schools or districts. According to Cohen and Mehta, that’s in large part because school systems in the U.S. tend to be decentralized (or “loosely coupled”) organizations, with administrators having power to launch big initiatives but not to monitor or control what actually goes on in classrooms. This has both pros and cons: Because individual educators have some degree of privacy and autonomy, they have some freedom to change their teaching practices. However, because principals and superintendents can’t compel every teacher to make changes, they struggle to take bold reforms to scale.

Cohen and Mehta help explain why school systems tend to resist change in general. But I’d like to approach the question from a slightly different angle: Why are some educational practices more resistant to change than others?  

Elements of the grammar of schooling

Tyack and Cuban define the grammar of schooling as the organizational and pedagogical forms of schooling that have persisted over the years and resisted efforts to reform them, shaping the structure of teaching and learning in much the same way grammar shapes language. And like the grammar of language, the grammar of schooling operates at such a deep level that its rules become invisible, just part of the way things are. If a person uses bad grammar in speech, it just doesn’t sound right; and when a school violates the grammar of schooling, it doesn’t feel like a real school.

We’re all familiar with this grammar. It includes things like grouping students into grades by age, dividing learning into a set of discrete subjects (math, science, English, and social studies), each of them taught within a self-contained classroom, presided over by a lone teacher who controls the learning process, maintains discipline, and assigns grades based on performance. At the elementary level, students stay with the same teacher for the whole year and experience a common curriculum, while perhaps being divided into subgroups based on ability. But at the high school level, the day is divided into periods and the students move from one teacher’s classroom to another, with each teacher specializing in a particular subject. Classes in particular subjects may be tracked by ability level, with students of the same ability assigned to the same classroom. When students pass a class by earning the minimum grade, they accumulate credits based on the number of hours they spent in that class each week. When they accumulate enough credits, they are awarded a high school diploma. Elementary students who fail to attain a passing grade at the end of the year are compelled to repeat the grade. High school students who fail a class have to repeat it or replace it with credits from another class, and if they accumulate too many failures they too have to repeat the grade.

This all sounds so familiar that it hardly seems worthy of comment. It’s just the way schools are, and it’s hard to imagine an alternative way of doing things. Indeed, when teachers or schools try to change one or more of these core elements, parents tend to resist, demanding that their children be taught real subjects by a real teacher in a real school.  

But what is it, exactly, that makes a particular organizational or pedagogical practice so resistant to reform? For instance, it has long proven to be more or less impossible to dispense with the grouping of students into age-graded cohorts, but in recent decades, most states have gone ahead and outlawed corporal punishment in schools, even in places where it used to be entirely routine. Why does one seem like such an unavoidable, fundamental feature of a school, while the other has been relatively easy to abolish?

Over the years, I’ve raised this question countless times with students and colleagues, and we always seem to get bogged down in circular logic: Something that’s part of the grammar of schooling is resistant to change; something that’s resistant to change is part of the grammar of schooling. You know it when you see it, but it’s hard to determine how it got there. It has felt like a black box, reliably foiling the efforts of reformers but never revealing the secret to its strength. We know the what but not the why.

More than three decades ago, David Cohen (1988) provided an insight that might help answer this question. To understand why it is so difficult for teachers to give up certain practices, we need to think about not just the organizational nature of schools but also the nature and realities of teaching itself. In their recent paper, Cohen and Mehta make a similar point in their recent paper, too. They were able to find only a few reforms that were successful across a whole school system, but all “addressed problems that teachers thought they had, by being consistent with prevailing norms and values, mobilizing a significant public constituency, and building the needed educational infrastructure.” That is, if you hope to change the grammar of schooling, then you have to pay careful attention to both the social dimensions of education — including norms, values, goals, and traditions — and the real-world needs of the people who work in classrooms and schools.

Taking these arguments a bit further, I suggest that the most deeply entrenched school practices — the ones that have proven to be hardest to budge, like age-graded classrooms and teacher-centered instruction — strike a balance between what we want our schools to do and what those schools can realistically accomplish. These two forces are continually in tension, and their constant pushing and pulling, back and forth, drives the slow evolution of American education, and leads, every so often, to meaningful change. Building on Cohen and Mehta’s observations, then, I argue that the elements of schooling that get embedded in its grammar have two key features: They meet the schools’ larger social purposes, and they meet the organizational needs of the school system.

Social mission

The first feature operates in the realm of culture and ideology. We set up schools and to accomplish certain societal goals. That’s why we set them up in the first place and why we pour so much time and treasure into them. Children spend 13 or 14 years of their lives in schools, families organize their schedules around the school calendar, and state and local governments spend about a third of their finances in support of the schooling enterprise. So, to be seen as legitimate, and in return for all we invest in them, schools must credibly serve one or more of the social missions we’ve assigned to them, such as promoting democratic equality, social efficiency, and social mobility (Labaree, 1997).

For example, we ask schools to socialize the young in the ways of our culture, imbue them with moral values, prepare them to assume the responsibilities of democratic citizenship, and give them the skills and knowledge to contribute to the economy. Many of us also expect them to give all students an equal opportunity to succeed, first as learners and later as members of society, applying the same standards to everyone and assessing students on the basis of academic performance rather than social origins. We expect schools to be meritocratic mechanisms for socializing members of the next generation and selecting them for the social positions they have earned. Unless they meet such aims, schools are failing at their job.

Organizational needs

The second feature operates in the world of organizational management. Schools must serve their social mission, but they need to do so in a way that takes into account the challenges of operating in the real world. The American public school system is a complex and radically dispersed social organization, spread across 14,000 school districts, 100,000 schools, 3 million teachers, and 50 million students (National Center for Education Statistics, 2021). This system needs to be able to function within budgetary and logistical constraints. And it also needs to be a manageable place where teachers and administrators can effectively carry out the task of educating the young while pursuing sustainable careers that enable them to support their families and enjoy some degree of job satisfaction.

To put it another way, schooling must be not just worth doing but also doable. And, in fact, when a school reform meets both of these criteria, significant change can be accomplished with surprising ease. In the 19th century, for example, most European schools separated boys from girls, but U.S. schools opted to create coed classrooms, meeting little to no resistance despite being a dramatic departure from customary practice. This reform served the social mission of promoting a broad-based civic community while simplifying school organization by eliminating the need for separate classrooms. It was worth doing, and it made the everyday work of schooling even more doable than before.

When mission and needs converge

It’s easy to see that when reform efforts tip the balance between mission and organization too far in one direction or another, those efforts fail. The history of public education is littered with such abandoned initiatives in which reformers, pursuing idealistic goals, required schools to attempt things that simply weren’t doable on a large scale. But some school reforms strike enough of a balance to stick around.

Consider the age-graded classroom, which Cuban highlights as a prime case of a reform that succeeded (Heller, 2020). It emerged before the Civil War, in the period when the common school movement established the first U.S. system of universal public education, and it quickly became entrenched because it served an important social mission and it met organizational needs, thereby satisfying both of our essential criteria.

Age grading seemed to be worth doing because it established a framework for fostering meritocratic achievement — still a radically egalitarian ideal in 19th-century America. Specifically, it enabled teachers to assess students’ performance based on their individual merit, rather than their age or what family they come from. While it’s difficult to compare a 9-year-old’s achievement to that of a 5-year-old and a 12-year-old, it’s relatively easy to see where a 9-year-old stands in relation to other 9-year-olds. Success means you’ve performed at (or even ahead of) grade level and been promoted to the next grade with your age group; failure means you’ve performed below your level and have been left behind to repeat the grade.

At the same time, age grading seemed doable, and even beneficial, from an organizational standpoint, in that it simplified curriculum and instruction, allowing teachers to teach the same subject at the same level to the entire class at the same time. It made classroom management easier, too, since teachers no longer had to look after big and little children in the same room. And it made it simpler for administrators to keep track of teachers’ responsibilities and monitor students’ progress as they moved through the system, grade by grade.

When mission and needs collide

Ever since age-grading was introduced, over a century-and-a-half ago, educators have been unable to find a better alternative that strikes a more even balance between the worthwhile and the doable. But that’s not to say this practice achieves a perfect balance. Actually, age-grading has led to all sorts of problems. Not long after it was introduced, it became clear that while students may start out with classmates of the same age, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll stay with their peers over time. As soon as schools began to hold back their underperforming students, they accumulated older children in the lower grades, resulting in precisely the sort of mixed-age grouping they were trying to avoid. By 1919, for example, the Philadelphia school system calculated that it was taking an average of 10 years for students to complete eight grades (Pennsylvania State Department of Public Instruction, 1922, p. 128). This was considered such a serious problem that reformers wrote books about it, with titles like Laggards in Our Schools (1908).

Keep in mind, however, that because age-grading seemed both worthwhile and at least somewhat doable, reformers couldn’t abandon it. They could only tinker with it, finding a way to address the unanticipated problem of having too many older students held back and placed in classes with younger students. In this case, the solution appeared to be simple: They would modify age-grading by adding the practice of social promotion. Instead of being moved to the next grade based on academic merit, students would be promoted along with their age group, regardless of performance. However, they soon discovered that this led to another organizational problem: When students performing at various achievement levels were placed in the same room, it became difficult to provide whole-class instruction. In turn, the solution to that problem was to introduce curricular tracking: Teachers would promote students by age but assign them to separate classrooms according to their academic performance. In short, efforts to improve upon one part of the grammar of schooling (age-grading) led to the creation of two other mainstays of American education (social promotion and tracking).

However, these attempts to fix organizational problems didn’t just create new organizational problems. They also presented schools with a growing legitimacy problem, in that the new organizational structures began to undermine the social mission (to nurture a meritocracy) that had led to age-grading in the first place. Originally, when students were promoted based on their achievement, determining whether a student was successful was as easy as checking to see if they  were on the same grade level as their peers. But with social promotion, the new measure of merit became the curriculum track, not the grade level. Over the course of the 20th century, this became the most important signal of students’ academic progress and potential. Were they in the advanced placement track, academic track, general track, vocational track, or remedial track?

This posed two legitimacy problems for schools, suggesting that they were no longer living up to their meritocratic ideals. First, this organizational structure seemed to undermine the very meaning of merit, equating success not with a student’s individual performance in relation to peers of the same age but by the particular track they were placed into. Second, this system also undermined the ideal of equal opportunity because tracking meant that students in the same grade and subject were being taught to differing standards, effectively predetermining their academic outcomes.

In short, it turns out to be very difficult for school systems to maintain a balance between social legitimacy and organizational practicality, even when it comes to educational practices that strike this balance relatively well. Inevitably, tensions emerge, as teachers and administrators realize that some aspect of their work has become undoable and needs to be fixed, or as reformers realize that this organizational fix has undermined the school system’s mission. In the case of age grading, for example, we’ve teetered back and forth between competing solutions to the problems that this core practice creates (see fig. 1).

Kappan Figure

You can see similar patterns in other school practices, too. One case in point is the tension between offering special opportunities for academically advanced students — gifted programs, advanced placement classes, and special schools for high achievers. Here too you find an alternation between merit and equality, commonality and differentiation. 

To succeed, reforms must seek balance

The core educational structures that make up the grammar of schooling can only be maintained by a recurring series of school reforms that seek to maintain the balance of school ideals and school practices. Understanding this will help reformers to figure out how to proceed in pursuing desired changes in the system. Instead of looking for a permanent fix, this means resigning yourself to making continual adjustments in a dynamic without end.

If today’s reformers want to avoid creating new educational problems for the next wave of reformers to address, they need to understand the dynamics of the system that they hope to alter. That means trying to anticipate both the ideological and organizational consequences of any new policy or practice, asking themselves, “What might happen if we introduce this reform? How is this likely to stretch the schools’ organizational capacities? How might it undermine the school system’s guiding ideals?” In education, as in medicine, our guiding principle should be “First, do no harm.”

In a piece I published in Kappan last year (Labaree, 2020), I argued that the much-maligned bureaucracy of public education deserves some respect. While often ineffective and easily ridiculed, it also serves as an important stabilizing force, helping to protect the civic mission of our schools from those who would undermine it. At a time when privileged parents have come to exert greater and greater pressure on the system, seeking advantages that will help their children win the increasingly intense competition to get into the best colleges and capture the best jobs, the bureaucracy insists on treating all students the same. Perhaps the schools’ profound resistance to change deserves a bit of respect as well. Maybe the grammar of schooling, as frustrating as it may be to those of us who wish to improve teaching and learning, sometimes does more to preserve equity than prevent it.

References

Ayres, L. (1908). Laggards in our schools. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Cohen, D.K. (1988). Teaching practice: Plus ça change. In P.W. Jackson (Ed.), Contributing to educational change: Perspectives on research and practice (pp. 27-84). McCutchan.

Cohen, D.K. & Mehta, J.D. (2017). Why reform sometimes succeeds: Understanding the conditions that produce reforms that last. American Educational Research Journal, 54 (4), 644-690.

Heller, R. (2020). What counts as a good school? A conversation with Larry Cuban. Phi Delta Kappan 102 (3), 32-35.

Labaree, D.F. (1997). Public goods, private goods: The American struggle over educational goals. American Educational Research Journal, 34 (1), 39-81.

Labaree, D.F. (2020). Two cheers for school bureaucracy. Phi Delta Kappan, 101 (6), 53-56.

Mehta, J. & Datnow, A. (2020). Changing the grammar of schooling. Special issue of American Journal of Education, 164 (4).

Metz, M.H. (1990). Real school: A universal drama amid disparate experience. In D.E. Mitchell & M.E. Goertz (Eds.), Education Politics for the New Century (pp. 75-91). Falmer.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2021). Fast facts. https://nces.ed.gov/FastFacts.

Pennsylvania State Department of Public Instruction. (1922). Report of the survey of the public schools of Philadelphia, II. Public Education and Child Labor Association.

Tyack, D. & Cuban, L. (1995). Tinkering toward utopia: A century of public school reform. Harvard University Press.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: