Posted in Educational goals, Inequality, Schooling, Social mobility

Guhin: How Covid Can Change What Schools Are For

This post is a short essay by Jeffrey Guhin published on August 27, 2020 in Hedgehog Review.  In it he puts forth an argument about the purpose of schooling that resonates with some of my own work, including recent posts here such as this, this, and this.  Here’s a link to the original.

Guhin Image

How COVID Can Change What Schools Are For

What if the purpose of education has nothing to do with social mobility?

Jeffrey Guhin

As school years start up again, just about everyone agrees COVID is hurting education, except, perhaps, those with healthy financial stakes in online learning. Parents are exhausted, students are bored, and teachers and staff are overwhelmed, plus terrified of getting sick. Yet if COVID does nothing else for education, it might force all of us to spend a bit more time examining what all this educational effort is actually for.

Listen to most policymakers, and you’d probably guess the purpose of education is social mobility—lifting poor kids out of poverty and getting middle-class kids into Harvard, even if schools aren’t achieving that goal. Meanwhile, the more radical among us argue that schools are simply doing what they were always intended to do, not fix inequality but maintain it, all the while convincing both winners and losers that where they wind up is where they deserve to be.

But what if—and just go with me here for a second—the purpose of education has nothing to do with social mobility? What if we let schools off the hook for fixing social inequalities and just fixed those inequalities instead? What if we took money from the wealthy and took privileges from the entrenched and we gave these boons to those who needed them more? There are dozens of ways such changes could take shape: wealth taxes, reparations for black and indigenous Americans, stronger unions, and universal child care, to name just a few.

As things are, a focus on social mobility pits students, families, and schools against each other for ever-diminishing resources, making it easy to forget that education could just as easily be about community as it is about competition. Whether it’s school choice and vouchers or simply ensuring it’s your kids who gets the best teachers and COVID pods, schooling as the solution to social mobility helps to reinforce that education, and, well, life, are about each individual getting ahead.  And that cynicism boils down to the experience of learning itself.

When we’re obsessed with schools as the primary solution to social inequality, the content of learning—everything from fractions to Franz Ferdinand—becomes a means to an end. Some of that content might be useful (like learning to read or touch-type). Students might even find some of it meaningful, like the elegance of a complex math solution or the thrill of a well-crafted experiment. Yet all too often that content is treated as a checkbox to complete, with each lesson bringing students one step closer to the degree, the credential they really need.

Education becomes no longer about what students do but rather where students arrive, and so it’s no wonder young people feel alienated by all the time between beginning and end. And, because of our unwillingness to consider more dramatic solutions to inequality, these students and their families know they have no other choice. Families might believe the strangely radical idea that your value as a person is entirely separate from your achievement in school. But until we live in a society that sees inequality as a problem rather than a justification, that kind of commitment to human dignity is a pretty idea that can’t pay the bills.

Concerns about social mobility also dominate discussions about COVID and education. Marginalized students fall behind benchmarks while privileged students get further ahead, whether via pods, readily available parents, or simply the certainty they have the medical care and financial support to handle whatever COVID University sends their way. Fixing these inequalities is as necessary as ever, and they highlight the vital role schools play in the lives of our nation’s children. Schools, often quite literally, feed those who need to be fed.

Yet too often schools are tasked not simply with caring for their students but with repairing an entire social order. Schools can do so much we do not ask of them, like developing solidarity, fostering political responsibility, and ensuring a love of learning for its own sake. Yet the one thing we are most insistent they accomplish, the ensuring of “equal opportunity,” is something even the best school is simply not capable of achieving. We’re asking our schools to do the wrong things, and then blaming them, and their students, when they fail. And now we’re going to try it all again while remote learning.

It doesn’t have to be that way. The potential freedom new COVID syllabi and pedagogies provide us could give room for different ways to think about education, both while we’re in this mess and maybe even when we get back to our classrooms. In her vital work on the purpose of schoolsbell hooks provides a model for such rethinking, echoing the landmark work of John Dewey, Anna J. Cooper, and W.E.B. Du Bois.

hooks helps us recognize that what we learn must be connected to how we live, centered within the relationships students forge with their teachers and with each other. Learning should always be meaningful—capable, at any moment, of bringing us to moral and political transformations. It is through this context of a safe and trusting community that students can learn about injustice and privilege, about problems they can see in their own stories or recognize as their own responsibilities. Ironically, educating for justice becomes much easier when education is no longer considered the only means of building a just society.

As we get ready for another COVID semester, the stress of combining full-time work and full-time de-facto homeschooling is matched by the sadness of smushing all the power and beauty of education into the meritocratic ideology it has come to represent. Our students, our children, are more than achieving automatons. Yet this is where our focus on schools as agents of social mobility has brought them, and us. Don’t let the crisis go to waste. Fix inequality in whatever ways we can. And then we can let education actually be about education, even if we’re still just doing it at home.

Posted in Educational goals, History of education

Are Students Consumers?

This post is a piece I published in Education Week way back in 1997.  It’s a much shorter and more accessible version of the most cited paper I ever published, “Public Goods, Private Goods: The American Struggle over Educational Goals.”  Drawing on the latter, it lays out a case of three competing educational goals that have shaped the history of American schooling: democratic equality, social efficiency, and social mobility. 

In reading it over, I find it holds up rather well, except for a tendency to demonize social mobility.  Since then I’ve come to think that, while the latter does a lot of harm, it’s also an essential component of schooling.  We can’t help but be concerned about the selective benefit that schooling provides us and our children even as we at the same time are concerned about supporting the broader benefits that schooling provides the public as a whole.

See what you think.  Here’s a link to the original and also to a PDF in case you can’t get past the paywall.  

 

Are Students “Consumers”?

David F. Labaree

Observers of American education have frequently noted that the general direction of educational reform over the years has not been forward but back and forth. Reform, it seems, is less an engine of progress than a pendulum, swinging monotonously between familiar policy alternatives. Progress is hard to come by.

However, a closer reading of the history of educational change in this country reveals a pattern that is both more complex and in a way more troubling than this. Yes, the back-and-forth movement is real, but it turns out that this pattern is for the most part good news. It simply represents a periodic shift in emphasis between two goals for education — democratic equality and social efficiency — that represent competing but equally indispensable visions of education.

The bad news is that in the 20th century, and especially in the past several decades, the pendulum swings increasingly have given way to a steady movement in the direction of a third goal, social mobility. This shift from fluctuation to forward motion may look like progress, but it’s not. The problem is that it represents a fundamental change in the way we think about education, by threatening to transform this most public of institutions from a public good into a private good. The consequences for both school and society, I suggest, are potentially devastating.

Let me explain why. First we’ll consider the role that these three goals have played in American education, and then we can explore the implications of the movement from equality and efficiency to mobility.

The first goal is democratic equality, which is the oldest of the three. From this point of view, the purpose of schooling is to produce competent citizens. This goal provided the primary impetus for the common school movement, which established the foundation for universal public education in this country during the middle of the 19th century. The idea was and is that all citizens need to be able to think, understand the world around them, behave sociably, and act according to shared political values — and that public schools are the best places to accomplish these ends. The corollary of this goal is that all these capabilities need to be equally distributed, and that public schools can serve as what Horace Mann called the great “balance wheel,” by providing a common educational competence that helps reduce differences.

Some of the most enduring and familiar characteristics of our current system of education were formed historically in response to this goal. There are the neighborhood elementary school and the comprehensive high school, which draw together students from the whole community under one roof. There is the distinctively American emphasis on general education at all levels of the educational system. There is the long-standing practice of socially promoting students from grade to grade. And there is the strong emphasis on inclusion, which over the years has led to such innovations as racial integration and the mainstreaming of special education students.

The second goal is social efficiency, which first became prominent in the Progressive era at the turn of the century. From this perspective, the purpose of education is not to produce citizens but to train productive workers. The idea is that our society’s health depends on a growing economy, and economy needs workers with skills that will allow them to carry out their occupational roles effectively. Schools, therefore, should place less emphasis on general education and more on the skills needed for particular jobs. And because skill requirements differ greatly from job to job, schools need to tailor curricula to the job and then sort students into the different curricula.

Consider some of the enduring effects that this goal has had on education over the years. There is the presence of explicitly vocational programs of study within the high school and college curriculum. There is the persistent practice of tracking and ability grouping. And there is the prominence of social efficiency arguments in the public rhetoric about education, echoing through every millage election and every race for public office in the past half-century. We are all familiar with the argument that pops upon these occasions — that education is the keystone of the community’s economic future, that spending money on education is really an investment in human capital that will pay big dividends.

Notice that the first two goals are in some ways quite different in the effects they have had on schools. One emphasizes a political role for schools while the other stresses an economic role. One pushes for general education, the other for specialized education. One homogenizes, the other differentiates.

But from another angle, the two take a similar approach, because they both treat education as public good. A public good is one that benefits all members of a community, which means that you cannot avoid being affected by it. For example, police protection and road maintenance have an impact directly or indirectly on the life of everyone. Likewise, everyone stands to gain from a public school system that produces competent citizens and productive workers, even those members of the community who don’t have children in public schools.

This leads us to something that is quite distinctive about the third educational goal, the one I call social mobility. From the perspective of this goal, education is not a public good but a private good. If the first goal for education takes the viewpoint of the citizen and the second takes that of the taxpayer, the third takes the viewpoint of the individual educational consumer.

The purpose of education from this angle is not what it can do for democracy or the economy but what it can do for me. Historically, education has paid off handsomely for individuals who stayed in school and came away with diplomas. Educational credentials have made it possible for people to distinguish themselves from their competitors, giving them a big advantage in the race for good jobs and a comfortable life. As a result, education has served as a springboard to upward mobility for the working class and a buttress against downward mobility for the middle class.

Note that if education is going to serve the social-mobility goal effectively, it has to provide some people with benefits that others don’t get. Education in this sense is a private good that only benefits the owner, an investment in my future, not yours, in my children, not other people’s children. For such an educational system to work effectively, it needs to focus a lot of attention on grading, sorting, and selecting students. It needs to provide a variety of ways for individuals to distinguish themselves from others — such as by placing themselves in a more prestigious college, a higher curriculum track, the top reading group, or the gifted program. In this sense the social-mobility goal reinforces the same sorting and selecting tendency in education that is promoted by the social-efficiency goal, but without the same concern for providing socially useful skills.

Now that I’ve spelled out some of the main characteristics of these three goals for education, let me show how they can help us understand the major swings of the pendulum in educational reform over the last 200 years.

During the common school era in the mid-19th century, the dominant goal for American education democratic equality. The connection between school and work at this point was weak. People earned job skills on the job rather than in school, and educational credentials offered social distinction but not necessarily preference in hiring.

By the end of the 19th century, however, both social efficiency and social mobility emerged as major factors in shaping education, while the influence of democratic equality declined. High school enrollments began to take off in the 1890s, which posed two big problems for education — a social-efficiency problem (how to provide education for the new wave of students), and a social-mobility problem (how to protect the value of high school credentials for middle-class consumers). The result was a series of reforms that defined the Progressive era in American education during the first half of the 20th century. These included such innovations as tracking, ability testing, ability grouping, vocationalism, special education, social promotion, and life adjustment.

Then in the 1960s and 1970s we saw a swing back from social efficiency to democratic equality (reinforced by the social-mobility goal). The national movement for racial equality brought pressure to integrate schools, and these arguments for political equality and individual opportunity led to a variety of related reforms aimed at reducing educational discrimination based on class, gender, and handicapping condition.

But in the 1980s and 1990s, the momentum shifted back from democratic equality to social efficiency — again reinforced by social mobility. The emerging movement for educational standards responded both to concerns about declining economic competitiveness (seen as a deficiency of human capital) and to concerns about a glut of high school and college credentials (seen as a threat to social mobility).

However, another way to think about these historical trends in educational reform is to turn attention away from the pendulum swings between the first two goals and to focus instead on the steady growth in the influence of the third goal throughout the last 100 years. Since its emergence as a factor in the late 19th century, social mobility has gradually grown to become the dominant goal in American education. Increasingly, neither of the other two goals can make strong headway except in alliance with the third. Only social mobility, it seems, can afford to go it alone any longer. A prime example is the recent push for educational choice, charters, and vouchers. This is the strongest educational reform movement of the 1990s, and it is grounded entirely within the consumer-is-king perspective of the social-mobility goal.

So, you may ask, what are the implications of all this? I want to mention two problems that arise from the history of conflicting goals in American education — one deriving from the conflict itself and the other from the emerging dominance of social mobility. The second problem is more serious than the first.

On the issue of conflict: Contradictory goals have shaped the basic structure of American schools, and the result is a system that is unable to accomplish any one of these goals very effectively — which has been a common complaint about schools. Also, much of what passes for educational reform may be little more than ritual swings back and forth between alternative goals — another common complaint. But I don’t think this problem is really resolvable in any simple way. Americans seem to want and need an education system that serves political equality and economic productivity and personal opportunity, so we might as well learn how to live with it.

The bigger problem is not conflict over goals but the possible victory of social mobility over the other two. The long-term trend is in the direction of this goal, and the educational reform initiatives in the last decade suggest that this trend is accelerating. At the center of the current talk about education is a series of reforms designed to empower the educational consumer, and if they win out, this would resolve the tension between public and private conceptions of education decisively in the favor of the private view. Such a resolution to the conflict over goals would hurt education in at least two ways.

First, in an educational system where the consumer is king, who will look after the public’s interest in education? As supporters of the two public goals have long pointed out, we all have a stake in the outcomes of public education, since this is the institution that shapes our fellow citizens and fellow workers. In this sense, the true consumers of education are all of the members of the community — and not just the parents of school children. But these parents are the only ones whose interests matter forth school choice movement, and their consumer preferences will dictate the shape of the system.

A second problem is this: In an educational system where the opportunity for individual advancements is the primary focus, it becomes more important to get ahead than to get an education. When the whole point of education is not to ensure that I learn valuable skills but instead to give me a competitive social advantage, then it is only natural for me to focus my ingenuity as a student toward acquiring the most desirable grades, credits, and degrees rather than toward learning the curriculum.

We have already seen this taking place in American education in the past few decades. Increasingly, students have been acting more like smart consumers than eager learners. Their most pointed question to the teacher is “Will this be on the test?” They see no point in studying anything that doesn’t really count. If the student is the consumer and the goal is to get ahead rather than to get an education, then it is only rational for students to look for the best deal. And that means getting the highest grades and the most valuable credentials for the lowest investment of effort. As cagey consumers, children in school have come to be like the rest of us when we’re in the shopping mall: They hate to pay full price when they can get the same product on sale.

That’s the bad news from this little excursion into educational history, but don’t forget the good news as well. For 200 years, Americans have seen education as a central pillar of public life. The contradictory structure of American education today has embedded within it an array of social expectations and instructional practices that clearly express these public purposes. There is reason to think that Americans will not be willing to let educational consumerism drive this public-ness out of the public schools.