Mar 14, 2008
By: Alvaro Fernandez
We read today how Panel Urges Schools to Emphasize Core Math SkillsÃ‚Â (Washington Post). Now, there is a more fundamental question to consider: what should the schools of the XXI century look like and do?.
To create a much needed dialogue, I asked one the most thoughtful education bloggers around to share her (I guess it’s “her”) impressions with us. Enjoy!
What do we want our schools to do, and for whom?Ã‚Â
“Schools,” Stanford historian David Labaree wrote, “occupy an awkward position at the intersection between what we hope society will become and what we think it really is.” What do we want our schools to do, and for whom?
Schools, like most organizations, have many goals. These goals often compete with and displace each other. Relying heavily on the work of David Labaree, I will discuss three central goals of American schools – social efficiency, democratic equality, and social mobility. Throughout the history of American education, these goals have been running against each other in a metaphorical horserace. While they are not mutually exclusive, the three goals introduce very different metrics of educational success. More often than not, they sit uncomfortably with each other.
The first goal of American schools – what Labaree terms “social efficiency” – is to prepare children to assume their place in the economy. Advocates of the social efficiency goal include business leaders and elected officials. Magnates like Lou Gerstner of IBM or Bill Gates, and even your local congressman, stress that students’ human capital must be developed to ensure that we maintain a competitive economy. In this view, public schools are a public good. Each citizen’s welfare is enhanced by the existence of a strong economy. Increasing students’ academic achievement, as measured by their test scores or their grades, is the gauge of goal attainment.
The social efficiency perspective accepts that society is stratified. What this means is that in the stadium of life, the seats behind home plate are limited. Some seats provide better views than others, and not everyone can sit in the best seats. Inevitably, some fans will be relegated to the bleachers. Others may not squeeze into the stadium at all. The school’s function, then, is to fit students of varying ability into appropriate locations in this social hierarchy. In this view, our country needs beauticians, doctors, and store managers, and schools function as a powerful sorting machine that efficiently allocates students to their rightful positions.
A second goal of public schools is to achieve democratic equality. It was this goal that propelled Horace Mann’s 19th century quest to spread the “common school” and achieve universal elementary education. The republic could not persist, Mann argued, if students lacked a shared socialization experience that initiated them as members of a common polity.
According to Labaree, the democratic equality goal has two signature components. First, it demands that schools prepare children to become active citizens in a democratic society. Students, at the very least, must have the tools necessary to serve on a jury, vote, and understand the rights and responsibilities implied by our social contract. Second, to ensure equality in the political arena, it requires that social inequality remains in check. Achieving this goal does not necessitate equal outcomes. But it does charge schools with attenuating, rather than exacerbating, preexisting inequalities.
Schools’ achievement of the first component of the democratic equality goal proves more difficult to measure than social efficiency. That’s because these outcomes are not observed until well after students leave K-12 education. The second component, relative equality, is easily quantifiable and has been incorporated into the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which mandates that schools close the minority and socioeconomic achievement gap.
A third goal of public schools is social mobility. One perspective on the social mobility goal sees schools as breaking the link between parents and children. In this argument, schools level the playing field by providing a neutral venue in which each student can showcase his natural talent and merit. Because all students have an equal opportunity to succeed in this contest, America’s unequal rewards are fair and legitimate.
A less charitable view of the social mobility goal conceives of education as an object of struggle. In the fierce contest to maintain or enhance one’s relative position, educational credentials are powerful weapons. Scholars writing in this tradition contend that privileged kids benefit from the alignment of their dispositions with those valued by the educational system. For example, these parents teach their kids to seamlessly express their preferences, to respond to questions rather than commands, and to look adults in the eye. Schools, in expecting the same behaviors, give upper-middle class kids a leg up on their peers. Irrespective of one’s take on the efficacy of schools in promoting social mobility, both sides agree that the social mobility goal is achieved when one’s initial status is not a strong predictor of one’s educational and labor market outcomes. Put simply, the child of doctors should be no more likely to make it to graduate school than the child of construction workers.
What’s the problem? Can’t our schools do it all? When it comes to these broad conceptual goals, the answer is no. For example, consider the tension between the social efficiency and social mobility goals. Should we provide vocational opportunities for lower achieving students? Or does doing so relegate working class kids to working class jobs, since they are more likely to have lower test scores? There are similar tensions between the democratic equality and social mobility goals. Does the SAT allow the best students to be identified, or give a mobility advantage to affluent kids with private tutors?
Labaree neatly summed up the problem this way: “From the perspective of democratic equality, schools should make republicans; from the perspective of social efficiency, they should make workers; but from the perspective of social mobility, they should make winners.” Because we cannot succeed in all of these goals contemporaneously, we would do well to frankly acknowledge these education policy tradeoffs at our dinner tables, in our faculty lounges, and in our statehouses.
Please let me know your thoughts about this question, “What do we want our schools to do, and for whom?“, so we can create a good give and take. Also, by mid-April I will write a follow-up article, more specific about the skills and competencies we would want our schools to foster. Many thanks to Alvaro for the invitation to guest blog at SharpBrains!
—eduwonkette is an anonymous blogger who writes a fantastic Education Week blogÃ‚Â described as “Through the lens of social science, eduwonkette takes a serious, if sometimes irreverent, look at some of the most contentious education policy debates.”
– Are Schools (Cognitively) Nutritive for Children’s Complex Thinking?Ã‚Â by Thomas O’Brien and Christine Wallach.
– The First Step Is FailureÃ‚Â by Joanne Jacobs.