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Schools: what should they do, and for whom?

We read today how Panel Urges Schools to Emphasize Core Math Skills (Washington Post). Now, there is a more fundamental question to consider: what should the schools oflearning, apple 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? 

–By eduwonkette

“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!

EduWonketteeduwonkette is an anonymous blogger who writes a fantastic Education Week blog 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.”




Related posts:

Are Schools (Cognitively) Nutritive for Children’s Complex Thinking? by Thomas O’Brien and Christine Wallach.

The First Step Is Failure by Joanne Jacobs.

Brain Connection: Eric Jensen on Learning and the Brain

The Adolescent Brain: Interview with Robert Sylwester

The Art of Changing the Brain: Interview with James Zull

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3 Responses

  1. Gene Rosov says:

    Dear Eduwonkette & Friends: Thank you for the stimulating queries and attempts to define the realm of questions. A few thoughts you might find worthwhile, if not relevant.

    What do we want our schools to do for/with/by/amongst our children? I’m not sure we can completel approach this question without first asking a more basic, underlying question: “What do we want our country and its citizens to accomplish in the world?” Prof. Labaree’s analytic triumvirate assumes: a) capitalism is our system, and therefore we must and will adopt its production and consumption value-set; b) schools have the ability, indeed the power, to shape a young person’s perspectives on politics, materialism, the social contract and ratiocination; and c) students’ ability to choose and reasons for so choosing – classes, friends, mentors, subjects, behavior, dress, etc. – are not key features of the educational goals, nor properly should they be.

    We have seen most recently in our financial institutions that materialism engendered by television, advertising and other media breeds a style of greed that ends in social and economic disaster. Advertisements, music, tv/radio, Internet, magazines shape the lives and aspirations of our children and ourselves. Escaping in favor of true independence is difficult, if desired at all, and impossible for most folks. We do not need Christ, Muhammed, Moses, Plato, Aristotle, or Kurt Vonnegut to remind us that materialism is a hollow and unrewarding shell: we know it. Nonetheless we pursue it, perhaps because (as the Koran says), men surround themselves with material things to protect themselves from the reality of death.

    Is it not the goal of education – deep, true education – to help us consider and question the values and mores foisted upon by our media and our environs? Would not such an education engender wiser voting, greater neighborliness, geniune compassion, social responsibility? Would it not remind us that the greatest leaders and minds of our civilization, and any other known civilization, propounded the Golden Rule? Would it not help us to see that dishonesty, greed and flawed integrity, rampant in sports, politics, and business are practical and emotional dead-ends, inimical to individual joy and brotherly love?

    It is my own personal hope that these questions might be the ones we ask our educational systems to address at every level, in every classroom, in every interaction.

  2. In 2001 I gave a talk to a group of senior citizens with nearly the same title as this post. I just pulled up the handout from that talk (partially pasted below). There is much overlap with this post and the Labaree, but I also included negotiating pluralism. I think this is important.

    I’d also like to offer a different, related question: “What should we want from our schools?”

    Handout Excerpt:
    What Do We Want from Our Schools ?:
    The Politics of Democracy, Diversity, Opportunity and Inequality

    Senior Scholars: June, 2001

    “Educate in order that your children may be free.”

    Irish Proverb
    Often quoted by Margaret Haley, Educator and Union Organizer

    “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must be
    what the community wants for all of its children.”

    John Dewey, Philosopher, Educator and Social Activist

    Capitalism, Inequality, Pluralism, Democracy and Opportunity

    Capitalism/Inequality: Capitalism is based on an assumption of inequalities of circumstances and outcomes. Some children will have richer and/or more stable homes than others. Some students will achieve “success,” others won’t. Capitalism needs both CEO’s and minimum wage workers. Capitalist schools must produce both. Capitalism also assumes that competition and differential rewards are the most efficient way to produce progress.

    Pluralism: Recognizes group identities (racial, religious, ethnic, sexual…) as significant and positive elements in our society, but also assumes that groups and individuals who belong to the society share experiences and values. Seeks a balance between the common and the diverse. What this balance should be can determine the content, structures and methods of schooling (multiculturalism)

    Democracy: One function of the schools is to produce an informed citizenship, without which democracy doesn’t stand a chance. Ideally (see Dewey) this goes beyond simple literacy and numeracy to include critical thinking and a sense of community and communal responsibility: what the founding generation called “Civic Virtue.” Democracy also describes the governance of schools. There has long been a tension between popular ideas about education (as expressed by elected/appointed officials) and those of experts, a recent example is the Kansas controversy over teaching evolution.

    Opportunity: Part of the bargain of American capitalism is that inequality is tempered by the promise of mobility. More so than any other institution, schools are burdened with the task of fulfilling this promise. We expect our schools to cultivate talent and reward hard work so that we can maintain the illusion of mobility and meritocracy.

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