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


  1. Gene Rosov on March 15, 2008 at 4:03

    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. Thomas J. Mertz on March 16, 2008 at 9:11

    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.

About SharpBrains

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SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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