The Center for Public School Renewal

NOTE: Published in slightly different form as"Keeping the Net Higher For Some" by Education Week, 5/18/94.

Original Title:
Education Does Work, But Not The Way We Think
by Barry McGhan

At the core of the clamor about the failures of American education lies an assumption about the purpose of schooling that, although widely believed, is unlikely to be true. A recent expression of this assumption can be found in an essay by mathematician John Paulos(1):

"If education theorists as diverse as Plato, Rousseau, Dewey and the proverbial bartender are correct in thinking that schools shape the ambient society, [emphasis added] we're in trouble."

The idea that schools shape society puts the cart before the horse. Schools do not, in any autonomous way, shape society. Instead, society uses schools to shape people to its strictures.

In his essay, Professor Paulos cites several new books that he has read as he wrestles with his concerns about education. I would like to recommend some older--but still relevant--additional readings for those concerned about how education works.

The first of these is Jeannie Oakes' Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality (Yale University Press, 1986). This book shows that schools effectively track students--according to their social class--into higher and lower strata of the education system and the related workplace. Is this just a glitch in the system? An unfortunate side effect? Or, is this education's dirty little secret? Why not be guided by the principle of Occam's Razor and make the simplest interpretation of the data--that what we've got is what we want. That is, that schools are not supposed to provide quality education to all equally. When we get right down to it, we want schools to reproduce social stratification, albeit surreptitiously.

How else can we make sense of the gross inequities described in Jonathan Kozol's Savage Inequalities (Crown, 1991)? What other explanation can we find for Benjamin Barber's view that Americans don't really care about education? See his essay "America Skips School: Why We Talk So Much About Education And Do So Little" (Harper's Magazine, November, 1993).

Twenty years ago, when I was working on an advanced degree, there were several researchers and theorists writing on what they saw as the real functions of education. Weighted down with data, these books never rose to the surface of public attention. Most sank completely out of sight in the agitated waters of the Reagan administration's A Nation at Risk report. But I remember them, those warning voices lost in the storm of debate over how to improve education.

Some were sociologists. Others were educational historians, but of a different breed than many from that specialty. They liked to dig around in the dusty old records of schools and school districts and look at the facts. They wanted to know how education functioned, not how some theorist wanted it to function.

Look at Michael Katz's Class, Bureaucracy and Schools: The Illusion of Educational Change in America (Praeger, 1971). Learn how, from the very beginning of public education in this country, the purpose was to maintain the social order. Scan Colin Greer's The Great School Legend (Basic Books, 1972). Greer looks into schools' failure to assimilate immigrants early in this century, and dispels the myth that schools can ameliorate the conditions of the lower classes. Or, review the oh-so-politically-incorrect Schooling in Capitalist America (Basic Books, 1976) by Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis. Bowles and Gintis expose the meritocratic myths of education and elucidate the connection between education and the structures of economic life. And finally, on a somewhat different note, there is Robert Dreeben's little book On What is Learned in School (Addison-Wesley, 1968). Dreeben examines the hidden curriculum of our present form of traditional public schooling and its role in developing norms useful in fostering modern bureaucratic society.

None of these works are easy reading because they tell an ugly story, one we really don't want to hear. That story is that education isn't the means by which individuals from any strata of society are empowered to improve their life chances. Instead, they are mostly kept from moving out of the strata into which they were born by a system that operates according to rules that favor the advantaged.

As a third-generation teacher, whose family business has been education since Grandma started teaching in 1906, I hate this story. I don't want to acknowledge this skeleton in the education closet. In the twenty years since I learned of it I have found some satisfaction working in alternative schools, and with alternatives to traditional teaching, small ways to uplift the downtrodden. But the skeleton is still there, unacknowledged by, and apparently invisible to, most of the other employees in my family business.

A key question to try to answer is, "Can any formal education system produce what its sponsoring society doesn't want?" The power, it seems, lies outside the education system, from the provisions for financing, to the legislation of rules and regulations, to the attitudes of parents, school boards, and the public. Think for a moment about education in its most basic form, in the nuclear family. Parents raise (i.e., educate) their children to be part of their family, not someone else's family. Children learn to walk the walk and talk the talk of their family. Viewed this way, we see education has a conservative function, to reproduce the form and much of the substance of the preceding generation(2). When we pan our camera back from the family to society, we can make a similar analysis. If you will forgive the anthropomorphism, a stratified society seeks to reproduce its stratification. The advantaged classes want to preserve their place in society for their offspring, which in this zero-sum game comes at the expense of the disadvantaged. This is not an easy message for Americans, soaked in the rhetoric of rugged individualism and egalitarianism as we are, to understand.

This stratification function of schooling is camouflaged in two ways. First, there are always cases of imperfect socialization. A few poor people always seem to make it into the middle class or higher, and disaster can befall a well-to-do individual here and there. As Professor Paulos points out in Innumeracy (Hill and Wang, 1988), in any sufficiently large population, unlikely events are probable. As Paulos also points out, certain cases are sometimes filtered out and given special attention, as in casinos, where every (rare) payoff causes lights to flash and bells to ring, while every (common) loss fades silently away. Similarly, these rare cases of social success and failure usually receive more than their fair share of public attention. Isn't this the explanation for the Horatio Alger Myth?

The second way that the stratification function of schooling is camouflaged is by the belief that natural ability explains school success(3). This is the way it works. Many poor (usually minority) children come to school with some rectifiable educational deficits that middle class (usually white) children don't have. Some school professionals think, "It's too bad, but I can't do anything about it." Even those who would like to do something often can't because the system is upside down: those with the greatest need have the fewest resources (perhaps we should we call in the conspiracy theorists at this point). Since not much can be done, educators settle for not doing much--they lower their expectations.

The years go by and the gap between the haves and have-nots (aided by tracking) grows wider. Along the way, insidious messages creep into the minds of children. The message that the have-nots get is this. "The reason you're not doing well is that there is something wrong with you." The children hear this message repeatedly, year after year. Their parents heard the same message about themselves. The children know they are like their parents in other ways, so they conclude that they inherited this flaw too. Eventually, they come to believe this miserable little story and act on those beliefs. They don't go to college, and they do go on welfare. After a while, the cycle repeats for another generation.

The message that the haves hear, while no more valid, is more pleasant to the ear. It goes like this. "The reason you're doing so well is that you have concerned and loving parents who support you. It's pretty obvious you're going to turn out to be just as successful as they are. Don't worry, you've got what it takes, just wait and see."

Almost everyone who views these two situations--especially those who have something to gain from them--thinks, "Well, some people have ability and some don't. It's a harsh truth, but you can't fool Mother Nature."

It seems to me to be a really ingenious form of mind-control. School teaches the victims and the victors that they have earned--and they deserve--the places that society ultimately has for them. What an efficient way to reproduce an ordered and orderly society. No troops or tanks needed, thank you very much!

Steeped as we are in our traditional form of schooling, so convinced of the rightness of our assumptions about the purpose of education and about human nature, we find it hard to envision a way out of this mess. Unless . . . we stifle our chauvinism and peer over the fence at what some of our neighbors are doing. Some, of course are doing as badly as we--or worse. But some aren't. In particular, the Asian education systems described in The Learning Gap (Summit, 1992), by Harold Stevenson and James Stigler, are doing better.

And guess what? The Asians' assumptions about the purpose of education and human nature are different from ours. They assume that schools are to be used to produce the kind of citizens that will fit into their more collective-minded and structured societies. They have national education systems to bring that about.

They assume that individual ability counts for only a little, that effort is really the key to success in school. They give students plenty of time to learn the basics, and plenty of time to learn how to be good citizens. They give teachers plenty of time to polish their lessons. They generally don't permit schools to have wide differences in financial support, and they see no value in "ghetto-izing" special populations within special programs.

When the facts don't square with one's assumptions, and when other assumptions seem to have more explanatory power, then, according to Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (University of Chicago, 1970), a paradigm shift can occur. Kuhn also tells us that paradigm shifts don't necessarily occur, that the new vision can be spurned.

And so it is with American education. We can stick to our assumption that schools have the power to shape society in an independent way. We can keep our assumption that natural ability plays a major role in school success. We can fail to look honestly at different approaches found in other cultures. We can continue to let the pendulum of school reform swing between teacher-centered solutions (like "back to basics") and student-centered approaches (like outcome-based education). We can continue, in other words, to stew in our own juice.

Or maybe, just maybe, we can try another course. As Professor Paulos might agree, the probability of this last event, while small, is not zero. A first step might be to take a page from the book of Alcoholics Anonymous. That is, we should stand up and admit to our dirty little secret--that schools have never offered quality education to all comers. Then, we might find ourselves on the road to recovery.


(1) "If Everybody Knows So Much About Education, Why Doesn't Education Work?" (The New York Times, November 14, 1993)
(2) Education performs two related functions, one conservative, one critical. The conservative function preserves the norms and forms of the sponsoring society. The critical (problem-solving) function allows for evolutionary change, for growth, for progress. The conservative function is almost always more powerful than the critical function. That's why change usually comes to society fairly slowly. Technology is an exception to this rule: the critical function operates much more freely, thus allowing rapid changes to occur.
(3) Much has been written on what is usually called the "nature/nurture" controversy and its connection to school success. The fact is that, although each side claims they have defeated the other, neither has offered incontrovertible proof that they are right. The most appropriate position to take is that the jury is still out on this whodunit--was it Ms. Nurture or Mr. Nature in the Conservatory with the lead pipe?


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