What are public schools for?
That is the larger question raised by the “new vocationalism” in the past decade, as vendors, donors, and technology-enthused policymakers have pushed coding and computer science courses into public schools. Through advocacy groups that lobby districts and states to legislate both as requirements and social media campaigns touting high-paying jobs at the end of schooling, the hyperbolic rhetoric of reform with its statistics of how many computer programmer and software engineer jobs will need to be filled in 2020 has pushed the “new vocationalism” as the primary purpose for tax-supported public schools.
Americans have always wanted their schools to pursue more than one purpose. Opinion polls (see here and here) have regularly shown that both parents and non-parents wanted public schools to do many things:
*insure that students become literate,
*prepare citizens to be engaged citizens,
*developing students moral and ethical character,
*getting children and youth ready for careers,
*teaching students how to think,
*appreciating cultural diversity.
Those polls (above ones from 1981 and 1996 ) also showed that opinions shifted over time from one goal to another. The key point, however, is that Americans have wanted more than one purpose for tax-supported public schools.
Narrowing schooling’s purposes to preparation for work–as opposed to, say, a civic one or social justice or community uplift–has occurred before in the history of U.S. public schools (see Part 1). Such constricting of purpose confirms anew that schools mirror potent economic and political forces within the larger society.
For nearly four decades, federal and state reform-driven policies of higher curriculum standards, more testing, and rigorous school accountability have dominated U.S. schools. Such policies aimed to make U.S. schools an engine of economic growth essential for the nation to compete in global markets. And with the parallel growth of schools’ access to and use of new technological devices and software, the notion of more, faster, and better teaching and learning directed toward that narrowed purpose of preparing children and youth for college and future work seemed in the grasp of policymakers. Thus, coding and computer science are not curricular fads but logical outgrowths of recent reforms aimed at making the U.S. economically competitive.
But “in the grasp of policymakers” does not easily translate into classroom lessons especially when it comes to top-down policies adding computer science courses to the curriculum and expecting teachers to teach coding. In Part 2, I offered examples of teachers invariably adapting policies aimed at altering their practice. The examples showed the untoward consequences of top-down policies entering (or not entering) classrooms, often leaving a sour taste in the mouths of reformers (for other such instances, see here, here, and here).
For those reform-minded policymakers seeking to replicate a “successful” pilot program (e.g., reading, “new” math, coding) across a broad swath of schools, fidelity to the model, that is, teachers copy faithfully what the “successful” pilot achieved, irritation and disappointment await them.
Why so? The tension between the dynamic process of teachers actively adapting top-down changes to fit their students and fidelity to the model has been (and will continue to be) unresolved resulting in both policymakers and teachers becoming annoyed with one another. You cannot have both fidelity to the model and accept that teachers will tailor the design to fit their classrooms.
Consider the example in the late-1990s of Comprehensive School Reform, a federally funded initiative to get individual schools across the U.S. to adopt “successful” models such as Success for All, America’s Choice, Accelerated Schools, Core Knowledge, and the Coalition of Essential Schools. By 2006, spurred by both the variety of models and federal grants over 8,000 elementary and secondary schools had adopted innovative whole-school reform models from a menu provided by the U.S. Department of Education.
Follow-up studies showed extensive modification of the models as they entered schools and classrooms (except for the reading program Success for All which demanded close adherence to the model–see here).
Here is where the concept of mutual adaptation enters the picture making policy adherence to faithfully replicating the model not only ahistorical but very laughable.
Historically, in the journey from policy to classrooms, teacher palm-prints appear time and again as practitioners figure out how best to put top-down mandates into practice. As teachers grasp the meaning of a policy and see some virtues for their students, daily lessons do change. The back-and-forth between policy and practice is active, even energetic, as teachers embed parts of the policy into their classroom activities. Forget fidelity to the model.
Thus far, I have cited negative examples of models entering schools and classrooms becoming unrecognizable to their designers, there are a few positive examples, however, of the dynamic process when policies journey into schools and teachers–call them street-level bureaucrats–refashion those policies and in doing so, change how they teach. This has occurred with both top-down and bottom-up policies such as cooperative learning, project-based teaching, and International Baccalaureate schools (see here, here and here).
I end this series of posts with an example that impressed me with its serious involvement of teachers in promoting science projects through technology in Chicago middle schools. Seeing mutual adaptation as both inevitable and worthwhile, a group of Northwestern University researchers created “work circles” of teachers to figure out how to make a newly-adopted unit on ecology and evolution be both meaningful to middle school students and expand the repertoire of teachers using technology. They studied one of these “work circles” made up of four teachers from two schools.
Meeting every other week for five months, the teachers expressed concerns with students using the technology, the science content, and pedagogy. With the researchers they worked on solutions to the concerns they raised. And then taught the unit to their students.
Will similar efforts as these “work circles” involve teachers early on and make the process of mutual adaptation work to benefit both teachers and their students? I have yet to read of such initiatives as districts and states mandate computer science courses and require young children to learn to code. Repeating the errors of the past and letting mutual adaptation roll out thoughtlessly has been the pattern thus far. The “New Vocationalism,” displaying a narrowed purpose for tax-supported public schools, marches on unimpeded.