Challenging the Grammar of Schooling (Part 2)

At the recent annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, I participated in a symposium entitled “Changing the Grammar of Schooling? An Examination of Reform.” The chair, Jal Mehta (Harvard University) invited Michael Fullan (University of Toronto) and me to comment on four researchers’ papers. The papers were:

Making the Periphery the Core: Possibilities and Challenges in Public Eduation

Jal David Mehta, (Harvard University); Sarah M. Fine, (University of California, San Diego)

Design Thinking, Leadership, and the Grammar of Schooling Implications for Educational Change Lea Hubbard, (University of San Diego); Amanda Datnow, (University of California, San Diego);

 College for All and the Grammar of Schooling Karen Quartz, (University of California, Los Angeles)

The Rise and the Fall of New Schools in New York City and Singapore Thomas Hatch, (Teachers College, Columbia University); Jordan Corson, ( Teachers College, Columbia University); Sara M. Gerth van den Berg, (Teachers College, Columbia University).

Here are my comments on these papers.

I want to thank Jal for inviting me to comment on the four papers presented here….

These four papers examine the concept of the “grammar of schooling”—I still put the phrase in quote marks—that David Tyack and I grounded our history of school reform nearly 25 years ago.

Oh, do I wish David were here today to have read these papers and commented upon them as gracefully and acutely as he usually did when colleagues wrestled with this basic concept in the history of school reform. Sadly, he is no longer with us  so you have me to parse these four thoughtful papers.

I use two frameworks to analyze these four papers:

First, The age-graded school organization an innovation from the mid-19th century contains within it the basic grammar of schooling that includes different curricula for different students, scheduling short blocks of time for instruction, testing, and the like. Historically, a century ago, progressives were split among themselves between a wing that sought to alter traditional curriculum and instruction in order to produce students who could become the vanguard of societal reform and a wing that sought increased efficiency in school operations to better fit the economic and social conditions of the time.

The key point I make is that the efficiency driven wing of the progressives used the age-graded organization to shape the how and what of teaching then and now.

Consider that teachers had to pace their instruction in order to cover the prescribed content they were expected to teach in brief chunks of time. Going deeply into content meant something had to be sacrificed. Thus, the telltale signs of a grammar of instruction—lectures, textbooks, quizzes, homework—flowed directly from the age-graded organization and its inherent grammar of schooling.

Second, I will use a framework to analyze these papers that is also drawn from Tinkering toward Utopia. It is the distinctions between policy talk—the rhetoric of reform—policy action, actual policies adopted and policy implementation—putting policies into practice.

So as I now turn to the four papers, I work within these historical and conceptual frameworks.

The short version of my analysis is only one of the papers (Amanda and Lea) claims that the grammar of schooling and instruction were transformed. The other three state clearly that efforts to alter seriously the regular curriculum and instruction failed in part or wholly.

Tom Hatch and his colleagues point out in their trans-national study that in both New York City and Singapore major efforts to create new schools and alter traditional instruction in age-graded schools occurred. Reform rhetoric about transforming schools and classroom teaching became concrete with the closing of schools and opening of new ones. Putting these reform-driven policies into practice long enough to transform teaching, however, became an issue in both settings.

Building the capacity of teachers to teach differently in these new schools—the single most important factor in achieving any significant change in the “grammar of instruction”—was pursued for a few years but over time the advent of different reform-driven policies shifted the original agenda of new schools cracking the traditional mold to having these new schools pursuing innovative practices rather than wholesale transformation.

For those in the audience looking for a resurgence of pedagogical progressivism beyond policy talk, Tom and his co-authors tell us a gloomy story lightened by occasional flashes of actual changes in practice.

Neither is the story that Karen tells us about a Los Angeles school enrolling mostly low-income children of color upbeat. An unusual collaboration between researchers and teachers at the school examined in detail what occurred to teachers and students, most of whom were the first generation in their family to go to college. Teachers and students engaged in a competency based online and blended instructional program, one based on mastery of content and skills rather than seat time. A real change in the “grammar of schooling.”

Yet the school still focused on getting all students to meet higher education requirements, graduate and go to college while at the same time having students become bilingual and bi-literate and develop self-respect, being valued for who they are. Student agency, collaboration with peers, and active participation in community were part of the aims for this school. Balancing the goal of this public good—students contributing to their community—and the private good of going to college is no easy task in any school much less this urban one.

What Karen and her colleagues found out was that getting students to pass all of the courses required to go to community colleges, state schools and universities became a major effort for so many students who got Ds and failed one or more of their classes. What started out as one track for students to gain access to higher education became three tracks with much remediation included. The “grammar of schooling” could not be bent or ignored when college access is the goal.

Yet in their interviews of students, they found much evidence of self-respect and agency. Becoming a “self-directed passionate learner” meant students were motivated and took ownership of their learning. And that happened among the students they interviewed, according to the paper.

For those in the audience who want more upbeat news about cracking the steel cage of the grammar of schooling and instruction, Amanda and Lea describe a turnaround middle school while Jal and Sarah’s paper offer some hope, not for the regular school curriculum or instruction but the extra-curriculum that occurs after the school day.

Going from a low-performance school with rapid turnover in principals to a high-performing one—a real turnaround according to Amanda and Lea—did occur and both grammars of schooling and instruction were overcome.

How it occurred was the leadership of a principal who shared power with a cadre of teachers and adopted a new curricula called Design Thinking.

While I was impressed with what the authors report occurred at this middle school and I am willing to grant that these two reform strategies partially cracked the historic cage of age-graded schooling and instruction, I was unpersuaded that such “success” would last.

Why? Because principal leadership and teacher-powered decision-making were linked together. Any turnover in school leadership risks a breaking of that bond. And principal turnover after a few years is a given in such districts.

Moreover, Design Thinking curriculum, according to the authors, did break the grammar of instruction across academic subjects. That may well be, but my prior experience and knowledge of how teachers stray from fidelity to a new curriculum by adapting daily lessons leaves me skeptical of what occurred in these classrooms. I could be inaccurate here but do await the longer version of this paper that will include more data on what occurred with students and teachers.

For Jal and Sarah, they write a convincing brief for extracurricular sports, drama, clubs, and other after-school activities as powerful platforms for learning. These are more “vital,” they say, than the core of schooling. Sure, there are gifted teachers who on occasion engage students through ambitious instruction to become serious and deep learners. But they are the exception not the rule.

But it is in extracurricular activities that students exercise choice, become part of a community, collaborate with other students and adults, and become connected to the real world. Not in AP Biology or studying Hamlet.

So Jal and Sarah ask: Could the core–i.e., the regular school day–be more like the best of the periphery–extracurricular activities? Their answer is: “This system would need to be remade.”

I found this a puzzling answer since the “system” they describe that produces the “grammar of schooling” is no other than the age-graded school which at the secondary level means the comprehensive high school. Yet at no point in the slides and the paper I read do the authors even suggest moving away from the age-graded, comprehensive, tracked high school. Perhaps they do so in their recently published book.

It strikes me that when the periphery is the site of deeper, serious, and vital learning far more than in the core, making the periphery the core and thus getting rid of or fundamentally changing the age-graded organization would be a plausible way of achieving what extracurricular activities, clubs, sports, and the like do for students.

The grammar of schooling was made by humans nearly two centuries ago. It can be altered and it has in some districts.

So I ask Jal and Sarah who paint a fine picture of powerful curriculum on the periphery of schooling: Why not consider the age-graded high school as what has to be changed?

To find an answer to that question they may have to consider seriously what their conferees Tom Hatch, and Karen Quartz discovered in their research on the grammar of schooling at the district and individual school.

I thank the authors of these papers for their careful and provocative analyses. I learned a great deal.  

Part 3 takes up the question of why it is so hard to alter substantially the age-graded school and its inherent “grammar.”


Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies

3 responses to “Challenging the Grammar of Schooling (Part 2)

  1. Laura H. Chapman

    The age graded school persists in part because there are expectations for a school building to house a large number of students who share a space, but cannot really use the same furniture. In the degree that scholars refuse to acknowledge that a school day should include something akin to recess or physical activity, in addition to lab work in science indoors or out doors, studies in the creative and performing arts (not limited to texts and chunks of predetermined standards-aligned content), and the so on these orphaned forms and venues for learning will not be perceived as anything more than extras, a bonus for a few, or better outsourced to the community… If possible. Add the family perspective: child care issues and safe transportation, finding safe activities for students not yet of age if parents are working in the “grammar” of labor organized by day and night shifts, eight hours and so on.
    I think your nuanced response to the papers merits more of my attention, in addition to the papers as presented.

  2. Pingback: This Week’s “Round-Up” Of Useful Posts & Articles On Ed Policy Issues | Time To Teach and the Center for Teacher Effectiveness!

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