Challenging the Grammar of Schooling (Part 3)

The “grammar of schooling” is stubborn. It is the DNA of U.S. public schools.

Because it is taken-for-granted, as common as the air we breathe and seemingly as essential to schooling Americans as sleeping is to decent health, few reform-minded policymakers, practitioners, donors, researchers, and parents challenge it. In Part 2, four researchers described and analyzed efforts to alter substantially this quiet institutional machinery that influences both students and teachers 36 weeks a year. For the most part, these researchers described in their case studies how the “grammar of schooling’ persisted after mighty efforts to reduce or remove it in public schools and districts.

In Part 1, I described private schools that had, indeed, dispensed with the “grammar of instruction.” I ended that post with this paragraph:

The tradition of challenging the dominant structure of the age-graded school and its “grammar of schooling” continues to this day with micro-schools in Silicon Valley and elsewhere illustrating anew that such reforms to the traditional “machinery of instruction” have resided, for the most part, in private schools where tuition runs high and students bring many economic and social advantages school. In a profound way, the high cost of these private schools and the resources available to their founders in experienced teachers, aides, technologies, space, and materials show clearly the prior conditions necessary not only to operate such schools in public venues but also what is needed to contest the prevailing “grammar of schooling.”

Does that mean more money is the answer for public schools to challenge the “grammar of schooling?” No, it does not. More than additional financing of schools would be needed.

Consider the mid-19th century age-graded school imported from Prussia as an innovative reform to the then dominant public school organization: the one-room schoolhouse. Horace Mann, Henry Barnard, and others were evangelists for age-graded Common Schools in New England and elsewhere. These reformers built political coalitions in various states that persuaded legislatures and town officials to fund these Common Schools. They succeeded in establishing such age-graded schools across New England, mid-Atlantic states and the Midwest prior to the Civil War.

Since the late 19th century, the age-graded school (e.g., K-5, K-8, 6-8, 9-12) has become the mainstay of school organization in the 21st century. Today, most taxpayers, voters, and readers of this book have gone to kindergarten at age 5, studied Egyptian mummies in the 6th grade, took algebra in the 8th or 9th grade and then left 12th grade with a diploma.

If any school reform–in the sense of making fundamental changes in organization, curriculum, and instruction–can be considered a “success” it is the age-graded school. In providing access to all children and youth, longevity as a reform, and global pervasiveness, the age-graded school is stellar.

Think about its longevity–the first age-graded structure of eight classrooms appeared in Quincy (MA) in the late 1840s. Within a half-century, it had begun to replace one-room schoolhouses in urban and rural schools.

Or consider access. Between 1850-1913, over 30 million Europeans crossed the Atlantic and settled in the U.S. The age-graded school has enrolled millions of students over the past century and a half, assimilating immigrants into Americans, sorting out achievers from non-achievers, and now graduating over eighty percent of those entering high school.

Or ubiquity. The age-graded school exists in Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America, and North America covering rural, urban, and suburban districts. What other school reform has been this “successful”?

Why have most U.S. school reformers, donors, and educational entrepreneurs been reluctant to examine an organization that influences daily behavior of nearly 4 million adults and well over 50 million children or one-sixth of all Americans in the early 21st century? Surely, habit and tradition play a part in the longevity of the age-graded school. The lack of recognizable alternatives that have been around sufficiently long to compete with the prevailing model is another. Sure, occasional reformers created non-graded public  schools and similar singletons but they were outliers that disappeared after a few years. Or private schools funded by parents and donors that have remained progressive outposts such as the Francis W. Parker School in Chicago, the City and Country School in New York City, and The School in Rose Valley (PA).

What is too often ignored in explaining the durability of the age-graded organization, however, are the widely shared social beliefs among parents, educators, and taxpayers about what a “real” school is. After all, nearly all U.S. adults—save for the tiny number who are home schooled—have attended both public and private age-graded schools. Adding, subtracting, and multiplication are learned in primary grades, the nation’s history in 4th and 5th grades, U.S. history in the 8th and 11th grade is what a school is and does. American as apple pie and the Thanksgiving holiday.

For example, when a charter school applicant proposes a brand-new innovative school the chances of receiving official approval and parental acceptance increase if it is a familiar age-graded one, not one where most teachers team teach and groups of multi-age children (ages 5-8, 9-11) learn together. Not only is the age-graded school a “real school” but also it juggles the multiple public and private goods that animate tax-supported public schools since the mid-19th century. That is, the public goods of preparing students to become literate, patriotic, and engaged citizens while getting jobs or continuing their education to enter careers while providing an individual escalator for families that want their sons and daughters to “succeed” financially and socially in a market-driven democracy–a private good.

External pressures also constrict reformers’ maneuverability in trying other organizational forms. State mandated grade-by-grade curriculum standards, college entrance requirements calling for which academic subjects have to be taken and passed are located in the 9th to 12th grades, and the federal Every Student Succeeds Act as to what grades elementary and secondary school will be tested–are all married to this taken-for-granted school organization.

The unintended (and ironic) consequence of frequent and earnest calls for radical change in instruction through non-traditional teachers and administrators, charter schools, nifty reading and math programs, and “personalization” of learning through digital software assume that such innovations will occur within the traditional school organization thus preserving the age-graded school and freezing classroom patterns, i.e., the “grammar of instruction,” that so many reformers and entrepreneurs want to alter. Calls for ending “schools-as-factories” are common in the 21st century but have led to, at best, incremental changes in the traditional age-graded school.

Beyond the age-graded elementary school, there have been other incremental changes that have, intentionally or not, sustained the structure and culture of this organization. Progressive educators and civic and business leaders led political coalitions that extended the age-graded grammar school of eight grades into junior high schools of grades 7-9 and comprehensive four year high schools offering a range of curricula and extra-curricular activities that appealed to families wanting their sons and daughters to have a high school diploma, a pathway to a well-paying job.

Cementing that high school structure in grades 9-12 has been the Carnegie unit—student contact of 120 hours in a class over a school year of at least 24 weeks—installed as another innovation in the early 20th century has been used as a basis for students graduating high school continues into the 21st century.

This scaffolding of tradition–nearly two centuries of age-graded schools–powerful social beliefs among policymakers and parents about what “real schools” should be, and multiple public and private goals for tax-supported schools combine to make the “grammar of schools” seemingly invulnerable to alternative ways of organizing schools.

The spread of charter schools in cities (e.g., New Orleans, 93 percent of schools; Detroit, 55 percent; Washington, D.C., 46 percent),  where charter advocates are free to organize the school, governance, curriculum, and instruction nearly all are age-graded (see here for one exception)

Yes, there are exceptions. There are non-graded, non-charter elementary schools–very few secondary schools–focusing on intellectual, social- emotional learning, and real world interactions in scattered private and public schools in the U.S.. They are, however, few and far between. They challenge the existing “grammar of schooling” with alternative “grammars.”

“Schools-as-factories” rhetoric aside, amid much experimentation* with charter schools, mastery learning, multi-age groupings, and “personalized learning,” age-graded schools with its historic “grammar of schooling” rule.


*What both surprises and annoys me is that major donors who have the freedom to fund different ways of organizing schools seemingly ignore such competing “grammars of schooling” thus unintentionally reinforcing what has existed for the past century.











Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools, school reform policies

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

  1. Educating Human Potential

    Thanks so much for this post, along with the other two in this series on the “grammar” of school or instruction. It baffles me, particularly when large donors get behind initiatives that still support the grammar of schooling while they themselves often eschewed it in one way or another.

    • larrycuban

      I agree with your point about philanthropic grants end up reinforcing age-graded school organizations. My hunch is that donors focus on what can be changed–at least what they believe can be changed–such as curriculum, qualifications for teachers, accountability regulations, tests, etc. Thanks for comment.

  2. Hi Larry,

    Thank you for this series! I recently re-read your article from 2013 where you talk about the fundamental error of policy makers – that they view public schools as a complicated and not a complex system. Do you think it’s possible to somehow overcome decades of policy framed with a mental model entrenched in the structures of the grammar of school?

    The cynical part of me comes back to Chubb and Moe’s discussion of institutional isomorphic and wonders if policymakers really want to see this fundamental change occur as it would threaten/undermine the structures on which they have amassed their power.

    Going back to the complicated vs complex system, if there isn’t a single lever to start creating deep change, how can we start to tackle complexity?


    • larrycuban

      I am uncertain that I can answer your question fully, Beth. Two things come to mind. One is a policy “lever,” the other is not. Consider how charter schools spread since the early 1990s. It spread because of political action at the state and federal levels and was consistent with the growing public acceptance of expanded parental choice–see:
      External political support intersected with a popular idea that parents, especially poor ones, should have choices that affluent parents already had. A second reason–but not a policy lever–is when dire events occur such as natural disasters (think Katrina and New Orleans schools), severe loss of funding, and similar catastrophic events. Schools make changes in how they are organized, funded, and operate. The seeming permanence of the age-graded-school organization resulted from political decisions made many decades ago. It stays in place because politically it serves the interests of most educators, parents,and taxpayers in maintaining a stable institution.
      Thanks for the comment, Beth.

      • Excellent blog series.

        Heartily agree with: “It stays in place because politically it serves the interests of most educators, parents,and taxpayers.”

        Parents in particular. Many private school efforts offering big changes to the grammar of schooling have not attracted enough parents to survive.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks for the comment, Mike.

  3. Pingback: Is K–12 transformation post-COVID realistic? - Christensen Institute : Christensen Institute

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