I have just sent in my manuscript to the publisher entitled “Chasing Success and Confronting Failure in American Schools.” Every book I have written in the past decade since I started this blog, I have posted the argument, drafts of chapters, and vignettes of schools and teacher lessons.
Now I am considering my next project. I would like to draw together certain themes that I have lived, taught about, and researched since I began teaching over a half-century ago. The title of this post captures those themes. For this post, I am offering the condensed argument I have thought of making in my next book. I attach no endnotes or citation of sources at this point. Just the distilled argument.
I am concerned that the logic of the argument is clear, crisply stated, and coherent. So I ask readers of this post to look for holes, errors, and missing parts that should be included. I would appreciate reader comments.
What teachers teach and students learn in American classrooms are (and have been) shaped (but not determined) by political, organizational, and social forces:
First, there is the decentralized system of governance and funding of schools over the past two centuries.
Second, the age-graded school with its “grammar of schooling” has been the reliable vehicle for moving state and local policies into classroom lessons.
Third, the constant flow of social, political, and economic problems in the larger society often get converted into reform efforts to improve schooling, classroom practice, and the larger society.
These three forces have created both stability and change in tax-supported public schooling indelibly marking the journey that policies take from federal, state, and district suites into teachers’ classrooms.
- For the past two centuries, the U.S. has had a decentralized system of governing public school. That is, there are 50 states, 13,000-plus school districts, nearly 100,000 schools with 3.2 million teachers in charge of 51 million-plus students.
There is no national ministry of education or federal authority as there is in France, Sweden, and, China determining what schools can teach, which teachers to hire and fire, and when school begins and ends each year.
This decentralized system also unequally funds districts within a state (e.g., poor Buchanan and wealthy Arlington Counties in Virginia) and occasions lopsided differences between states—think Mississippi and New York–across the nation. Racially discriminatory practices from banks redlining areas (e..g., avoiding investment in largely black or Latino areas) to white families leaving recently integrated neighborhoods in cities for nearly all-white suburbs causing even more residential segregation in both cities and inner-ring suburbs. These funding disparities and discriminatory policies affect the quality of brick-and-mortar school buildings, selection and retention of teachers, and student access to instructional materials including new technologies.
Funding public schools comes from three sources: state, local district, and the federal government. The latter provides less than 10 percent of all funds for schools. Because property taxes are the largest source of local and state funding inherent inequities occur simply because there are high wealth districts such as Arlington County (VA) and Beverly Hills (CA) for example–that out-spend dramatically low-wealth districts –Buchanan largely white County (VA) and mostly black Compton (CA)–in per-student spending.
That system of state and local governance in which states provide unequal amounts of money to districts even when adjusted for high- and low-wealth, however, does not slow down the flow of state policymaking where districts are expected to put those policies into practice. Federal policies, especially between 2002-2015 with No Child Left Behind (the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2016 shifted NCLB mandates to state authorities) also enter the mix of what states, districts, and schools are expected to do. Moreover, district boards of education affected by local issues that parents and elected officials bring to them such as school lunches, segregated schools, busing schedules, inappropriate history textbooks, and student dress codes. School boards enact policies that parent lobbies, business leaders, and superintendents recommend. For these federal, state and local policies to get implemented in schools and classrooms, one organizational structure in existence for nearly two centuries–—the age-graded school—is (and has been) the primary vehicle for principals and teachers to turn policy into practice across the U.S.
- The age-graded organization is (and has been) the primary vehicle for converting goals and policies into classroom lessons.
Those goals and policies are aimed at both changing and conserving what happens in thousands of schools presided over by principals and hundreds of thousands of individual teachers located in separate classrooms in those schools responsible for groups of 25-35 students. Classroom teachers ultimately decide which of the overall district goals, policies, and curricular content and skills assigned to be taught in fourth grade or high school physics turn up in actual lessons.
Thus, the role of the individual teacher located in these age-graded classrooms gives teachers a constrained autonomy in determining what of a curriculum guide or textbook will be taught. After shutting their classroom doors, they can and do decide what and how to teach a lesson. Teachers, then, are both gatekeepers and classroom policymakers.
State and local decision-makers can promote innovations and predict splendid outcomes in their policy talk. They can adopt policies that offer shrunken versions of the hyperbolic policy talk, and they can even mandate that teachers put these adopted policies into classroom lessons. Beyond mandates, incentives, or even threats, however, they can do no more. Age-graded school structures with separate classrooms assigned to individual teachers in of themselves both isolate and insulate teachers—remember those doors that can be closed—from their bosses. Teachers retain limited autonomy.
No state superintendent of education or official in the state department, no district superintendent or central office administrator, even the school principal can predict, be certain of, or verify that teachers are teaching (and students are learning) what they are supposed to. Thus, teachers are “street-level bureaucrats” who decide what’s best for their students every day.
In short, what happens in classrooms is loosely tied to what goals and policies the state determines, school districts desire, and principals expect to happen. Teachers decide what occurs in their lessons once the tardy bell rings. These age-graded structures and the rules that govern them—daily schedules, taking attendance, periodic tests, nightly homework, report cards, waiting one’s turn, permission to go to bathroom, honor rolls–are called the “grammar of schooling.”
That “grammar of schooling” shapes how and what teachers teach and students learn. Its direction is conservationist in keeping the school looking like a “real” school that parents and grandparents attended. Yet over time as policy-driven reforms have spilled over public schools that “grammar” has incrementally changed.
- Most major reforms come from outside the schools. These externally-driven reforms stem from larger political, social, and economic problems that policy elites believe schools can ameliorate if not solve. Existing goals, policies, and practiuces change incrementally as the abiding “grammar of schooling” tames reforms aimed at overhauling schools.
Policy elites, for example, drafted public schools in the late-1950s to make America stronger during the Cold War with the Soviet Union by churning out more scientists and mathematicians. When weak economic growth and stiff economic competition with Japan and Germany occurred during the 1970s, civic and business leaders urged schools to create more “human capital”— academically prepared students who could score higher on international tests and enter the job market prepared for a post-industrial America. In the early decades of the 21st century, having schools become vehicles for reducing societal inequities (e.g., re-segregation of schools in most cities, expanding numbers of minority teachers in schools with mostly white faculties; end tracking in secondary schools) and increasing social justice (e.g., curricula that stress defects in capitalism and how racial and economic oppression operates in the U.S) has been on reformers’ agendas. The history of school reform in 20th century America, then, is a history of policy elites “educationalizing” societal problems and claiming fundamental changes when only incremental ones occurred.
The rhetoric of “fundamental” reform and selective policy adoption did happen but seldom to the degree that reformers in each generation sought for alterations in what teachers taught. None of the advertised “fundamental” reforms, however, altered the existing “grammar of schooling.”
4. In most instances, what happens to externally-driven policies is that schools and teachers adapt the often over-hyped instructional innovation, curricular addition, or organizational change to the contours of the local age-graded school.
More, faster, and better teaching and learning through technology, for example, began with placing one computer on a teacher’s desk in the early 1980s, then locating desktop computers in libraries then setting up separate computer labs and eventually buying laptops for each student. Now in 2020, classroom carts with 25-30 tablet computers are stacked and ready for student use in most classrooms. Yet dominant ways of teachers organizing classes, arranging activities, and teaching lessons continue as before but now they use devices and software to achieve the same ends. In short, schools adopt reforms and adapt them to fit the prevailing “grammar of schooling” embedded in age-graded schools.
5. There are also internally-driven reforms initiated by administrators and teachers. Without fanfare and below media radar, bottom-up governmental, organizational, curricular, and instructional changes have altered many aspects of schooling.
From teacher-run schools to block scheduling of the school day, to teacher-initiated courses, to teachers adapting lessons–changes have happened unnoticed by mainstream media because they are done over time with no drum rolls or press releases. None of these bottom-up changes, however, significantly modified the age-graded school and its “grammar of schooling.”
6. Most external and internal reforms occur in schooling largely through incrementalism.
That has been the prevailing pattern of change in public schools, not fundamental change (e.g., shifting from property taxes to fund public schools; replacing age-graded structures with ones that end the current “grammar of schooling”; replacing teacher-centered with student-centered instruction; ending segregated schools). Such overhauls have been attempted but seldom have stuck in schools to the continual disappointment of fervent reformers. Policymakers and entrepreneurs often use the rhetoric of fundamental change, but end up with downsized policy versions of the changes they seek.When put into practice, they become incremental replacements (e.g., the new math, new biology, and new physics curricula in the 1960s turn into different textbooks for students).
When fundamental changes in schools do actually occur, more often than not, they come from beyond the schoolhouse door such as the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education that ended de jure racial segregation in U.S. schools yet for decades political coalitions blocked desegregation plans until the U.S. Supreme Court decided upon the constitutionality of each plan incrementalizing the court decision. And since the 1990s, state and local inaction has led to de facto segregation in most cities and suburbs. Or Katrina, a hurricane that fundamentally altered New Orleans schools drastically has triggered a reconfigured public school system of nearly all charter schools. Yet these charter schools remain age-graded and practice the familiar “grammar of schooling.”
Incrementalism differs. In small steps over years, instruction, curriculum, school organization, and governance changes. Over the past century, classroom lessons that relied wholly on whole-group instruction have shifted slowly to a mix of whole-group, small-group activities, and independent student work. Curricular additions from Advanced Placement courses to ethnic studies to sex education have been added to high school courses. Expanded school organization now includes pre-schoolers. Since the 1990s many urban high schools are around 500 students rather than the usual 1500 or more students. Standardized testing of students has increased. Even in funding and governing public schools, charter schools and mayoral control of big city school systems have gradually spread since the 1990s across the educational terrain. And do not forget the cultural changes in dress, attitudes toward drugs and sex that slowly unfolded during and after the 1960s showing up in schools as female teachers wearing jeans instead of dresses, male teachers no longer wearing ties and sports coats, teachers drinking coffee in class, and displaying far more informality in classrooms than in the 1950s.
Many of these incremental changes have no noticeable direction toward a long-term goal. They pop up when societal and governmental pressures from business and civic leaders, taxpayers, parents, and practitioners call for certain changes (e.g., more state tests, altering attendance boundaries, adding ethnic studies courses to curriculum, increasing 45-minute classes to hour-long ones).
Such small steps, more often than not, do not add up to a fundamental change. A long-term vision of making small changes that will move classrooms, schools, or districts in a clear direction to overhaul the existing structures and activities is rare. It is uncommon because cultural changes in the larger society seldom occur in one fell swoop. Few tectonic plates shift dramatically; movement is in inches and feet.
There are, of course, occasional teachers who moved from teacher-centered to student-centered instruction over a decade. Just as there are schools where once students moved in lockstep progression from one teacher-directed activity to another to schools where students make independent choices, work closely with peers, and see their teachers as coaches. And there are districts that, over time, in bite-sized increments move from rigid top-down policymaking to more decentralized decisions that include principals and teachers in formulating, adopting, and implementing new ideas (e.g., Long Beach Unified School District, California). Incrementalism can be patchy, fragmentary and direction-less or it can be, over time, a collaborative movement inching toward a desired goal.
SUMMARY OF ARGUMENT
In moving from goals to policy to classroom practice, stability and change have marked tax-supported public schools in the U.S. for two centuries. American schools and classroom teaching have been fashioned by social, political and organizational factors. Local dependence upon property taxes and the decentralized system of school governance and funding in the past two centuries have accounted for economic and racial inequities in schooling. The perennial age-graded district school with its “grammar of schooling” has been the unswerving vehicle for adopting, adapting, and implementing state and local goals and policies into classroom lessons. Finally, the constant flow of problems in the larger society–including huge gaps in the distribution of wealth and grossly unequal funding of schools–has created patterns in school reform that often get converted into ad hoc incremental changes to improve both schools and society. Reform-minded policymakers, parents, practitioners, and researchers have to understand these three forces before undertaking what they would characterize as meaningful and substantive changes in goals, policies, and classroom practices.