So What? The Importance of Knowing about “Success” and “Failure” in American Schools (Part 1)

The next few posts are drawn from the final chapter of “Chasing Success and Confronting Failure in American Schools.” The book is scheduled to come out in March 2020.

So What?

Why should readers care about defining individual and institutional “success” and “failure” in U.S. schools? Why should readers care about the past and present existence of American core values stuffed with notions of “success” and “failure” and how schools transmit these values? Finally, why should readers care about two uncommon public schools (MetWest High School in Oakland, California and Social Justice Humanitas Academy in Los Angeles Unified District) that display these shared values and yet expand familiar definitions of organizational “success” in ways that most U.S. schools do not?

My answer to these “So What” questions is that definitions of institutional and individual “success” and “failure” applied to U.S. schools show up daily in the taken-for-granted institution called the age-graded school. Within the age-graded school, judgments of “success” and “failure” are inherent in student, teacher, principal, school board, and superintendent actions, memos, and social media. In age-graded schools numbers and subjective decisions identify winners and losers through student report cards, teacher evaluations, and district accountability ratings.

But even of greater importance is that amid this organization’s extraordinary stability in American life, over a century of school reform has tried to overhaul it, even replacing the institution to make it better at what it does and end damaging judgments rendered upon children, teachers, and schools.

For nearly two centuries, this school organization has been both the disseminator of societal definitions of “success” and “failure” and displays of individualism, community, and equal opportunity. The age-graded school with its “grammar of schooling” has had a vise-like grip on how and what teachers teach and students learn. Determining individual winners and losers from kindergarten through twelfth grade, distinguishing between those who are normal from those who deviate from the standard, those who gets promoted and those who goes to summer school are inherent to this organizational structure and the rules that govern it. Persistent efforts aimed at substantially altering what happens in schools and classrooms, especially those with mostly children of color, have crashed on the shoals of the age-graded organization and its abiding “grammar of schooling.” Intermittent reform efforts to transform this organization through alternative forms of school organization, individualizing instruction through new technologies, and nifty management techniques again and again have lost their way or faded into the background seldom diminishing popular support for this age-old structure.

So my answer to “So What?” is that if (and yes, this is a big “if”) one wants to understand individual and organizational “success” and “failure” in American daily life, if one wants to alter common patterns of schooling, teaching, and learning that sort student winners from losers, then what has to be done is substantially alter the age-graded school and its “grammar of schooling.”

In the Introduction and Chapter 3 I have briefly described and analyzed the age-graded school and repeated reform attempts to rework that organization and its underlying “grammar of schooling.” Yet the fact remains that the age-graded school’s capacity to school hundreds of millions of children and youth for nearly two centuries, its longevity and its global ubiquity–I would be stingy to avoid the word—has been a clear institutional “success.”

This school organization has stayed the course for decades because of its universal access and strong popular support generation after generation. It is anchored in the American imagination and culture as a “real school” where young children attend at age 5 (now ages 3 and 4 in many districts) and leave at ages 17 or 18. It is the place where American values are displayed and taught.[i]

Nearly all Americans have gone through public or private age-graded schools. Strangers on airplanes and buses can connect when they talk about their schools. They remember how a school smells and looks. They still complain about school lunches. They can recount their best and worst teachers. Report cards, honor rolls, tests, and homework are as common as eating scrambled eggs and toast for breakfast. Yet the age-graded school is neither an iconic nor admired organization such as Ford and IBM were and Apple, Amazon, and Google have become.

No song or poem has immortalized the age-graded school. Still, it remains the most influential institutional mechanism that shapes for good or ill children’s knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behavior over a dozen or more years. Ditto for those adults who work within these organizations.

As pointed out earlier, reforms aimed at improving how it works have poured over the age-graded school and it has changed over time. Adding kindergarten and pre-kindergarten to the elementary school and increasingly community colleges to the secondary level has led to near-universal access into this institution. Accommodating children with disabilities, giftedness, and educational disadvantages who deviated from the norm, the age-graded school has demonstrated flexibility by responding to political coalitions of parents and activists who fought for the above changes.

But abandoning the organization or moving to non-graded schools are fundamental changes, not incremental ones, and have been rare over the past century. Thus, the stunning continuity and popular acceptance of the age-graded school means that the “grammar of schooling,” has remained in intact.


[i] The phrase “real school” comes from Mary Metz, “Real School: A Universal Drama Amid Disparate Experiences,” Journal of Education Policy, 1989, 4(5), pp. 75-91.

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

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