So What? The Importance of Knowing about “Success” and “Failure” in American Schools (Part 2)

No one interested in school reform from either the political right, center, or left can come to grips with changing tax-supported public schools without fully understanding the centrality of the age-graded school organization and its “grammar of schooling.” For within that organization and the rules, norms, and social beliefs that govern daily life are definitions of “success” and “failure” that dominate both teacher and student actions six or more hours a day, five days a week, and 36 weeks a year.And have done so for nearly two centuries.

This excerpt comes from the final chapter of my forthcoming book: Chasing Success and Confronting Failure in America Schools.”

David Tyack and I defined the phrase “grammar of schooling” in this way.

By the ‘grammar’ of schooling we mean the regular structures and rules that organize the work of instruction. Here we have in mind, for example, standardized organizational practices in dividing time and space, classifying students and allocating them to classrooms, and splintering knowledge into “subjects”. Continuity in the grammar of instruction has frustrated generations of reformers who have sought to change these standardized organizational forms. [i]

What is the connection between a “grammar of schooling” and linguistic grammar? Both have structures and rules that are seldom made explicit. Both operate in regular patterns. Neither has to be consciously specified to run smoothly.

Regularities, the essence of a “grammar of schooling,” govern age-graded schools. Students are divided by ages from pre-kindergarten through senior high school. In elementary schools, a single teacher in a classroom teaches the content and skills in five or more subjects prescribed for that grade. Students stay with that teacher most of the school day. The teacher judges the performance and behavior of each student deciding which will be promoted or retained for the next grade. [ii]

The comprehensive high school is also age-graded—ninth graders are mostly 14 years old and seniors are 18 or so. Organized into departments, subject-matter teachers take attendance, assign homework, enter grades in report cards and determine whether a student passes or fails.

Then there is the Carnegie Unit, a defining feature of the high school. The Carnegie Unit is a single credit awarded for each academic subject based upon time spent sitting in classrooms for a school year. Beginning in the ninth grade, the number of academic credits a student collects is counted toward graduation.[iii]

What has kept the “grammar of schooling” in place for so long?

The answer to the question is straightforward. Popular social beliefs that the age-graded school, free to all, is a “real school.” It rewards merit and provides a ladder to achieve personal “success” for generation after generation of children and youth.

This trust in the school as a meritocracy where the smartest and hardest working students will garner kudos is pervasive. Of equal importance is the widespread belief among parents that schools are escalators to financial and social “success.” Social mobility is an aspiration of both native-born and immigrant parents for their sons and daughters. Getting diplomas and degrees from public schools and colleges is the way for each individual to “succeed” in society. Taxpayers and voters expect schools toinstill and display these values. This web of social beliefs has sustained the age-graded school even when concerted reform efforts sought to alter the “grammar of schooling.”[iv]

A second reason for the durability of the “grammar of schooling” is that state and district curriculum standards, tests, and accountability mechanisms are fastened to the age-graded school. State standards are grade and subject specific spelling out what content and skills should be learned in first grade and tenth grade, for example. No Child Left Behind (2001-2015) tested students in math and reading in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school. These policies continue in the Every Student Succeeds Act (2016- ) but leave decisions to state not federal officials. These state and federal policies act as an iron cage reinforcing popular beliefs that the age-graded school and its pervasive “grammar” are a ”real school” and the only way to educate the next generation.

Efforts to change the “grammar of schooling.” These powerful social beliefs have persisted before, during, and after major challenges to the age-graded school occurred. In the early 20th century, for example, reformers attempted to break the tight grip of the elementary age-graded school and the “grammar of schooling.” The Dalton Plan in a small Massachusetts town and the Winnetka Plan in an affluent Chicago suburb (see Chapter 1) sought to individualize instruction to fit the strengths and limitations of each student. In individual contracts between teachers and students (the Dalton Plan) and in the Winnetka Plan that dispensed with age-grading teachers taught differently. And in doing so, the Plan tried to reduce the untoward classroom effects of the “grammar of schooling.” Each of these reforms did gain a foothold in U.S. schools, spread, but ultimately disappeared. [v]

For high schools, a similar pattern occurred. Initially, selective public high schools appeared in the 17th century in New England (the Boston Latin Grammar School was founded in 1635). By the early 19th century, the handful of these elite schools attended by students from affluent families, grew larger as tax-supported public high schools opened on the eastern seaboard. The innovation spread through New England and the Midwest before and after the Civil War. Few families sent their sons and daughters to these schools since the workplace and farm provided jobs for those leaving school at ages 12 and up. In the 1890s, for example, only one out of ten 17 year-olds was enrolled in a tax-supported public high school. [vi]

But with child labor laws being enforced and the onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s, youth stayed in school. Administrative and pedagogical Progressives created the comprehensive high school with multiple curricula and services for all students, not just those academically inclined (about 30 of 100 seventeen year-olds graduated in 1930). This innovative organization—still age-graded– made it possible for most American teenagers to enter the ninth grade and get a diploma by the end of the 12th grade. By 1950, nearly 60 of 100 seventeen year olds graduated.[vii]

With the spike in enrollments and rising graduation rates in districts with comprehensive high schools, concerns over too much catering to students’ varied interests and sinking academic performance surfaced in the 1950s leading critics to question the thoroughness of the high school curriculum and softening of standards. Few students, for example, took advanced math courses, physics, and Latin compared to selective high schools in the early decades of the 20th century. Criticism of U.S. high schools mounted particularly after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision triggered protests over segregated schools across the country. The Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 also sparked a U.S. curricular reaction in the New Math, and an array of innovative science courses. Top policymakers and power elites began asking whether U.S. high schools could be both excellent and equal—a question that is still being asked and sidestepped in 2019.

That question fueled the next half-century of reform. During the 1960s and 1970s educational policymakers responding to political and social tremors in the culture shuttled back-and-forth trying to equally conserve values and alter society while accommodating both excellence and equity. Civic and business leaders pressed policymakers to increase equal opportunity through busing to desegregate schools, opening up advanced classes to all students, and relaxing graduation requirements. But a slow growing economy and rising discontent over Germany and Japan outselling U.S. companies in the 1970s led a later generation of business, civic, and educational reformers to press schools to turn out skilled graduates who could enter the workplace able to compete with workers in other nations.

The A Nation at Risk report (1983) in scorching language pointed to low graduation requirements, soft academic subjects, and U.S. students’ poor scores on international tests.[viii]

That report and subsequent policy actions in the 1980s and 1990s ended up with nearly all states increasing their graduation requirements and tightening academics in the comprehensive high school. This pattern of seeking academic excellence for everyone without limiting opportunity for heretofore neglected groups has remained a tenet of school reformers for the past half-century.

No Child Left Behind (2001-2015), a bipartisan federal law, and its successor Every Student Succeeds (2016- ) continue the mantra that both excellence and equity can be achieved in U.S. public schools. Of course, both excellence and equity have drawn (and continue to do so) deeply from core American values of individualism and equal opportunity. No surprise to readers, then, that these state and federal education laws made regulations and provided money to districts across the nation that were spent in, yes, age-graded schools. These curricular and regulatory reforms including more student tests ended up reinforcing the age-graded high school and instead of loosening the “grammar of schooling,” it added steel bars. [ix]


[i]David Tyack and Larry Cuban, Tinkering toward Utopia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), p. 85.

 [ii] Decades ago, Seymour Sarason called my attention to the taken-for-granted “regularities” that dominate public schools in The Culture of the School and the Problem of Change (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1971).

 [iii] The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, “What is the Carnegie Unit? “ at:

[iv] Megan Brennan, “Seven in 10 Parents Satisfied with Their Child’s Education,” Gallup News Alerts, August 27, 2018 at:

David Cohen and Barbara Neufeld, “The Failure of High Schools and the Progress of Education,” Daedalus, 1981, 110(3), pp. 69-89.

 [v] Frank Grittner, “Individualized Instruction: An Historical Perspective,” The Modern Language Journal, 1975, 59(7), pp. 323-333; Wikipedia, “Dalton Plan” at:

[vi] William Reese, The Origins of the American High School (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999).

 [vii] Cohen and Neufeld, p. 75.

 [viii] National Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk, 1983 at:

[ix] Jack Schneider, Excellence for All (Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 2011). Historians of education David Tyack and Diane Ravitch, from contrasting perspectives, have documented reforms of the late-20th century in their books. See: David Tyack and Larry Cuban, Tinkering toward Utopia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995) and Diane Ravitch, Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reform (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000).


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

2 responses to “So What? The Importance of Knowing about “Success” and “Failure” in American Schools (Part 2)

  1. Pingback: Parent Who Criticized His Son's Math Program Is Sued By Curriculum Company - Dynamic Math Classroom

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