A Pivotal Moment for U.S. and Public Schools? (Part 2)

Do individuals like you and me know for sure at the time something occurred that it was momentous, a historic turning point in the flow of events and individual lives. Probably not.

After all, it is only in retrospect–after the future becomes the present–that people look back at prior events and then can pinpoint something that occurred as pivotal. Surely, in 1859 when John Brown attacked the U.S. armory at Harper’s Ferry (VA) to get weapons to lead a slave rebellion, neither he nor most Americans knew that his actions (for which he was put to death) became instrumental in launching the Civil War over a year later.

Some other examples of not knowing when an event is a turning point:

When silversmith Paul Revere set out on his midnight ride on April 18, 1775 to alert militias in Lexington and Concord that British regulars were marching toward them to destroy stockpiled munitions, he surely did not know that the next morning’s events would be the beginning of the end of the 13 British colonies with a Declaration of Independence the following year and a war that lasted until 1783 leading to the formation of the United States of America.

The initial people infected with the coronavirus in Wuhan, China in late-2019 did not know that authorities would lockdown the city of 11 million as Covid-19 swept across neighborhoods. And then listening to the President of the United States in January and February 2020 when he publicly said that the virus would go away when it got warmer gave no hint or even act as if it was a major event until mid-March. Since then it has surely become a serious moment in his presidency.

And so I would make the same point about turning points for climate change, U.S. democracy, and tax-supported public schooling. Observers a decade or more from now would be in a far better position to determine what was or was not a pivotal moment.

Are we now, then, in a pivotal moment for serious federal, state, and local action on climate change? Yes, I believe so.

Climate Change

The frequency and intensity of fires, hurricanes, and floods in the U.S. in 2019 and 2020 added up to more than a dozen billion-dollar weather calamities.

Moreover, 2020 public opinion polls register a majority to nearly two-thirds of Americans who believe that “global warming is caused mostly by human activity” (57%) and “is affecting the weather” (64%). And 63% of Americans said they were “worried about global warming.” Furthermore, both awareness and concern over climate change have increased over time

Climate change deniers (see here and here) say these wildfires, hurricanes, and rising waters are instances of an unusual year, not the result of human activity that has caused rises in the planet’s temperature leading to increased numbers of extreme weather events.

In 2030 or beyond, observers may look back on 2020 as a pivot point in the U.S.’s current posture of official denial of scientific studies that have established strong evidence of climate change. Since 2020, federal, state, and local political leaders did move ahead with a Green New Deal, cap-and trade laws, and sharp expansion of renewable energy measures–all to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and lower the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. By 2030, the terminology may well have changes and extreme weather events will now have an adjective: Climate fires, climate, hurricanes, and climate floods.

Decline of democracy

Today democracies don’t die at the hands of generals, but at the hands of elected leaders–presidents, prime ministers…. Many citizens are not fully aware of what’s happening until it is too late.”

The argument many frightened citizens, political scientists, business leaders, and lawmakers put forth is that forces at work in the U.S. for decades–the colossal economic divide in income and wealth between rich, middle class, and poor; political divide of citizenry into “red” and “blue” states; whether to wear a mask of not during the pandemic; questions about the legitimacy of elected leaders–are undermining U.S. democratic norms and practices. The current White House occupant’s attacks on the legitimacy of mail-in and absentee ballots for the November election, media (“fake news”), and slow-footed response to the Covid-19 pandemic that has killed 200,000 Americans are illustrations of these long-simmering issues in democratic governance. These current conditions make the 2020 election a pivot point in the life of this 231 year-old democracy.

Reform of public schooling

Standardized tests will not disappear. The entrenched mindset of both Democrat and Republican state and federal legislators, most parents, and taxpayers is that some kind of standardized test is essential to determine how well students show they have grasped required content and skills. What kind of test and its uses for policymakers, administrators, teachers, parents, and students remain contested but will persist nonetheless.

That mindset goes back to the mid-1980s when state governments established curriculum standards and tests to measure achievement of those standards. With No Child Left Behind (2002-2015) and Every Student Succeeds Act (2016-) standardized tests remain crucial even with all of the drawbacks described above. Yes, public support for standardized tests has slipped–especially in the gasping final years of NCLB–still overall, opinion polls document that the public wants some form of tests for students to demonstrate academic achievement (see here and here). And an infrastructure for those laws continues to exist. What is clear from the available evidence is that this infrastructure remains unchallenged in 2020 by those seeking to reform public schools.

Here’s a brief look at that unchallenged infrastructure:

Organization of U.S. schooling

The age-graded school remains the “real” school that nearly all Americans take for granted. The age-graded school contains within it what David Tyack and I have called “the grammar of schooling.” And that “grammar” shapes both student and teacher behaviors while meeting the expectations of parents and taxpayers.

I have neither seen nor heard of attempts to upend or alter this form of school organization.

Curriculum and its assessment

The embrace of the Common Core curriculum across the nation since 2010 has been nearly complete. Apart from suggested course additions such as courses on ethnic studies, social justice, both of which have been on some reformers’ agendas prior to the pandemic), I have yet to see plans to alter that embrace.

If anything, the re-opening of schools dependent upon remote instruction means that teachers and students will surely follow each state’s and district’s version of the Common Core.

As for assessment, district-wide and teacher-made assessments, both to determine what has been learned, will continue geared to the Common Core content and skills. And so will standardized tests persist after the pandemic ends.

Classroom instruction

The on-the-dime turn of U.S. schools from in-person lessons to online instruction surely seems like a precursor to extensive classroom reform once the pandemic ends. Because of dominant beliefs in standardized testing and grades harnessed to the organizational “grammar of schooling” embedded in the age-graded school described above, however, I do not foresee any dramatic shift in how teachers teach.

Yes, I believe that there will be more online instruction because now nearly all students will have access to devices both at school and at home. And the year-long forced experiment in distance instruction will have given both teachers and students experience in use of the medium. As most teachers have created hybrids of Progressive and traditional instructional activities, many teachers can (and will) incorporate online instruction into their existing teaching repertoire such as students doing independent and small group work. But it will not become the mainstream way of schooling American children simply because of the pandemic experience with online teaching has shaped at least one generation’s view of the limits of such instruction and the importance of face-to-face instruction and social interaction. More important is the role of public schools to do so much more (e.g., socialization, custodial) than cover required content and skills.

Contrary to climate change and democracy being at pivotal points in the history of the U.S., I do not see public schooling sharing that moment.


Filed under Reforming schools

4 responses to “A Pivotal Moment for U.S. and Public Schools? (Part 2)

  1. jeffreybowen

    Especially in view of your interpretation of Paul Rrvere’s ride, Malcolm Gladwell’s book THE TIPPING POINT is must reading.

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