Resilient Public Schools: Bright and Dark Sides (Part 4)

Why have U.S. public schools rebounded from natural disasters like Covid-19?

Answer: Americans’ social beliefs both in the importance of schooling, what a “real” school looks like, and the long-term efficiency of the age-graded school organization with its “grammar of schooling” explain why public schools gradually reopened its doors.

American confidence in tax-supported schools giving all children an equal shot at getting educated (albeit marred by continuing inequalities), receiving a diploma, and entering the labor market has been sustained through economic booms and busts, through war and peace, through closures from disasters and reopenings. [1]

While public support for tax-supported schools has wavered over the decades, it remains a trusted institution that a majority of parents support. In answer to the question: How satisfied are you with the quality of education your oldest child is receiving? Since 1999, the percentage ranged from a low of 68 percent to a high of 82 percent in 2019 saying they were “completely” or “Somewhat Satisfied.” Parents registered a drop from 2019 to 2020—the poll was done during the pandemic—of 10 points, from 82 to 72 percent satisfied.[2]

Public confidence in schools is embedded in the common picture held by most Americans of what a “real” school is like. A “real” elementary school, for example, has a teacher for each grade who manages and teaches the group for up to six hours a day. In a “real” school, students listen to teacher directions, and become literate in language and arithmetic.  A “real” elementary school has a playground, lunchroom, and allows a morning and afternoon recess for the children. Between kindergarten and the sixth grade, children follow school rules, learn to negotiate the system of explicit and implicit norms, do homework, pass tests, and graduate to the next level of schooling.

A “real” high school has daily schedules for students to attend 50-60 minute periods of instruction. In a “real” high school, subject-matter teachers stand at their doors in long hallways as students pass from one class to another; teachers sit behind a desk as students enter to study algebra, English, biology, Spanish, or history. Teachers lecture, guide large group discussions, and have small groups work on academic tasks. Textbooks, homework, and tests are ubiquitous. After school clubs and sports engage students once the final period of the day ends. That is what a “real” high school is. These features of elementary and secondary “real” schools is what historians of education have called the “grammar of schooling.”[3]

Of course, in the U.S.’s decentralized system of schooling, there is much variation in how much money is spent per student, age and architecture of buildings, the racial and ethnic makeup of the student body, and other differences. Amid those variations, nonetheless, tax-supported schools historically have grown into a standardized “real” elementary and secondary school across the nation.

Initially, in urban schools by 1900 and then across consolidated rural schools by the 1960s, age-graded school organization with its basic rules and norms guiding both teachers and students through the school year became dominant. In that half-century, the eight-year grammar school has morphed into over 100,000 age-graded public schools that now enroll 4 year olds to 18 year-old graduating seniors.  Student careers that once were limited to a few months a year attending one-room schoolhouses now spend 13-15 years in age-graded organizations. [4]

Reformers have attacked this age-graded structure and its “grammar of schooling” repeatedly for the ways it isolates and insulates teachers and students from one another, establishes standardized behavioral and academic norms, encourages competition for letter grades, and moves students in lockstep through elementary and secondary schools. Yet continued American confidence in “real” schools continues thereby explaining, in part, the resiliency of this institution since the mid-19th century.

While former President Donald Trump and current President Joe Biden called for schools across the country to reopen (their White House pronouncements were no more than exhortations since U.S. Presidents cannot order public schools to either shut or open their doors). The process was slow, bumpy, and marked by two steps forward, one step backward.

Neither the White House nor any national agency offered scientifically sound guidance for in-person classrooms in 2020.  The lack of reliable knowledge on the virus and course of disease combined to political and economic pressure from parents, state officials, and employers within a thoroughly dispersed system of national schooling surely account in part for the sporadic and helter-skelter reopenings that did occur.[5]

No one can ignore the fact that U.S. public schools are decentralized.   In nearly all 50 states (except Hawaii) responsible for schooling the young delegate each state delegates its operational authority to school districts. Thus, there are now 13,000-plus districts in the U.S. (there were 200,000 in 1910) that use federal, state, and local funds to operate schools as they see fit. Given this official system of decentralization, some states and districts reopened completely, others stuck to remote instruction for the entire school year, and even others shifted to a hybrid approach.Yet schools did reopen to both applause and criticism. [6]

So within a society where public confidence in a decentralized system of tax-supported schools continues to run high, where high expectations reign for what “real” schools can do for both the nation and individual students, a national pandemic shuttered the economy and closed community institutions. Schools—with all of their strengths and inequalities–slowly and steadily rebounded in 2021 from this once-in-a century crisis. They are resilient institutions.

Such signs of resiliency as the capacity for absorbing unplanned and planned changes, regaining stability after natural disasters, continued innovations under uncertainty, and withstanding hardships–clearly emerged as this institution slowly returned to its familiar organization, Common Core curriculum, and customary instruction.

The dark side of resiliency

Up to now I have implicitly suggested that institutional resiliency is positive. Businesses, universities, health care systems that adapt to adversity, bounce back from disasters, and retain their flexibility are seen as stalwart institutions that serve patrons well. That many schools have recovered and now have in-person instruction across the nation surely is a plus for the economy and parents who sought relief from being at-home teachers.

But there are negatives to resiliency as well.

Constant and unrealistic talk of what public schools can do to improve society undermines confidence in what public schools can do. Since the end of the 19th century, for example, fervent reformers have repeatedly called for public schools to be agents of societal change. By educating children the “right” way—the word is in quote marks because visions and versions of “right” differed then and now—schools can banish community ills, solve national problems, and create a better society. Such dogged visions for schooling to alter the community and larger society have been ultimately disappointing in results. Worse yet, such rhetoric has bred cynicism about what schools can actually do.

When John Dewey said In his “Pedagogic Creed” (1897), “I believe that education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform,” he called for schooling to be an instrument for large change in society. That call has remained a bedrock belief among Progressive reformers since the 1920s. [7]

When President Lyndon Johnson drafted the nation’s schools in ending poverty in the mid-1960s—think The Elementary and Secondary Education Act—the belief among White House and top policymakers was that better schools can move poor boys and girls into the middle class and make a “Great Society.” [8]

Certainly schools educate individual children but they can also turn those children into adult reformers who lead the march to a better, more equal society. Today, calls for schools to press for social justice continue the Deweyan rhetoric.[9]

In addition to decades of unfulfilled rhetoric and empty words eroding confidence in what tax-supported schools can do, the “dark side of resiliency” also points to excessive patience with, even neglect of, severe institutional problems that have needed attention but in the name of maintaining political and social stability have gone untreated much less unsolved.

Consider that the history of educational and economic inequalities in American society that pervade U.S. public schools has been documented since the Civil War. The civil rights movement during the 1950s to 1970s, for example, resulted in federal court decisions and legislation ending legal segregation and many Jim Crow practices. Yet residential segregation continues in the 21st century reproducing segregated neighborhoods and schools in both cities and suburbs. So when data show that Black children are five times as likely than white children to attend schools that are highly segregated by race and ethnicity or that Black children are more than twice as likely than white children to enroll in high-poverty schools, few expresse surprise over this fact, a truth that has been around for over a century? [10]

Persistent patience with racial, ethnic, and social class differences in America becomes all too tangible when one confronts the three tiered school system that had become apparent for decades. Even after federal and state legislation, philanthropic infusions of dollars, and much wringing of hands, this durable segregated system of schooling remains painfully obvious to current policymakers, parents, and practitioners. So another negative to resiliency is apologetic forbearance with inequalities that are plain to see, such as the nation’s three-tier system of public schooling..

Top-tier schools—about 10 percent of all U.S. schools–such as selective urban high schools in New York, Boston, and San Francisco and schools in mostly affluent suburbs such as New Trier High School (IL), Beverly Hills (CA), Fairfax County (VA) meet or exceed national and state curriculum standards. They head lists of high-scoring districts in their respective states. These schools send nearly all of their graduates to four-year colleges and universities.

Second-tier schools—about 60 percent of all schools often located in inner-ring suburbs (e.g., T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, VA) often meet and occasionally exceed state standards and send most of their graduating seniors to college. But, on occasion, they slip in and out of compliance with federal and state accountability rules, get dinged, and continue on their way as second-tier schools.

Then there is the third tier of schools located in big cities such as Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Detroit, St. Louis, and Atlanta where largely poor and minority families live. Most schools in these cities are low-performing and frequently on the brink of closure. Occasionally, stellar principals and staffs will lift such schools into the second tier but that is uncommon.

Such a three-tier system in the U.S, rife with inequalities, maintains social stability yet, and this is a mighty big “yet,” good teachers and schools even in the lowest tier of schools can promote positive intellectual, behavioral, and social change in many children and youth.

Because the three-tiered system of schooling has existed for well over a century, it has had a persevering resiliency that has withstood federal, state, and philanthropic interventions. An abiding example of stable inequality that continues into the 21st century.

Even during calls for transforming academically low-performing schools into citadels of high performance—such as occurred during the Obama years (2009-2017), the three-tiered system plodded on. Because of residential segregation and inadequate state and federal funding, inequalities are preserved in amber within the three-tier system of U.S. schooling, an arrangement that has soldiered on revealing the  dark side of resiliency.[11]

Unflagging rhetoric promising that schools can reform society has endured for decades as had the three-tier system of schooling that marks American society. These tenacious, futile fantasies of schools overhauling society and abiding patience with unequal schooling structures make up the dark side of resiliency.

*******************************

Yes, public schools have survived major disruptions ranging from hurricanes, floods, blizzards, and pandemics. Yes, they are resilient institutions that have contributed socially, economically, and politically to a stable American society for nearly two centuries. Both in the past and present, school districts drafted the technologies of the day to provide schooling during and after natural disasters. 

In the most recent disruption, public schools have bounced back from Covid-19 as students, parents, and employers welcome reopened schools in 2021. Tax-supported public schools are surely resilient institutions in both positive and negative ways.

With all of their imperfections, public schools remain high in public regard as they once again adapted to emergencies and adopted new ways of teaching and learning including remote instruction. While schools rapidly reorganized teaching by pivoting to distance instruction, no district has seriously considered reorganizing the century and a half old model of schooling, the age-graded school. And that structure remains steadfast and central to the conduct of schooling in 2021. A final sign of enduring resiliency.


[1] Gallup, “In Depth Topics A to Z: Education; Satisfaction with K-12 Education in the U.S.” at: https://news.gallup.com/poll/1612/education.aspx

[2]Gallup, “In Depth Topics A to Z: Education; Satisfaction with K-12 Education in the U.S.” at: https://news.gallup.com/poll/1612/education.aspx

[3] Mary Metz, “Real School: A Universal Drama amid Disparate Experience, Journal of Education Policy, 4(5), pp. 75-91; David Tyack and Larry Cuban, Tinkering toward Utopia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995).

[4] William Fischel, “Neither ‘Creatures of the State’ nor ‘Accidents of Geography’: The Creation of American Public School Districts in the Twentieth Century,” University of Chicago Law Review . 2010, 77 (1), p177-199.

[5] Derek Thompson, “The Whole Truth about Kids, School, and Covid-19,” The Atlantic, January 28, 2021; Susan Dominus, “Where the Schools Stayed Open,” New York Times Magazine, February 14, 2021, pp. 32-40.

[6] David Cohen and James Spillane, “Policy and Practice: The Relations between Governance and Instruction,” Review if Research in Education, 1992, 18, pp. 3-49; John Meyer, et. al., “Centralization, Fragmentation, and School District Complexity,” Administrative Science Quarterly, 1987, 32(2), pp. 186-201; the 200,000 school districts in 1910 come from Fischel, “Neither ‘Creatures of the State’ nor ‘Accidents of Geography’: The Creation of American Public School Districts in the Twentieth Century.

[7] John Dewey, “My Pedagogic Creed,” School Journal, 1897, pp. 77-80 at: http://dewey.pragmatism.org/creed.htm

CITE FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE SCHOOLS

[8] Wikipedia, “The Great Society,” at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Society

[9] Brenda Alvarez,, “Why Social Justice in Schools Matter,” neaToday , January 22, 2019 at: https://www.nea.org/advocating-for-change/new-from-nea/why-social-justice-school-matters

Jeanine Harmon, “Social Justice: A Whole-School Approach,” Edutopia, February 18, 2015;Crystal Belle, “What Is Social Justice Education Anyway?” Education Week, January 23, 2019.

[10] Horace Mann Bond, Negro Education in Alabama: A Study in Cotton and Steel (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1994); James Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935 (Chapel Hill, NC:: University of North Carolina Press,  1988). Emma Garcia, “Schools Are Still Segregated, and Black Children Are Paying the Price, “ Economic Policy Institute, February 12, 2020.

[11] Grace Chen,  “What Is the Race To the Top and How Will It Benefit Public Schools?” Public School Review, November 11, 2019 at: https://www.publicschoolreview.com/blog/what-is-race-to-the-top-and-how-will-it-benefit-public-schools

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Filed under how teachers teach, leadership, Reforming schools, school leaders, technology use

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