This series of post examined the remarkable stability over time of certain teaching practices that I have labeled, teacher-directed instruction. What I offer is an explanation, not a verifiable fact, about this dominant pattern of classroom teaching in public schools over the past century. I ended the previous post with a question:
Do these schools and teaching practices, shaped as they are politically, culturally, and educationally, meet the needs of the larger society which initially established and have continually supported tax-supported public schools?
No surprise that my answer is yes. After all, since the beginning of tax-supported public schools in the early decades of the 19th century, taxpayers and voters (once only white males but in 2021 inclusive of anyone meeting the age requirement), public schools, criticized as they have been decade after decade, nonetheless remain a prized community institution in rural, suburban, and urban America. In this post, I want to elaborate why I answer ” yes” to the question. I lean heavily upon the work of historians of education, David Tyack and David Labaree.
What David Tyack called the “Grammar of Schooling,” that is, the combination of the age-graded school organization shaping both teacher and student behavior and what the larger society expects of its public schools–a point that David Labaree stresses–explains the long-term practices of teacher-directed classrooms–which can also be called the “grammar of instruction.”
I want to unpack the above sentences.
Because it is taken-for-granted, as common as the air we breathe and seemingly as essential to schooling Americans as solid sleeping is to decent health, few reform-minded policymakers, practitioners, donors, researchers, and parents challenge the age-graded school organization and its daily grammar of instruction including teacher-directed instruction. Let me explain.
Since the late 19th century, the age-graded school (e.g., K-5, K-8, 6-8, 9-12) has become the mainstay of school organization in the 21st century. Today, most taxpayers, voters, and readers of this blog have gone to kindergarten at age 5, studied Egyptian mummies in the 6th grade, took algebra in the 8th or 9th grade and then left 12th grade with a diploma. In proceeding through their student careers, Americans experienced teacher-directed instruction as the way to teach lessons.
If any school reform–in the sense of making fundamental changes in organization, curriculum, and instruction–can be considered a “success” it is the age-graded school and its grammar of instruction. In providing access to all children and youth, longevity as a reform, and global pervasiveness, the age-graded school is a stellar success.
Think about its longevity–the first age-graded structure of eight classrooms appeared in Quincy (MA) in the late 1840s. Within a half-century, it had begun to replace one-room schoolhouses in urban and rural schools.
Or consider access. Between 1850-1913, over 30 million Europeans crossed the Atlantic and settled in the U.S. The age-graded school and its underlying grammar of instruction have not only enrolled millions of students over the past century and a half, assimilating immigrants into Americans, sorting out achievers from non-achievers, and now graduating over eighty percent of those entering high school, but also been the accepted way that a school must be.
Why have most U.S. school reformers, donors, and educational entrepreneurs been reluctant to examine an organization and its enduring ways of teaching generation after generation that influences daily behavior of nearly 4 million adults and well over 50 million children or one-sixth of all Americans in the early 21st century? Surely, habit and tradition play a part in the longevity of the age-graded school and its accompanying teacher-directed instruction. The lack of recognizable and durable alternatives that have been around sufficiently long to compete with the prevailing model is another reason for its spectacular stability.
What is too often ignored in explaining the durability of the embedded grammar of schooling in the age-graded organization, however, is the widely shared social beliefs among parents, educators, and taxpayers about what a “real” school is. After all, nearly all U.S. adults—save for the tiny number who are home schooled—have attended both public and private age-graded schools. Learning how and when to take turns, listening to the teacher, following the prescribed curriculum, reading textbooks, doing homework, taking tests–all of that abides within the grammar of schooling. Adding, subtracting, and multiplication are learned in primary grades, the nation’s history in 4th, 5th , 8th , and 11th grades is what a school is and does. Teacher-directed instruction and age-graded schools are American as apple pie and the Thanksgiving holiday.
This scaffolding of tradition–nearly two centuries of age-graded schools–powerful social beliefs among policymakers and parents about what “real schools” should be, and multiple public and private goals for tax-supported schools combine to make the “grammar of schools” and its teacher-directed instruction seemingly invulnerable to alternative ways of organizing schools and teaching lessons.
Consider the spread of charter schools in cities (e.g., New Orleans, 93 percent of schools; Detroit, 55 percent; Washington, D.C., 46 percent), where charter advocates are free to organize the school, governance, curriculum, and instruction, nearly all are age-graded (see here for one exception).
The grammar of schooling with its teacher-directed instruction as the norm, then, is historical, ubiquitous, and thoroughly accepted by Americans as the primary way of schooling children since the late-19th century. It does (and did) meet two essential requirements of the U,S, system of schooling. First, the age-graded school and its grammar of schooling achieved the social aims of tax-supported schools, that is, fulfilling American ideals of individual liberty, equality and merit) and, second, providing a practical and efficient way of moving millions of students through a system that supports the larger economy by signaling which students in school can go on to higher education and which enter the job market upon graduation (see here and here).
So this is why I believe that U.S. age-graded schools, their grammar of schooling including teacher-directed instruction, shaped as both are (and have been) historically, politically, culturally, and educationally, have met (and continue to do so) the needs of the larger society on being legitimate and eminently practical in achieving American social aims. And that, to me, explains the extraordinary stability of teacher-directed instruction.