Why do U.S. Schools Do What They Do? (Part 1)

There is a short answer and a long answer to the question. Here is the short answer.

What teachers teach and students learn in American classrooms are (and have been) shaped (but not determined) by three larger forces in American society:

First, there is the decentralized system of governance and funding of schools over the past century.

Second, the age-graded school with its “grammar of schooling” has been the reliable and trusted vehicle for moving state and local policies into classroom lessons.

Third, the constant flow of social, political, and economic problems in the larger society often get converted into reform efforts to improve schooling, classroom practice, and the larger society.

I expand on each of these three forces–yes, this is the short answer– that have created both stability and change in tax-supported public schooling because in combination, these largely unseen, taken-for-granted factors have indelibly marked the journey that educational policies have taken as they have moved from federal, state, and district suites into teachers’ daily lessons. This is the Big Picture that both educators and non-educators too often lose sight of.

  1. For the past two centuries, the U.S. has had a decentralized system of governing public school. That is, there are 50 states, 13,000-plus school districts, nearly 100,000 schools with 3.5 million teachers in charge of nearly 51 million-plus students.

There is no national ministry of education or federal authority as there is in France, Sweden, and, China determining what schools must teach, which teachers to hire and fire, and when schools begin and end each year.

This decentralized, state-driven system also unequally funds districts within a state (e.g., poor Buchanan and wealthy Arlington Counties in Virginia) and accounts for lopsided differences between states—think Mississippi and New York–across the nation. Racially discriminatory practices from banks redlining areas (e..g., avoiding investment in largely Black or Latino areas) to white families leaving recently integrated neighborhoods in cities for nearly all-white suburbs causing even more residential segregation in both cities and inner-ring suburbs.  These funding disparities and discriminatory policies affect the quality of brick-and-mortar school buildings, selection and retention of teachers, and students’ access to instructional materials including new technologies.

Funding public schools comes from three sources: state, local district, and the federal government. The latter provides less than 10 percent of all funds for schools. Because property taxes are the largest source of local and state funding inherent inequities occur simply because there are high wealth districts such as Arlington County (VA) and Beverly Hills (CA) for example–that out-spend dramatically low-wealth districts –Buchanan’s largely white County (VA) and mostly black Compton (CA)–in per-student spending.

That system of state and local governance in which states provide unequal amounts of money to districts even when adjusted for high- and low-wealth, however, does not slow down the flow of state policymaking where districts are expected to put those policies into practice. Federal policies, especially between 2002-2015 with No Child Left Behind  (the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2016 shifted NCLB mandates to state authorities) also enter the mix of what states, districts, and schools are expected to do. Moreover, district boards of education are swayed by local issues that parents and elected officials bring to them such as school lunches,  segregated schools, busing schedules, inappropriate history textbooks, and student dress codes.  School boards adopt policies that parent groups and business leaders seek and superintendents recommend. For these federal, state and local policies to get implemented in schools and classrooms, however, one organizational structure in existence for nearly two centuries–—the age-graded school—is (and has been) the primary vehicle for principals and teachers to turn policies into classroom lessons across this vast decentralized system.

  1. The age-graded organization converts national, state, and district policies into classroom lessons.

Those national and state goals and policies are aimed at both changing and conserving what happens in thousands of schools presided over by principals and hundreds of thousands of individual teachers located in separate classrooms who are responsible for groups of 25-35 students. Classroom teachers ultimately decide which of the goals, policies, and curricular content and skills assigned to be taught in fourth grade or high school physics turn up in actual lessons.

Thus, the insulation of individual teacher located in these separate age-graded classrooms allows  teachers a constrained autonomy in determining what of a curriculum guide or textbook will be taught. After shutting their classroom doors, they can (and do) decide what and how to teach a lesson. Teachers, then, are both gatekeepers and classroom policymakers.

State and local decision-makers can promote innovations and predict splendid outcomes in their policy talk. They can recruit resources and adopt policies that offer shrunken versions of the hyperbolic policy talk, and they can even mandate that teachers put these adopted policies into classroom lessons. Beyond mandates, incentives, or even threats, however, they can do no more. Age-graded school structures with separate classrooms assigned to individual teachers in of themselves both isolate and insulate teachers from their bosses—remember those classroom doors can be closed. Teachers retain limited autonomy.

No state superintendent of education or official in the state department of education, no district superintendent or central office administrator, even the school principal can predict, be certain of, or verify that teachers are teaching (and students are learning) what they are supposed to. Thus, teachers are “street-level bureaucrats” who decide what’s best for their students every day and operate out of the sight line of administrators.

In short, what happens in classrooms is loosely tied to what goals and policies the state  determines, school districts desire, and principals expect to happen. Teachers decide what occurs in their lessons once the tardy bell rings; and it is teachers who have to deal with unpredictable events that inexorably arise during lessons. These age-graded structures and the rules that govern them—daily schedules, taking attendance, periodic tests, nightly homework, report cards, waiting one’s turn, permission to go to bathroom, honor rolls–are called the “grammar of schooling. And that “grammar of schooling” shapes how and what teachers teach and students learn. Its direction is conservative in keeping the school looking like a “real” school that parents and grandparents attended. Yet over time as policy-driven reforms have spilled over public schools that “grammar” has incrementally changed what occurs during lessons in order to preserve teaching practices.

Part 2 takes up the rest of the story.

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