In a society that endlessly prizes change, explaining stability in any institution goes against the grain. It is far harder for historians, educational researchers, and practitioners to figure out why structures and practices are sturdy, even robustly constant over decades. And the reason is simple: schooling and teaching are complex processes deeply nested in one another and the society that provides it.
“Nested” is a fair word to use in capturing the interrelatedness and steadiness in patterns of schooling. Begin with the individual classroom that is part of a school that, in turn, is part of a district, which is then located in the state that has authorized local citizens to raise monies to build and operate schools within its boundaries.
Classroom, school, district, and state capture the essential organization of U.S. public schooling although there are states that allow special districts and counties to school children as well (e.g. Santa Clara County in California has 32 school districts within it enrolling nearly 265,000 students, omitting a few independent charter schools and the schools that the county itself operates as of 2015).[i]
And that is only the formal organizational and governance structures in which classrooms exist. I have made no mention of the different types of schools students can attend or the varied contexts in which schools reside.
Over time, districts across the country have established different types of schools—special mission schools for the arts, vocations, children with disabilities, and charters. Nor have I noted the varied contexts in which these schools are located such as rural, urban, suburban, and exurban thereby drawing diverse racial and ethnic enrollments from different social classes yet these varied types of schools and their contexts, again over time, have remained, more often than not, racially and ethnically segregated since where families live is where most students attend school.
All of these, of course, are factors that touch both schooling and classroom practices in varied, often subtle ways, that observers frequently overlook. And these many factors are what make schooling and teaching not only complex but also deeply embedded in local communities.
And that embeddedness within a community, state, and nation is precisely why schools bend and bow to the winds of different social, political, and economic movements as they sweep across the country. That schools mirror the nation is a fact too often forgotten by those who want public schools to be in the vanguard of reform rather than merely following it. Consider the three major reform movements that flowed across the country in the 20th century.
In the early 1900s, Progressives reformed cities and schools. When the U.S. got involved in world wars, schools were drafted to help on the home front as armies and navies fought enemies abroad. The civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s reshaped debates about social justice and launched programs to overcome the consequences of segregated schools and ill-served students. Deep concerns for the nation’s economic future in the 1980s prompted school reforms in curriculum and broader choices for secondary school students.
Schools, then, are woven deeply into the national fabric. No clearer instance of that is the sudden closing of all public schools in early 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic struck the U.S. Within days, schooling went from in-person to remote instruction across the nation. Thus, seeing schools as separate from the society and unaffected by political, social, and economic winds is ahistorical at the least and severely myopic at the worst. Schools are, indeed, embedded in American society and culture.
But deeply embedded does not fully explain the notable constancy in K-12 age-graded school structures, patterns of schooling children and youth, and classroom teaching. To get at that stability, I need to include the continuing power and influence of popular social beliefs in what schooling is for and what it can do for individuals, the community, and the nation.
Popular support for tax-supported public schools
Beginning in the mid-19th century, Americans, initially in New England states and then the rest of the nation, taxed themselves to establish and maintain public schools. Popular support for primary and, then in the 20th century, secondary public schools was evident in American property owners, both white and Black, opening their wallets to pay the costs of building hiring teachers, furnishing classrooms, and buying books and materials. Local and state monies underwrote urban and rural segregated schools until the Brown decision. In the ensuing decades, as Southern migrants came north and European and Asian immigrants entered the country, the commitment to public schooling seldom flagged.
With state legislatures over a century ago passing compulsory attendance laws, school enrollments grew. New districts, new schools popped out wherever Americans moved to places that lacked ones. That popular support continues into the 21st century.[ii]
Tax-supported schools, however, as they mirrored national reform movements just as well echoed national and community controversies that periodically raised the specter of masses of parents taking their children out of the public schools. Such exoduses, however, seldom occurred.
Already mentioned were the ongoing conflicts over religious prayer in public schools and the teaching of evolution. In the 21st century, teaching about slavery, racism in the country, and race-related topics roil the years before and after the Covid-19 pandemic in the 2020s.
Scattered reports of parents offended by school curricula (e.g., the 1619 Project) or practices (e.g., establishing separate bathrooms for transgender students) withdrawing their children and sending them to private schools or home-schooling them circulate in the media but rarely affect overall enrollments in public schools.[iii]
Overall, then, growing U.S. school enrollments—now over 50 million students attend public schools– and political support of public schools even amid scattered and episodic protests about curricula and school practices testify to the faith that Americans have in their public schools.[iv]
Popular support of public schools and their rootedness within American communities suggest strongly that stability in schooling and teaching practices are more than tolerated, they are the norm. Parents and voters expect their schools to resemble age-graded organization with teachers who control their students and direct lessons in sync with the experiences that these parents and voters recalled when they sat at classroom desks a generation or two earlier. And equally important to these parents and voters are their beliefs in K-12 education as the escalator to higher education and financial security in the 21st century
Sure, changes occur as new students enroll each year and teachers leave the profession or move from one school to another (about one in six teachers exit annually although there is much variation in attrition across districts with far higher percentages of leavers and movers in schools with large numbers of low-income minority children). Replacing these leavers and movers are novices often trained in universities where they were often encouraged to teach differently than they were taught. [v]
Even with this annual churn of students and teachers, popular support of tax-supported schools remains anchored in sustaining the familiar age-graded organization and patterns of classroom instruction thereby helping to explain stability in classroom practices.
[ii] 53rd Annual PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools, Press release 9/2/21
[iii] Transgender bathroom battles: How some parents see it Christian Science Monitor, Lisa Suhay, May 21, 2016; Jonathan Zimmerman, Why the Culture Wars in Schools Are Worse Than Ever Before, Politico Magazine,, Spet. 19, 2021 at: https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2021/09/19/history-culture-wars-schools-america-divided-512614
[iv] NCES, “Public School Enrollment Dropped 3 Percent in 2020-2021,” June 28, 2021 at: https://nces.ed.gov/whatsnew/press_releases/06_28_2021.asp
[v] Desiree Carver-Thomas and Linda Darling-Hammond, “Teacher Turnover: Why It Matters and What We Can Do About It,” (Palo Alto, CA:: Learning Policy Institute, 2017).