“Schooling Is Important but It’s Not All-important”

In  early  2022, Carrie Spector, a Stanford University staff member interviewed me about my most recent book, “Confessions of a School Reformer.” Printed interview appeared March 9, 2022  in “Research Stories,” a publication of The Stanford Graduate School of Education.

Your new book is equal parts memoir and historical analysis. Why did you choose to take such a personal approach?

I’ve written about school reform historically for years, but at some point it came to me that I’ve actually lived through the three major reform movements of the 20th century: the Progressive movement, the Civil Rights movement, and the business-inspired “standards, testing and accountability” movement. That insight grabbed me, and I thought, that’s a basis for a book — a nice way to blend the personal with the analytical.

Education reform is often touted as the answer to many problems in society, but you take serious issue with that. Why? 

Reforming schools is not a magical way to reform society. You reform schools in order to make them better for the kids and the teachers. That’s a good reason to reform schools — but if you think that somehow school reform is going to improve society, you’re exaggerating the role of schools in our society. 

Schools don’t alter a capitalistic democratic society. They mirror it. And schooling is only one part of a person’s life. About 20 percent of a child’s time is spent in the classroom; the vast majority is spent at home, in neighborhoods, and other places with family and friends. 

I’m not saying schools don’t matter. Schooling is important, but it’s not all-important. It took me many years to arrive at that conclusion, and I came to it uneasily. 

Why was it hard to recognize that? 

I came into teaching because I thought teaching was a noble occupation where you can have an impact on young people. I still believe that, but I realized I had characterized an exaggerated version of my influence. 

In looking at my own life and the events that have shaped me, school is one, but other events have had a much more momentous impact. The Great Depression, World War II, getting polio, moving into different neighborhoods, my relationships with family and friends — these are what I recall most vividly, and what I believe touched me more than what I took away from schooling.

I’m always taken by the conversations people have at parties about the best teacher they ever had. In every generation of teachers, there are many who connect with individual kids in their classrooms, be it kindergarten or advanced placement calculus in high school. They form relationships that have an enormous influence on those kids as they become adults. That’s what gives me optimism about schooling and its influence, even though the school machinery is one that I’m highly critical of and think ought to change.

What would you most like to see change? 

For all the rhetoric about school reform, public schools have been organized the same way for the past 150 years — as age-graded schools where every teacher has a classroom and is expected to cover a certain portion of the curriculum. Teachers have to make sure they maintain control of student behavior, insure that students absorb curricular content, and test them as the kids march up the the escalator of the graded school.

But children and youth learn at different speeds. Some pick up a subject more quickly and get bored easily, so a multi-age group is more sensible – kids can help one another, and it fits their learning pattern. But our existing machinery of schooling makes that hard to do.

What do you think it will take to make that happen?

I don’t see it changing in a wholesale way, but I see it happening in a retail way. Every effort to get rid of the age-graded school wholesale has failed. But there are schools and groups of parents and teachers who look at schooling in a different way and say, We ought to build on how kids learn at different speeds and organize school around that.

Schools do change — but in incremental, not fundamental, ways. Most of these changes have occurred from political and economic movements outside of schools. These movements have spilled over onto schools, but not to the degree that reformers and wannabe reformers want to believe.


Filed under Uncategorized

2 responses to ““Schooling Is Important but It’s Not All-important”

  1. Pingback: Can schools change society or only reflect it? | Dennis Sparks on re·sil·ience

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s