Real School: The Grammar of Schooling

I turned in my first ever graduate level paper today. Another milestone. It was a reflection essay in the class History of School Reform with Professor David Labaree; the required word count was 1,000, and after the predictable initial phase of self doubt (Am I going to have enough to say?), I turned in a paper just north of 1,500 words that I feel good about. 

The topic was David Tyack and Larry Cuban's notion of "the grammar of schooling," discussed in Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform. The grammar of schooling is the stuff so deeply embedded in the American educational system and institutions that it's become natural and relatively unquestioned. Mary Hayward Metz calls it "Real School." A self contained classroom with one teacher, students sitting in desks, similar curriculum, bells to usher students to class, putting students in grades based on their age, textbooks, testing, grades, extracurriculars, sports. The stuff that makes school look like and feel like school that we don't really think about. Rituals and traditions that we all identify with and remember.

One example that I've spent some time thinking about is the Carnegie Unit; the idea that credit is allocated to a student based on how many hours they've spent in class. Here's the Wikipedia definition: "strictly time-based references for measuring educational attainment."

Seat time. Literally the amount of time students spend sitting in a desk. The Carnegie Unit doesn't purport to measure student learning, or student proficiency in a given subject -- simply the amount of time they've spent in class. It's rigid and standardized. This means that a student who is smart, talented, and fully proficient in all subjects may not end up with a high school diploma; it's not about the quality of a student's work or the depth of their understanding or the quality of their learning, it's about seat time. Seems like there has to be a better way to allocate credit, right? Still, the Carnegie Unit has persisted as the way we do it for the last 100 years. It's foundational to the American education system.

Today's class discussion was fascinating. The questions was basically this: Why has America continued to use, in Metz' words, a "common script" for what "real school" should be like, despite massive differences in individual students' and communities' needs, abilities, resources, goals, etc. Some interesting reasons came up; my contribution was that this "common script" is what, theoretically, enables a meritocratic system to work. If everyone has about the same school experience, with similar curriculum, similar textbooks, similar grading systems, we can decide who fits where and who gets what. That's, theoretically, a fair way to allocate finite opportunities like jobs, college degrees, etc. The "common script" would, ideally, serve as proof of equal opportunity, a powerful virtue in America. Give every kid an equal chance at being successful in a uniform system, and the best will succeed.

I emphasize the words theoretically and ideally because I think it's pretty obvious in practice that the school system is a) not a meritocracy, and b) neither equal nor equitable in terms of student opportunity.

Professor Labaree made an argument in the first class that I didn't really understand, but it really clicked today. He says that the school system has to do two contradictory things simultaneously: promote social access and preserve social advantage. Let me borrow from the intro of Labaree's book: "The school system’s greatest social impact has come from its power to allocate social access and social advantage." Not in it's power to educate students or teach them useful knowledge or skills. It's power to allocate access and influence. What does that mean, exactly? 

In today's class, he summed it up this way: The "genius of the system is its quality of combining formal equality with substantive inequality." The formal equality part is this "common script," the grammar of school. School looks the same just about everywhere. You read To Kill a Mockingbird and Shakespeare and Lord of the Flies, right? You took Geometry? You remember the Pythagorean Theorem, right? You went to the Homecoming football game, right? The ingredients of a school are roughly similar enough that we're culturally comfortable saying that the experience is roughly equal. That's the social access part, too -- everyone gets to go to school. We all get a shot.

The substantive inequality part is that we know better. This is the part that preserves social advantage. A mom might say, "my son is in college," but there's a pretty big canyon between working your way through community college and going to an Ivy League institution. They're both college, but they're sure not the same. Same is true for high school. The kids who go to the "good schools," in the wealthy communities, get to go to the good colleges and get the good jobs and make good money. That's far from a meritocracy.

It's a pretty devastating indictment of the current system.

It's funny, Prof. Labaree was talking on the first day of class about how this course is oftentimes described as "depressing." Changing systems, changing schools -- it's really, really hard. Many thousands of well-intentioned, smart, creative people have tried and failed over the last 100 years. One early lesson from the course is that you have to approach these issues with humility. But, as we continue to learn about the deep entrenchment of vestiges from another era and learn about good ideas that failed, I still feel optimistic, excited even. This is a significant challenge, and a worthy one. And before you can actually be successful, you have to believe that you can be successful.