Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

Because ideas have consequences

What Are Schools For?

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There have been several stories relating to education recently. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has been running the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) since 2000, which tests a world-wide sample of 15-year-olds every three years. The tests cover reading, math and science skills. The 2012 results are out (see Washington Post graphic), and the US students were outperformed by students from Korea, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Finland, the Netherlands and Poland, among others. Meanwhile, a new book has come out, The Smartest Kids in the World–and How They Got That Way, by Amanda Ripley, which examines the differences in the school systems in Korea, Finland and Poland.

In comparing schools in the US to those of other nations, one must ensure that the comparisons are being done on a consistent footing:

Outside the United States it is not assumed that all children should be schooled for so many years or so uniformly. The educational systems of most European countries were frankly tailored to their class systems, although they have become less so in our time. … [T]he decision as to a child’s ultimate vocational destiny does not have to be made so early in this country as elsewhere, if only because it is not institutionalized by the demands of early educational classification.
— Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963), pp. 323-4

However, the discussions of these and other education-related items have not touched upon the purpose of school. What do we want public education to do?

A Thumbnail History of American K-12 Education

When I was growing up, I often heard that, “the purpose of school is to learn.” Is it? Historically, that was not always the case. And even if it is true, what should be the focus of the learning?

Child Storage

The purpose of public school was not originally to learn, at least not in the English-speaking world. In 1700’s London, there were gangs of urchins roaming the streets, begging, picking pockets and causing mayhem. The city fathers gathered them together in supervised settings to get them off the streets. Because they needed something to do while there, and because it seemed like it would improve their lives, the authorities decided it would be best if they were taught to read, write and do sums.

The mission of school as a custodian of children has lived on since then. For example, while morally motivated reformers may have proposed child labor laws, unions and workingmen’s associations supported them because they would remove cheap underage competition for jobs.

During the very years when the high school began its most phenomenal growth, the Progressives and trade unionists were assailing the old industrial evil of child labor. One of the most effective devices to counteract this practice was raising the terminal age for compulsory schooling.
— Hofstadter, p. 326.

Academic Study

At the same time, there were what the English call public schools, such as Eton, Harrow and Rugby. In British usage, the term public school does not mean that it was publicly financed and accessible to all without regard to financial means, but rather that it was independent of a church and open to all without restriction as to the faith of the student and his family. The above named schools were all founded prior to 1600, and boys could attend whether or not they conformed to the doctrines of the Church of England.

The English public schools had reputations for both academic excellence and social connection, providing their graduates an inside track to Oxbridge, and from there to business, finance and the civil service. Education reformers in the US sought to emulate the academic traditions while providing a broader funnel for college preparation that would admit a wider slice of the population.

The development of the high school into a mass institution dramatically altered its character. At the turn of the [20th] century the relatively small clientele of the high school was still highly selective. Its pupils were there, in the main, because they wanted to be, — because they and their parents had seized upon the unusual opportunity the high school offered.
— Hofstadter, pp. 326

However, the country did not have the means for scaling this effort up to meet the needs of the entire population. A side effect of changing high school attendance from a privilege to a legal obligation arose from the change in the student population.

Now, in an increasing measure, secondary-school pupils were not merely unselected but also unwilling; they were in high school not because they wanted further study but because the law forced them to go. The burden of obligation was shifted accordingly: whereas once the free high school offered a priceless opportunity to those who chose to take it, the high school now held a large captive audience that its administrators felt obliged to satisfy.

As the years went by, the schools filled with a growing proportion of doubtful, reluctant or actually hostile pupils. … It became clear that the old academic curriculum could no longer be administered to a high-school population of millions in the same proportion as it had been to the 359,000 pupils of 1890.
— Hofstadter, p. 327

Effective Citizenship

Others, such as Thomas Jefferson, saw schools as a necessary preparation for ordinary citizens to be able to participate effectively in the Republic. Jefferson chaired the committee of the Continental Congress that drafted the Land Ordinance of 1785, which defined the structure of local governance and the land survey system in the Northwest Territories. The Land Ordinance established a system of townships six miles square, divided into 36 sections each one mile square. Section 16 in the township was reserved to support a school.

Other reformers, such as Horace Mann, were influenced by the educational model developing in Prussia. Features of the Prussian model that had developed by 1825 were:

  • The state assumes the responsibility for the education of its citizens;
  • The state uses the education system to instill loyalty, obedience and civic duty in its citizens;
  • So that no denomination should control access to schooling, religious instruction was removed;
  • The education system is a means of training men for effective service in the army and the bureaucracy;
  • The content of education is standardized across the entire country;
  • A final exam, the Abitur, establishes that the graduate has mastered the content and is admissible to university.

Mann went to Prussia in 1843 to observe the system directly and bring the lessons back to the United States. Mann served on the Massachusetts state Board of Education, and was able to influence education developments in several other states as well. His principles were:

  • The states should assume the responsibility for the education of citizens;
  • The schools should bring students of all backgrounds in the community together;
  • The education must be non-sectarian;
  • The instruction must be provided by trained professional teachers.

In the prevailing climate of states’ rights, any notion of standardizing content across the country was dead on arrival.

Social Adjustment

There was a theoretical showdown in education between 1893 and 1920 over whether academic study should be a primary or an incidental purpose of school, and the supporters of the latter view prevailed. In 1900, only 6% of an age cohort graduated high school, and about 2% ever saw the inside of a college. What was to happen to all the others? At the same time, the country was awash with immigrants; community and business leaders wanted their children assimilated as productive workers.

Far from conceiving the mediocre, reluctant or incapable student as an obstacle or special problem in a school system devoted to educating the interested, the capable and the gifted, American educators entered upon a crusade to exalt the academically uninterested or ungifted child into a kind of culture-hero. They were not content to say that the realities of American social life had made it necessary to compromise with the ideal of education as the development of formal learning and intellectual capacity. Instead, they militantly proclaimed that such education was archaic and futile and that the noblest end of a truly democratic system of education was to meet the child’s immediate interests by offering him a series of immediate utilities. The history of this crusade, which culminated in the ill-fated life-adjustment movement of the 1940’s and 1950’s, demands our attention, for it illustrates in action certain widespread attitudes toward childhood and schooling, character and ambition, and the place of intellect in life.
— Hofstadter, pp. 328-9.

In 1918, the National Education Association published its report, titled Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education, setting out the mission that its authoring committee believed appropriate for schools. The schools were to teach and cultivate:

  1. Health
  2. Command of Fundamental Processes:
    1. Reading
    2. Writing
    3. Spoken Expression
    4. Math
  3. Worthy Home Membership
  4. Vocation
  5. Civic Education
  6. Worthy Use of Leisure
  7. Ethical Character

Academic subjects were but a part of the content schools were to convey, and a limited and minor part at that.

What Cardinal Principles gave proof of was that stage one of a silent revolution in American society was complete. Children could now be taught anything, or even taught nothing in the part-time prisons of schooling, and there was little any individual could do about it. Bland generalities in the document actually served as potent talismans to justify the engineering of stupefaction. Local challenges could be turned back, local challengers demonized and marginalized, just by waving the national standards of Cardinal Principles as proof of one’s legitimacy.
— John Taylor Gatto, The Underground History of American Education,

New courses were added to meet the objectives of Cardinal Principles, without placing any excessive burdens on the mental abilities of the students, which were believed to be limited in any case.

As these less-demanding, nonintellectual courses proliferated, a new “movement” was born, the Life Adjustment Movement, a federally sponsored curriculum reform effort that began soon after World War II. According to Charles Prosser, the father of Life Adjustment, only 20 percent of American young people could master academic content; another 20 percent were capable of doing vocational subjects; and the remaining 60 percent needed courses in subjects like health and PE [physical education], effective use of leisure time, driver training, and knowledge of such “problems of American democracy” as dating, buying on credit, and renting an apartment.
— Jeffrey Mirel, “The Traditional High School”, EducationNext,

Although the Life Adjustment Movement peaked in the fifties, and the challenge presented by Sputnik did the movement real damage, it has remained influential because of its views about the capabilities of students. The periphery of education may have adapted, but the core, where teacher training and administrative policy are determined, has largely kept the faith. Writing years after Sputnik, Hofstadter observed:

In recent years these counter-pressures have begun to take effect. But the attitudes that gave rise to life adjustment have not by any means disappeared from the educational profession or the public. Professional education is still largely staffed, at the administrative levels and in its centers of training, by people who are far from enthusiastic about the new demand for academic excellence. American education is in a position somewhat like that of a new political regime which must depend for the execution of its mandates upon a civil service honeycombed with determined opponents.
— Hofstadter, p. 358.

Progressive Education

There had been various reformers throughout the 1800s who objected to rote learning or who aspired to widen the scope of education beyond traditional academic subjects. Many of these were influenced by Rousseau and other Romantic intellectuals. John Dewey brought many of these threads together and added his own contribution, becoming a major mover in the development of Progressive Education.

Dewey and his followers saw school as a place where the student would be integrated into the community. The student would not be a passive recipient of knowledge disconnected from daily experience, but participate in the shaping of her education. The teacher would be a facilitator, not an authority figure. At the same time, however, the school was seen as an entry point of influencing social progress. This would necessarily oppose the school to the family in many cases, and it is hard to see how the teacher would wield the desired influence in shaping the child’s development without becoming an authority figure pulling in an opposite direction from the parents.

The GI Generation (born between 1901 and 1925) went to school during the peak of Progressive Education, and its influence can be clearly seen in their preferences to conform, belong and fit in. However, later generations rebuked them for these preferences.

When my parents came of age, “maturity” was the catchword, just as “fulfillment” would be a catchword of the sixties and seventies. The baby-boom parents had had no adolescence to speak of, not as their children would define it — no time to hang out, to experiment with possible lives. What they had wanted was just to get safely into port as soon as possible. Writer Maureen Howard remembers: “We had no position, no place in the world and never stopped to take much pleasure in our youth. Our beauty and freedom were ignored while we yearned for the goods of dissatisfied middle age.”
— Cheryl Merser, Grown-ups A Generation in Search of Adulthood, p. 73

The full story of Dewey’s influence on education is complex, and a detailed treatment will have to wait for another day. By mid-century, Dewey had become a minor Karl Marx, with followers who invoked his name but did not always adhere to — or sometimes even comprehend — his full intent. It is not clear that Dewey would have supported all the changes that were made in his name.


Education is an industry, and subject to cycles like every other industry. Looking over the previous century, one can see the shifts back and forth between basic skills and excellence. The authority of the teacher has waxed and waned. Control of the curriculum has been fought over time and time again. Testing comes, goes and comes back again. Tracking, or grouping by ability within the grade level, has fallen out of favor and then been revived.

Every time an external event, such as the Sputnik launch or the Japanese ascendancy of the 1980’s, causes Americans to question their preparedness, there is renewed interest in academic excellence and rigor. But the interest inevitably fades.

What Are Students’ Capabilities?

… can training exercised and developed in one mental operation develop a mental facility that can be transferred to another? … If a transfer of training did occur, a cumulation of such transfers over several years of a rigorous liberal education might produce a mind which was better trained in general. But if transfer of training did not take place, most of the cumulative studies were quite pointless outside the items of knowledge contained in the studies themselves.
— Hofstadter, pp. 348-9

The school reformers of a hundred years ago did not accept the idea that most people could learn complex material or apply their learning methods to unfamiliar subjects. As witnessed by the references cited above, some were prepared to consign up to 60% of any age group to the wastebasket of people who were unsuited to learn either academic subjects or a skilled trade. Support was found in the research of the day, and in other evidence such as the infamous Army Alpha tests of World War I, which were alleged to have found the average mental age of the American adult white male to be 13.

This enormous remainder would obviously be capable of succeeding at only the most unskilled and routinized jobs. If the claims that the educators made were true, we would really be in a bind, because the jobs for these simple-minded people simply do not exist anymore in adequate numbers.

Actually the accumulating experimental evidence proved contradictory and confusing, and those educators who insisted that its lessons were altogether clear and that nothing was so certain as what it yielded were simply ignoring all the findings that did not substantiate their views. Their misuse of experimental evidence, in fact, constitutes a major scandal in the history of educational thought. If a quantitative survey of the experiments means anything, these educators ignored the bulk of the material, for four out of five of the experimental studies showed the presence of transfer under certain conditions.
— Hofstadter, p. 349

From personal experience in high school, I recall other kids who were getting D’s in functional math but who could create complex schemes for cutting school without getting caught. They had been told how stupid they were all their lives, and were performing down to expectations, but they weren’t really stupid.

The shocking possibility that dumb people don’t exist in sufficient numbers to warrant the careers devoted to tending to them will seem incredible to you. Yet that is my proposition: Mass dumbness first had to be imagined; it isn’t real.

Once the dumb are wished into existence, they serve valuable functions: as a danger to themselves and others they have to be watched, classified, disciplined, trained, medicated, sterilized, ghettoized, cajoled, coerced, jailed. To idealists they represent a challenge, reprobates to be made socially useful. Either way you want it, hundreds of millions of perpetual children require paid attention from millions of adult custodians. An ignorant horde to be schooled one way or another.
— Gatto,

Competing Purposes of School

The American people have never authorized the schools to replace education with life-adjustment training and behavioral conditioning. Yet we have permitted the schools to experiment with Dewey’s ideas for a long time. In all fairness, we can now — on his own pragmatic terms — declare the experiment to have failed and to reject Dewey’s claims that experimentalist education fits the child for life in a technological society such as ours, and that it does this better than traditional education.
— Adm. Hyman Rickover, Education and Freedom (1959), p. 145.

Before we can make an effective decision as to what the problem is — let alone what to do about it — we need to have an intelligent conversation about what school is supposed to provide. There are several competing visions.

Center of Academic Excellence

The simplest mission would be to prepare students academically for the demands of college and the workplace. This is what many school systems in Europe and Asia do. These often have cultural support in the community for this mission.

It is certain that, to compete in the knowledge work economy, the student must be prepared to know, to know that he knows and to show that he knows. Some will object that the ability to make a living is not the sum total of life. I recognize this, but without the ability to make a living, many of the other considerations fade into irrelevance.

However, we also have the testimony of those who have worked in poverty-stricken communities. There, the students often can’t focus on academic material because the chaos in their home lives and their own emotional needs get in the way. What is to become of them?

Proponents of academic focus often raise objections to the predominance of sports in school. as Amanda Ripley has done in this piece. However, many communities enthusiastically support school sports, and many students who do participate get the experience of having met a challenge that serves them in later life.

Institute for Social Adjustment

Many people who go into education as a career choice want to make a difference in the lives of the children who pass through their classroom. They see their mission as wider in scope than just the academic preparation of the students. They want to help the children become citizens and community members, not just educated workers.

There are several risks present in this approach. First, it shorts academic preparation and rigor, as it is more important to play well with others than to master the subject material. This worked better in the American economy of 1950 than it does today. Back when the rest of the world was trying to climb back into the industrial age after World War II, the international economic competition did not exist. But even then, there were rude shocks: Rickover’s book was published in 1959, but he was getting a more receptive hearing due to the space race:

Eggheads of the world, unite! We have nothing to lose but our brains. A country neglects its eggheads at its peril. For it is the egghead who is the greatest realist. It is the egghead who invents the Sputnik, not the captain of the football team.
— Viscount Hailsham, 1958, quoted in Rickover, p. 33.

In fairness, however, it should be noted that the person who invents the next generation satellite is not always that good at obtaining — or retaining — funding for the project. The latter task requires a degree of social adjustment that the inventor often does not bring to the table. It is common to find that the captain of the football team has grown up to be the person who instills confidence in the investors, manages the progress reviews, smooths out the ride and keeps the noise away from the scientific minds so they can get on with the business of inventing.

Another problem with schooling for social adjustment was exposed starting in the 1970’s: the target moves faster than the education establishment can correct its aim. Many of my contemporaries were schooled to be able to hold jobs where they show up on time and do what management tells them to do. Since we graduated, there have been ever fewer work opportunities where that kind of preparation is sufficient.

Many of the people who teach and administer schools lose contact with the norms of workplaces outside of education; their understanding of the workplace becomes frozen in time. They, in turn, prepare children for a workplace that may be two or three decades past by the time the students leave high school. The changes I have seen in the workplace in the past three decades have been profound; a highly-rated employee who fell asleep in 1983 to reawaken last week would find that not only his skills but also his basic understanding of how to get along in the workplace, obtain direction and get work done was hopelessly antiquated. He would have no comprehension of terms such as rightsizing, intrapreneurship or virtual team. He would go looking for the Personnel Director, but find the Chief Talent Officer.

Locus of Social Assistance

For students who grow up in poverty, the school can be a place of refuge. It may be the only place they have that where they can focus. Some children, when they return to the home, have to be caregivers for siblings or even emotionally immature parents. Some schools have recognized that they have something distinctive to offer children in poverty:

A very successful middle school in Texas schedules the last 45 minutes of every day for homework support. Students who did not get their homework done must go to the cafeteria where tutors are available to help them with their homework. The students must stay until their homework is finished. School officials have arranged for a late bus run to take students home. Many poor students do not have access to adults who have the knowledge base to help them with homework. The school has built this into the school day.
— Ruby Payne, A Framework for Understanding Poverty, 3rd ed., p. 94

We can approach the problem with middle-class norms and say that such services should not be necessary, but what does this attitude accomplish? The option of having the students go home and do their homework, with the teacher’s authority upheld by the parents, is not on the table. To be sure, there will be some students who have the moral imagination to prevail over their environment, but the majority will not; otherwise, there would not be generational poverty. The children can get the support they need from the school, or they can be allowed to fail and become another generation of adults who cannot pull their weight in society and who then have children of their own for whom the cycle is repeated.

If one has a genuine concern for the future of poor children, the smug assertion that they are incapable of mastering academic subjects has no place. It is actually more important for poor children to master a rigorous academic curriculum. When they grow up, they will not have the connections that more well-off competitors will have; all they will have is their ability. They won’t be able to get by the way a young adult can who has family social and economic resources to fall back on.

At the same time, for the school to provide this kind of assistance adds another mission and dilutes the resources of the school. The techniques called for in order to educate students from multigenerational poverty backgrounds calls the question: what are the practical limits of what schools can achieve?

Can Schools Serve Multiple Purposes?

Rickover thought not:

Our elementary and secondary education should thus provide first, for the average and below-average student, a sufficiently broad terminal education to fit him into a modern technological society; and second, for the talented student, a solid base for subsequent professional education. Neither of these two objectives is achieved in the majority of American public schools.

Why do most of our public schools fail in the objectives I have mentioned? One reason is that we are wedded in this country to the concept of the comprehensive school. The administrative difficulties of combining several different study programs simultaneously in a single institution are great.
— Rickover, pp. 133-4

However, segregation of programs among schools risks establishing destines for students at an early age. “These are the bright, achieving kids, who will go on to college and professional or managerial careers. These are the others, who are destined to serve.” The polity has resisted culling the student population at too early an age, and rightly so.

At least with tracking, if a student is found to gain ability or motivation in later years, she can be moved up into a more challenging group within the same school. However, some schools simply will not have the scale to offer some opportunities, or the segment of the population desiring specialized programs will in some places be too small to serve effectively.

Learning to Learn

Not all persons make the jump from being taught to learning how to learn. The two are very different. The person who can be taught is still a mental dependent, waiting for the material to be delivered. The person who knows how to learn can take charge of it herself and learn inside or outside of a classroom, with or without the aid of a teacher.

In my experience, if a person does make the leap from needing to be taught to being able to learn, that leap typically happens during undergraduate college. This is not to say that all or even most college graduates can learn for themselves, but only that if a person gains this ability, it will usually be gained at college.

College is too late to be learning how to learn. The ability to learn for oneself is now necessary for effective economic and political participation. All citizens must be able to learn for themselves in order to hold their own in the workplace, the marketplace and the public square. Whatever else the mission of K-12 education embraces, it must include teaching students to learn for themselves.

What Is the Answer?

At this time, I don’t have one. All of the competing visions have desirable strengths and present real risks of effects we don’t want. The best that I can do is to articulate the question.

We need a conscious discussion about what school is for, where the result of the conversation is for the American people to explicitly authorize — and delimit — the mission of the school. It is for all of us, as citizens and voters, to prioritize among the benefits and drawbacks and define the purpose of school. The continuation of our economy and our nation depend upon it.


Written by srojak

December 17, 2013 at 1:06 pm

Posted in Economics, Politics

Tagged with ,

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