June 12, 2008

Shared responsibilities for children I

I had intended to blog about the responsibilities of schools for a few weeks, since Harry Brighouse responded last month to April's Richard Rothstein-Rick Hess(-and-others) debate and Matthew Yglesias responded a week later to Ezra Klein's comments on education and the economy. I've been swamped by other things and am writing this first entry (of two) during a fragment of my day when I can't do anything else productive. (This is the background piece: the Uber Education Manifesto Du Jour With Humor will be the second entry.) But, in any case, this goes back at least a few weeks before this week's manifestoes presented Tuesday and yesterday. Then again, I suppose we should really go back to Richard Rothstein's Class and Schools (2004). Or maybe Berliner and Biddle's The Manufactured Crisis (1995). But that's only the recent lineage. Other ideas that will appear later in this entry come from Jennifer Hochschild and Nathan Scovronick, Michael Katz, Miriam Cohen, and Stephen Provasnik, among other historians and social scientists who have written about education as part of the state for about 40 years or more. Well, that's not quite accurate: the current line of academic writings is 40 years old, but the North American debates they've covered are several hundred years old. In other words, the relative responsibility of schools for academic achievement is not something that's new or newly struggled over. My goal in this entry is to identify three key issues underlying the current (and older) debate.

Probably the most important issue is the role of schools in citizenship and the welfare state. Because schooling became closely tied to the rhetoric of citizenship two out of the three times that the franchise expanded dramatically in the past two centuries, we think of education today as a birthright. Primary education became common in the U.S. earlier than in other early-industrializing countries, and as a result education is the primary form of social citizenship in this country. As Hochschild and Scovronick note, we imbue education with many of the same functions that a broader welfare state serves in other industrialized countries: education is supposed to advance economic opportunity, better health, happier lives, and so forth. (The last, most corrupt form of progressive curriculum ideas was called the Life Adjustment movement, and it was the reductio ad absurdum of education as a substitute for broader social citizenship.) So now schools are supposed to do everything from resuscitate the economy to save lives to ... oh, I don't know, cure split ends. There is a legitimate and identifiable human capital consequence to education, but the rhetoric on that is overblown. There is an inevitable temptation to see education as the cure for all ills, and the politics of education is liberally infected with panacea attribution disease. One part of the serious debate over accountability is the precise role of schools, and that is intimately tied to questions about the extent of the American welfare state.

One complication in thinking about education is the fact that elementary and secondary schooling is among the most equally distributed resources in the United States. In the states with the worst inequality in school spending, you'll see maybe two or even three times as much spending for some children as for others. Think about the distribution of other resources: access to health care, housing, transportation. All are distributed less equally than schools, because schooling is part of the democratic state and a right of citizenship by politics and state constitutions. That fact does not excuse educational inequality, but it's something we don't talk about openly or think about clearly.

I think there's a way out from the quagmire I've identified above: schools, other agencies, and families share responsibilities for children. Each is independently responsible for a reasonable but critical role in the lives of young people. Schools are not time machines: they cannot go back and undue what happened or didn't happen in earlier years, nor can they provide health care, clean air, and so forth. Nor can they take over the lives of children. But neither are they or teachers able to use the rest of children's lives as excuses; you take the students you have and move them. Period. The same is true for parents: they're not responsible for teaching their children calculus. But neither are they supposed to sit on their butts when things go wrong in schools, nor is it responsible to neglect their children. Oh, yes, and you're responsible for talking with people in the other roles, too.

There is a crucial advantage of having twin principles (responsibilities for both coordination and independent functioning): It fits with the broad sense of U.S. parents and other adults that both families and schools are responsible for academic achievement. I've pointed out this apparent inconsistency for several years, but in reality it's not an inconsistency. It reflects one reasonable solution to the dilemma: we're all supposed to be responsible.

But there's a sticking point in this grand ideal: given that schools have a serious but limited responsibility, how do we define the scope of that responsibility? Let's assume (for now) that we're concerned primarily with academic achievement. What exactly do we want schools to do? The final issue I want to identify is the series of shortcuts we take when talking about standards, proficiency, expectations, and any synonym you can find to the general concept of what we want children to learn. I have made the following point in Accountability Frankenstein among other places, and no one has even challenged me on it: almost every policy displaces the hard choices about expectations into a different forum. That doesn't mean that I have no expectations for my children or for schools. It just means that the process of turning rhetoric into policy mechanism removes the definition of academic expectations from public debate. Some of us say we want "high standards," but that does not say a single thing except in the politics of symbolism. Reformulating the concept doesn't help: growth models are equally suspect. In short, "proficiency" is a cipher.

Oh, damn: and there you thought I was headed into a Grand Bargain, a reasonable solution to all the fighting over accountability? Unfortunately, I'm an historian, not a Nobel Peace Prize winner. And I have somewhere to be in a few minutes. But do not fear: for those who grumble about the lack of specifics in this week's manifestoes or this entry, just hold on (or read the last chapter in my book, which is available without waiting for the second entry on this topic).

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein on June 12, 2008 7:04 PM |