Beneath the Surface
Part IV: Beyond Reform

I ended Part III with the following: “In the next part of this series, I’ll try to probe the issues of responsibility for the existing state of affairs and what a good education might actually look like for all kids.” Let’s see if I can pull it off.


Responsibility and Intentionality

Unlike in the era of legal school segregation or in the long time periods in the United States when the more-or-less explicit tracking of children from different social strata into different educational pathways in the public schools was largely taken for granted as a desirable project, the pervasive educational inequalities of the moment are not the result of intentional policies. Indeed, they persist in spite of a whole set of policy initiatives that have been announced and embraced as measures to do exactly the opposite, for more than three decades—since the release of the A Nation at Risk report in 1983. One current and very public instance of that kind of policy initiative is the promotion of the Common Core Learning Standards.

Leaving aside for a moment the wisdom of those standards, there is no evidence to suggest that they are intended to result in lower achievement by any group of students or to track the children of poor, working class, or discriminated-against families into educational pathways designed to prepare them to wind up in the same place as their parents and grandparents. Unless we believe that our rulers are pathological liars, it seems that they want kids to do better. On the other hand, the new assessments being developed in alignment with those standards are likely to reinforce well-established patterns of who does well and who does not because of factors that are deeply grounded in the circumstances of students’ lives. By way of example, I am thinking of the all-but-perfect correlation between results on the S.A.T. tests and family income—the higher the income, the higher the score. In spite of the good intentions of many of those involved in the development of new assessments, I don’t think that they’re going to escape from the iron grip of traditional psychometric assumptions about test design—specifically, the ways in which tests routinely exclude meaningful contextual information that could help students who are less “sophisticated” about the ways that tests work to do better in comparison to their more “sophisticated” peers who have acquired lots of practice and proficiency in de-contextualized learning. These traditional assumptions result from a mistaken effort on the part of educational scientists to mimic the methods of their peers in the natural sciences, of whom they are jealous and whose approval they desire, in the design of lab-like, value-free, replicable experiments.

It’s worth noting that the bias built into tests is deeply connected to what is a pervasive, although usually unintentional, bias at work in everyday classroom practice. For better or worse, classrooms are mostly places where teachers talk to kids. For far too much of the time, teachers don’t pay terribly much attention to what it is that they’re saying and pay way too little attention to what their students are saying or not saying or thinking. As a result, we have some classic expressions of really dumb instruction. What, for example, does it mean that a “subject has to agree with a verb” (or a “predicate,” in the fancy version)? Does it mean that subjects and verbs should learn how not to disagree or to avoid arguments? What does it mean that a “subject is what the sentence is about?” If that’s the case, please tell me what the subject of the first sentence of the children’s classic, Goodnight Moon, is. It goes this way: “In the great green room there was a telephone and a red balloon and a picture of—a cow jumping over the moon.” The “subject” is the answer to the question “What is the subject of the predicate?” It is not the answer to the question “What is the sentence about?” The answer to the former question is usually a precise one. The answers to the latter question can be quite varied because it invites speculation and interpretation. There is value and purpose in knowing the answers to both questions but their different implications must be kept clear and distinct.

What does it mean that students should “reduce fractions to lowest terms?” Should the fractions lose weight? Or better still, what does it mean to “cancel out” when you’re multiplying fractions? I confess that I have no idea how kids understand the idea of “cancelling.” What I do know is that kids who have an idea about what a fraction is can figure out what the words mean—after the fact of their understanding—and that those who don’t are all but completely confused. Fractions—and decimals and percents—are remarkable human achievements and all students deserve an opportunity to learn about them and use them for their own varied purposes. But it will seldom be the case that they will do so by trying to memorize more or less cryptic rules. I could go on: the basic point is that bad science and bad everyday practices conspire to keep things going as they have been going.


Towards Something Different

How else could they go? As the above suggests, I think it wouldn’t be too hard to design better ways of teaching. But, beyond the problem of flawed approaches in schools and classrooms, I want to raise more fundamental questions about how education should work. Can we—to get to the most important point at once—imagine an educational politics based on a different vision of the social and economic future rather than simply trying to prepare children better to live within the shrunken universe of possibilities currently on offer?

What does the current future consist of? A short list would include: 1) a dramatic reduction of the number of individuals engaged in what might be considered socially reproductive labor—meaning labor that might allow those individuals and their families to be well-fed, housed, educated, and cared for when ill; 2) the likelihood of catastrophic environmental challenges, including severe climate change; 3) the intensification of inequalities—within and among nations; 4) enduring and intensifying religious and national conflicts; 5) profound social alienation, manifested in phenomena such as increased rates of drug abuse and personal violence; 6) the not-insignificant emergence of far-right and neo-fascist movements across the world—from India to Greece to Hungary to France and even the U.S. I guess that there are a few good things happening, like even smarter smart phones, that I’ve left out—but I’m not too worried about that.

What might a profoundly different future look like? Let’s begin by acknowledging that, in spite of all the grim consequences of technology, we human beings have acquired an impressive set of scientific and technical capacities that we might use productively. What might we do? Another short list would include: 1) the reduction of work time for all, thereby freeing people to pursue interests and talents; 2) a transfer of labor from the production and distribution of not especially worthwhile stuff to the provision of essential care for the young, the old, and others in need; 3) the introduction of comprehensive measures to reduce the adverse environmental impacts of human activity, mostly industrial production and various forms of private consumption; 4) the intentional reduction of inequalities across the world by the continual allocation of essential life resources (food, water, shelter, and health care) to all those in need; 5) the integration of modern and traditional technologies to result in the greatest possible long-term advantages to those in need; 6) the promotion of collective and democratically determined values as a response to widespread convictions of helplessness and desperation; 7) the progressive mastery of intentional collective human control over what now appear to be uncontrollable natural forces—like the market.

And so what does education have to do with it?

In the years before the end of apartheid in South Africa, a great revolutionary and impassioned educator, Neville Alexander, wrote: “No government on earth can control the process of schooling completely. The beginnings of trouble in any modern society usually make themselves felt in the schools before they become evident in other institutions precisely because it is so difficult in a modern state to control this process completely.” Students, he thought, could be taught “in such a way that students know exactly what is true, what is half-true, what is simply false, what has been omitted, and why.”

That’s not what happened after apartheid was dismantled. Instead, according to Alexander, the role models for the challenges of life changed “suddenly, as though by some sleight of hand” from those fighting for liberation, justice and equality to

The entrepreneurial, individualistic whiz-kids of the neoliberal epoch. In short, we, especially our young people, were encouraged to become rich without being ashamed or guilty. We were led to believe that in the confines of the capitalist system, where—necessarily—a small minority of very rich people dominate society in all its dimensions and serve as the never-to-be equaled role models for the countless numbers of the poor and the very poor, all of us, if we would only make use of all the wonderful new ‘opportunities’, could become like the “best of them.”

It’s not so different here. The education reformers have narrowly defined what success in school might look like for the great majority of students as being better prepared to compete in the “Hunger Games” of all against all. Unfortunately, most of their opponents have simply been urging a return to the state of affairs in the miserable pre-reform era. The reformers have so narrowed the debate so that we are encouraged to abandon all desires for education that might transform children’s lives and potentially transform the world. We need, instead, to embrace those desires and not accommodate ourselves to the stunted visions of reformers, or their opponents, who cannot see beyond the continued existence of schooling as we know it. That demands politics of a kind that engages large numbers of people and not merely relative handfuls of benevolent social engineers.

Such a politics would call forth a vision of a different kind of education, albeit one that’s not so different from what the individuals in the commanding heights of the social order usually expect for their own children. It could include: 1) the cultivation of children’s interests in understanding the natural and social worlds; 2) an appreciation of the world’s cultures; 3) the acquisition of technical proficiency in various domains; 4) ethical practice—by which I mean doing well by our fellow human beings when we’re teaching them, helping them become well, or caring for them when they’re old; 5) making sense of the world.

The work of making a world worthy of the children who will live in it and of making children ready for that world needs to go hand in hand. It is difficult to know for sure what potentials might be uncovered if schools became more thoughtful and equitable places or what hard limits those potentials would be faced with. That should not deter us from seeking out possibilities for activity in and outside the school buildings.

As children go off to a new school year in September, parents are understandably concerned with how it will go. Their concerns must be one essential starting point for thinking about education writ large. Often enough, those expectations profoundly reflect memories of their own school experiences. It would be helpful if they could also reflect an expanded sense of what was desirable and possible. I hope this series can contribute to that happening. I’d be delighted to hear what readers think.


John Garvey

John Garvey worked at CUNY for almost 30 years.