Why Schools Seem Dysfunctional
Well, they are.
Anybody who has spent more than a minute inside a school has thoughts on how to improve it. “I would simply let kids move at their own pace through the curriculum.” Or: “isn’t coding more important than long division?” “Get rid of Honors classes.” “Let people go to the bathroom when they like.”
These all have a point. Schools are very silly places! It seems incomprehensible at first—why don’t we just do these obvious things? Let people go to the bathroom!
The key thing is this: schools don’t make any sense. It’s because they are trying to do many things, and all those things conflict.
This is, in my humblest of humble opinions, the most important thing to understand about schools. Many naive activists in particular seem confused by this, thinking that school has a particular aim that we have all collectively agreed on. This is not the case, which is good from a certain perspective (schools are interesting and dysfunctional in very human ways) but bad in others (the dysfunction).
These unavoidable tensions are particularly well-expressed by David Labaree in his somewhat-cynical take on public schooling in America, Someone Has to Fail. You should check out his book—it’s engaging and covers a lot of ground. But it’s his overall orientation to schooling that I really admire, and he expresses that in the very first few pages.
“Throughout the history of American education, some consumers have demanded greater access to school in order to climb the social ladder, while others have demanded greater advantage from school in order to protect themselves from these same social climbers. Obligingly, the school system has let us have it both ways, providing access and advantage, promoting equality and inequality.”
Why not let everyone move at their own pace? It would violate equality of opportunity. Why not then give everyone the same opportunity? It would violate the other main consumer demand, which is that schools give kids a chance to rise above their peers. It’s literally a contradiction, and schools are the buildings where that contradiction happens.
“A key to understanding the American school syndrom is to recognize that our schools have never really been about learning. The impact of school on society over the years has come more from the form of the school system than from the substance of the school curriculum. Schools have been able to create community by bringing together a diverse array of citizens under one roof and exposing them to a shared social and cultural experience, but for these purposes the content of the curriculum hasn’t mattered as much as its commonality.”
There is another purpose for schooling—serving as a formative social institution, a shared cultural experience. And people don’t want you messing with shared cultural experiences! People want schools to be the same. “They teach math differently these days” isn’t just a lament about a parent’s inability to understand their kids’ math homework. People want continuity.
Labaree gives these three competing social goals names. There’s democratic equality (“education as a mechanism for producing capable citizens”), social efficiency (“education as a mechanism for developing productive work”), and social mobility (“education as a way for individuals to reinforce or improve their social position”). But to put it plainly, people want school to be a fair contest that everyone feels good about. It was already impossible at “fair contest.”
There are certain problems at my school that we seem to talk about every year. One of them is tracking, and whether there’s some better way to assign students to classes. But, truly, there is no solution to this problem: it is a problem we will always be grappling with. (Though there are better and worse ways of navigating the tension.) There’s simply no way to to both give everyone an equal shot at achievement and allow kids a chance to outshine some of their peers.
One last Labaree quote:
“The educational system is an abject failure in achieving any one of its primary social goals. It is also a failure in solving the social problems assigned to it, since these problems cannot be solved in a way that simultaneously satisfies all three goals. The apparently dysfunctional outcomes of the school system, therefore, are not necessarily the result of bad planning, bad administration, or bad teaching; they are an expression of the contradictions in the liberal democratic mind.”
Don’t ask me what we do with all this. I’m sure there are ways to improve things in education. Schooling may be zero-sum, but you can increase the size of the pie. There are things like infrastructure that cut across the goals. There are better and worse ways of navigating these waters, and I’m not so enticed by Labaree’s pessimism to say those aren’t worth pursuing.
But, hey! This is the job. It’s impossible. Failure is the name of the game, and people will blame you for it. It’s a huge messy tangle of contradictions, which makes it our society’s most interesting institution. School is insane, but not so bad once you get used to it.