Asking Necessary Questions 

“All children can learn …,” is the premise of the current, well-intentioned but not always analytically sophisticated movement for educational reform and renewal, especially in urban school systems.

 To be honest in a way that seems necessary, this slogan really means to say that the children of the poor, and especially those from social groups once widely believed to be ‘racially inferior’ to northern European, upper-middle-class protestant stock can equal the children of privilege in their academic achievements in our present society with its present educational system.

 How realistic is this premise? What are its educational consequences? Within what larger vision of the social future is educational reform and renewal to be carried out?

I have not often heard these issues forthrightly addressed. I am certain that any effort to create greater equity in educational opportunity, and moreso greater equality in educational attainment, is doomed to failure unless we do address them.

To the first question, the most honest answer, I think, is ‘we don’t know’. Just because the theory of racial inferiority is now seen to be scientifically untenable as well as morally offensive and socially unworkable, does not mean that children who lack the benefits of the privileged sectors of our society can easily equal the educational achievements of those who enjoy these benefits. Nor does it mean that mainstream educators know how to help ‘other people’s children’ succeed academically, or that we can safely assume that the same approach to education will have the same results with all children.

Second, the educational consequences derived from this core premise have been taken so far to imply a model which holds all students to the same timetable and expectations of achievement and provides them all with the same curriculum taught in the same way. Everything I know about social diversity and education tells me that this is a recipe for individual and civic disaster.

The third question is the one least talked about, but the most essential to success. For what world are we educating students? For a world just like the one we have today but with more people well-qualified for every available job? For a world in which there are only well-paying middle-class jobs? For a world where what you know matters most and who you know matters not at all? For a world where the ‘smart’ get rich, the ‘dumb’ get poor, and we all count this state of affairs as just and inevitable? For a world where the primary enterprise of our lives is to live comfortably?

Causes for Concern

Why do I doubt the currently dominant model for reform? For the following reasons. 

The present form of our society has been disproportionately influenced by the members of its historically privileged groups. Our economic institutions, our legal system, our political arrangements, our cultural forms, our technological machinery have all been built historically to be operated by people for whom certain forms of reasoning, certain attitudes, certain kinds of meaning, certain forms of discourse, certain styles of behavior seem natural and comfortable. Our educational systems are designed, however imperfectly, to inculcate just these forms. Historically, our curricula and our teaching methods, all our educational arrangements, work best for students who identify with these forms and learn to excel in using them. Not exclusively, but overwhelmingly, those students are the children of social privilege, the children of families who have succeeded in these terms in at least one prior generation.

I am idealizing and simplifying the real complexity of this picture, but trying to maintain the key facts relevant to my argument. Curricula aim to reproduce upper-middle-class culture. Imperfectly, but in broad strokes, they do aim to prepare students with the skills that our present society demands in the service of its relatively stable institutions of power. Those institutions have been shaped by the interests and sensibilities, the class culture of privilege. Curricula are shaped by its delegates in the world of educational policy and specialist expertise. Curricula are taught by those people who have been selected as closely identifying with the forms of elite culture but not sufficiently talented to be recruited as full members of the upper-middle class. Teachers are trained (and I use that word precisely) to teach according to methods that work better with students just to the extent that the students’ own cultures match the relevant characteristics of upper-middle-class culture. The criteria of academic success are, as nearly as this imperfect system can make them, the criteria relevant to successful membership in the social elite: managers, professionals, researchers, engineers, … all those who are charged with relatively independent responsibility for the operation and development of social institutions and granted the powers needed to carry out such responsibilities.

Not all the children of privilege succeed academically; many lack the skills or drive or concentration of their parents or grandparents, or rebel against the materially successful values of their families. They tend to be caught by the safety nets of social capital, not given much power or responsibility, but retain a good part of their class privilege. Their own children are still good prospects for full membership in the social elite.

Not all children who lack the benefits of privilege fail academically; many discover that they have talent, many find the drive to succeed despite great obstacles, many come to identify with the culture behind the curriculum, or at least to simulate such an identification well enough to pass the gatekeepers. But for every difference these children have from the relevant assets of upper-middle-class culture, they face a corresponding obstacle to academic success.

We can begin with simple differences in their economic resources. They most often attend schools in less affluent communities, with less experienced and well-trained teachers, who are themselves more marginalized than their counterparts in more elite schools. Their schools have poorer teaching resources of every kind, and fewer of the extra-curricular resources that also contribute to acculturation to upper-middle-class culture. They attend classes mostly with other students who also do not bring the relevant assets, particularly of cultural capital, to their peers, and outside school they do not have or acquire the social capital of contacts with those closer than themselves to the centers of privilege in society. In fact, in the poorest communities, their schools may be grossly mismanaged, under-funded, staffed mainly by the least experienced and competent teachers, and there may be systematically reduced expectations for their achievement (the principal point that is addressed by the current reform model). In their communities, they may be at risk of violence; in their homes they may  have burdensome responsibilities compared to those of more privileged students, and they may have less of every sort of human and material resource. In general, their home lives are likely to be less stable, more subject to periodic crises that further interfere with steady academic progress.

In addition to these stark facts, students who do not begin school life within the culture of privilege have other relevant handicaps relative to what the school and curriculum expect and demand, and relative to the advantages of more privileged age-peers. They are much less likely to be fluent speakers of the upper-middle-class (i.e. ‘standard’) dialect, which is the basis not only for teacher speech in classrooms, but for the norms of academic writing, in textbooks and for their own compositions and test answers. They are also much less likely to be native speakers of any dialect of the language of instruction. They are more likely to have developed implicit norms of language use which are intellectually divergent from those of school discourse and upper-middle-class professional, public discourse and writing. ‘Intellectually’ in the sense that the semantic conventions that connect forms and functions in formal reasoning, abstraction, exposition, and even exemplary narrative, as media for learning and thinking, are different. They are also perhaps likely to be less logocentric than the children of privilege, investing more attention in visual patterns, in musical and movement styles, and in the vocal, rhetorical, and poetic stylings of speech as opposed to its narrowly defined ideational content.

I will leave the argument at this point, except to note that differences in values and behavioral styles, especially communication styles and ways of performing personal identities, are also likely to differ between classes and cultures in ways that favor the styles of the culture of privilege, in school as in other formal public settings. This does not mean that the disprivileged do not value education, or language, or economic success, or that their behavior is more selfish or more criminal or anti-social. It only means that their cultural norms are adapted to their status as underdogs in social competition, and that many of those adaptations either do not fit well with the middle-class orientation of the culture of the school or are (mis-)perceived by teachers and other professionals in the school as less desirable or as undesirable.

Given these circumstances, we cannot make assumptions about the academic potential of students from disprivileged backgrounds in isolation from their cultural and economic resources and lifeways. We cannot assume that teaching methods or curricula that provide what upper-middle-class students need to succeed after schooling will also provide what these other students need to succeed in school or after. We cannot fall back on a simplistic view that all humans learn in the same ways when we know that people learn from their social interactions with other people, and that the success of these interactions depends on the degree of compatibility of the participants’ communicative and cultural assumptions, beliefs, values, norms, habits, and styles. And on the hard work and learned skill of bridging differences.

What we do not know is just which aspects of communication and culture are most relevant to academic success. We do not know what kinds of curricula and teaching methods best help disprivileged students overcome the handicaps that are imposed on them not just by the traditions of schooling but by the world-made-by-Others for which schooling aims to prepare all students. We do not know to what extent the curricula and methods that are of greatest help for the students most in need of help overlap with those that suffice for more privileged students. The need for raising social capital and that for making cultural capital available are in conflict for disprivileged students. They gain more access to social capital by being integrated with more privileged peers; they may well gain more, useful cultural capital when taught in ways specific to their special needs.

All these arguments assume the status quo regarding the society for which all students are being prepared. Many of us dissent from this status quo. We may not believe that it is just, or that it should be legally tolerated, to discriminate in school or in employment on the basis of social dialect. We may not wish to see the future of science or mathematics constrained by the same forms of reasoning, or intellectual culture generally subjected to the same degree of logocentrism in the future that has dominated the past. We may not believe that more narrowly eurocultural habits of thought and styles of communication are likely to continue to enjoy the disproportionate privilege in the world as a whole that they have for the last few centuries. But these circumstances are likely to change only on a timescale that is long compared to today’s students’ years of education. We may wish to prepare students to look critically at the social class, gender, and cultural biases of the society around them, and even of the curriculum and traditions of their schools. But we should recognize that even the modes of critique that we offer depend by and large on fluent deployment of the intellectual resources of the dominant cultural tradition.

In the lifetimes of those entering the school system today there will be radical social and cultural changes, even if we cannot predict what they will be. It is socially untenable not to prepare students to participate in those changes: to decide what kind of world they want, to work toward such a world, to recognize the changes being wrought by others, and to adapt to or resist them.

The nature of schooling itself is likely to change, for economic and technological reasons, as well as for cultural and social ones, over the career lifetimes of those now preparing to become teachers and school leaders. These changes, too, need to be taken into account in any plans for educational reform and renewal.

Reform, Renewal, and Re-engineering

 There seem to be, broadly speaking, three approaches to systematic educational change as a matter of social policy. 

The first is Reform. Its premise is that the current educational system is failing to do the basic job of preparing most or all students for a conservative view of the world they will be living and especially working in. Reform means plugging the holes: raising standards for teacher certification, providing adequate funding for specific educational needs, holding all students accountable for mastering a common curriculum. It is a conservative agenda with limited objectives. It is grounded in the minimal consensus of the present social elite regarding necessary steps to insure social stability and a competent workforce for the next two or three decades.

The second is Renewal. It seeks to add to the reform agenda a more liberal vision of empowering students and teachers to be more intellectually critical of the status quo and to begin making changes in curricula and teaching methods, provided these can be shown to be effective. 

The third is Re-engineering. This more radical approach seeks to find alternative ways of achieving educational goals by different means. It questions the institutional forms of modern schooling: schools as institutions where the young are isolated from the rest of society, age-grading within learning groups, discipline-specific curricula, common curricula, a single model of teacher and student roles, calendar-based organization of learning activities, extreme logocentrism. By and large, re-engineering proposes a spectrum of hybrid institutional forms, varying mixes of traditional and alternative approaches to education.

Reform can be accomplished by changes in management. For the reasons I’ve already presented, it seems unlikely to equalize educational attainment across class and culture differences, though it can eliminate some of the most scandalous inequities in educational resources. Raising expectations and providing resources, however, is not enough. There is a fundamental divergence between the curriculum and the managerial-professional world it prepares for on the one hand, and the class-culture resources, lifeways, and identities of too many students on the other. That divergence must be specifically addressed or reform will fail in its most fundamental social agenda.

Educational renewal has a more worthy agenda than reform alone, and its emphasis on the empowerment of teachers and students together (and not forgetting parents, school leaders, and the local and wider community) to innovate and adapt at least provides some hope for a more self-correcting approach to educating a diverse range of student needs. But the renewal agenda does not base itself on a call for systematic research to provide a repertory of successful strategies and compelling analyses of the specific needs of various categories of students. Its liberal roots leave it still uncritically committed to an egalitarian uniformity of approach and content, to a refusal of the dilemma posed by the contradictions between raising students’ social capital and addressing their specific and different needs for cultural capital.

The re-engineering of education begins from deeper dissatisfactions with the institutional arrangements for education in modern society. It may share Reform’s disdain for a system that fails by even its own meager measures of success, and it may embrace the Renewal agenda of more intellectually critical teaching and learning and more empowerment of teachers and students to innovate. But it fundamentally doubts that the ultimate social goals of either movement can be achieved within the structure of present institutional arrangements. In appreciating more sensitively the true difficulty of the goals, it requires more latitude of means.

Re-engineering in its initial stages tends to be somewhat technicist. It looks at ways of altering institutional forms, but not necessarily at redefining the goals of education beyond even the renewal agenda. The goal of education is always to prepare the next generation as best we can for an uncertain future, but what is our vision of that future? What it now seems likely to be? What we want it to be? What others want it to be? What is likely to change most slowly? most quickly? Education often attempts to manipulate children into wanting the same world that adults today want, rather than trying to prepare them to make their own value choices, even ones we would not agree with. It will be their world for longer and more truly than it will be ours. It will be their children’s world until those children in turn remake it for themselves and the next generation.

We come at this point to larger questions of social dynamics and cultural change on timescales greater than a single human lifetime. It is not in fact all of us who feel a major stake in trying to shape the future beyond our own lifetimes. It is mainly those of us who enjoy a class privilege. Part of that privilege is being oriented to the longer-term future; we are all trained in some degree as managers. Along with that privilege and orientation comes an interest in the maintenance of the privilege itself and its associated culture. Whatever we may believe, our culture knows that its privilege is not automatic, but must be renewed in each generation. We are oriented to imposing our will on generations to come, whether for the status quo, a return to the good old days, or a particular view of a different and to us better future. We should perhaps use our other privilege, an orientation to critical analysis of motive and consequence, to question this ‘will’. Looking back rather than forward, when did any generation foresee and know what would be best for the generation to come?

The most basic question of education is that of inter-generational relationships. Education is fundamentally about the stance of the current adult generation to the next-in-embryo. In modernism, that stance has been that children and students are the means by which we will make a better world for the future. But the only arguable improvements in the world have come not from any generation’s specific plans for its children's future, but only from the general educational empowerment of each next generation to make its own intelligent and critical choices. Children should not be regarded as tools through which to project our own desires beyond the grave.

The basic analysis have been offering here has important implications for many aspects of educational re-engineering. It argues against the premise of a single common curriculum for all. It argues against strict age-grading and the one-teacher-for-many-students model. It argues against the isolation of students from the rest of social activity outside school. Each of these features of the modern educational system tends to maximize the putative control of the present social elite over what students’ learn, and tends as well to minimize the overall rate of social change. A common curriculum is the product of a few designed to influence the many; more individualized trajectories of learning are less predictable, less subject to control, and produce more possible cross-combinations in the next generation. Age-grading tends to insure that students at each age are mainly influenced in school by adult teachers without competition from older students, which would complicate the interactions of age-cohorts in social evolution. Students who have only one teacher, or only a few teachers with similar training and social backgrounds are more subject to cultural control than students who have access to older students, non-teacher mentors, and non-school role models as part of their educations. This is true as well for students who are educated only within the controlled institutional environment of a school, with limited access to firsthand experience in other social institutions.

There is an important place in society for voluntary associations of people who seek to work for long-term social change and who recruit new generations to their movements. This is the only way specific social goals can outlive a particular generation and act over long enough timescales to achieve their results. Such associations become institutionalized, they produce long-lived artifacts, discourses, and traditions that do live on after their makers, and they recruit and train new generations who re-interpret goals and means as new circumstances demand. But schools are not such institutions. They are not voluntary; they are coercive. They do not operate on principles of equal participation in the determination of institutional policy; they embody the efforts of adults to control the intellectual and cultural development of students – many of whom are themselves already biological adults and would be counted as social adults in most human cultures historically. Schools as they exist today are neither morally nor sociologically the appropriate places to try to shape the longer term social future. 

It is perfectly possible, of course, that some variant of a re-engineered educational system could function both educationally and as an appropriate vehicle for social engineering. But this new social form would have to look very different from a modern school.

Research and Values-Inquiry

In the broad sketch of this argument, I have mainly been trying to make it plausible that we need to know a great many things we don’t yet know. I have been trying to make a case for the need for a wide range of research into: 

Efforts at educational reform, renewal, or re-engineering that are not informed by the results of such research and values-inquiry are not likely to be effective or sustainable, and even less likely to be morally responsible or intellectually self-critical.

 We need to know more in order to do better.


JLL. 2/12/01.