Research Toward Radical Educational Reform in the USA

The Coleman Report of 1966 – On the Equality of Educational Opportunity

The Coleman Report should have changed everything, especially the belief that education alone can beneficially change society. Education is not the transformative social force we hope it can be. A successful educational system will be a reflection of a just society, not a mechanism for the creation of that society.

In the 1960s Congress commissioned sociologist James Coleman to document that schools used by African American children received less funding than schools used by White children. The problem seemed simple: Brown v. the Board of Education was not working, schools were still racially segregated and Black children were scoring lower on standardized tests than White children. The idea was to prove the lower scores were due to differences in schools for Black and White children, and to make sure African American kids got what White kids got (a sad retreat back to the concept of separate but equal).

Coleman, however, wondered what he might find if he looked at Black and White schools that were receiving the same funding, had the same quality teachers and that mirrored each other in everything except the race of the children. In this scenario, Black students still underperformed academically compared to White students. When Coleman examined the background factors of the students in the differing schools, he discovered that the Black students overwhelmingly lived in some of the poorest neighborhoods in America.

Many black students lived in poverty, did not get enough to eat, had parents who had not had educational opportunities and who were unemployed or underemployed. Coleman thus arrived at the realization that you could have equal facilities for Black students, but their societal and economic backgrounds might prevent them from benefitting from these schools. You could build the best schools in the worst neighborhoods and you would not get equality.

The Coleman Report called for putting money into peoples’ pockets, making neighborhoods safer, providing meaningful and gainful employment, helping families develop stability, providing healthful meal opportunities and everything else needed to have a good society for everyone. Only then would we get educational equality.

The Hidden Curriculum

You develop the most progressive, leftist curriculum in the world. Everything progressive excluded from textbooks in the past is now center stage. You have narratives focusing on slavery, imperialism, war, class-injustice, labor unions and the history of protest movements. You teach world culture, not just European culture. Your literature textbook shows a diversity of writers of diverse genders, races, social classes and viewpoints yielding diverse insights into human life and society. Your math textbooks help students learn how to distribute wealth and manage microloans instead of calculating how to compound student debt. Your science books talk about the day human societies will interface with the planet Earth sustainably. Sounds good? Students are finally being taught ‘the truth’? No.

The concept of the hidden curriculum states that the way you teach something is often more important than what you teach. When you have an authority figure wielding the power of the grading system, aimed at students stuck behind desks for 8 hours a day, what the students are really learning is that passivity and obedience are lucrative values. Sitting and absorbing what someone else wants you to learn becomes good. Judging ideas and pursuing your own interests is still neglected. The most progressive curriculum possible becomes useless when students are not active learners, developing through self-motivation, free from a grading system, and learning what is important to them in the most meaningful way.

Interestingly, teaching methods are often different for different social classes. Professor Jean Anyon discovered that in working class classrooms there is much rote learning with little decision making for the students themselves. Teachers rarely explain why work is being given. The emphasis is on rules and steps to be followed. In middle class classrooms, getting the “right” answer becomes the emphasis. Some choice and decision making is allowed in the name of getting the right answer and right answers are obtained and memorized from textbooks and teachers. In classrooms of affluent students, however, creativity and independence are the core of the student’s experience. Students become experts at problem-solving and often choose their own methodology instead of being told to follow steps. There are often no “right” answers for them, and they are encouraged to be expressive and show their personalities. Higher-order thinking skills, interpretive skills and unique answers are emphasized.

Charter Schools for the poor do not follow the pedagogy of affluence as they seem to plunder the public school system of academically promising students, subject them to a type of rigid, militaristic control, and force-feed them education.

Hegemony and Horrorless History

In the German Ideology Marx suggested that the upper classes develop an ideology or world view and this trickles down and is embraced by everyone. Engels followed with the concept of “false-consciousness” – the belief that the working class is often not even aware of the level of oppression under which they labor. Antonio Gramsci further developed this into the concept of “hegemony” – that meaningful change is thwarted and power maintained by the misconceptions embraced by the working class.

Jean Anyon also showed how hegemony works in American history textbooks. Even though the labor movement made significant changes to better all of our lives, Anyon found that there was very little mention of the struggles of unions in history textbooks in working class classrooms. Indeed, not only was labor history neglected, the only labor unions mentioned at all were the unions that had been cooperative with management or had established an obliging and even subservient attitude toward management – a value of the dominant class.

The history of unionism in the USA was long, difficult and bloody – a struggle punctuated by groups of Pinkerton agents, police and/or soldiers firing into crowds of unarmed, striking protesters. Anyon realized the idea of taking forceful and confrontational action to ensure one’s rights was obliterated from these students’ educational experience. It was just not an option. It violated the dominant ideology of “cooperation” and “obedience” by the working class and so it never happened.

To follow up on this, one also often receives a harmless strategic narrative instead of an engaging, transformative story in one’s history class. Horrorless history is being taught under the pretense that young people must be shielded from blood and gore. Battles are almost always presented strategically with little detail concerning the pain and suffering of the individual soldier or civilian. When you take all the battlefield amputations out of the Battle of Shiloh, you get the battle as seen from the perspective of the Wall Street banker funding the war, or the Department of War bureaucrat, the upper middle-class officer behind the lines, or the politicians who failed to negotiate an end to slavery using peaceful means. You do not get the perspective of the common soldier who goes in to fight after diplomacy fails or the stories of civilians inadvertently killed.

You get the dominant culture ideology that vast and horrific human suffering is acceptable if committed toward “a greater end”. Throughout history politicians and power-brokers always have their end justifying the displacement and slaughter of countless people who want nothing but to live quietly and peacefully.

If you look at books which have REALLY changed things, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin or The Jungle, the motivation for change and engagement is in the details. This type of engagement, which reaches people on a moral and visceral level, is absent from our history classes. The Vietnam War without photos from My Lai is horrorless history and it teaches young people to view horrific and violent events dispassionately, as if human life should be a means to an end. Students are told benign narratives of the greater good accomplished. They are not allowed to see the body bags.

To Grade Is to Degrade

Grades are the currency of the educational system and few question the grading process. Yet, there is significant research which shows that grading harms self-motivated learning. Grading often reduces interest in the learning process, encourages less intellectual risk-taking and kills creativity.

Learned Helplessness, Symbolic Violence and Race-based Expectations

A group of researchers once put dogs in metal cages with electrodes that could produce high voltages of electricity. Once the electricity began to flow, each dog did as much as possible to avoid the electric shocks. The scientists wanted to see what would happen if the dog could not avoid the pain and would not die. Reaching this point, every one of them merely lay down in the cage and absorbed the shocks. They experienced and demonstrated ‘learned helplessness’ – convinced that nothing you can do will help you, you simply stop trying and accept anything.

Learned helplessness pervades our society and especially our classrooms. When students feel that they have no control over their educations, they give up. They absorb the shocks and try to get through the experience. In schools students do not make decisions, have little or no input into the course of their learning and are graded on how well they adapt to this.

Symbolic violence is a term coined by Bourdieu. Bourdieu followed up on the concept of structural violence – your social and economic environment can cause real harm to you. Your economic background is your fate, and those from lower economic backgrounds suffer physically more so than those from more affluent backgrounds. Life expectancy is lower and chronic health problems become more pervasive. There are psychological problems that come with poverty and minority status and one’s life opportunities are severely limited. Your exposure to actual physical violence from others increases and the odds of being abused by the police increases.

Bourdieu took structural violence one step further by asserting that people who are victimized by their social and economic circumstances often accept this as necessary. Instead of realizing that something causing them harm is wrong and changeable, they accept the abuse as if there is no alternative.

Symbolic violence is real in schools because students are forming identities based on failure in a system that is not only flawed but working against them. Students begin to blame themselves instead of economics and schools. If one believes that one is responsible for a type of failure that was not only expected but structured to that end, these folks will not attempt to change anything.

Educational expectations are generally lower for students of darker skin colors in the USA. White teachers hold the majority of teaching jobs in the USA and various studies show that they generally have lower expectations for their darker-skinned students. Students rise to the level that their teachers set for them and when the expectations are low, the students pick this up and underperform. Symbolic violence kicks in as students generally internalize these beliefs and create a system of self-fulfilling prophecies instead of taking a stand against a system that is not conducive to the real and meaningful education of the poor and those of darker skin.

What Real Educational Reform Would Look Like

The start of educational reform would be the start of social and economic reform. As ex-president Obama said, our entire society collaborates in the success of everyone who prospers. Wealth is hoarded under the pretense that some “worked hard” and “deserve” it. This is a harmful hegemonic idea – the myth of personal achievement. Wealth created by our entire society should be shared by our entire society – this will end inequalities of opportunity.

A curriculum of action is also needed. Meaningful self-development integrated into a healthful relationship with one’s peers and community should be a goal. History must be from every perspective, not just the perspective of the class that starts the wars which are fought by the working class whose experience is too ugly to be presented. Active, creative, purposeful, relevant, meaningful and unique educational experiences must be made available to everyone and not just the wealthy.


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