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MSPnet Blog: “On avoiding oversimplifications”

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posted June 12, 2017 – by Brian Drayton

My title could apply to almost any subject matter, of course, but today I am thinking about how education is conceptualized in the mainstream these days. I am not the only one who’s been disturbed by the increasing focus on education as first and foremost part of the economic sphere. You can make your own list of consequences, but they include talking about education as a product — or are students the product? Or not even students, but students-as-represented-by-test-scores? Teachers then become factors of production in a market-driven enterprise to be critiqued and manipulated according to market values.
But I’d like to call your attention to a different angle (which however plays into the idea of education conceived mostly as an economic process), which is the view of schools as a favored locus for social engineering — and as a way to pretend to grapple with a problem that the school cannot solve (even if it can be a part of the solution).
My reflections are stimulated by a recent post by Jennifer Berkshire entitled, “Have you heard?  Education can’t fix poverty.  So why keep insisting that it can?”  This post is an interview with Harvey Kantor on a recent publication by Kantor and his co-author Robert Lowe on the “educationalizing” of social policy.  (see on the same topic a paper by David Labaree in Educational Theory vol.58(4).  This is behind a paywall, alas,  but I was able to obtain a copy from the author through Research Gate.).

Labaree puts the problem in almost comically stark terms:

We ask education to ameliorate race and class inequality through school desegregation, compensatory coursework, programs to reduce prejudice, and free lunches. We ask it to counter gender inequality by developing gender-neutral textbooks and encouraging girls to pursue studies in science and math. We ask it to attack public health problems by hiring school nurses, requiring vaccination for students, and providing classes in health and physical education. We ask it to promote economic competitiveness by developing programs in vocational and career education and by adapting its curriculum to the skill needs of the knowledge economy. We ask it to reduce crime by requiring school attendance, developing school discipline codes, and mandating courses in good citizenship. We ask it to promote sexual responsibility through sex education, traffic safety through driver education, healthy eating through nutritional education, and preservation of natural resources through environmental education. American society asks its system of education to take responsibility for remediating all of these social problems, and for the most part educators have been eager to assume the burden.

Kantor and Lowe provide a historical account of the “educationalizing” process since the New Deal. They start with the New Deal, because here they see the origin of the modern view that the federal government carries responsibility for system ills of many kinds, from infrastructure to health care (a belief I mostly share).  One cannot call this a “consensus,” since there have always been those who long for the nullification of the New Deal and all its works. (As a high school student just learning some modern history, I was taken aback in a conversation with my generally reserved and laconic paternal grandfather, when a passing reference of mine to FDR elicited an amazingly intense denunciation of Roosevelt’s policy, personality, and associates. )

The New Deal was intervening principally around economic stimulus and job growth, of course, but as the trauma of the Depression was succeeded by WWII, and then the post-war recovery, other issues came forward to be incorporated into the framework for intervention — racial equality and entrenched poverty, both of which can be seen as issues of opportunity, and have many cross-connections:

School desegregation was a more robust method of redistribution. In contrast to Title I, which did not disturb power relations between the races, it sought to root out racial inequality by providing African American students with access to the superior resources of the schools White students attended.

Using schools as the principal locus of social change was and is a huge oversimplification, since it does not do much to address all the rest of society (in which even school children spend most of their lives).  It has the attractive feature of reducing huge systemic issues to building-sized dimensions, giving the illusion of tractability.

Even when the paradigm for social engineering changed, schools continued to be the safest place (politically) to enact Big Ideas:

Between 1970 and 2000 the programmatic legacy of the New Deal/Great Society welfare state and the ideological consensus that sustained it was challenged by the popularization of a different conception of the role of the state in social policy…this new view of the state’s role in social policy proposed to limit the federal government’s responsibility for income security and to restructure the system of social provision by minimizing direct redistributive measures in favor of more market-oriented forms of social protection. Nothing in this transformation altered the trajectory set in motion during the 1960s that placed educational reform at the center of social policy making. (Kantor and Lowe pp 32-3)

The oversimplification has been a bipartisan affair.  As interviewer/blogger Berkshire puts it,

The belief that poverty can be overcome if we just find the right technocratic fix for what ails our schools reached a crescendo during the Obama Administration. You describe this as substituting accountability for redistribution.

Berkshire later raises a key assumption about social policy in our country, which is that it is amenable to technical, engineering “solutions” which can be put in place by regulation, or even better by market forces (including incentives and disincentives), whether underlying problems are addressed or even recognized. Kantor comments,

One of the end results of the way the accountability movement has transpired and evolved has been to narrow the questions about educational inequality to very technical questions. If we can just put in place the right teacher accountability system, or figure out the right curriculum standards,  that’s going to solve the problem of schools with large numbers of poor kids not doing as well. What I consider very technical questions bracket the larger questions of why it is we have so many kids concentrated in poor schools. Why do the rich kids get better schools? These aren’t just questions about accountability. They’re  more fundamental questions about class and race and power and inequality. Even though the accountability movement has often couched itself in the language of *no excuses,* and *every kid can learn,* its approach has been to narrow the debate even more and make it harder to address the questions that really underlie why some kids get an education that is so much better than other kids.

I encourage you to check out the interview, and follow up, starting with Kantor and Lowe among others.  Anyone who works with children or teachers knows that ideas have material consequences, that the endless struggles to frame and reframe education — both in school and as a universal process of growth (see an earlier post on “education policy and the process of authority” for a related Dewey-flavored comment)— are as good a place as any to come to grips with the truths and the consequences of our society’s condition.

NOTE:  The views expressed here are those of the author alone.  They do not necessarily represent those of MSPnet, TERC, or NSF.