Everytime I introduce my work with Ray McDermott, I echo something he probably says more eloquently than I: “What schools all about? They are about determining which 50% of children are below average!” Given that much of this is done through testing, and that the good test “discriminates,” then I sometimes say, to provoke, that schools are all about discrimination. (See for example a short introduction to “Interpreting the Index of Discrimination” )
Such statements grab the attention of students, but I am not always quite convinced that the answer is more than a provocative quip.
And then I read paragraphs like one that introduced a recent story in the New York Times:
Ohio seems to have taken a page from Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average. Last month, state officials releasing an early batch of test scores declared that two-thirds of students at most grade levels were proficient on reading and math tests given last spring under the new Common Core requirements. (October 6, 2015)
The story is of course not about how successful the schools of Lake Wobegon or Ohio are. The story is about “the problem that a lot of policy makers and educators were trying to solve,” as “Karen Nussle, the executive director of the Collaborative for Student Success, a Common Core advocacy group,” is quoted as saying. As summarized by the New York Times, “The Common Core was devised by experts convened by state education commissioners and governors to set uniform benchmarks for learning. … But as the results from the first Common Core tests have rolled out, education officials again seem to be subtly broadening definitions of success.”
In other words, as McDermott and I argued, success if indeed defined by failure (1998). It is necessary to fail students in order to demonstrate that other students are successful. It cannot be that all children (or even most, or even more than some measure of the average) should be “proficient.” The label must apply only to a certain percentage.
The “debate” (though the New York Times is not really debating as the article clearly sides with Common Core policy makers) is thus about labels, statistical uniformity, comparability across the United States—and forms of unacceptable tinkering if not cheating.
The debate is not about learning, and even less about education.
“Only in America” am I tempted to say, except that, actually, there is something interesting going on here that a call to political theories of cultural arbitrary (as all theories of culture, from Boas onwards have been, when taken strictly) should highlight. The story is also about a political struggle among the elites about precisely how America should work, in general, and in the detail of the lives of politicians, schools administrators, principals, teachers, parents and other adult who might express opinions or vote about all this—not to mention university professors designing tests, billionaires funding “school reform,” union leaders and many others.
I make this list to bring attention to the evidence that all these people, in the worlds that they inhabit will talk and act in ways that will often make problems for each other, and that they will do that purposefully (systematically and deliberately to cross-reference Larry Cremin and my take on “education”). In relatively neutral language they are conversing (which is not quite the same thing as “negotiating”) often with the hope of producing something different than the probable or expectable. They are not simply acting in terms of their dispositions (habitus, etc.).
I make the list also to move further than where Ray McDermott and I were when we completed Successful Failure. As Jill Koyama (2008) noted, we mentioned “America” but did not quite show how it actually produced what we observed, in temporality. We had essentially worked by drawing a structural model of a historical moment (“culture”) that emphasized the relationship between democracy, meritocracy, the institutions that they produced, and the consequences for individuals (to simplify of course). We were directly inspired by Louis Dumont (1980 ) on the relationship between individualism and racism.
This kind of (Lévi-Straussian) structuralism can be helpful, but it never was able to specify how what was modeled actually came into reality in the day to day life of those caught by the culture. So, more or less explicitly, social theorists implied or stated that what was modeled was real and powerful enough to generate what could be observed. McDermott and I wrote extensively against this move to “structuring structures” (to quote Bourdieu’s jargon). But we did not quite find a way to state how the democratic fight against birth privilege ends up producing discriminatory tests, the failing of teachers who do not “add value” to children and all other policies justified by calls to the discovery and reward of individual merit.
Thus my interest in following what the New York Times reports, and how it writes its reports. I take these as statements within a conversation, in the same spirit as McDermott wrote about Rosa’s “I could read it”: the statement makes sense given the conditions but it is not produced by the conditions. The conditions are set by earlier statements, most of them made by other people, far away and long dead, as McDermott and I like to say. But the actual statement (act) is produced by a particular person, caught together with specific persons (consociates), at a given time. In that perspective, it makes sense for bureaucrats in Ohio to move the boundary between proficient or not. And it also makes sense for others powers-that-be to try and move it back.
What of course no theory of culture can answer is “why should it make sense?” except perhaps if “a” culture (epoch, episteme, …) is understood, again, as a statement making sense in terms of earlier statements (culture…). Thus, the shift to democracy, meritocracy, schools, testing, might be seen as a response to earlier discourses and institutions for elite production. How to move the conversation to its next statement is our problem, as political actors and, I would say, as educators attempting to convince various audiences that they are on a track that may only make matters worse.
Dumont, Louis 1980  “Caste, Racism and ‘Stratification’.” Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.Tr. by M. Sainsbury. Rev. ed.. In his Homo hierarchicus
Koyama, Jill 2010 Making failure pay: For-profit tutoring, high-stake testing, and public schools. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
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One thought on “On education on Lake Wobegon”
Although it is hip to despise functionalism, McDermott’s statement that schools are “about” determining which 50% of the students are below average is an assertion about one of the functions of schools. It is one of the consequences of the large number of institutions and organizations we put into the fuzzy category we label “education.” I prefer not to call this large cluster of social things the “educational system,” because the system metaphor evokes an image of something much more integrated than are the things I put into the educational domain.
Garrison Keillor’s statement about the children of Lake Wobegon captures one of the great tensions in the attitudes of Americans about our country as well as about our education. We can celebrate competition by imagining that it is always others who, by being losers, make us winners.
“Giving” grades is just one of the institutions — more-or-less standardized practices — in the domain of formal education, and it is just one of the institutions that has the effect of producing, and to a large extent reproducing, inequality.