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Saturday
Nov062010

On Grades and Unschooling

During my long public school career, I didn’t think much about the structure of public school.  The reasons for this are not exactly flattering for me.  I viewed school as the “one thing” I was good at (though that was not actually true), and I used my focus on academics to avoid paying attention to many of my problems.  If I wanted to do one thing dramatically different with my academic career, that would have been skipping grades, but I didn’t pursue that with any sort of determination, since I was happy to take the path of least resistance.

It wasn’t until college that I began to think about the issue seriously.  I came at it initially from the subject of grades.  I was obsessed with grades during my primary school career (obsessed with getting grades that were just barely good enough to be called “perfect” by some carefully chosen definition (e.g. 90%, “an A”); I told you this wasn’t flattering for me), and that got worse and worse until high school.  When I entered college, I resolved to not look at my grades for any class.

The college I went to was new and we took pride in being “innovative”.  But Olin’s grading system was strikingly conventional.  Evidently, the issue of grading came up during the school’s design process.  A substantial discussion led to a rough consensus favoring a very minimal “Pass/Fail/Excellence” grading system.  But the result was a temporary compromise on letter grades without +/- gradations, followed by a wholesale adoption of the conventional grading system.

The thing is, in my view, the conventional grading system is glaringly flawed.  There’s ample psychological research showing that rewards produce a lasting decrease in intrinsic motivation, long-term recall of information, and lateral thinking, and that to the extent that “good grades” are perceived as desirable, they produce the same effect.  Grades are also only minimally useful as feedback.  They’re not very useful in comparing students from different classes, much less different institutions.  (Concerns about “grade inflation” get some of that, but talk about focusing on the mote and missing the beam!)  To some extent, grades measure how well students conform to the idiosyncratic preferences of individual professors.

In other words, pretty much anything that puts grades less in the spotlight is a win in terms of the nominal goals of academia.

(Another point that would be particularly worrying for Moldbug:  To the extent that people change their behavior for the sake of grades while not believing that “good grades” are inherently worthwhile, that could serve as the insufficient justification that would make any ideological content contained in the lessons far more persuasive than it would otherwise be.  Also worth keeping that effect in mind when people emphasize how useful grades are to graduate schools and employers.)

So grades are interesting for a few reasons:

  1. It’s an example of academia pursuing a policy that doesn’t fit well the the nominal goals of academia.
  2. It’s a policy that promotes things that are very much not the overt goal of academic idealists (rote memorization, obedience, tolerance of pointless tasks, ideological conformity).
  3. It’s an example of academia conforming to an (in my opinion) obviously broken status quo because no one wants to take the cost of defecting first.

And as it turns out, there’s a movement that would apply those three points to many (if not all) of the structural features of the entire “education system”.

The Unschooling movement is heavily influenced by the teacher and educational philosopher John Taylor Gatto.  A good introduction to his view is the essay Against Schooling, originally published in Harper’s Magazine in September 2003.  This one is hard to excerpt, read the whole thing.  But here’s my attempt at extracting the kernel of it:

Do we really need school? I don’t mean education, just forced schooling: six classes a day, five days a week, nine months a year, for twelve years. Is this deadly routine really necessary? And if so, for what? Don’t hide behind reading, writing, and arithmetic as a rationale, because 2 million happy homeschoolers have surely put that banal justification to rest. Even if they hadn’t, a considerable number of well-known Americans never went through the twelve-year wringer our kids currently go through, and they turned out all right. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln? Someone taught them, to be sure, but they were not products of a school system, and not one of them was ever “graduated” from a secondary school. […]

In the 1934 edition of his once well-known book Public Education in the United States, Ellwood P. Cubberley detailed and praised the way the strategy of successive school enlargements had extended childhood by two to six years, and forced schooling was at that point still quite new. This same Cubberley - who was dean of Stanford’s School of Education, a textbook editor at Houghton Mifflin, and Conant’s friend and correspondent at Harvard - had written the following in the 1922 edition of his book Public School Administration:   “Our schools are … factories in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned …. And it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to the specifications laid down.”

It’s perfectly obvious from our society today what those specifications were. Maturity has by now been banished from nearly every aspect of our lives. Easy divorce laws have removed the need to work at relationships; easy credit has removed the need for fiscal self-control; easy entertainment has removed the need to learn to entertain oneself; easy answers have removed the need to ask questions. We have become a nation of children, happy to surrender our judgments and our wills to political exhortations and commercial blandishments that would insult actual adults. We buy televisions, and then we buy the things we see on the television. We buy computers, and then we buy the things we see on the computer. We buy $150 sneakers whether we need them or not, and when they fall apart too soon we buy another pair. We drive SUVs and believe the lie that they constitute a kind of life insurance, even when we’re upside-down in them. And, worst of all, we don’t bat an eye when Ari Fleischer tells us to “be careful what you say,” even if we remember having been told somewhere back in school that America is the land of the free. We simply buy that one too. Our schooling, as intended, has seen to it.

One frequent observation of mine is this:

Idea #5: A naive compromise between ideologies can produce worse results than a coherent implementation of either’s favored policy.

But naive compromises are often politically expedient, so they happen anyways.

To put it more cynically, liberals (especially) love half-measures.  (I’m not immune to this, myself.)

Gatto essentially agrees with Moldbug about the purpose of the schools, but Gatto’s description of the present state of affairs misses something crucial when he overstates his case:

The reason given for this enormous upheaval of family life and cultural traditions was, roughly speaking, threefold:

1) To make good people. 2) To make good citizens. 3) To make each person his or her personal best. These goals are still trotted out today on a regular basis, and most of us accept them in one form or another as a decent definition of public education’s mission, however short schools actually fall in achieving them. But we are dead wrong. [emphasis mine]

But I’d say that view of the goals of the education system is in fact not totally wrong, which is what makes it pernicious.  Public schools do teach some about critical thinking, analyzing primary sources, the scientific method, distinguishing fact from opinion and so on.  To the extent that schooling is “education” (to some extent it is) and a diploma is (economically) valuable, schools convince people that education is valuable.  “Good people” believe that education is valuable.  Actually, I do believe that statement if taken at face value: Good people do (correctly) believe that education is valuable.  Convincing someone to agree with a true statement on a technicality, however, does not make them better people in any meaningful sense.

A strategy of “make education a good investment and people will realize it’s intrinsically valuable on its own” also starts having some serious problems when there’s a mismatch between the educational system and the economy.  I’ve read a lot of talk recently about a “higher education bubble” and of a mismatch between the education system and the “21st century economy”.  The former has some talk of unschoolers (it uses the term “edupunks”).  Unfortunately for unschoolers (and for reactionaries like Moldbug), the dominant force among education reformers seems to be the neoconservative/neoliberal/”free market” types (need a better name for that faction, and that probably deserves another post).  Their favored solution, charter schools, is the usual mix of privatized profits and socialized costs.  Charter schools may be more willing to be “innovative”, but I wouldn’t expect them to solve the problems above or defect from educational norms, no matter how counter-productive, when defecting first is costly.

(I wish I had a better way to wrap things up here.  I still need to read more Gatto and Holt and Illich and Llewellyn.  I want to know more about how compulsory education (in particular, as opposed to public education in general) took off—not just what interests that might work well for, but how it was argued and implemented politically.  I read and would recommend Llewellyn’s Teenage Liberation Handbook to parents, adolescents, and those interested in unschooling.)

Reader Comments (4)

I'm not a huge fan of Gatto. He seems to be giving a critique of public schools circa 1950, without taking into account that schooling has changed dramatically since then. There were a series of court cases in the 70's which reduced the ability of teachers to punish students. The result was a dramatic rise in bullying and lack of discipline. Maybe the original purpose of schools was to instill character and discipline, but that's long been lost. Right now schools are a sort of anarcho-tyranny. In the things that don't matter (grading based on rote memorization and useless academic subjects) the school is tyrannical, but in the things that really matter (punishing bullies) the school has relinquished authority and allowed anarchy.

IMO, the best school system America had was that of New England circa 1900. Everyone gets a decent education in reading, writing, and arithmetic. The rowdy in class are held in by the birth strip. After primary school many go straight into working. Those seeking a career requiring more advanced academic skills go to a high school, and those few requiring really advanced skills go to college. But even those folks are usually productive members of society by age 20. I don't really buy that our economy has fundamentally changed to require more academic skills. If anything, computers have reduced the need for academic skills. The vast majority of jobs are in areas that do not require extensive academic skills - such as customer service, marketing, sales, appliance repair, food service, construction, truck driving, clerking, etc. Even more cognitive fields such as computer programming or nursing do not require 8+ years of post-primary schooling. Two to four years would be plenty. (If you're interested I write more on this topic here).

Also, unschooling works best for kids who have a strong cultural/family background of self-discipline and self-direction. I don't think you could take a school like this, convert it to unschooling, and have it work out alright.

I'm curious - what's the progressive response to schools like those depicted in that city journal article or The Wire? What should be done with the students who are uncontrollable, who disrupt class, pick fights, mouth off to the teacher, and who refuse to respond to the standard punishments of detention, being sent to the office, and in school suspension?

November 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDevin Finbarr

He seems to be giving a critique of public schools circa 1950

Given that his thesis is that the compulsory education movement was wrong all along, it's not surprising that he doesn't focus on recent legal changes, at least in that particular essay. It would be odd if Gatto was unaware of those changes, he was teaching as late as 1991.

Do you know what Gatto's position is on bullying and classroom discipline?

There were a series of court cases in the 70's which reduced the ability of teachers to punish students. The result was a dramatic rise in bullying and lack of discipline.

Ingraham v. Wright was in 1977, but that upheld corporal punishment. Only eight states (plus DC) had banned corporal punishment in schools before 1988. Or are you referring to something else?

I don't really buy that our economy has fundamentally changed to require more academic skills. If anything, computers have reduced the need for academic skills.

I would agree, but I would go on to say that a major source of current problems is that technology has reduced the need for labor in general.

Actually, that would be my guess for why more technology correlates with more years of education. In the presence of more labor-saving technology:
1. Employees benefit more from having the labor pool forcibly reduced by a few percent.
2. Employers of highly-skilled workers benefit more from having their pool of candidates more highly filtered, even if the filtering process doesn't teach additional job skills because the number of applicants for any given job is higher.

Also, unschooling works best for kids who have a strong cultural/family background of self-discipline and self-direction.

The unschoolers' answer would be that this is true of schooling as well, and I think that's correct.

The rowdy in class are held in by the birth [sic] strip. After primary school many go straight into working.

The rowdy in class were also allowed to leave. And primary school students are presumably easier for a teacher to keep in check than high schoolers. Class size also has a lot to do with it. What was that like circa 1900?

I'm curious - what's the progressive response to schools like those depicted in that city journal article or The Wire? What should be done with the students who are uncontrollable, who disrupt class, pick fights, mouth off to the teacher, and who refuse to respond to the standard punishments of detention, being sent to the office, and in school suspension?

I don't think that most progressives would disagree with your linked article's suggestion that "the most unruly and violent children should go to alternative schools designed to handle students with chronic behavior problems". They'd note that many school districts don't have the funds to support such alternate schools, and that it might be better to pay for those schools (or schools in general) with something other than local property taxes.

Unschoolers, as far as I've heard, would say maybe institutions are needed to control violent and unruly children, but public schools are probably not the best (or cheapest) institution for performing that function.

November 24, 2010 | Registered CommenterSam

I've only read a bit of Gatto, but I've never heard him discuss the problems of bullying and lack of discipline in the post 1970 school system.

No, I was thinking of the Gault case in 1967 and the Winship case in 1970. These cases orginally applied to juvenile courts, but were then extended to appy to schools. I highly recommend the book "The World We Created at Hamilton High" which talks about what happened after these cases. I might excerpt a bunch of it on my blog, if I find the time.

"The unschoolers' answer would be that this is true of schooling as well, and I think that's correct."

I think it's true of most schooling post 1970. I don't think it's true of the average Catholic school in 1950.

The rowdy in class were also allowed to leave. And primary school students are presumably easier for a teacher to keep in check than high schoolers. Class size also has a lot to do with it. What was that like circa 1900?

I don't have any statistics off the top of my head, but I'd bet a dollar that class size in 1900 was larger than it is now.

I don't think that most progressives would disagree with your linked article's suggestion that "the most unruly and violent children should go to alternative schools designed to handle students with chronic behavior problems".

To play the progressive foil for a moment - isn't that giving up on the students? Isn't that the progressive complaint against vouchers - that it'll allow the disciplined students to all go to their own closed off schools?

And even if you did move the unruly children to a different school, what would be different about that school? How should that school turn those violent and vulgar children into reasonably productive members of society?

December 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDevin Finbarr

No, I was thinking of the Gault case in 1967 and the Winship case in 1970. These cases orginally applied to juvenile courts, but were then extended to appy to schools.

A better case to cite would be DIxon v. Alabama (1961), which prohibits public schools from expelling students arbitrarily without some sort of due process. Gault and Winship are both about criminal trials, they touch on neither school discipline nor corporal punishment. A review of the book you mention talks about some sort of ACLU statement in the wake of those cases that Grant argues made schools afraid to discipline students, but I don't know what that statement was or what it said.

I don't think it's true of the average Catholic school in 1950.

To clarify, I meant to say that culture/family matters a lot in both cases, not that "self-direction" is necessarily the common value. Valuing self-discipline and education in general will be helpful no matter how you're trying to learn. At the very least, the Catholic school kids parents bothered sending their children to Catholic school.

To play the progressive foil for a moment - isn't that giving up on the students?

No, just the opposite.

Isn't that the progressive complaint against vouchers - that it'll allow the disciplined students to all go to their own closed off schools?

I don't think that's the complaint. For one thing, voucher schools are selecting on academic performance, not just on lack of discipline problems. One thing progressives object to is the lower costs of the voucher schools being used to push for lower funding of public schools, not taking into account that more-selective voucher schools cut costs by simply not addressing some difficult problems.

(I also don't think progressives are unified in opposition to the voucher system.)

And even if you did move the unruly children to a different school, what would be different about that school? How should that school turn those violent and vulgar children into reasonably productive members of society?

I don't have a pithy answer to that. I don't expect it's an easy problem. Probably those that have worked in the schools and studied education and child psychology would have better ideas on the subject than I would.

I would expect that a good solution would involve more than the schools, too. I think a lot of apparent deterioration in the educational system is actually the result of deterioration in the overall economy. Come to think of it, that's also a trend that took a turn in the 1970s.

December 8, 2010 | Registered CommenterSam

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