As Jal Mehta correctly observes in his essay for Kappan’s Possible Futures series, most of the challenges that face our public schools aren’t of any one person’s making. Nor are they the fault of the people who work in schools today. Rather, they result from design choices made long ago for a different age, leaving us with “the grammar of schooling” that remains with us today. It’s no coincidence that students start kindergarten fascinated by schooling and become bored and disengaged by the time they reach high school; that’s the logical outgrowth of how our school system was built.
It’s a design that succeeded, in some ways and for some students, for decades. In his response, David Labaree notes that the grammar of schooling seeks “to maintain a balance between two compelling concerns: to structure schooling around widely accepted social goals and to do so in a way that is organizationally manageable for school systems, students, and families.”
And from a historical perspective, Labaree is right to say that the grammar of schooling played an important role by allowing for the efficient administration of schools. Sorting students into grades by age, tracking students into fixed groups based on point-in-time checks of ability, and assuming that each group would progress at the same rate were reasonable sacrifices to make in the industrial era, when teacher-delivered content was the dominant method of instruction. It helped turn school into a game with clear rules that could be “more reliably won,” as Labaree writes.