This diary is not one of those calls for reform that argues that "the schools have failed" and advocates more and harder work for all parties — that sort of reform was rebutted admirably in a (1996) book titled "The Manufactured Crisis" by David C. Berliner and Bruce J. Biddle. Berliner and Biddle show that the schools do well at what they do and that their main problem is that some of their students are materially disadvantaged, a theme which I will discuss in detail below.
Rather, I will argue that what public schools in America do well is to deliver a middlebrow education, guided by half-baked ideals of adequate student participation in the political and economic status quo. This sort of education can do good — but its form appears fragile in our current era of school reform. It is because education takes this form that it is so easily vulnerable to reforms such as No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top, and that, after these reforms were enacted, we could see that the old radicals were correct to assume that a more student-centered education would be a better one. This is why many of the references in this proposal are old ones — my educational thought begins with John Dewey and Paulo Freire, and continues with those who came after.
1) Many of our most standardized practices for education, from grades and grade-levels and ranking to individualized learning and testing to tracking and specialization, are implicated in the reproduction of the social class structure. The analysis of class-based schooling, as well as the specification of a socialist alternative, are given in Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis' (1976) classic Schooling in Capitalist America. The history of the dual purpose for education, one education for the upper classes and another for the lower classes, is laid out in David Nasaw's Schooled to Order. This is the way it's been — schooling accommodates the children of the various social classes to their places in the social order.
It is true, of course, that there isn't any necessary "correspondence" between hierarchical practices in the public schools and hierarchical practices in the capitalist workplace. There are indeed also a significant variety of schooling practices in public schools, today. But it's not an accident that the outcomes of public school attendance for the preponderance of students largely reflect the class positions which said students had when they were in school. This should be even more the case today than when Gregory Mantsios wrote Class In America or when Jean Anyon wrote Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work, given the hardening of class divisions since the 1980s.
2) School's role in the perpetuation of social classes is expressed as collaboration in a ritual continuum — the ritual orders of school-life, of home-life, and of the peer life of students combine to consign students to social classes. This is the subject of ethnographic study — the classic texts in this regard are Paul Willis' (1976) Learning to Labour and Peter McLaren's (1986) Schooling as a Ritual Performance. (Please update me as to the new ones if you know them.) But part of the perpetuation of social classes in schooling is in its granting of advantage to students with more scholastically-competitive experiences in home life. In other words, the less school-oriented home life of lower-class parents grants them a competitive disadvantage as against the more school-oriented home life of well-off parents. This difference is exposed ethnographically in the 2nd edition (2011) of Annette Lareau's Unequal Childhoods. The point is this — if you are struggling all of the time to earn a living, you don't have the time to devote to "push" your children in the competition that schooling in America has become. Parents with more money and more time for their children are more able to grant their children opportunities involving the "concerted cultivation" of their abilities through after-school activities, which results in said children developing a "sense of entitlement" (2) to their class privileges. Even if school cannot be blamed for class differentiation in the childhood and youth experiences, it can't be credited for "closing the achievement gap," either.
3) If anything, what is now called "school reform" tends to exacerbate the inequalities that schooling would otherwise produce. Specifically, the higher social classes have a cultural "leg up" on the cultural regurgitation that is supposed to take place in the teacher conformance with "standards" and the student performance on standardized tests. This is reflected, for instance, in the strong correlation between SAT scores and family income.
4) Even without a clear analysis of the relationship between differential school experiences and different places in the economic hierarchy of American society, we can observe that the archaic forms of schooling (especially public schooling) today, as can often be observed in lower-class schools (and which are promoted by the testing-and-standards movement), are in direct opposition to our society's need for divergent thinking. That is to say, if our society is to produce divergent thinkers to deal with extraordinary new crises in economy, the environment, politics, and so on, it is going to have to redesign schooling to free up students to think differently. See, e.g. this video:
We are, simply put, using developmental processes to fashion (young) people to conform to systems, first schooling and then work, when the systems ought to be working for them. As a result, our society, and indeed world-society, is going to pay a very very high price for its lack of insight into the ways in which it socializes its youth.
Given all this, here are some starting principles for school reform:
1) School performance is, by whatever measure one cares to name, preponderantly dependent upon the social class membership of the students and of their parents. So, if the students' performance is to be improved, there needs to be a bedrock income for the parents. This can be most effectively achieved through a guaranteed basic income for all. A basic income guarantee can be most effectively promoted through the old cliche that "children are our future." No child should go to school homeless, and no child should go to school with an unfair disadvantage in parenting practices because their parents can't afford to offer them competitive learning experiences.
2) Take away all of the money being spent on testing and test-prep materials, and spend it upon learning equipment for the schools, with an emphasis upon facilitating the creation of learning experiences that will promote divergent thinking. We don't need any of the assessments that were introduced by the NCLB (and reinforced by RttT) — before Federal- and state-level testing-and-standards mania began, there were plenty of assessments already in existence that can still do a better job today of a) assessing teachers and students and b) promoting a humanistic atmosphere in the classroom. For a lot of schools this is going to mean better computers and more books in the classroom — for others it will help schools use the resources that are there in their communities.
3) Organize open debates and a nationwide consensus-oriented political public sphere around these questions: a) what is the future going to look like, and b) how can schools best prepare students for this future? Ultimately, we should want to transform school boards into agencies much like the "juntas de buen gobierno" or councils of good government employed by the Zapatistas. We want an officially-approved "Occupy education" to solve educational problems. Spread this process into the schools themselves — require the teachers to teach consensus process.
4) Create more initiatives (possibly the non-profits can be directed to spearhead this) that will spread appreciation of student and community knowledge as a resource rather than as a hindrance. Indeed it is true that teachers have a more developed perspective than do students — but education is not improved when it is conceived as the pouring of information into ostensibly-receptive heads. See Paulo Freire's (1968:2000) Pedagogy of the Oppressed for the low-down on this perspective.
We can start this process by opening schools up to multilingual education — if our students speak Spanish or Mandarin or some other language, then they and their parents can show us how to speak it too (perhaps only to a limited extent, but that can be enough). "English-only" is silly, given that English is itself a mish-mash of Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse (or "Danish" if you like), and Middle French with a vowel shift thrown in and a lot of words added to the mix from Greek, Latin, Arabic, Spanish, Hindi, and other languages.
In conclusion, we can say with certainty that the cliche is true and that children really are our future. So why are children turning into cynical old men and women before their time? We need an educational reform movement that promotes the social goal of general versatility as laid out in this diary, which I put out in July. I'm sure some of these initiatives are already "out there" — but I know of no agency which is willing to promote all of them at once.