(LONG) Re: grades & school reform

Marcy Bauman (marcyb@UMD.UMICH.EDU)
Sat, 31 Aug 1996 21:22:35 -0400

Jeff, again I'm going to respond to your last post in one go, rather than
responding to
specific bits of your message because it was so dense that I'd have to go
sentence by sentence. I want particularly to address your assertion
that, when trapped in binaries, people respond by reasserting their
positions (thus assuring, intentionally or not, that the conversation
never moves forward towards any real reform).

I've not spent the last five years studying the history of educational
reform, but I did do some reading in that area when I was studying for my
comprehensive exams. Like you, I found the same arguments and rhetoric
surfacing again and again; sometimes one position would briefly gain the
ascendancy, and sometimes another would. I'm not sure what to make of
that, but I have a couple of theories:

[1] the rhetoric of education and schools is a genre in and of itself,
and stays fairly constant whether the conditions surrounding the
institution change or not (I think you could say, as you have, that the
language with which we talk about institutions determines to some degree
the institutions we can create). But that rhetoric, seems to me, always
occurs in dialogue with a specific set of cultural conditions, and
attempts to speak to those conditions. As far as I can see, this
position implies that the rhetoric of education serves
some other function besides catalyzing or causing educational reform.
You've suggested that the binaries in which we operate serve to stabilize
the system, to actually prevent change from occurring.

Maybe that's true, but it might instead (or also) be true that things
have changed, but we don't have much record of the important changes
because people never noticed them. One problem with reading the history
of education is that we can recover the rhetoric, but we
can't recover the conditions in which it arose. It's impossible to know
what a given position meant in a different place and time. We don't
really know what went on in schools before our time; we don't know how it
felt to be a student in them or what learning was like. There are
elements of historical accounts might resonate with our
experience, but paradoxically, those resonances might be more obfuscating
than not. It may be that because the rhetoric serves some other function
than catalyzing change, the things which actually _cause_ change are seen
as rather insignificant.

Small example. Recently I went to Greenfield Village (Henry Ford's house
collection), and sat in the one-room schoolhouse in which Ford had been
eucated, and listened to the museum guide explain about how McGuffey
readers may have been used in Ford's time. The guide explained that one
lesson in the reader might serve to furnish the whole class
with lessons in spelling, ethics, argumentation, grammar, what have you.
Of course, all the students would have been of different ages and
abilities; thus, the McGuffey reader lesson might have been closely akin
to what I've been terming enterprises (after Frank Smith): activities
which engage everyone, regardless of ability level, in the same pursuit.
(A sort of Marxist "from everyone according to his [sic] ability and to
everyone according to his [sic] needs.") I had never considered what it
might be like for a teacher to plan a McGuffey reader enterprise. What
assumptions about teaching and learning did such planning rest on? What
assumptions about teaching and learning went out the window when it was
decided that (probably for largely extraeducational reasons, but I'll
get to that) one-room schools were not the way to teach any longer?

I'm trying to make (maybe belabor) the fact that although we have
historical records, they are only part of a story which is largely lost
to us. We're hearing one half of a conversation; it seems dubious to
decide that we can know what the conversation means under those
constraints. Maybe things have changed and maybe they haven't; maybe
change has occurred for the reasons we suggest and maybe not. Our
reasons have as much to do with us and our beliefs as they do with former
conditions and past beliefs.

[2] The other implication of the sameold, same-old character of
educational rhetoric might be that educational change is fundamentally
impossible to bring about by means of rhetoric. Educational change
probably occurs largely because of forces outside the schools and in the
greater society as a whole. I'd argue that economics is what causes the
huge sea-changes (if there _are_ any of those) in our schools. I think
the move from one- room schoolhouses to multi-grade-level institutions
was forced by demographics, and by industrialization (and the rise of
factories) in general. The back-to-basics folks might be gaining the day
now because it's largely perceived that America is losing its competitive
edge, and schools are blamed for that. People perceive that the economic
pie is shrinking, and so they want their kids to be the ones with the

But you know, what goes on in the schools might be only the tip of a very
large iceberg as far as student achievement and learning goes. To what
extent do students in wealthier school districts do better because their
schools are better or because they come from a socioeconomic class where
education is valued or because they come from families where
education is valued? To what extent is the decline in literacy (if there
is one) explained by the fact that schools are attempting more ambitious
feats than before, or by the fact that people simply don't read and write
as much as they did fifty years ago, or by the fact that our standards
are slipping, or by the fact that parents don't have as much time to
invest in their kids' education than before, or by the fact that because
so many people go to college, college has lost its cachet? Maybe we have
no control over the changes which make meaningful differences in

(I suspect that Jeff would agree with most of what I've said here.)

OK, so in the face of that tidal wave of pessimism (which represents what
I really believe on most days), a little bellowing about the evils of
grades seems like small potatoes. But I think it takes huge efforts to
make even small changes; if we content ourselves with what we can
accomplish in a lifetime, we might as well stay in bed in the morning.
I keep thinking about the small, unseen factors that may really be
influencing the whole shootin' match, and I feel compelled to point at
an unclothed emperor when I (think I) see one.


Marcy Bauman
Writing Program
University of Michigan-Dearborn
4901 Evergreen Rd.
Dearborn, MI 48128

Web page: http://www.umd.umich.edu/~marcyb
email: marcyb@umd.umich.edu