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February 1, 1997
Vol. 54
No. 5

Educating for a Civil Society: The Core Issue Is Inequality

Well-meaning proposals for our schools' role in sustaining a civil society clash with classroom and community realities.

For 20 years I've been a classroom teacher in Paterson, New Jersey, one of the state's poorest and least successful school districts. I've seen school reform trends wash over my district like waves on the Jersey shore, occasionally carrying in a fresh breeze, but more often erasing past efforts to make room for a few more short-lived footprints, or, worse, leaving behind debris or toxic waste.
So, I confess, I have to fight cynicism when politicians, policy experts, and public officials talk about how schools should "repurpose" themselves in light of the latest economic forecasts and high-tech visions of the future. I sift through such projections warily for signs of how they might affect my classroom.
Elsewhere in this issue Jeremy Rifkin (p. 30) and Richard J. Murnane and Frank Levy (p. 34) present prescriptions for schools in light of the goal of educating for a "civil society." Although driven by different economic analyses, the ideas strike me as variations on familiar debates about the relationship of school to work, the role of standards and skills, and what schools should teach and kids should learn. While we may share some common ground, this classroom teacher thinks that Rifkin and Murnane and Levy have gotten some key things wrong.

The Limits of Skills-Based Instruction

Murnane and Levy suggest that schools should concentrate on closing "the growing gap between what students learn and what good jobs require." Momentarily putting aside the defining issue of how education differs from job training, it seems to me that what they suggest is exactly what many schools are currently trying to do—with highly dubious results. Murnane and Levy focus on the "new basic skills"—which include higher-level math and reading, computer skills, and problem solving—as an alternative to "maintaining the status quo." But from where I sit, this is the status quo.
Education reform in New Jersey since the late 1970s has been driven by ever more demanding skills-based instruction and test-driven assessment. State proficiency testing and graduation exit exams have refocused the curriculum in an effort to "raise standards" and guarantee the knowledge value of a high school diploma. Students must pass high-stakes exams in writing, reading, and math to graduate. State curriculum standards and more tests are in the works, all in the name of preparing students for the high-tech future and the job market.
Several problems characterize this approach to schooling. For one, it doesn't work. By itself, a narrow orientation toward basic skills, new or old, doesn't deliver the goods, especially in poor schools. As Murnane and Levy rightly note, "Judged by standardized test scores, U.S. students are doing a little better in math and no worse in reading than U.S. students did 15 years ago."
In poor schools like mine, however, kids are not passing the tests, despite years of targeted remediation, test-based instruction, and curriculum "realignment." Paterson, which was one of the first districts in the nation taken over by the state, has mobilized all its resources in the past five years for a strategy that increased "time on task" in basic skills and eliminated music, art, and other "extras" for students who were not passing the tests. The results, to date, have been minimal, not because administrators and staff have not emphasized skills, but because the problems of student achievement in poor districts run much deeper than this "soft skills versus hard skills" debate suggests.
The core issue is inequality. Schools are being asked to compensate for structural inequities in our society that the economy has magnified in recent years. These inequities of class and race express themselves in countless ways in schools, including the expectations and performance of individual teachers, students, and administrators. In many ways, schools are structured to reproduce inequality both inside (for example, tracking) and outside (for example, the 16,000 local districts that more or less parallel the race and class divisions of the larger society).
New Jersey has a school funding system that delivers qualitatively different levels of education to children in different communities. Forty years after Brown v. Board of Education, New Jersey ranks fourth among the most segregated schools in the nation, yet state and federal commitments to integration have run out of steam and money (Orfield 1993).
We need to remain focused on this dual school system when we consider the ties between economic trends and educational policy. Yet in this regard Murnane and Levy and Rifkin appear to have large blind spots. Murnane and Levy seem to accept uncritically the assumption that the function of schools is to prepare students for the job market. But what if that market has no need for effective schooling for all? Teaching in a city where educational problems have been allowed to reach catastrophic levels has convinced me that educational excellence for the majority of citizens is not a major imperative for either the market or the business community. Business interests do want education policies that address "competitive deficits" and labor supply problems in a highly stratified economy. But the push for the huge investments needed to guarantee excellent schooling for all will have to originate elsewhere. Tying schools tightly to the needs of the job market will leave behind sizable numbers of people for whom "the end of work" has already arrived in the form of massive unemployment and semipermanent poverty.
When many of my students look down the road from school to work, they see not a ladder, but a narrow gate. A typical freshman class at my high school has 700 to 800 students; the average number of graduating seniors is closer to 300. Daily experience teaches them that large numbers of people are not finding secure places in this society. They see many victims along the roadside and hurdles that reinforce their fears, hostilities, and defenses. I remember the words of my student Jose, writing for our school paper:I walked into high school as a freshman planning on becoming a famous filmmaker. I wanted to be a director, not just someone that tried and never succeeded. But the closer I got the more I became tensely afraid of going into a field that didn't guarantee me a secure position in the future. Then reality hit me. I began asking questions that made it all worse. Questions like, "How many Hispanic filmmakers do I know that have made it? Will people really take me seriously?" My fears became my entire train of thought. I still want to be the next Steven Spielberg, but most of the good schools cost a lot of money, a lot of money that I do not have. . . . I remember the old Jose, the one that had a lot of dreams and believed in himself. Now all I can think of is reality. I try not to think so much about the future.
When I last saw Jose, he was working part-time for a shoe-store chain and attending a local state college. I thought of him recently when a news report said the chain was going out of business.
Murnane and Levy contend that the "rewards of higher productivity" are just waiting out there to be distributed by "supply and demand"; all that's needed to "participate in the gains" is a sufficient measure of skills. Why, then, over the last two decades, when educational gaps between blacks and whites narrowed considerably, have income and employment disparities persisted or grown (Bernstein 1995) ? Perhaps my students have a better read on the realities of the American economy than do some economists.
Another problem closer to the classroom is the type of instruction that a basic-skills orientation promotes. I have seen firsthand the effects of extracting "skills" from the overall context of curriculum content or larger educational vision. Under the banner of promoting basic skills, many poor and urban schools have become a kind of dittoland, where worksheets and other test-prep materials drive richer experience out of the curriculum. Starved for the resources needed to support better teaching and learning, and haunted by state monitors who want to see better numbers fast, poor districts are preoccupied with getting their students to jump through an ever higher series of testing hoops.
This is not to dispute the importance of teaching skills to all students. But policymakers need to look at how such agendas play out in real schools. Basic-skills mantras have a way of turning into mind-numbing instructional practices that encourage passivity, promote fragmented curriculum, and reinforce the worst sorting and labeling functions of schooling.
Moreover, education is not skills training. It is the development of individual capacity and competence in the context of increasingly complex levels of content and meaningful activity. The skills kids need, particularly kids in poor communities and communities of color, must be delivered in a rich context through a curriculum that's rigorous, relevant, and takes both the social context of schooling and students' real lives as primary points of departure.

Rifkin's Hopes for the Civil Sector

Jeremy Rifkin comes closer to solutions for the problems schools like mine face when he advocates a turn to the neglected "civil sector" as both a source of alternative employment and a "much needed alternative frame of reference" for curriculum and educational vision. But I fear he looks through very rosy glasses.
Policies that redefine "the social contract" and the "kind of education we give our young people" with a "renewed commitment to the civic life of the country" would be a strong foundation for pursuing excellence and equity in all our schools. We urgently need schools tied to their communities by more meaningful curriculums and practical activity. But where will the resources and the political will for such a course correction come from? Like Rifkin, I don't see the market providing the massive investment necessary for the task. Unfortunately, I don't see the civic sector as a very plausible alternative.
Over the years, in cities like Paterson, the network of church groups, neighborhood associations, cultural institutions, social service organizations, civil rights and other activist groups—not to mention families—has taken almost as big a hit as the schools. These groups do play a more crucial role than ever, especially as government retreats from previous commitments. But they appear overwhelmed by current tasks rather than on the verge of expansion.
Some school reforms, such as the Comer Project, are based on trying to re-create the community and family support system that once helped schooling work. Evidence suggests that such approaches can succeed. But to pursue models of civic reconstruction on a large scale will require an investment of human resources and money that would challenge existing social priorities and structures of privilege. Who will lead the charge? Who will pay the bill?
On the curriculum end, too, I see both promise and perils in Rifkin's proposals. The heated debates over multiculturalism and sex education indicate how difficult it can be to get consensus on contentious issues. To make "service learning" more than just another trendy add-on and to anchor it to a "deep understanding of the interconnectedness of all of life" that pulses through school curriculums and practice would not only require more resources. It would also take a stronger commitment to values like equality, democracy, social justice, and collective well-being than we now see in our me-first, dollar-driven society.
Rifkin's description of the "third sector" seems to gloss over some hard divisions: The third sector is the bonding force . . . that unites the diverse interests of the American people into a cohesive social identity. If there is a single defining characteristic that sums up the unique qualities of being an American, it would be a capacity to join together in civic associations to serve one another.
I fear the third sector may be more a thin veneer than a bonding force, and that our society has other, less sanguine defining characteristics than joining together to serve one another.
I wonder why the list of third-sector groups includes "civilian security patrols" and "fraternal orders" but omits right-wing militias and the Klan. I'm puzzled that "social justice organizations" are cited, but labor unions are absent, an especially glaring omission considering the central role teachers' unions in particular will have to play in transforming both schools and themselves from defenders of privilege into agents of change.
I worry that Rifkin's bloodless description of the civil sector implies that "service learning" might not be much more than the kind of anemic civics instruction that has marked citizenship and social studies classes in the past. Schools have traditionally paid lip service to democracy and preparation for good citizenship while serving up sanitized history, toy student governments, and arbitrary bureaucratic management.
Service learning could be part of a "potential paradigm shift in the mission of American education" that speaks to "the growing sense of alienation, detachment, and aimlessness of the nation's young people." But to pursue such a vision will take much more than school change. Schools could play a vital role. They could give voice to diversity as it really exists. School reform could be used as a lever for increasing the power of ordinary citizens, expanding the role of locally based community institutions, and uniting a diverse population in a more active civic life.
Schools could help and could benefit from that kind of crusade. But they cannot create it or lead it. The qualities of excellence, service, community, and democracy will sweep through our schools only when and if they sweep through our politics, our economy, our culture, and our nation.

Bernstein, J. (1995). Where's the Payoff? The Gap Between Black Academic Progress and Economic Gains. Washington, D.C.: Economic Policy Institute.

Orfield, G. (December 14, 1993). Harvard University Project on School Desegregation. Cited in the Newark Star Ledger, p. 22.

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