Curriculum, Equity, Teaching

Injury, Inequality and Schooling in the United States and Canada

A review of Wounded by School: Recapturing the Joy in Learning and Standing Up to Old School Culture by Kirsten Olson, Teachers College Press, 2009. ISBN: 0807749559; and The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine our Future by Linda Darling Hammond, Teachers College Press, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-8077-4962-3

“Tout est bien sortant des mains de l’Auteur des choses, tout dégénère entre les mains de l’homme,” wrote Rousseau (“Everything is good as it leaves the hands of the author of things, everything degenerates in the hands of man.”) 

Injury and inequality are, respectively, the topics of Kirsten Olson’s Wounded by School and Linda Darling-Hammond’s The Flat World and Education.  Both authors are imbued by the spirit of romantic education, the genealogy of which can be traced from Rousseau’s Emile to Francis Parker, John Dewey, and Sir Ken Robinson – whose TED talk about schools killing creativity has been widely circulated (www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html). 

In one of the two forewords to Olson’s book, Parker Palmer writes of “the hidden and long-lasting wounds that result from the structural violence inherent in the ways we organize and evaluate learning.”  In one of the many lists dispersed throughout the book, Olson answers the question “What are school wounds?” with a catalogue of injuries she links to schooling with anecdotal evidence: 

  • “everyday” losses of pleasure
  • belief that we are not smart, not competent in learning
  • belief that our abilities are fixed, and cannot be improved with effort, coaching, intervention, or self-understanding.
  • belief that we are “just average” in ways that feel diminishing
  • painful, burning memories of shaming experiences in school that produce generalized anxiety
  • chronic, habitual anger toward teachers, and those in authority, due to past experiences of injustice, of not being “seen” in school
  • belief that we are intellectually or cognitively “less than” due to experiences in school
  • low appetite for risk-taking intellectually, wanting to be right or “just get the assignments done”
  • over-attachment to “right” answers, correctness
  • tendency to classify others, and ourselves, into dualistic, diminishing “smart/dumb,” “artistic/not artistic” categories
  • unprocessed, powerful feeling about education and learning that we become aware of as adults, in our interactions with our own children or students in school (p. 19)

Darling-Hammond’s is the more tightly argued of the two books.  She reveals what would likely have been her agenda for education reform in the United States had she received Obama’s approval as Secretary of Education instead of Arne Duncan.  Her thesis is that, in order to prepare all students for success in a knowledge-based society, the United States must establish a “purposeful, equitable education system.” Using as her references management guru Peter Drucker and Harvard Change Management team member Tony Wagner, Darling-Hammond enumerates the capacities one requires to be part of a knowledge-based society:

  • Design, evaluate, and manage one’s own work so that it continually improves.
  • Frame, investigate, and solve problems using a wide range of tools and resources.
  • Collaborate strategically with others.
  • Communicate effectively in many forms.
  • Find, analyze, and use information for many purposes.
  • Develop new products and ideas.

Though both Olson and Darling-Hammond appear to be adherents of progressivism, Darling-Hammond is closer to George S. Counts than to John Dewey.  Counts, a sociologist and what in today’s parlance would be called a “critical friend” of the Progressive movement, believed that society could be reconstructed through education. His critique of progressive education asserted that its accomplishments – its attention to children and the interests of the learner; its defence of activity as the root of education; its conception of learning in relation to life situations and character growth; and its advocacy for the rights of children – reflected an excellent but inadequate conception of learning.

Counts believed that a great weakness of progressive education was its failure to elaborate a “theory of social welfare, unless it be that of anarchy or extreme individualism.”  To be genuinely progressive, education would need to emancipate itself from the influence of the liberal-minded upper middle class, to:

face squarely and courageously every social issue, come to grips with life in all of its stark reality, establish an organic relation with the community, develop a realistic and comprehensive theory of welfare, fashion a compelling and challenging vision of human destiny, and become somewhat less frightened than it is today at the bogeys of imposition and indoctrination.[1]  

Although he wrote almost 80 years prior to Wounded by School, Counts would find that Olson’s vision was not emancipated from its liberal-minded upper middle class individualism and its fear of imposition and indoctrination. Indeed, Olson quotes Roland Meighan’s argument that “an education fit for democracy” relies on “learning by invitation rather than indoctrination,”[2] claiming that:

  • Schooling needs to be reorganized for participation rather than imposition.
  • Procedures for monitoring education must celebrate learning rather than incessant and stultifying testing.
  • Schools must adopt a learner-directed, learner-centered approach to all education (p. 201).

On the other hand, Counts would approve of Darling-Hammond’s candid acknowledgement that “throughout 200 years of slavery, a century of court-sanctioned discrimination based on race, and a half-century of differential access to education by race, class, language background, and geographical location, we have become accustomed in the United States to educational inequality.”  He would also commend her attentiveness to the need for complementary social policies to support the ones she advocates for education, including:

  • secure housing, food, and health care, so that children can come to school ready to learn each day
  • supportive early learning environments
  • equitably funded schools which provide equitable access to high-quality teaching (p. 26)

As an unrepentant socialist and “social reconstructionist”, Counts would likely condemn as nativistic both Olson and Darling-Hammond for dressing up their arguments in appeals to national economic productivity and competitiveness.  He’d look askance at Darling-Hammond’s acknowledgement of charter schools and school choice, and would be dismayed by the rampant individualism and romanticism in the Olson book.  

There is little reason to dispute either Darling-Hammond’s assertion of deeply ingrained inequalities between groups of students in the United States or Olson’s case studies of persons who have been wounded by the schools they have attended.  The influence of the progressives on schooling in the United States has been pervasive.  Project-based learning; integrated curricula; an emphasis on problem solving and critical thinking; collaborative working groups; community-based learning; portfolio assessment; and a focus on citizenship and social responsibility are educational practices heavily influenced by progressive education and its emphasis on child-centered and experience-based learning.

Counts foresaw the danger in today’s progressivism that benefits individuals at the expense of community, cultivates a sense of individual entitlement, and places confidence in markets and privatization as mechanisms for addressing social problems. As he might have predicted, today Canadian and American schools are the foci of debates among policymakers, scholars, media, and the public.  There are debates between advocates of schooling as a means of exploiting individual capital and those who see schooling as primarily serving the development of social capital; between promoters of choice versus promoters of common values promoting social cohesion; and between advocates of private versus public control of schooling.

My own thinking about education has been influenced by progressivism.  I am a graduate of Teachers College where Dewey worked out the fundamentals of progressivism in the early part of the last century.  In Failing our Kids: How We are Ruining our Public Schools, I argued that the curriculum of the public school should exhibit four attributes. It should be meaningful, challenging, prompt curiosity, and require mental effort.  Citizenship and social responsibility also figure prominently in my thinking about schooling:

Public schools should be the place where democratic citizenship is learned. They should be places in which cultural, religious, and linguistic differences can be both understood and appreciated. Public schools should foster healthy inter-group relations by eroding cultural stereotypes. Schools should try to imbue in all students an appreciation for Canada’s values, traditions, and institutions through instruction in language, literature, art, history, music, and in other curricular areas. And teachers should work to overcome the barriers to success that some students face because of the characteristics they bring with them when they come to school.[3]

While I continue to hold strongly to those values, it is incumbent upon me and others influenced by progressivism to question – as Counts questioned the progressivism of his day – its contribution to these problems.  Olson’s and Darling-Hammond’s works prompt us to question the role of progressivism in supporting a system of injury and inequality. Darling-Hammond’s treatise captures the spirit of progressivism envisioned by Counts, but it is less tough-minded than I think is necessary to address the problem of inequality. The progressive influence is evident in the Olson book as well, but it is of the romantic, individualistic variety of which Counts was so critical in reflecting on what early progressivism had become.

Despite their exclusive focus on schooling in the United States, these books will receive attention in Canada because Canada and Canadians are not immune to educational inequality and injury. Since the Second World War, Canadian public schools have made strides toward ensuring that a student’s educational success cannot be predicted by the social conditions in which the student lives, but it would be wrong for Canadians to be complacent about the inequalities faced and the injuries endured by students in Canada.  Although they are not, in the aggregate, as egregious as those in the United States, they are as significant in the lives of those who must endure them and consequential for the larger society. A consortium of researchers investigating graduation rates of students in Canada’s three largest cities have found significant variation among students of different ethno-linguistic backgrounds.[4] The poor school performance of, and outcomes achieved by, Aboriginal Canadians and Haitian-Canadians – to mention just two demographic groups – is visible evidence of the failure of Canadian education to deliver on a core promise: that who one is, with whom one lives, and where one lives should not limit one’s educational achievements.

[1] G. S. Counts, “Dare Progressive Education be Progressive?” Progressive Education 9, no. 4 (1932): 257-63.

[2] Roland Meighan, “An Education Fit for a Democracy,” 2006.

[3] C. S. Ungerleider, Failing Our Kids: How We are Ruining our Public Schools (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2003), 114.

[4] M. McAndrew, et. al., Educational Pathways and Academic Performance of Youth of Immigrant Origin (Ottawa: Canadian Council on Learning (CCL) and Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC), 2009).

Meet the Expert(s)

Charles Ungerleider

Charles Ungerleider divides his time between The University of British Columbia, where he is a professor of the sociology of education, and Directions Evidence and Policy Research Group where he is Director of Research and Managing Partner.

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