Schools / research

Disrupting the discourse of school

June 28, 2012

“Public education is broken. We need to fix failing schools. The United States must reform education or risk losing the future.”

If you pay the least bit of attention to public discourse, you’ve heard these arguments (and variations on them) hundreds of times. They’re used by the right and the left, by teacher unions and school-choice advocates, by desperate parents and ensconced superintendents. But what if they’re all arguing about the wrong thing? What if an ideal education system looks radically different from what we expect?

In February 2012, Insight Labs partnered with the CAA Foundation and Chicago’s Academy for Global Citizenship to ask why the struggle for education reform had not caught fire with the nation’s parents. The gathered thinkers suggested that the problem was in fact much more fundamental than any of us had imagined.

Nearly every policy adopted by the status quo or proposed by reformers shares the same assumption: the purpose of school is to add to the knowledge, skills, and abilities of individual students with the long-term purpose of increasing economic growth – the human capital theory of education. Even reformers who proposed huge changes to the system still framed the benefits of their ideas in these terms: more college admissions, better jobs, a “smarter” economy.

But what if the highest and best purpose of school were in fact something else? And if it were, how would we even advocate for it in a world where everyone knows what school is “supposed” to do?

Inspired by the challenge, we launched an experiment. We posted an anonymous manifesto challenging the prevailing idea of school. Then we asked the world for comment. We were not naive enough to think that our document would launch some new school reform movement – weren’t even sure it was right. Instead, we intended to study the debate generated by the manifesto and distill what it had to teach us about the way our society talks about school.

In the first phase of the project, the manifesto caught fire, garnering mentions in GOOD Magazine and NPR. Now we’ve released our findings from the experiment in a paper called “Disrupting the Discourse: An Insight Labs Inquiry into the Rhetoric of School Reform” – you can read it here. Among our tentative conclusions:

• Questions about the fundamental purpose of education are often misconstrued as indictments of the system – but they don’t have to be.

• There exists deep suspicion about using schools to achieve a social end or greater purpose, despite the fact that economic development through increased human capital is itself such a purpose. This purpose of school has been significantly “naturalized” and is difficult to uproot.

• We may need to get comfortable with a world where broad-based social institutions like school exist for multiple purposes simultaneously and a priori reform efforts are impossible.

• There is a significant yearning for policy-makers to acknowledge the social dimension of school rather than simply increase the abilities of individual students. Indeed, remembering school’s social essence may be the key to both the future of school and the future of school reform.

• If we imagine schools as serving purposes like increasing civic engagement or building a more just society, reforming them in isolation from other institutions may be an absurd proposition.