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what is wrong with the schools?

School Inflation : Education Next This important article documents the centralization and consolidation of schools in the 20th century.  I refer to this state of affairs in public education when I post about decentralization.  The access and ability of families and communities to impact their schools has moved up the food chain from schools to districts to cities to states to Washington to corporations.  The fundamental character of the schools has changed. Families and children have been left behind. Real change will mean understanding how this basic fact contributed greatly to the rise of the homeschooling movement,  the spontaneous citizen response to a system expanded and empowered beyond what families can control or affect.

Vanishing Act

The United States was once a nation of small schools. In fact, as late as the 1930s, most American schools employed just one teacher. Over the ensuing decades, however, the number of schools declined rapidly, from a peak of 271,000 in 1920 to a low of around 83,000 schools in the late 1980s (since then, about 10,000 schools have been added nationwide).

Meanwhile, public school attendance roughly doubled between 1929 and 1969, the period of most rapid consolidation. The combination of consolidation and rising attendance produced a five-fold increase in school size during this short time, with average daily attendance per school rising from 87 to 440 students (see Figure 1). Schools employing just one teacher all but disappeared from the landscape; just 400 one-teacher schools remained as of 2000.

NOTE: Data for one-teacher schools available only after 1927. Some years interpolated by author.

SOURCE: U.S.Department of Education

As school districts became larger and more complex, day-to-day authority over schools gradually shifted from elected school boards to professional superintendents and administrators. From 1930 to 1970, about 9 out of 10 school board members nationwide saw their positions disappear.

These centralizing trends were encouraged by state officials, who spearheaded initiatives to consolidate local schools as part of broader efforts to expand state control over public education. In other words, not only was local control over education weakened by the elimination of most elected school boards, but the authority of the remaining boards was also eroded as state governments gradually extended their authority over issues such as accreditation, curriculum, and teacher certification.

These changes met with fierce local resistance, especially in rural areas, where the school was often the community’s central institution. Consolidation of the local district–in particular, the loss of the town school–often threatened a community’s social cohesion and economic vitality. To achieve their objectives, state education officials often had to provide strong fiscal incentives or simply force consolidation by redrawing district boundaries.

The article concludes with a warning about the data used:

For several reasons, however, it is important to be cautious in drawing policy implications from the findings regarding school size. For one thing, I have not examined any data on school size from a year more recent than 1966. Much can change over four decades.

Much has changed:  things have gotten worse.  Since 1966, there have been steep wage declines for the working class; women have worked at ever greater numbers to close the gap, there has been a decline in social capital, the vitamin and mineral content of our foods has declined, healthcare and tuition costs have exploded and children and families are paying the price.

Our families and children grapple for an education in huge and impersonal institutions that increasingly use police tactics to ensure their income stream.  As jobs have declined, these mass institutions direct kids into the prison system, stream them to college where they cannot afford the tuition, dump them into community colleges that are badly-run, allow employers to ask for credentials that are not available to many Americans (see my post How is Requiring the BA Legal?) and impede the learning of kids with grades, testing, and corporate textbooks, while requiring higher and higher fees.

The Rise of Homeschooling

Homeschooling is the spontaneous response to this situation.  And it is the family that has proved to be the real activists in this school reform that emphasizes the human relationships of family and the small scale learning together that families can achieve.  Organic agriculture insisted you can grow food without chemicals and herbicides and homeschooling has proved that families can educate kids without the increasingly harmful social atmosphere of mass schools with their grades and tests by keeping their kids at home and working together.

Homeschoolers have done this usually unsupported by their communities and it is no surprise that religious homeschoolers who often have support within their congregation have taken this path successfully.  But parents of all shapes and sizes have come to this movement usually in the interests of their children. Homeschoolers have changed the compulsory attendance laws in all 50 states and shown that families are important to kids, who are increasingly harmed by the intense peer-driven orientation of mass schools, testing, grading and ranking and sheer time spent is mass settings.

Moving Toward Voluntary Learning Centers

If school change advocates want to understand how to really change and improve schools, they must learn these lessons and learn them well.  Schools could move toward serving families and children and providing them with educational services, allowing deep customization and removing the abuse of grading and ranking.  Schools could help strengthen families as families by being really involved with their child’s education (faux parental quasi-involvement meaning ed professionals telling families what to do and it won’t work: the core power relationship must be reversed).  Families accessing learning centers would be able to expand and diversify social networks in ways our factory-approach will never do.

Multicultural and multifaith communities could access services without schools having to wade into culture wars.  For example, families choosing classes would allow some to access sex ed while others do not.  Some families would choose not to access science classes with evolution content.  In the homeschool community, families who must meet college and testing requirements usually access what is required but they do have real control.  Right now, professional educators fear the family and its views as harmful to the child:  learning centers would work through and with the family acknowledging the family as a part of the child’s life, while offering services.  The state cannot decide to socialize a child instead of the family though learning centers can decide to offer high-quality services and hope they are used.

And with our first African-American president in office, we can now move toward empowering local and community schools to become more active. The long struggle with school integration has established that Federal intervention is possible for localities that would veer toward some extreme social policy in their schools.  Devolving more decision-making to a lower level will not mean localities can follow racist or classicist ends: that precedent has been established.  The Internet also provides a check as well as offering access to higher-quality services, potentially global, for local districts that before would have been starved for resources big cities had.

On the ground, parents would have more control over their children’s learning and time and this would allow diverse families to work with their communities at their own pace balancing the needs of their children as they see fit.  Children and families could find ways to be improve their health, increase their family time and prepare kids for work, just as homeschoolers do now. Schools that offered learning services could expand  and diversify those services when freed from the one-size-fits-all factory model.

Transforming Schools

There are fundamental problems with our schools that, if understood would help us transform our public education system to serve all families. This would most benefit the poorest as they lack the resources that other families can use to supplement or overcome the ills of mass coerced schooling as it now exists. The economic power of the centralized bureaucracy is large but it is poorly designed in its dependence on the legal coercion of families by compulsory attendance. This mechanism short circuits the vital feedback of families, the child’s natural advocate, and families would limit this power and hold it in check if the structure would structurally allow this to happen.

These things are possible but only if what is actually going on is understood:  the megaphone of corporate and special-interest ed reform ideas is loud.  Real change means listening to the soft voices of parents and kids, all but ignored within schools and the media, and legally disenfranchised.

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