We can’t agree on schools because they are compromise institutions

Coca Cola is a cola-producing, money-making enterprise. Hospitals are in the business of keeping people alive and healthy. Congress is in charge of making laws. Planned Parenthood supports reproductive health for women. Unions protect the interests of their members. And so on, and so on. All of this is relatively clear and straightforward.

Schools are different. Nobody can tell you exactly what it is that schools do.

(Update: my friend Chavi is a high-risk pregnancy doctor and author of a fantastic book that you should buy. She tells me, “You’ve got hospitals ALL WRONG. We are a TOTAL compromise. Social safety net, economically compromised model, plus restaurant and God knows what else. I like to point out that a really good hospital is also a really mediocre hotel.”)

Schools are in charge of teaching kids the things they need to get good jobs. That’s a matter of social justice. Or it’s about national security — you’ve got to keep up with the USSR Chinese.

Don’t forget about childcare, to support more people going into the workforce. That’s an important part of what schools do, their most basic function.

Actually — no! Schooling isn’t about jobs, national security or the economy. It’s about democracy. We need to create the next generation of informed citizens, prepared to vote and run for office and such. They need to know history, sure, but they also need to be schooled in democratic values. Kids need to learn that you can always improve by working hard. They also need to learn to respect their classmates, no matter if they come from a different place, worship differently, or have a different culture.

Really, though, school is about socialization. Kids need to be around other kids to be happy. They need to be part of a community where they get to make friends and find themselves. Schools give kids the chance to find themselves in passions like sports or music or art.

The point is that schools are all these things at the same time. Not everybody cares about all these things at the same time, but each purpose of schooling has its own cheering section in American society. We all care about schooling, but for different reasons.

David Labaree wrote a well-known essay describing this dynamic. In “Public Goods, Private Goods: The American Struggle Over Educational Goals” he lists three big categories for how Americans think about the purposes of schooling:

  • social efficiency (think, jobs and economics)
  • social mobility (think, meritocracy)
  • democratic equality (think, values of democracy)

This is the fundamental fact about schools: they are compromise institutions. They simply do not have a main purpose. They aren’t in the business of helping everybody learn the most that they can. Schools aren’t organized around giving everybody the same opportunities. They aren’t built to give meaningful experiences to children. They do all these things, but in a compromised way. Because they are compromise institutions.

A lot of “innovative” schools produce their innovations by going all-in on one of these goals while caring less about the others. You can certainly organize a school that produces learning gains — as long as you spend less time worrying about whether kids get more choices and chances to collaborate. And you can definitely organize a school that is completely untracked and gives everyone the same learning opportunities, but you’re going to have to give up a bit on some students’ individual achievements. You can get a Success Academy for a while, but eventually gravity will drag it down into the weird, tangled matrix of compromise that most schools have to grapple with.

I’m not saying that schools are compromise institutions and that this is a bad thing. Schools are weird. Public schooling isn’t that old — it’s a complex project that meets a lot of different people’s needs. It has evolved to do a reasonably good job keeping a majority of people happy, but that has involved a bit of layering and duct tape. Ah ok, the nation needs this? We’ll start teaching Biology. We’ll offer college classes. We’ll have music. We’ll do anti-drug talks.

There is nothing natural about schooling. When push comes to shove, and we have to rethink schooling with limited resources, don’t be surprised that we can’t easily come to agreement. Imagine you ran a local drug store and suddenly had to cut your inventory in half. Do you stop selling food? Keep the first-aid supplies but ditch the mouthwash? Your store has a lot of random stuff in it, because your store is a catchall for a lot of random needs that people have. You aren’t a grocer; you sell a lot of unrelated stuff. That’s what schools are like.

Many teachers have argued that in the autumn of 2020 schools should be entirely remote. After all, hybrid learning is going to be a pedagogical disaster, probably worse than remote learning. (It’s just remote learning but more confusing.) Why not go remote? That makes a lot of sense, if all you think about is learning.

A lot of professionals have argued that school should go back full-time, especially for the youngest students. These parents need childcare! How is the economy (and everything else) supposed to function when people are suddenly at home with their children. This is absolutely true. That this is the job of schools is a totally legitimate view.

Really, though, everybody should go back. (Safely, of course.) Kids need to be in a social environment, not miserable and locked up at home staring at a screen. It’s not good for kids. It’s not about childcare, it’s about thriving in a meaningful environment. (This is the view my own school has taken, I believe, and all grades are currently expected back in September.)

My point is not about who is right. Honestly, I don’t know! The point is that to understand why there is so much disagreement you need to understand that it’s not that people don’t value the economy, childcare, the social lives of children or anything else. It’s that schools are weird. They exist in a strange space and occupy a weird set of roles. They aren’t simply institutions; they are settings where a variety of institutions and forces play tug-of-war and compete.

That means that if you want schools to come back (or to go hybrid, or to go fully remote) you have to make a really complicated case that satisfies a lot of different desires. We don’t agree on what is the most important for children. We don’t agree on what schools are for.

This is why it’s difficult to figure out what to do with schools right now. We don’t have the resources to do all the weird things that schools used to do. (Smaller class sizes + staff with legit medical exemptions – painful state budgets – meaningful federal support = funding disaster.)

Schools are already weird compromise institutions. We should all expect it to take another weird compromise to make this next school year work.

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