Seeking School Clues

Most of our common social institutions do double-duty, triple-duty, or more; they serve many functions at once. While this makes functional sense, it also complicates the task of inferring their functions. School is a good example. Some oft-mentioned functions:

  • babysit – keep kids safe via less adult effort
  • match – help kids find compatible mates/friends
  • practice – practice specific skills, habits
  • 3 Rs – practice reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmatic
  • be like us – adopt our styles of talk, dress, music, etc.
  • learn to learn – practice practicing new skills
  • remember – remember specific facts, claims
  • dogma – remember approved social views
  • norms – internalize behaviors, standards
  • mark – show that students better than others
  • sort – rank by ability, loyalty, personality, support
  • legitimize – accept non-school rank via school rank
  • submit – practice gracious obedience, ranking
  • stiffen – strength self-control to follow norms
  • harden – practice working long, hard, on cue
  • soften – practice accepting new local norms, ranks
  • entrench – keep the system going, grow it if possible
  • impress – make a local society look good to outsiders

In the face of such complexity, I prefer to

  1. Collect stylized facts, i.e., simple patterns of behavior that might be clues to help distinguish theories.
  2. Instead of seeking ad hoc explanations for each clue, seek a simple package of assumptions that simultaneously explain as many clues as possible with as few assumptions as possible.

So I hereby declare my newfound interest in such clues.  What ya got?

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  • You have to ask permission from the authority figures to go to the bathroom, typically in front of all the other students. This is true for students of all abilities, races, class backgrounds, and type of school (e.g. for poor and upper-middle class kids).

    You can try to ask to go to your locker, but that almost always gets a “no.”

    Only the last 5 functions in the list can account for this. It cannot be to accept dominance in some specific area, since most people — especially middle-class and above people — will never have to ask permission to go to the bathroom when they get a job, or to go to the water cooler, snack machine, etc. It must be about dominance in general.

    Thinking more, I don’t think “harden” works because you could do this through having some small number of trips you could make during a class. Maybe you’d have a hall pass that you dropped in a box next to the door on the way out. The teacher could tell whether you’ve slipped the paper in the box more than once per period. This method of limiting bathroom breaks would still incentivize students to work long, hard, and on cue — why should you have to publicly ask permission in nearly 100% of cases?

    “Soften” doesn’t work fully either, except when kids first go to school. Forcing them to ask permission to go to the bathroom would help them learn to accept new norms, but in high school? It’s not softening them up to a new or local norm / rank.

    “Stiffen” suffers the same as “harden” — why isn’t the norm that students use self-control to follow simply one that has them drop a hall pass into a box by the door on their way out to the bathroom. That’s still somewhat embarrassing and unlike anything they’ll do at home, with a babysitter, or in the workplace. But the slip in the box sidesteps interacting with the authority figure, who would really be more of a mostly passive monitor.

    Last, “legitimize” doesn’t do so well because that would be more like a fraternity hazing / initiation ritual. If the point is to make the student accept dominance or rank, the only criteria are that the action be costly / embarrassing. You show that you can impose a cost on others and they have to take it. For instance, the current frat members dump syrup and feathers on you and you have to clean it all off. Or you have to scrub some ungodly toilet.

    But going to the bathroom is something you’re gracious for — finally, relief! Going to the nurse’s office when you think you’ve harmed yourself, going to your locker when you’re in a panic about a misplaced homework assignment or to get a quick snack, etc. — these are the other things you have to ask permission for. You signal that you’re in a bind, the authority figure lets you work it out, and you feel gracious for being able to relieve your stress.

    (These are unlike most of the frat hazing rituals, where you have no desire to perform the actions that you must ask permission to do — “thank you sir, may I have another?”)

    So it looks like “submit” is a necessary function. This example is not a marginal one — think of how much schools have changed over time, across place, or by social status of students. Curriculum, seating arrangements, wall decorations, individual vs. group learning, corporal or no corporal punishment, etc. Yet one of the most constant features of school is having to publicly ask permission to go to the bathroom, go to your locker, to the nurse, etc.

    • John Judge

      Actually, agnostic, the first function on the list can also account for the need to ask permission to use the bathroom (particularly for younger students). I teach college students, and if one gets up and leaves the room, I assume they need to use the bathroom, or were bored with my lecture, or had something else more important to do, but in any case, they are adults (or nearly so) and I can assume I don’t need to worry about them once they’re gone.

      But if they were third graders, and I was responsible for their safety as well as education, it would matter a great deal whether they were heading to the bathroom or heading to go play in traffic. I would probably want them to at least let me know where they were going, since, unlike with adults, I wouldn’t feel comfortable completely putting them out of mind once they’re out of the room.

      All educational aspects aside, if I were somehow given the task of merely babysitting a few dozen children, I would probably insist on them asking permission to leave my direct supervision, just to better keep tabs on their whereabouts.

      • But seniors in high school have to ask permission just as much as kindergarteners do. I was a legal adult within 2 months of the start of my senior year.

        Parents never hire babysitters once their children are at or just past puberty — certainly not if their kids are 15 to 18 years old. So the babysitting function is too ad hoc: it may look that way for the youngest students, but it doesn’t explain why older students are treated the same way. Parents don’t have a babysitting function to outsource if their kids are that old.

      • Gene Callahan

        “But seniors in high school have to ask permission just as much as kindergarteners do.”

        Not universally, agnostic — my son is in a (public) middle school and is free to go anywhere within five blocks of the school on his lunch break. When I was in high school several of the public schools near me had “open campuses.”

  • Chris T

    If education is meant to make people more accepting of dominance and hierarchy, then why is it that virtually every revolution or movement in history was initiated and led by educated elites?

    If education is supposed to create a more compliant populace, they’ve been rather counterproductive so far..

    • JS Allen

      Yah, because elites don’t rule after the revolution.

    • Chris and JS, I’m partial to the reductionist theory that the smartest old people want power to go to their regressed to the mean children, rather than to the smartest young people of the next generation. According to that theory revolutions occur when the talent elites of generation young are sufficiently smarter than the talent elites of generation old, and succeed in preventing a nepotistic transfer of power.

  • Thinking about Bryan Caplan’s related post at EconLog cleared up my thinking. Schools exist as a way for parents to try to get greater obedience out of their offspring.

    In a market economy, employers would not want to waste young people’s time in a 13 year-long process of learning to accept orders from non-school authority figures. It’s much simpler: if you disobey bosses in general, you’re permanently fired and thus starving and homeless. That’ll learn ya real quick. This is because bosses have no genetic self-interest in your well-being — only to the extent that you add value to their firm.

    Your parents are very different. Hamilton’s Rule says they’ll put up with a lot more disobedience from you, their offspring, than employers would. You won’t get tossed out onto the street for mouthing off, refusing to ever run the dishwasher or mow the lawn, striking and nearly killing other people in the social unit, etc. This will remain true as long as you and your parents are highly genetically related — meaning forever.

    So the cost of disobedience is far lower in the family, and you thus have a natural incentive to behave more defiantly at home than at the workplace. Evidently this tendency is so strong that parents try to beat it out of you by sending you through a 13 year-long grinder.

    In effect, parents are outsourcing and automating the task of instilling obedience to parental wishes in their offspring. There has been a secular change for parents to have warmer hearts about disciplining children, which threatens to make the offspring even more disobedient at home. Parents would rather not consciously decide this trade-off themselves because that would be violating one of those “sacred trade-offs” that you aren’t even supposed to think about. So they off-load that responsibility to the schools.

    The parents get to feel great about themselves for applying such gentle discipline at home, they don’t suffer the costs of greater disobedience since *someone* is still making the kids obey parents, and they have someone else to blame if discipline goes too far. And gain best of all they don’t have to think about a sacred trade-off.

    The school is a battleground where children, parents, and teachers / administers fight. Capitalists, employers, etc., have little to do with it.

    • Gene Callahan

      “This will remain true as long as you and your parents are highly genetically related…”

      This genetic reductionism is rubbish. Don’t adoptive parents and step-parents act the same way? And aren’t siblings, who share MORE genes with each other than they do with their parents, display LESS tolerance for bad behaviour than do parents?

  • James Daniel Miller

    Some more clues for U.S. schools:

    Inner city schools with primarily black and Hispanic students are the ones that tolerate the most “disrespectful” behavior towards teachers.

    Students are much more sorted by age than ability.

    Special needs students receive on average far more resources per student than typical students do.

    Top athletes have higher social status than top students do.

    Teachers almost never get fired.

  • Robin:

    Your mode of thinking about schooling became popular in elite circles in the 1960s and became popular in the 1970s. From 1983 onward, the consensus about this experiment was “never again.”

  • As Barbie perceptively noted, “Math is hard.”

  • Many of these things are considered means to an end, Some people actually care about giving children opportunities later in life, and everyone wants to signal that they care. This is one reason why schools are publicly run.

  • James, good clues.

    Steve, it is out of fashion to list theories, then collect clues to distinguish them?

    • tom

      Robin, I think the theory he’s talking about is: Schools are mainly instruments of repression and control; it will be a lot better when we get rid of all these rules so kids can really explore and learn without all these boundaries imposed by The Man.

      There are very different groups of kids in schools in the US. Schools serve very different functions for each group, even within a pretty homogeneous school.

      No one in the post mentions what decent schools do for lots of people, including me: teach math, science, English, history, let people find out how good/bad they are in different things and with different people, and meet kids who are like them.

      And no one in Washington DC sends their kids to Catholic schools for the religion. They send them for the rules, the discipline, and the insistence on work. Rules and hierarchies are terrible things in schools until the day you don’t have them.

  • blink

    Comparing public and independent/religious schools may provide some clues. Those who opt out of public schools at high personal cost clearly have reasons. The functions that stand out are: norms (independent schools) and dogma (religious schools). The aim of both is to invest in hard-to-fake signals (manners/social skills or religious faith) that identify individuals with high-status groups. Matching and marking play secondary roles — matching to reinforce in-group norms and marking to create distinction within the in-group.

  • Newerspeak

    be like us has gotten a lot harder over the last 50 years. Mobile workforce, greater diversity, fewer absolute standards of behavior.

    US response was a transition from very implicit, social standards of teaching & student behavior to very explicit, legal ones.

    most classroom teachers will tell you they spend more time thinking about maintaining discipline than imparting knowledge.

    kids really do exist in a different state of mind. some over-the-top dominance displays might be necessary to prevent them from, e.g. urinating on your floor.

    IIRC most teachers in the US graduate in the bottom third of second- or third-tier schools, and many are the first in their family to attend college.

    in far mode motherhood is very honorable. america and apple pie. in near mode, it is awful. diaper-changing and squelching the urge to murder the little beast so you can get some sleep. (cf. Zahavi & Zahavi: he’s crying to annoy your neighbors so they’ll pressure you to pony up more food)

    teaching is similar: high-status idealistic rhetoric, low-status cynical implementation.

    nobody knows how to say, in a precise way, what differentiates good teaching from bad.

    anxiety about children is a great way for pols to drum up votes. they routinely add peripheral goals for educators to achieve, e.g. community service, character education, arguably music/art/dance/etc.

    smart independent women who would have been forced to become teachers in 1930 can now become doctors or lawyers instead.

    How Aristotle was not flayed alive: “Alexander is very bright, but he needs to apply himself more. B-“

  • JS Allen

    I was going to ask you to give an example of what you mean by clue, but then I saw James’s answer. Some more clues:

    * More schooling options seem to lead to greater stratification or segregation. Urban centers, where many choices are available, see relatively higher stratification/segregation of educational choices.

    * The more pronounced the wealth/class disparity in the community, the more exclusivity and demand for “top” schools is observed (see links below).

    * Indian and Chinese parents in America place relatively more value on getting their children into “top” schools, since life opportunities in those countries are highly determined by school. Areas with higher concentrations of immigrants from such countries will see more stratification.

    * Parents often report that they will spend money to voluntarily segregate and “protect” their children from “bad influences”. Here are examples from St. Louis and Romania; I suspect that surveys of children at religious schools and private schools would show the same:

    Note that the segregation is *involuntary* on the part of the underclass, as well as the government, but the fact that it is near impossible to prevent privileged parents from segregating their children, should be seen as a major clue.

  • Unnamed

    Some facts about school serve secondary goals which are prerequisites for many different ultimate goals. The facts may illuminate the challenges of schooling, rather than its purposes. For instance, whatever school’s purpose, it’s necessary for the children to be present in the school, so schools have a range of policies which encourage attendance and make it easier for teachers to keep track of their students (like requiring permission to leave the room). Similarly, are submitting and stiffening functions of school, or is it just that schools can’t function if the students don’t submit and stiffen (discipline is a prerequisite for a functioning classroom)?

    Other secondary goals include limiting costs, maintaining parents’ (and voters’) approval, getting teachers to go along with things, and replicating procedures in a bunch of different buildings with a bunch of different personnel.

    Another stylized fact (which may be due to these secondary goals) is that there is relatively little variation on the standard model of one teacher in charge of a classroom full of kids.

  • Tracy W

    My clue:
    Private schools in Western countries, once you control for the SES of the incoming students, don’t appear to do noticably better at teaching than public schools on average than public/state schools.

  • Robin I think you’re mixing some questions together that might need to be treated separately-
    1 – why do governments/societies want children do go to school
    2 – why do parents send their children to school
    3 – why do young adults choose to go to school (beyond the age where it is compulsory, I mean)

    different features of the school system may appeal to different constituencies.

  • Great post.
    Awesomely non-binary, awesomely bias-denuded, at least at first glance for me.

  • josh

    From an insiders perspective I can say some of the following. I don’t know if these are clues about the purpose of schooling, but here you go:

    Principles and administrators have essentially no authority over the actual content taught in a classroom. Other than hiring power they have no real control over classroom discipline methods or teaching methods or grades. Changing my principal tomorrow would not change my life at all.

    A masters degree in teaching is required pretty much everywhere. This is where we are supposed to learn classroom management, teaching methods, as well as a general perspective on what are job is and why we’re doing it. In other words, this is politically and ideologically loaded. In fact, to complete the masters program we were required to basically become junior professors. We were supposed to do research, but not real research. I can’t remember what it was called, but it was supposedly based on “critical theory” and was supposed to help the children “grow as learners” or some such.

    Everyone talks about “research-based” methods but what is presented as being research-based seems very dubious and counter-intuitive. And its never really explained what ends the research shows these methods achieve other than “achievement.”

    The official position of my county is that our main purpose is to close the “achievement gap.”

    Every classroom in my school has computers that go unused and we keep buying more despite constant complaints about budget cuts.

    You can’t wear hats, you can wear Muslim head wraps, you can openly admit to being in a gang.

  • josh

    Also, there is no general consensus among teachers or administrators as to what we are trying to accomplish.

  • Clues:
    A lot of education is recommended solely on the grounds that it prepares one for further education.

    Schools teach much that is only of use to a very, very small number of people (i.e quadratic equations, and I don’t count the people who only need to know it to teach it to others).

    People go to school for 12 years and yet some very practical and easy to teach knowledge that would help them live a better life.

    People often say that this or that population needs more/better education but they seldom say what knowledge or skills would help the society most and what is the most efficient way to get this knowledge and skills to the target population.

  • Another clue:

    People fight hard over what is taught in schools. Evolution is a big battle ground in schooling today but one would be hard pressed to show that disbelief in human evolution has a significant negative effect on life outcomes of students even less the lack of having it taught in school. People do learn in places other than school.

    • anon

      one would be hard pressed to show that disbelief in human evolution has a significant negative effect on life outcomes of students

      This is debatable. Most of modern biology and even medicine (see e.g, pathogen resistance) can only be properly understood in the light of evolutionary forces. Plus, the evidence for macroscopic evolution is quite overwhelming nowadays, so teaching creationism outside of a religious studies class doesn’t really make much sense.

      Of course, this is a hypocritical stance, snce the advocates of teaching evolution do not apply the same truth-seeking approach to civics/political science, econ, history, social science, grievance “studies” etc. But hypocrisy is arguably better than not caring at all.

  • Torben

    Very interesting stuff, Robin.

    I don’t have much to add except to ask if you have children and, if so, how they are taught?

  • Using longitudinal data with spring and fall tests, much of the SES related achievement gap is explained by relative summer falloff in performance by lower SES kids. –> Schools are somewhat successful in raising the relative achievement of lower SES kids.

  • related to this topic:

    reading recommendation –
    Richard Arum & Josipa Roska
    Academically Adrift: Limited learning on College campuses
    Chicago University Press, 2010 (forthcoming)

  • I just added two entries to the list: entrench, impress

  • Robert Ayers

    John Taylor Gatto explored much of the “condition children to become cogs in the machine” area awhile ago. That’s just one of many interesting points he makes about the educational system.

  • Yellow Kid Weil

    Babysitting makes a lot of sense. Kids are no longer needed for labor nowadays and would just get in the way of most modern jobs so school serves to keep kids occupied while their parents are away.

  • Firaga

    Instead of seeking ad hoc explanations for each clue, seek a simple package of assumptions that simultaneously explain as many clues as possible with as few assumptions as possible.

    That sounds like the worst kind of rationalism, the kind that eschews data and defined testable hypothesis for deductive “models” that only apply to simple majorities of unscientific observations and are held to in the face of opposing data.

    You are a credentialed economist and professor, surely you can provide empirical information instead of vague deductions presented as discovered truth.