When US politicians roll out educational "reform" initiatives, instead of making significant changes, they merely tweak a system which is deeply flawed and ineffective. Merit pay for teachers! More parents on school boards! Computer-based learning! Longer school days! Water down the tests! Discipline! More discipline!

The following concepts have been around for some time and addressing the problems they point to would help alter entrenched imbalances in power and economics as well as lead to greater student empowerment, which would mean more active, wise and resourceful citizens. Progressive experimentation is needed as educational reactionaries continually announce their specious achievements with great fanfare. Charter schools, for instance, seem to select the most academically competent students they can find, subject them to a type of pseudo-military discipline and then boast of squeezing higher test scores out of them. Much of the experimentation seems to be right-wing and coercive in nature.

On the Equality of Educational Opportunity - James Coleman

The Coleman Report of 1966 warranted a sea change concerning a central belief regarding education. Education is not the socially transformative force it was hoped to be – a successful educational system is a reflection of a fair and just society and not an engine for the creation of such a society out of corruption.

The US Congress had commissioned Coleman to document that schools predominantly or exclusively comprised of African American students were receiving less funding than schools of white children. Congress felt there was no need to racially integrate society and/or provide meaningful jobs and safe, healthful neighborhoods for the poor. The thought was: black and white students go to different schools, so just make sure the black kids get what the white kids get (Congress, basically, hearkened back to and re-embraced the concept of separate but equal). Congress believed that equal funding would erase any performance gaps. Coleman, however, wondered what might happen if he found black and white schools that were receiving exactly the same funding, had exactly the same quality teachers and that, basically, mirrored each other in everything except the race of the children in the schools.

Even in "black" schools which received the same funding as "white" schools, and which had the same types of teachers and facilities, black students still significantly underperformed compared to white students. When Coleman examined the background factors of the students, he discovered that the underperforming black students often lived in some of the poorest neighborhoods in the country. Many of these neighborhoods were plagued by violence. Many black students lived in abject poverty, did not get enough to eat and had parents who had not had educational opportunities.

Coleman thus arrived at the realization that you could, conceivably, have separate but equal facilities for the black students who were underperforming, but their socioeconomic backgrounds would often prevent them from excelling. You could build the best schools in the world in the worst neighborhoods in the US and you would not get the results you hoped for. Schools cannot lift neighborhoods; neighborhoods have to lift schools. The findings of the Coleman Report have yet to be fully utilized to help ensure equality of educational opportunity in America.


Antonio Gramsci, piggy-backing off Marx, developed the concept of “hegemony”, which is the belief that dominant, culturally shared ideas have their origins in the upper classes and that this reinforces pre-existing power. Jean Anyon did a ground-breaking study to show how hegemony can intrude into the classroom.

In the late 1970s she looked at how labor history was presented in the textbooks of working-class high school students in the US. Even though the labor movement had a strong role in the development of a more livable industrialized society, Anyon found that there was very little mention of unions in the textbooks she looked at. Indeed, the only labor unions mentioned were those that had been cooperative with management or had established an obliging attitude toward management. The righteous trouble-makers like Joe Hill or Eugene Debs were deliberately overlooked. Anyon realized that the idea of taking forceful action to ensure one’s rights was obliterated from the educational experience of working-class students. It was not an option. Instead, students were being fed the message: “Be nice to power! Your economic 'superior' will help you! They care! Work WITHIN the system. Working within the system with the people in power is the only successful way.” For many unions, however, this simply had not been true.

The Hidden Curriculum

So let us say that you develop the most progressive, leftist curriculum in the world. Everything that had been excluded from textbooks in the past is now center-stage. You have narratives mentioning slavery, imperialism, war, class-injustice, unions, the history of protest movements etc. You teach every story once covered up. Your math textbooks help students learn how to distribute wealth and manage microloans instead of calculating how to compound student debt. Your science books talk about the day human societies will exist sustainably with the planet. Sounds good? Well, the concept of the hidden curriculum tells us that the way you teach something is more important than what you teach. When you have a central authority figure wielding the power of the grading system, aimed at students stuck behind desks for 8 hours a day, the students are really learning PASSIVITY and OBEDIENCE. They are learning that to succeed you go along to get along. Hegemony and the hidden curriculum strongly point to the need for programs of active and self-motivated learning on the part of students and a new role for the teacher as coach and facilitator, not as a dispenser of knowledge approved by one wing or another.

To Grade Is to Degrade

Grades are the currency of the educational system and few folks question this process. Yet, there is significant research which shows that grading actively harms attempts at real learning. Grading reduces interest in the learning process, it encourages less intellectual risk-taking and it kills creativity.

Learned Helplessness

Back in the day when scientists could conduct barbarous experiments, they put dogs in metal cages and attached electrodes that could produce high voltages of electricity to the cage bottoms. When the electricity started to flow, each dog did as much as possible to avoid the electric shocks. The scientists wanted to see what would happen, however, if the dog could not avoid the pain and could not die. When the dogs reached this point, every one of them merely lay down in the cage and gave up completely, pathetically absorbing the shocks. They demonstrated "learned helplessness".

This term can now be applied to human behavior. Why did only about 25% of New York City residents bother to vote in a recent mayoral election? Perhaps the 75% who did not vote have been disillusioned so many times that they have given up. People experience hope, vote for someone, that politician does nothing transformative and people “learn” that voting does not change things. They give up and become accepting of whatever happens, allowing corrupt politicians to thrive. Learned helplessness pervades our classrooms. When students feel that they have no control over their educations, they give up and merely follow instructions. They absorb the shocks and try to get through the experience. We have schools where students do not make decisions, have little or no input into the course of their educations and are graded on how well they adapt to this.

Structural and Symbolic Violence

Structural violence means that your social and economic environment can cause real harm to you approximating the harm of actual physical violence. Folks from lower economic backgrounds suffer more than those from more affluent backgrounds. Life expectancy is lower and chronic health problems are more pervasive. There are psychological problems that also come with poverty and one’s life opportunities are severely limited. Exposure to physical violence increases. Bourdieu took the concept of structural violence one step further by positing symbolic violence, the belief that people who are victimized by their social and economic circumstances often accept this as being necessary. They blame themselves for failing in an "objective" system, which is really not objective at all.

Race-based Expectations

White teachers hold the majority of teaching jobs in the US and various studies show that many white teachers have lower expectations for their darker-skinned students. Students rise to the level that their teachers set for them and when expectations are low, students pick this up; students internalize these attitudes and engage in negative, self-fulfilling prophecies. Teacher education programs simply cannot avoid addressing potential biases brought into classrooms by teachers embracing negative dominant culture values.