School & District Management Opinion

The Education Gospel

By Marvin Lazerson — May 10, 2005 10 min read
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The term Education Gospel refers to a system of belief that has dominated American education for more than a century: the belief that social, economic, civic, and moral problems can be solved through schooling. Whatever the difficulties—economic recessions and economic development, social instability and crime, disengaged youth and deteriorating family life, inequality and poverty, even traffic safety and physical health—the Education Gospel assumes that schooling can solve the problem. Like most faith-based beliefs, it is neither susceptible to nor does it depend upon empirical verification. It is what we believe.

In the last few decades, the Education Gospel has come to focus on economic goals. Its essential message can be summarized as follows: The Knowledge Revolution (or the Information Society, or the High-Tech Revolution) has changed the nature of work, shifting away from occupations rooted in industrial production to occupations associated with knowledge and information. The jobs of the future will require advanced levels of schooling, leading to calls for “college for all.” Economically focused education will create a vibrant and expansive economy, a more productive workforce, and greater success in the marketplace of global competition. Every call to improve education assumes some version of this.

To believe that education is our way to salvation is to live a terrible lie.

The expectation that schooling will solve the nation’s economic problems applies to individuals. The more advanced one’s schooling, the greater the likelihood of getting ahead. Because the individual gets rewarded for continuing his or her formal education, the message of the Education Gospel is clear: The race for economic success and professional status depends upon staying in school for longer and longer periods of time, and being prepared regularly to return to school.

The Education Gospel has produced remarkable results. Americans have provided more schooling for more people for longer periods of time than any other country. Millions of immigrants and their families, millions of the poor and working class, millions of the previously discriminated against can attest to the remarkable opportunities available through education. The faith-based Education Gospel and its association with economic success are at the heart of America’s belief in itself.

But the Education Gospel has its less attractive characteristics. It violates both common sense and research findings that suggest that lots of other factors create economic growth. It assumes that schools really are the best place to learn to work, when so much of success at work is rooted in characteristics that often have little to do with schooling. The Education Gospel has terribly distorted and narrowed the purposes of education into getting jobs and getting ahead. And, while this belief system says that education is the answer to all our aspirations, it is a belief that has led to a virtual neglect and sometimes outright hostility to almost any other form of social policy.

The Education Gospel has also led to an endless cycle of overschooling, where individuals stay in school because it is their only option. As each level of schooling becomes more crowded, one has to move to the next level in order to differentiate oneself. We thus have created a situation in which it is rational for the individual to stay in school, but socially irrational and terribly expensive for everybody to stay in school year after year.

What follow are personal reflections on the evolution of the Education Gospel over the short span of one lifetime.

Loud Music When I was growing up, my father and grandfather worked in a New York City factory where they had to shout to be heard. This shouting as a form of conversation continued when they sat down at the dinner table, where I also had to shout, with my younger sisters ultimately joining in. My reaction to all of this noise was to go to my room and turn rock ’n’ roll music on as loudly as I could. This led to more shouting and turning up the family television.

Over the years, I began to view education reformers as an expanded version of my family. The advocates of reform, from all sides of the political spectrum, behave as my family did: They shout louder and louder. And, since one group of reformers is always playing its music, other reformers have to turn up the volume to be heard, leading to seemingly unending rounds of loudly played music.

In these situations, no one hears anyone else’s music; we hear only our own. This has utterly demolished our ability to engage in serious conversations about education. Educational researchers are essentially helpless in this situation, since we hear only those findings we already believe to be true.

Unless we lower the volume, there will be little improvement in our schools, because every momentary shift in power simply means more loud music. So it is time to stop shouting and to stop acting as if there is only one music worth hearing, because when all we do is play our own music more and more loudly, then no one really hears anything.

The Lone Ranger During the 1950s, listening to “The Lone Ranger” on the radio was one of my outlets to a world outside my family. Later, when the Lone Ranger had moved to television, I came to understand that this white man who wore a mask was what we now would call “politically incorrect.” White men just did not have faithful Indian companions named Tonto in the olden days. Still, that stirring moment in each show when someone would notice the Lone Ranger’s bullets and say, “Why those are silver bullets, mister” has always remained with me.

Those silver bullets have become a metaphor for how Americans view education reform. They are the unfortunate complement to the loud music. The silver bullets of the Lone Ranger never missed, and they always landed where he wanted them to go. The Education Gospel is essentially an elaborate silver bullet, which claims to do what the Lone Ranger did: eliminate the problem within a half-hour, start to finish, including commercial breaks.

The advocates of school reform, from all sides of the political spectrum, behave as my family did: They shout louder and louder.

In school reform, silver bullets are being shot out of various-sized guns with bewildering rapidity. Schools too large? Make small schools. Students directionless? Create charter schools or mission-oriented schools. The costs of schooling too high, the bureaucracy strangling innovation? Provide vouchers so people can shop around and buy at lower costs. Students not learning enough? Create national standards and more standardized tests. Teachers don’t know their subjects? Require academic majors as a prerequisite to getting certified to teach.

None of these reforms is necessarily bad; most reforms have some merit and some downside. Just about every evaluation of any worth says more or less the same thing: Some schools and some students benefit, some lose out, and many—if not most—are essentially unaffected. But in a world of silver bullets, in which you must play your music more and more loudly, the notion of complexity, of incompleteness, of benefits and deficits—such balanced views of education’s complex reality—have little meaning.

It is hard, in the middle of the education wars, to remind ourselves that there are no silver bullets and that the Lone Ranger could not possibly have shot so perfectly. Even when we are on the right track, education takes a long time to have an effect. Learning does not occur overnight. And so we have a responsibility to say as clearly as we can, that any given reform may help some, if we do it right, but no reform is a silver bullet that will make the educational problems disappear.

Playing Within Your Game “Playing within your game” is a shorthand phrase that essentially means that a team of not especially great players has learned to draw upon and combine its individual strengths to make for strong team play. These players, taken together, are stronger as a team than as the individual parts.

I was reminded of this about a year ago, watching the European soccer championships. As the tournament got under way, the national team from Greece began to win games it was supposed to lose. This was surprising, because the Greeks had no superstars. Pretty soon, everybody started to take the Greek team seriously, and attention turned to the team’s German coach, who, it was said, had convinced his players to “play within their game.” It worked, and in one of the biggest surprises ever in European soccer, the national team of Greece became the European champions.

During the tournament, I began to think about how rarely we in education stand up and say, “This is our game plan, we are going to fight like hell to stick to it, and we are willing to be held accountable for the results.” We rarely have a game plan, and so we are frequently given one. And because the loud music is constantly being piped in, we often have multiple game plans, in rapid succession. This has led many in education to become cynical about reform efforts, in part because we often work in schools that have no real meaning, no common purpose, and certainly no overriding sense that we have looked at ourselves and figured out what our strengths and weaknesses are. There exists little opportunity to build upon and to blend our strengths to make a school better. The notion of playing within your game in order to make the institution better is almost an oxymoron in education: It hardly ever exists.

Some years ago, the University of Chicago research scholar Anthony Bryk argued that Roman Catholic schools did a better job of helping students learn than the public schools. After testing why this seemed the case—and Bryk tried to account for selection bias among those who attended the parochial schools—he concluded that there was something about the strong sense of mission in the Catholic schools that made an essential difference. He was on the right track. Having a game plan and playing within it so that the institution stands for something matters.

This also means that no single education reform is really all that important. It is not so much the individual reform—the silver bullet, if you will—but the character of the institution that matters.

It’s Hard to Learn When You’re Hungry Some 35 years ago, the sociologist Christopher Jencks and his colleagues published Inequality: A Reassessment of the Effect of Family and Schooling in America. In it, Jencks argued that schools alone could do very little to change the structure of inequality in the United States. Although he underplayed the things that schools could accomplish, Jencks’ basic argument about structural inequality was right.

We cannot moderate the enormous inequalities in our society simply by improving education.

What frustrated me about the book, however, was that one had to read hundreds of pages of relatively difficult text before the final chapter, which was a call for stronger public policies to redistribute income from the most wealthy to the least wealthy.

I now find myself in the same boat. In our book, The Education Gospel: The Economic Power ofSchooling, Norton Grubb and I produced around 200 pages of text before we got to the chapter that says America’s faith in education cannot be realized in a world in which there is so much structured inequality.

The central dilemma of the belief system we call the Education Gospel is that it wants to use education as a substitute for other social policies to reduce unemployment, to alleviate poverty, to narrow the distribution of earnings, and to end racial differences. This substitution is self-defeating. We cannot moderate the enormous inequalities in our society simply by improving education. The schools cannot succeed at their basic job of creating literate citizens without social policies that involve housing, health and nutrition, income support, urban and rural community building, and improved employment opportunities.

What is hardest to take is that as the rhetoric of the Education Gospel continues to ratchet up, the social policies essential to make it work have been eviscerated. The fact is that we cannot fix schools without fixing inequality, and we cannot fix inequality without fixing schools. We cannot choose one or the other and expect that either inequality will diminish or education will get substantially better.

The Education Gospel then is a trap, because it turns us into believers that schools can accomplish everything, and therefore we have to do little else. The world does not work that way, no matter how loudly we play our music, no matter how many silver bullets we purport to have, no matter how hard we play the game. The game is played at lots of sites, under quite different conditions, and it does not end when the whistle blows, the buzzer sounds, or the school bell rings. To believe that education is our way to salvation is to live a terrible lie.

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