Is Our Children Learning? The Poverty of Educational Social Science

This piece on the social science of education first appeared on Pink Scare over a year ago. I re-publish it knowing that the national debate over public education reform has largely been eclipsed by more recent events. Despite its diminished visibility, though, education reform is very much still on the agenda, especially when the demand for fiscal austerity in cash-strapped municipalities is producing increasingly aggressive, retrograde measures on the part of city governments. When combined with an entrepreneurial class harboring a deep interest in transforming education into a for-profit institution, the stage is set for the introduction of an educational model based upon public subsidy and private gain – that is, one that is very accommodating to styles of primitive accumulation under contemporary capitalism. Chicago is currently a kind of experimental laboratory of sorts for this project.

NB: For those interested, Eric Triantifillou has an excellent and related piece on the political economy of Chicago charter schools that appeared in AREA magazine a couple years ago – highly recommended.


Like many other public institutions in modern western society, the educational system seems to be in a state of perpetual crisis. The lack of qualified or effective teachers, students who — for whatever reason — are often unmotivated and distracted, and the chronic lack of capital endemic to all public services are perhaps the primary factors contributing to this situation, though if one were so inclined it would be easy to break down these three main elements into a myriad of smaller and more contextually embedded factors, each of which varying in its negative effects depending on the specific social context in consideration.

And why is this the case? Political and cultural elites rail constantly about the degraded state of public education, and they never cease to be utterly shocked when the latest statistical data emerges inevitably showing a decisive academic achievement gap between American and, say, Chinese youth per capita. This nationalized achievement gap becomes more and more disconcerting for globalization’s most fervent supporters, for instance, whose anxiety about the future of America’s cultural capital fuels what Perry Anderson has referred to in a recent essay as “Sinomania.” In this rapidly escalating global economic arms race, so to speak, the ability of the American educational system to crank out the ideal economic subject— industrious, enterprising, and, most of all, unquestioning of the social validity of market logic— assumes paramount importance.

Enter the social scientific study of educational practices and institutions. The question informing the academic study and training of educational professionals has always been a perplexing one, not unknown to Plato 2500 years ago, which is simply this: how is one to educate the educators? A recent article by Elizabeth Green in the New York Times magazine tells a story about an individual, a Doug Lemov of the northeast’s Uncommon Schools charter school system, whose professional career has been devoted largely to theorizing and implementing novel pedagogical ideas. Lemov, who graduated from Harvard Business school and believes in “putting his faith in market forces,”unreservedly subscribes to the idea that in contexts riddled by pervasive racial achievement gaps, the “smarter” path to boosting student performance is “to improve the quality of the teachers who are already teaching.” Now, to return to our cardinal question, how does this man propose to educate the educators?

By creating an exhaustive taxonomy of effective pedagogical techniques, of course. “Lemov’s Taxonomy,” a 300 + page treatise which evidently entertains “hundreds of underground fans” among the community of educational professionals, contains over 40 teaching techniques supposedly universal in their applicability, no matter the context. Any aspiring teacher can flip through Lemov’s tome and learn the basic skills underlying successful teaching for any possible setting, no matter the time, place, socioeconomic makeup, or whatever other demographic variable one may wish to bring up. Based upon hundreds of hours of fastidious classroom observation and documentation, Lemov’s work represents the distilled essence and final result of a comprehensively designed institutional experiment, combining the insights of dozens of the country’s most effective teachers and educational researchers into a set of resources available for any would-be public educator.

And such is the logic of the social sciences in action: human beings are observed behaving, interacting, acting out, and otherwise existing in a variety of more or less ‘controlled’ settings; observations are made in relation to these phenomena; and, by drawing on commonalities across diverse experimental settings, a set of inductive inferences are made to arrive at generalizations about what ‘works’ for the already given purposes of human life — in this case, improved performance on standardized tests, among other modes of school ranking. It is this underlying, broadly positivist orientation, though, that contributes significantly to the persistent failure by professionals to actually grasp the root of the problem in modern public education.

For instance, the very method of educational social science forecloses certain avenues of inquiry. The constitution of each individual student as a ‘subject’ of the experiment, that is, as an individual participating in the controlled and closed environment of the classroom, relies on the erasure of the very histories of experience that have shaped and formed the ‘subjects’ under scrutiny. The assumption is simple: in order to test for what pedagogical techniques work best, one must control for certain external variables — in this case, the individual social histories of the students. While the assumption has always been that this provides a more science-like approach to understanding human behavior, it is premised upon the abstraction from particular historical and social contexts necessary to constitute the analytic elements of the experiment.

These assumptions can only underlie a research program which forbids itself from asking questions regarding the structure of society as a whole. And as long as this continues to be the status quo, the social scientific study of education, “Lemov’s Taxonomy” included, is doomed to repeat the failures of the past. The argument could be put like this: as long as educational researchers do not know how to ask the question of why the racial achievement gap never seems to get better, they will never sufficiently understand how to improve it. Without taking a step back and thinking through the ways in which the situation of the controlled experiment is itself an effect of a larger structural cause, so to speak, the diagnoses and remedies offered by educational social science will be limited to only grazing the surface of this problem.

It is no surprise, then, that so “few properties of teachers can be shown to directly affect student learning.”

The subjectivity and individual histories of students, especially in America’s urban centers, are conditioned and shaped by the economic and cultural contexts of a liberal capitalist social formation, and any idea that they could be adequately viewed as abstract test subjects apart from the kinds of sociality that this engenders is myopic, to say the least, and hopelessly misguided, to say the most. Working and lower-class neighborhoods in American cities generate particular forms of subjectivity based upon the ways that commerce, violence, and social identities circulate within an overall economy unique to those contexts; these social contexts, in turn, are the product of a specific way of economically organizing society in which capital inevitably tends to flow one way (upward) on the social ladder. Naturally, this leads to systemic social dynamics that both restrict and enable certain forms of social agency — notably, for this context, with regard to public institutions. It is, of course, the most basic methodological prerogative of modern social science to isolate itself from all such considerations, in order to emulate the controlled experimental environment of the natural sciences. This makes the experiment manageable to design and run, but it also effectively renders it blind to the possibility of addressing itself to the actual causes of the problems it seeks to redress.

Now, obviously this is not meant as a polemic against the social sciences per se, which obviously has many useful and beneficial roles to play in modern society. Nor is it meant to register surprise at the fact that someone like Lemov, a no-doubt proud graduate of Harvard business school, should be fundamentally blind to the ways that capitalist societies form subjects at a structural level, as well as how such considerations might impinge upon the explanatory value of his theories. But it needs to be recognized how the methods of the social sciences may be more appropriate for certain subjects as opposed to others, and relatedly, how it may serve to systematically obscure the path to answering the questions that it presumes to address. It may be hard to imagine such a disciplinary shake-up, but it may be that only under such a condition could we genuinely ask, and get a satisfactory response to, the question, “is our children learning?”


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