On Designing Equitable Learning Environments…

American public school currently lacks an understanding of its own purpose. This is most likely a result of a confusing design origin that embraced values such as racial, class, ability tracking, and cultural segregation as a necessity (Steinberg & Rosenstock, 2007) (Ladson-Billings, 2006). While these values may have, at one time, been arguably vital in order for the public school system to prosper, those same ideals are radically out of place with modern society. Due to the fact that school is constructed in a way to embrace these outdated values, the resulting design of public schooling is one that has radical implications on its own ability to be effective at actually educating students.

The purpose of school can also be seen through the inequitable distribution of resources allocated to the national student population: “Even if we cannot prove schools are poorly funded because Black and Latina/o students attend them, we can demonstrate that the amount of funding rises with the rise in White students.” (Ladson-Billings, 2006, p. 6). We may not be able to clearly define the purpose of schooling within our society, but we can extrapolate what we believe about race and class by looking at the facts surrounding the manifestation of the design. This speaks volumes in regards to the purpose of schooling. We are starting to at least narrow down its definition by seeing what school isn’t by seeing whom it prioritizes in its design and whom it does not serve.

So why keep the design of school if it is outdated and results in problems that fundamentally go against things many of us do not support? Perhaps the answer is in the things that modern public school is doing well: access to education, cultural indoctrination, citizenry training, and socialization. I would argue that schooling, specifically public schooling, is so effective at the aforementioned tasks that the populations of educators and policy-makers within said institutions would rather keep the design, even with its flaws, than to risk change.

There is no educator that I have met that hasn’t identified that they would like to change, even if they do endorse, the current design. Constituents within a system that support contradictory goals, such as wanting a system to change but also wanting it to stay the same, can lead to confusing messages about the purpose of the system. Having systematic purpose confusion can result in dire consequences for populations who need the resources provided within the school. Illich (1971) suggests that students are especially confused by the lack of clarity regarding school purpose. He also posits that students, whether consciously or not, do receive an understanding of purpose amidst a lack of clarity based on their interactions with the school design: “The pupil is thereby ‘schooled’ to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new.” (p. 4)

As we can see, purpose drives design. It concerns me that it isn’t easy to pinpoint the purpose of school. Without understanding the purpose how are we supposed to design new schools that can be effective at promoting the baseline goal of educating the masses?

Honestly, I sometimes find myself wallowing in cynicism about the state of education in this country. Then, like a spark, I remember a time when I was working with my students to construct a twenty wooden foot bear mural, or a graphic novel to be displayed at San Diego Comic-Con, or some other small moment. The moments I remember most were when we had a breakthrough, as a group of learners, within a project that I couldn’t have predicted. Those moments are educational, and inspiring, despite the bleakness of the overall structure it was born out of. Education can happen despite bad school design. This is a hopeful thought. This illuminates the possibility of moving from education in spite of school to a model where school design may, in fact, respond to the needs of education. Ladson-Billings (1995) describes this potential with the outline of “culturally responsive pedagogy”:

“A next step for positing effective pedagogical practice is a theoretical model that not only addresses student achievement but also helps students to accept and affirm their cultural identity while developing critical perspectives that challenge inequities that schools (and other institutions) perpetuate. I term this pedagogy, culturally relevant pedagogy.” (p. 469)

So, there may be hope. A way to move forward with schooling’s confused past into a future that can answer to ideals and values more suited to the 21st century. It may mean loosening the reins on how we allow teachers to practice the craft of education. This design, our design, dictates multiple, diverse, sets of constraints which force us to dually raise our youth while educating them.

Illich, I. (1971). Deschooling Society (1st ed.). New York: New York, Harper & Row [1971].
Ladson-Billings, G. (2006). From achievement gap to education debt. Educational Researcher, 35, 7, October 2006, 3-12.
Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a theory of cultural relevancy. American Educational Research Journal, 32, 3 (Autumn 1995), 465-491.
Nieto, S. (2006). Solidarity, courage and heart. Intercultural Education, 17, 5, 457–473.
Steinberg, A. & Rosenstock, L. (2007). Beyond the Shop: Reinventing Vocational Education. In Apple, M. & Beane, J., Democratic Schools: Lessons in Powerful Education (41-57).