Why the Grammar of Schooling Persists


Grammar of Schooling

- Explains why schools are hard to change.

- Is a product of history; the more powerful and prestigious the groups, higher the chance these groups will be responsible for reforming.

- Enables teachers to discharge their duties in a predictable fashion and to cope with the everyday tasks that school boards, principles, and parents expect them to perform.

- Establishes the idea of “real school.”

Problem with Grammar of Schooling

- Students become fixed in place by everyday custom, legal mandates, and cultural beliefs.

The Graded School

The Graded Elementary Schools

- Promises to make schools efficient, equitable, and easily replicate.

- Has prescribed curriculum.

- One teacher sets tasks to one group of students and evaluate their performance.

- Students are grouped by academic performance.

- Students learn a uniform curriculum.

Problem with Graded Elementary Schools

- The graded school is for “normal” students and not for “retarded” or slow students.

- The graded school is efficient for students whose culture matches school requirements but not for poor students and immigrants.


The Carnegie Unit

- Only feasible in certain high schools.

- Almost impossible to implement in cities with small population size. Not enough students or teachers to form classes.

- Carnegie units were required for high school accreditation. Students could be admitted to college by certificate and without examination. Became standard in 1920s, requiring 15 Carnegie units for graduation, 40 minute class periods, and school year of 36 weeks.

- Critics of Carnegie stated that it affected "non-college bound students, frozen schedules, separated knowledge into discreet boxes, and created an accounting mentality better suited to a bank no a school" (Tyack & Cuban, pg. 93).

The Dalton Plan

- Developed by Helen Parkhurst (1887-1973). Influenced by Maria Montessori and John Dewey. Dalton Plan started in early 1920s as a way to instruct students in a prescribed curriculum.

- Parkhurst emphasized individual freedoms and responsibility of students. Laid out minimum tasks to be completed and revised their as necessary. Students moved at their own pace and worked in laboratory-type setting.

- The motive behind the Dalton Plan was to provide an opportunity to develop creativity and independence.

The Eight-Year Study

Study Details


- Developed core programs that crossed departmental boundaries
- Varied time periods and class sizes
- Spent more time collaborating with other teachers and students in planning activities


- Became more individualized and student-centered
- The distinction between the formal and informal curriculum began to dissolve


- Spent more time on art, music, and drama (than mainline academic subjects)
- Participated in community service, artistic productions, publications, and decision-making in school affairs

Common Patterns in Participating High Schools

Study Findings (Short-term)

Study participants:

    - Performed as well in college courses as their traditionally-schooled counterparts
    - Were more active in collegiate social, artistic, and political life
    - Those from the most progressive schools did the “best” in college
    - Overall, study findings suggested that “there is no single course of preparation for success in college.” (Tyack & Cuban, p. 99)

By 1950:

     - Most of the reforms had faded
     - Carnegie units had reappeared
    - Departments had reasserted control of the curriculum
    - Students spent less time on the arts and extracurricular activities
     - Students spent more time of conventional college preparatory            subjects


     - World War II & Cold War pushed toward authoritarianism                      (progressivism was under fire)
     - Study findings were not supported or not widely known
     - Teachers became exhausted by the demands made on them
     - Pressure from traditionalists

Study Findings (Long-term)

- 1933 – 1941

- Study Goal:
    - To adapt schooling to students instead of perpetuating institutional patterns dictated by the colleges

- Funding/Sponsorship:
     - Over a million dollar grant

- Sponsored by:
    - Progressive Education Association (PEA)
    - General Education Board

High Schools of Tomorrow

In the 1960s, educational reformers wanted to change the paradigm that students were young people who needed to be acculturated into the mindset of factory workers; supervisors (their teachers) mandated their work (the curriculum of study) in ways that are rigid, hierarchical and constricted.

The reformers instead wanted to tailor school curricula to a population of students that are active, intellectually curious and capable of taking charge of their own learning.

The reformers imagined "schools without walls," innovative classrooms that broke the mold of the traditional school "grammar." These high schools featured:

Innovations that first appeared in the 1960s "high schools of the future," included:

* Students meeting in various sized groups--some small, some medium, some large.
* One-third of the students' time being unscheduled, empowering them to manage their own time as they saw fit.

For motivated students, this system worked well. For unmotivated students:

* 94% of principals reported unmotivated students had trouble budgeting time,
* 84% reported students cutting class,
* 72% of parents blamed the modular schedule for their children who were not performing well.

One parent complained his children's high school "does not teach respect for authority, discipline, basic scholarship, or orderly use of time. The school teaches gross egotism, extreme self-centeredness, myopic self delusion and general anarchy." (Tyack & Cuban, p. 107)

Many communities grew tired of non-performing reforms, and exerted pressure for schools to revert back to traditional patterns of organization. One advocate of traditional schooling models wrote, "[Schooling involves] the imposition of tasks; if the pupil likes it, well; if not, the obligation is the same." (Tyack & Cuban, p. 108)

In most cases, even though reforms ebbed and flowed like the tide, sometimes fading into obscurity, some best practices stuck. Among these:

* The Carnegie Unit of scheduling students' time,
* Increased collaboration among teachers, and
* Dedicated laboratories for specific subjects.

Questions for Discussion

Why is the grammar of instruction so difficult to reform? Is it institutional or do other factors play a role in preventing reform?

How would you reform the grammar of schooling? Provide examples.


Tyack, D., & Cuban, L. (1995). Tinkering toward Utopia: A century of              public school reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Comment Stream

2 years ago

Why is the grammar of instruction so difficult to reform? Is it institutional or do other factors play a role in preventing reform?

How would you reform the grammar of schooling? Provide examples.

2 years ago

The grammar of instruction is difficult to reform because it is being imposed from the top down. You can see the perpetual decline of schools and how they mostly under-performing. The only way to effectively reform the grammar of instruction is to liberate teachers and students and mobilize communities to become active in this idea of reform. Until the corporate model stops monopolizing our schools, I don't see much of a chance for reform, at least a reform that is for the people and by the people. To do this, all corporate power must be removed from educational institutions.