Bill Gates Pushes a Rope

Must be tough. All that money and doodly-squat to show for it.

Bill Gates gave a speech yesterday about his plans to fix American education. He has found the secret, he explained. It took him seven years and ba-jillions of dollars, but he has found it. Seems like he could have just spent a few hours and thirty bucks to discover why his big plans are still doomed to failure.

Gates isn’t alone. Other new-rich tech types have also crashed on the reefs of education reform. Most recently, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg frittered away $100 million in a good-hearted but wrong-headed attempt to help Newark’s public schools.

To be fair, Bill Gates has spent more time and effort (and moolah) than Zuckerberg in his attempts to improve America’s public schools. His foundation has funded a host of reform efforts.

What has he learned? As he put it yesterday,

We set out on this path seven years ago. If I had to place our foundation somewhere on our own learning line today—where the starting point is absolute ignorance and the end point is knowing everything about great teaching and how to spread it—I would say we’re not even halfway to our goal.

But I believe we are on the right track. For today, and for the coming years, this is our vision: Every student deserves high standards. Every student deserves an effective teacher. Every teacher deserves the tools and support to be phenomenal. And all students deserve the opportunity to learn in a way that is tailored to their needs, skills, and interests.

Gates’s current plan focuses on improving teachers. In his words:

Building effective teacher feedback and improvement systems everywhere is the most important movement in American education today.

Good teachers make a huge difference, he argues correctly. And good school districts do what it takes to make their teachers better.

So what is wrong with Gates’s strategy? It’s not a secret and it’s not a surprise. Mr. Gates could have spent a few hours with David Tyack’s and Larry Cuban’s book Tinkering Toward Utopia to figure out something that every veteran teacher knows already. And it would only have cost him thirty bucks.

Read these works, ye mighty, and despair...

Read these works, ye mighty, and despair…

To wit: Good teachers are hungry for help. They want reform that will help them do a better job at what they are already doing well. But ALL teachers are good at dodging fads and gimmicks. They have to be. Every experienced teacher has survived wave after wave of “the latest thing.” We have tall bookshelves stacked with chart-packed three-ring binders about how to implement each new reform.

Teachers know what to do. When someone offers them something that helps them do it, they jump on board. Smartboards, for example, or teaching teams, are one-time “reforms” that have now become standard operating practice in many public schools. Why? Because they work. They help teachers do a better job at their jobs.

As Tyack and Cuban document, however, history is littered with the Ozymandian dreams of earlier generations of Gateses and Zuckerbergs. At the advent of television in the 1950s, for example, the US government and the Ford Foundation plunked down tens of millions of dollars to have a plane always circling the Great Plains states, broadcasting the latest educational TV programming for schools. No kidding. The plan was to have the country’s smartest experts teaching kids directly. No more vagaries of teacher quality or school efficiency. This multi-million-dollar reform was going to use the latest technology to fix American public schools in one fell swoop.

Did it transform schools? No. Why not? Because good teachers struggled to find a way to incorporate that expensive “reform” into their teaching. For some reason too mysterious for the experts to divine, students in Kansas did not want to sit quietly while fuzzy black-and-white professors laboriously explained sentence structuring or osmosis.

Bill Gates is pushing a rope. Trying to fix America’s teachers from the outside is a losing proposition. The language itself generates its own defeat. Instead of fixing America’s teachers, Gates and other well-heeled know-it-alls should focus on HELPING America’s teachers.

Creation College Scorecard

How can you do it? How can outsiders push colleges to do more of what they want? The rage these days is to issue rankings. Since colleges are ferociously competitive and many of them are teetering on the brink of insolvency, college leaders are willing to do what it takes to move their colleges up any ranked list. Everyone from President Obama to young-earth impresario Ken Ham is issuing their own unique college scorecards.

Whom can a creationist trust?

Whom can a creationist trust?

In each case, influential outsiders promise that their scorecards offer students and parents a helping hand. President Obama, for example, insisted that his new scorecard was “meant to help students and parents identify which schools provide the biggest bang for your buck.” Ken Ham, too, promises that his Answers In Genesis ministry now has

resources to help young people (and their parents) with the upcoming college years. In addition to our annual College Expo weekend for students thinking about attending a Christian college (which will be here at the Creation Museum this November 6 and 7), we have just updated our special web site. It helps young people (and parents) narrow the overwhelming process of choosing a college even more.

These scorecards, though, do more than just provide information. They pressure schools to move in a certain direction. If college presidents want to move their schools up the list of rankings, they will make changes based on the scorecard’s values.

And college presidents DO want to move their schools up the rankings. Any rankings. Colleges and universities these days are locked in a death-struggle for students and tuition dollars. If they can’t attract ever-increasing numbers of applicants, they won’t survive.

President Obama wants schools to pay more attention to student finances. His recent scorecard compares schools based on their financial performance: How much do average graduates earn? How much debt to students accumulate?

Ken Ham is playing the same game. His recently updated Creation College guide offers families information about the ways colleges measure up to Ham’s definition of creationist orthodoxy. Students can see if a school teaches young-earth creationism. They can also see if the president has agreed, and if other key leaders in the Bible and Science Departments have signed on.

Clearly, some conservative evangelical colleges will be tempted to do whatever it takes to get Mr. Ham’s stamp of approval. Some, like Bryan College, have already tightened their statements of faith and pushed out controversial teachers. Others will consider making similar moves.

Don’t like it?  Then why not try putting together a college scorecard of your own?  You could rank colleges based on whatever criteria you choose.  What are the most Benedict-Option-friendly colleges?  What are the most progressive colleges?  What colleges are the best for teaching evolutionary science?  Etc.!

Sneaking into the Top Ten

We made it!…just barely.

The Library Journal’s September top ten best-sellers list for education includes my new Other School Reformers, squeaking in at number nine.Library Journal top ten

Nice to hear. I don’t think I’ve made a “top ten” list since my freshman year of high school, when I came in at tenth for our nine-person lacrosse team.

New Evolution Stickers for Alabama

What should they say instead?

Alabama’s famed textbook-warning stickers might be on their way out. The National Center for Science Education reported recently that new science standards in the “Heart of Dixie” make the old stickers outdated.

Watch out!  Learnin' ahead!

Watch out! Learnin’ ahead!

Alabama’s textbooks have carried the warning since the beginning of the twenty-first century. New standards, though, suggest that evolution will no longer be scientia non grata in the state.

So here’s a puzzler for the SAGLRROILYBYGTH: If the old stickers are out, what should new stickers say instead? Of course, smart-alecks will suggest that we leave science textbooks sticker-free. That is the smart answer, but it leaves us with nothing to talk about on a Tuesday.

So let’s make up new stickers. A few ground rules:

1.) The language has to be readable and straightforward. No jargon.

2.) Maximum 250 words.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, I’ve been working on a new evolution/creation book with my co-author Harvey Siegel.  For years now, we have wrestled with this big-picture question.  In short, we want science teachers to teach evolution and nothing but evolution in their public-school science classes.  But we need to help teachers, students, and families understand that learning evolution does not need to impinge on any sort of religious belief.

Our simple prescription: Students need to know about it.  They need to understand it.  But they do not need to believe it.  Students need to be able to explain intelligently what scientists think about evolution.  If they choose not to accept it, that is their business.  More than that: It is the public schools’ business to make sure students and families feel welcomed, whatever their religious beliefs.  It is the schools’ business to encourage students to be who they are.

With all that in mind, here’s my entry:

These textbooks include information about evolution. Evolution is our current best scientific understanding of the ways species came to be different from one another.

Science encourages you to be skeptical about evolution and every other idea. If you choose not to believe that evolution is the best explanation of the origin of species, you have every right to doubt it.

You need to know about evolution. You need to be able to explain how scientists think it worked. You do not have to agree with these scientists.

Okay, okay,…it’s a long way from perfect.  Can you do better?

…He’s Sitting over There

The reviews keep coming in! My German is more than a little rusty, but your humble editor noted this morning a new review of The Other School Reformers on the H-Soz-u-Cult page. Thanks to Lukas Boser Hofmann and the H-Soz-u-Cult list.

Does he like it? If my translation can be trusted, then yes indeed. He raises central questions and offers some helpful ideas.

With his Continental perspective, Boser points out a fair criticism. My book really does focus on the experience of American activists and traditions. As he suggests, we would all profit from comparative cross-national studies. As he asks, how have conservative ideas formed European educational policies? How have different nations struggled to determine the content of their curricula? Such comparisons would indeed offer a more comprehensive definition of what it has meant to be “conservative,” about education or any other issue.

I’m grateful for Boser’s claim that my book succeeds in giving conservatism and conservative activists a more accurate place in educational history. (At least, that’s my understanding of this section:

dem es den Konservativen einen Platz im grand narrative der US-amerikanischen Schulgeschichte einräumt. Dieses grand narrative wird von Laats durch die Verknüpfung der vier zeitlich und örtlich unabhängigen Einzelfallstudien und durch den Einbezug der Konservativen als wichtige Akteure ausgebaut und gestärkt und nicht etwa in Frage gestellt.

Maybe the SAGLRROILYBYGTH can offer a clearer translation. As I read it, though, Boser generously says that I’ve succeeded in incorporating conservatism into the “grand narrative” of American educational history. For me, after all, the primary motivation for the book was to find out why conservatives show up in so many educational histories as merely pesky gadflies, roadblocks in the inevitable progress of progressive education.  In my experience, at least, conservatives have played a much stronger leading role in shaping the course of American education.

At the end, Boser notes my sloppy style and predilection for puns (“seinen Hang zu Wortspielereien und Alliterationen – beispielsweise in den Kapitelüberschriften – und den manchmal etwas saloppen Stil.”) Ouch. In spite of such flaws, though, Boser concludes that my book is overall entertaining (“unterhaltsame”).

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are aware, if I can’t be punny, I won’t bother. I wouldn’t like to be thought of as a sloppy writer, though.

In the end, I’m extremely gratified to hear that I managed to make a potentially dry and jargon-y book more pleasant to read, at least in Dr. Boser’s opinion.

The Handwriting on the Wall for Christian Colleges

It doesn’t look good.

For small colleges of any sort, the future looks grim. A new report from Moody’s (the investor service, not the Bible institute) offers some scary predictions about the iffy future of small schools. For conservative evangelical colleges, however, this looming financial crisis also represents a uniquely religious crisis. Will small evangelical colleges be able to resist the growing pressure to become more radical in their orthodoxy?

Look out, Daniel!

Look out, Danny!

Inside Higher Education describes the sobering financial outlook. In the next few years, college closings will likely triple. Why? Fewer students means fewer tuition dollars, which means fewer scholarship dollars, which means fewer students. Rinse and repeat.

Among conservative evangelical schools, we’ve already seen the trend. Former evangelical schools such as Northland University, Tennessee Temple, and Clearwater Christian have all closed their doors. In some cases, the “Wal-Marts” of Christian colleges have emerged even stronger. Cedarville University, for example, has offered to accept all students from Clearwater Christian. As with non-evangelical schools, the big will likely get bigger and the small will get gone.

For small evangelical colleges, this presents a double pickle. In desperate need of more students, schools will likely become extra-timid about offending conservative parents and pundits. As I’ve argued before, young-earth impresarios such as Ken Ham already exert outsize influence on college curricula. If Ham publicly denounces a college—which he likes to do—you can bet young-earth creationist parents might listen.

We’ve seen it happen at Bryan College. Rumors of evolution-friendly professors caused administrators to crack down. Any whiff of evolutionary heterodoxy, and schools might scare away potential creationist students.

At other evangelical colleges, too, as we’ve already seen in schools such as Mid-America Nazarene or Northwest Nazarene, administrators desperate for tuition dollars will be tempted to insist on a more rigidly orthodox reputation.

Things aren’t looking good for small colleges in general. But conservative evangelical schools face this special burden. In order to attract the largest possible number of students in their niche, they might have to emphasize more firmly the things that make them stand out from public schools. In the case of conservative evangelical schools, that distinctive element has always been orthodoxy.

In the past, well-known schools such as Bryan College might have relied on their long history as staunchly conservative institutions. They might have assumed that conservative evangelical parents would trust their orthodoxy, based on their long-held reputation as a bastion of conservative evangelical education. These days, no-holds-barred competition for students will mean that every school must guard its image far more aggressively.

Required Reading: Classroom Wars

What should schools teach?  How should they teach it?  Who gets to decide?  These are the questions that keep SAGLRROILYBYGTH up at night, and now we have a great new book to shed light on the infinitely complicated ways they play out in real life.

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela’s new book, Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture examines battles in California over bilingual ed and sex ed during the 1960s and 1970s.  As Petrzela explains,

This book focuses on bilingual (Spanish-language) and sex education in California in order to understand how grass-roots citizens came to define the schoolhouse and the family as politicized sites during the late 1960s and 1970s.

Full disclosure: Petrzela and I are friends and colleagues.  We’ve worked together for several years now, and we’ll be doing some presentations together in upcoming months at academic conferences about history, education, and culture wars.  Even if we weren’t friends, though, I would love this book.   petrzela classroom wars

For one thing, Petrzela’s careful examination of California’s educational politics shows us the ways culture-war politics are not somehow “natural,” but rather develop over time due to specific historical circumstances and activism.

For example, as she describes, in the early 1960s bilingual ed had lots of support among conservatives.  Arch-conservative Max Rafferty pushed for it, and even as late as 1968, many California legislators touted bilingual ed as the “American thing to do.”  Soon, however, bilingual education was tied together with leftist radicalism.  Students in 1968 staged huge “blow-out” protests in LA, carrying “Viva la Revolucion!” signs and demanding that all Anglo teachers be fired.  As Petrzela puts it,

In the two years following the BEA’s [Bilingual Education Act] passage and the blowouts [student walkouts], bilingual-bicultural education evolved from a relatively uncontroversial issue that garnered significant bipartisan support to a lightning rod dividing and defining conservatives and liberals.

Among activists, too, we need to be careful before we assume too much.  In the education bureaucracy of California, for instance, Petrzela introduces us to the complicated positions of folks such as Eugene Gonzalez, associate superintendent and chief of the division of instruction.  Gonzalez was close with conservative leader Max Rafferty, and like Rafferty he spoke out against the methods used by radical student protesters.  But he also continued to push for better and fairer education for latino/as in California schools.  Other Mexican-American activists, such as Alfred Ramirez, refused to go along with the protesting students at all.  He pushed Gonzalez to crack down on the Latino protesters and to get rid of bilingual programs entirely.

Nor were California’s educational culture wars a simple, stereotypical battle between progressive teachers and students on one side against conservative activists on the other.  That may often be the case, but as Petrzela recounts, in 1970 conservative teachers in LA founded their own union, the Professional Educators of Los Angeles.  And, though one conservative teacher lamented her position as a “minority among educators,” Petrzela also reveals that students, too, were split.  In at least one case, a group of conservative students gathered to denounce the “leftist-liberal bias” of their teachers.

We also see in these pages a clearer-than-usual vision of what conservative activists wanted.  At root, Petrzela shows us, conservatives felt as if they had too often been frozen out of discussions of sex ed and bilingual ed.  They felt they had not been included, not been consulted.  Many times, conservative activists and parents worried that a blundering school administration was trying to insert itself between parents and children.

When this wasn’t the case, many conservatives did not protest against sex education.  In conservative San Diego County, for example, sex ed was not at all controversial.  Part of the reason was because the teachers had a strong reputation in the whole community as family women with “high moral standards.”  By the end of the 1970s, Petrzela tells us, policy-makers had figured it out.  By then, most sex ed curricula were no longer so ferociously controversial, largely because parents and conservative organizations had been consulted beforehand.

Petrzela also tackles one of the toughest questions of these educational culture wars: Who won?  She argues that over all, over time, progressives tended to score victories.  In about half the cases of controversy over sex ed, Petrzela found, California districts actually expanded their sex ed programs after the blow-ups.

In every case, Petrzela makes her case well that schools matter.  As she puts it,

In the 1960s and 1970s, militant Chicanos in East Los Angeles, suburban housewives in Anaheim, and political aspirants as varied as Max Rafferty and Julian Nava all pinned their hopes on the public schools as the primary institution for cultivating an ethical, informed, moral next generation.

For all of us who want to look beyond the headlines of America’s continuing educational culture wars, this book is a good place to start.

Can a College Be Christian?

After Ben Carson’s stupid and hateful comment that the USA should not have a Muslim president, Baylor theologian Roger Olson noted that we really could not have a Christian president, either. In my current work about evangelical colleges, I’m struggling to define what it meant to be Christian at school, too. It raises an ancient question: Can an other-worldly religion (successfully) run worldly institutions?

Olson noted that the only sincere evangelical to sit in the Oval Office in recent decades has been Jimmy Carter. And Carter, Olson argued, was a terrible president. Not by accident, either, but because he was an honest-to-goodness Christian. As Olson put it,

I am not cynical, but neither am I naïve. America is no longer a true democracy; it is run by corporations and the super-rich elite. Occasionally they don’t get their way, but, for the most part, they do. One reason they do not seem to is that they do not agree among themselves about everything. So, sometimes, a president, a senator, a congressman, has to choose between them in decision-making. But, in the end, the policy remains that “What’s good for business is good for America” even when what’s good for business is bad for the working poor (to say nothing of the destitute).

No, given how modern nation states work, I do not think a real Christian, a true disciple of Jesus Christ who seeks to put first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, can be president of the United States or any modern nation state.

The deeper question of belief and institutional necessity is one I’m wrestling with these days. As I write my new book about the history of evangelical higher education, I find myself struggling to offer a satisfactory definition of what it has meant to be a fundamentalist. It’s a question that has bedeviled historians (and fundamentalists) for a good long while, so I feel I’m in good company.

For good reasons, historians have insisted that we need a fairly narrow definition of fundamentalism. In his great book Revive Us Again, Joel Carpenter argued, “more generic usage obscures more than it illumines” (page 4). Carpenter was leery of commentators who slapped a “fundamentalist” label on any and all conservatives or conservative Protestants. As he argued,

Labelling movements, sects, and traditions such as the Pentecostals, Mennonites, Seventh-day Adventists, Missouri Synod Lutherans, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Churches of Christ, black Baptists, Mormons, Southern Baptists, and holiness Wesleyans as fundamentalists belittles their great diversity and violates their unique identities (4).

If we need a straightforward definition for those reasons, Matthew Sutton’s recent definition of fundamentalism as “radical apocalyptic evangelicalism” will do the trick. Certainly, fundamentalist theology was defined by its vision of end-times as well as by the centrality of those apocalyptic visions to the movement.

But such definitions don’t seem to match the ways fundamentalism has been defined in its leading institutions. At the colleges I’m studying—schools such as Wheaton College, Bob Jones University, Bryan College, Biola University, The King’s College, and similar schools—there’s more to the school than just theology.

When these schools called themselves “fundamentalist” (and they DID, even relatively liberal schools such as Wheaton), they meant more than theology. They meant more than just “radical apocalyptic evangelicalism.” They meant more than just “not-Mennonite-or-Pentecostal.”

Defining fundamentalism as it was used in fundamentalist institutions is a trickier issue than simply defining fundamentalist theology. By and large, when schools talked about themselves as “fundamentalist,” they meant that the professors and administration all signed on to fundamentalist theology. But they also meant that the students would have a vaguely conservative atmosphere in which to study. No smoking, no dancing, no etc. They also meant that students would be controlled and guided in their life choices. And they also meant that students would be more likely to socialize with similarly fundamentalist friends and future spouses.

I’m not sure how to define that kind of fundamentalism. I like the way historian Timothy Gloege has done it in his new book about the Moody Bible Institute. Gloege focuses on what he calls the “corporate evangelical framework” that guided MBI since its founding in the 19th century.

What did fundamentalism mean in Chicago?

What did fundamentalism mean in Chicago?

As Gloege argues, at a school like MBI, fundamentalism was more than a set of “manifestos and theological propositions.” Rather, it worked as a set of “unexamined first principles—as common sense.” Fundamentalism, Gloege writes, is better understood as a certain “grammar” than as a list of religious beliefs.

That kind of definition seems closer to the ways it was used in the schools I’m studying.

Roger E. Olson argues that it will be impossible for any sincere evangelical Christian to be president. There are simply too many worldly factors that violate the otherworldly morality of Christianity. Similarly, evangelical colleges have not defined themselves merely along theological lines. They couldn’t. Instead, they have defined what it has meant to be a “fundamentalist” based on a range of factors. Of course, they care about student religious belief. But they also care about student fashions, patriotism, diets, and social lives. And such things were usually considered a central part of making a school authentically “fundamentalist.”

Can a college be Christian? In the sense that Roger E. Olson is asking, I guess not. Just as every president has to violate evangelical morality, so every institution of higher education has to consider a range of non-religious factors in order to survive.

Government Pretends Conservative Schools Don’t Exist

To be fair, it goes both ways. As I’ve argued here, there, and everywhere, conservative intellectuals have long disputed the influence of the federal government in education. Now, President Obama jabs back: A new college scorecard simply left leading conservative schools off its list. The message is clear, and creepy even for non-conservatives like me.

In President Obama’s release of the new guide to colleges two weeks ago, he promised,

Americans will now have access to reliable data on every institution of higher education.

EVERY institution. If you don’t see a school on the list, it doesn’t exist.

Except they do. And the ones that were left off have glaring similarities. All of them are robustly conservative schools. Schools such as Grove City College in Pennsylvania, Hillsdale College in Michigan, Christendom College in Virginia, New Saint Andrews College in Idaho, and Wyoming Catholic College.head-in-sand

The schools were left off because they refuse to accept federal dollars for their students. Because of that, they do not have to file student data with the federal government. Because of that, the feds don’t have the information they need to put these schools on the scorecard.

Naturally, the schools themselves didn’t like it. According to the Washington Post, Paul McNulty of Grove City College issued the following statement:

However well-intentioned, the Scorecard as it exists now is incomplete and does not fully disclose comprehensive data that families need to make informed decisions. For now, the Department should, at the very least, include a disclaimer that the Scorecard is not comprehensive or reflective of all college and universities.

Hillsdale College had it worse. When the student newspaper inquired as to why Hillsdale was left off the list, it was told that the school granted a plurality of certificates, not degrees. Hillsdale told Fox News that it just wasn’t true. Hillsdale students are almost all in degree programs.

I’m no conservative, but I think these schools have every right to complain. To my mind, the creepy part of this story comes on two different levels.

First, I worry about any ranking of higher education based mainly on economic factors. I don’t think anyone intended for this scorecard to be the only measure of educational quality, but President Obama made no secret of the values inherent in this scorecard. As he put it,

You’ll be able to see how much each school’s graduates earn, how much debt they graduate with, and what percentage of a school’s students can pay back their loans…

That’s helpful information, but I don’t like the implication that such factors are the proper way to measure higher education. Even worse, any scorecard that claims to rank all colleges really should. By leaving out conservative schools who have not played ball with the federal government, this scorecard seems to be making a crude power play.

Again, I don’t agree with the guiding philosophies of any of these schools, but I think they have every right to be included in any list of “every” college out there.

A(nother) New Direction

Time for a new subtitle. From now on, we’ll dedicate ourselves to “Awkward Conversations about School and Society.” What does this change mean? Not much, really, but I think it is necessary.

For SAGLRROILYBYGTH, this might seem familiar. In its four-year lifespan, the blog has changed directions a couple of times. At first, I hoped to explore and explain to my fellow secular progressives why some religious conservatives thought the way they did. I was interested in why smart, educated people could believe the earth was only 6,000 years old. I was curious why dedicated parents would want to keep knowledge about sex and sexuality away from their kids. I was puzzled about why some people could tell you that they loved you, but you were going to hell.

As the years have rolled on, my research interests have changed. I’m still curious about creationism, and conservatism, and old ladies who say they love you but you’re going to hell. But these days, I find myself asking those questions specifically in the context of schools and education. These days, I find myself curious about how all of us think about schools, not just the ways conservative activists think.

In every case, these difficult questions often get swept under the rug, since they are not fit for polite conversation. But they need to be aired in order to keep from festering. So from here on out, we’ll shift our focus a little bit. Instead of focusing exclusively on educational culture wars, or on conservative thinking about culture and education, we’ll ask things such as the following:

  • Why are schools still so racially segregated?
  • Should public schools teach sex ed? How?
  • What history do schools embrace? Why?
  • Why do so many people want creationism taught in public schools?
  • Who has the power in public schools? Who SHOULD have the power?
  • What sacred cows do we need to eliminate in order to get a truer picture of public education?
  • What does it mean to “reform” education? Why does every politician preach it, but so little changes?
  • Etc.!

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