From the Archives: Bad Students Are in the Eye of the Beholder

I wish these dispatches from the 1800s didn’t sound so depressingly contemporary. As I do my research into the roots of America’s public schools–like I’ve argued recently at WaPo and HNN–I keep hearing the same bad ideas brought up over and over, literally for centuries. As I found out today, the ugly politics of racism in America’s schools sometimes don’t seem to have changed all that much, either.

InkedAfr Observer quote 1_LI

From Freedom’s Journal (NY); reprinted in The African Observer (Phila.), June, 1827

I’m working these days down here in sunny Philadelphia, digging through the amazing collections of the Library Company and Historical Society. Today I came across lots of accounts of the Lancasterian public schools for African-American students in New York and Philly. I wish I could say I was surprised at one thing that jumped out at me.

Consider the report of Benjamin Bacon. Bacon was white, and he examined Philly’s African-American schools and reported back to the all-white Board of Education. Some of the schools were fine, Bacon reported, even great. One school offered a full hour of musical instruction after the regular school day and students were learning all sorts of academic and artistic stuff.

But some of the schools were terrible. The school on Oak Street met in a “dilapidated” building. It was so crowded that students

are obliged to crawl under, and others over the writing desks, to get to and from their places.

Bacon visited in the middle of February and the students were all freezing because all the windows were broken or missing. So…given all that, how did Bacon explain the poor academic performance of some students? He blamed “The irregular attendance of scholars,” which he thought

imposes extra labor upon teachers, prevents a thorough classification, and makes the recitations less spirited than they otherwise would be.

To be fair, Bacon excused some of the students’ irregularities as “unavoidable,” but he definitely did not blame the teachers, about whom he had this to say:

Of all men and women who labor for the good of others, none are more worthy of appreciation than the faithful teachers of our colored schools.

That wasn’t how everyone saw it. Two African-American school visitors had a very different diagnosis. They visited segregated public schools in New York and found an obvious culprit for poor student performance: unqualified teachers. As they wrote,

We suspect, it is unnecessary to mention, that much depends on the teacher, as well as the pupil. We are so skeptical, that we cannot believe, that almost any one is qualified to keep a school for our children. Enemies may declaim upon their dulness [sic] and stupidity; but we would respectfully inquire, have they not had dull and stupid instructers; [sic] who, if placed in any other than a coloured school, would hardly be considered as earning their salt: but we must be silent, as any one who possesses a few qualifications (unnecessary to be here named) is, in the general estimation fit to keep a school for us.

I wish I could say I was shocked that white and black observers came to such different conclusions based on similar evidence, but we all know the same kinds of things go on today. It is all too common for observers to blame students for their own crappy educational conditions.

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I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Reporting today from deep within Philadelphia’s archives. For those of you who are not stuck in 1819, here are some of the top ILYBYGTH news stories from June 2019:

The mainstream catches up: NBC reports on Dems ditching charters.

Why Biden’s busing history matters, according to Jonathan Kozol at The Nation.

Two Christian universities accused of improper student-recruiting practices, at IHE.

Wish you had enough $$$ to send your kids to a fancy-pants private school? Maybe not so much. At the Atlantic, we hear the goings-on at elite Sidwell Friends in DC have reached reality-show proportions.

Instances of disrespect are anomalous and often anonymous, but have nevertheless become increasingly intense and inappropriate. The circulation of rumors about students and/or the verbal assault of employees are antithetical to the School’s values and create a dispiriting work environment.

NPR asks one of its journalists for historical expertise on abortion laws and has to correct what she said.

Dr Thompson TweetJoe Biden still a little pro-life, at The Atlantic.

Conservatives have good reason to worry about evolutionary theory, at RA.

…but will it work? NPR interviews economists on Dem’s plans to inject money into public education.

Conservatives are sorta right—mainstream media does have a bias, at WaPo.

Conservative Christians fighting over culture-war tactics, at the Atlantic:

If you are centrally a political conservative and you also happen to be a Christian, then perhaps you may set aside certain Christian commandments in order to achieve your primary ends. But if you are centrally a Christian and secondarily a political conservative, then you have certain obligations that you cannot ignore. . . . Even if Ahmari and others now associated with First Things are right to say that the old-fashioned commitment to liberal proceduralism is a “dead consensus”—even if we Christians are facing a genuine crisis—charity, and the civility and decency that accompany charity and have so consistently been manifested by “Pastor French,” are what we are commanded to do. And charity begins at home.

Why did NYC elite public schools grow more segregated? Test prep, says NYT.bronx test prep centers

Are charter schools racist or anti-racist? In California, the answer’s “Yes.” At T74.

What Do Women Want?

It is a difficult thing for secular, progressive people like me to get through our thick skulls. I’ve been reading the work lately of historians such as Beth Allison Barr, Kristen Kobes Dumez, and Emily Suzanne Johnson about the relationship between conservative religion, conservative politics, and what people used to call “the woman question.” If we needed any reminding, recent poll numbers remind us that conservative women are often MORE conservative than conservative men about the proper public role of women.

So a little true confession: Way back in the 1980s, I would have agreed with my Senator, Kirsten Gillibrand. She has insisted that there are two sides in politics today: Trump vs. Women. As Senator Gillibrand put it,

I believe that if President Trump wants a war with America’s women, it’s a war he will have and it is one he will lose.

A younger me would have assumed—as Senator Gillibrand is hoping people will assume—that women in general will have a certain political viewpoint. I would have assumed that women should be in favor of abortion rights, equal pay for women, and other feminist basics. I would have agreed that it just makes sense for women voters to be especially outraged by Trump’s violent talk and anti-feminist politics.

It doesn’t take a whole lot of historical study, however, to realize that there is no natural “woman’s” position in religion or politics.

Certainly, as I found in my research into educational conservatism in the twentieth century, conservative women usually played a leading role in pushing for traditional gender roles and anti-feminist politics. In the early part of the century, leaders of the Daughters of the American Revolution articulated a conservative vision for the proper role of women in society. As DAR leader Grace Brosseau put it in 1928,

We need some cheer leaders for America; we need some fearless citizens to sit on the side lines and do a little talking in the interest of this country.

This notion of women fighting for their right to NOT be leaders themselves has always been difficult for me to comprehend, but it is not an anomaly in American history, politics, and religion. Lots of women have insisted on their proper roles “on the side lines” instead of on the field.

Today’s poll numbers show that some women today still feel the same way. Buried in a 2018 PRRI survey about the differences between men and women in politics we find some important numbers. First, most respondents say they have no gender preference in political candidates. All things being equal, 70% of Americans say they’d vote for the most qualified candidate regardless of gender.

Only 11% say they would prefer a male candidate, but among Republican women, that number jumps to 23%. In fact, more Republican women (23%) than men (14%) are willing to admit to preferring a male candidate.

A younger me would have been astounded by this number. Like a lot of my progressive, secular friends, I used to assume that women would “naturally” avoid religious hierarchies that put them below men. I used to think that women voters would “naturally” want more political rights. It’s just not the case.

Hello, Philly!

Are tourists like me the only ones who call it “Philly?” I don’t know. But I’m excited to get down to Philadelphia today to start my research deep-dive at the Library Company and Historical Society.

library company phil

Nerd heaven…

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are painfully aware, I’m up to my eyeballs in research for my book about the first big urban school reform in US history. Joseph Lancaster first came to the US when New Yorkers invited him, but Philadelphia was not far behind. In 1818, the state passed a law mandating public schools in Philly (I’m calling it that–go ahead and correct me if I’m making myself sound stupid). The law also stipulated that Philly’s new public schools had to be organized on the Lancaster plan.

As a result, the collections in Philly’s archives are incredibly rich. They include the papers of Roberts Vaux. (Yes, he spelled his name with an -s at the end.) Vaux played a key role in the Lancasterian movement for a couple of reasons. First, he ardently supported the school plan. He was one of the first Americans to care about Joseph Lancaster’s ideas and one of the last of Lancaster’s supporters to stop lending him money. Plus, Vaux’s voluminous personal and professional records provide a one-of-a-kind perspective on the thinking of elite reformers at the time.

readingroomsignature

No cheesesteaks allowed…

The Library Company’s holdings include many editions of Lancaster’s endless “manuals.” They hold broadsides advertising Lancaster’s speeches and school openings. By making my way through all these published materials, I’ll be able to chart the ways Lancaster and his supporters promoted their ideas to the general public.

I’m on the hunt, too, for a specific publication that I discovered last summer in Worcester. Lancaster’s notebooks include clippings from one of his planned “manuals,” but I’ve never been able to find them in published form.

Thanks to a fellowship from the Library Company and Historical Society, I’ll be able to spend the next several weeks buried deep in the first decades of the 1800s. Wish me luck!

Sinning to Survive: Evangelical Colleges Cheat to Live

Maybe it’s legal, but it sure isn’t ethical. Just like mainstream universities, evangelical ones have engaged in morally dicey practices in order to keep the tuition dollars rolling in. Should they be held to a higher standard?liberty phd online

Here’s what we know: Inside Higher Ed reported this morning on the complicated legal settlements made recently by Oral Roberts University and North Greenville University. The details are confusing, but in short, both ORU and NGU paid big bucks–$300,000 and $2.5 million, respectively—to settle accusations that they had broken the law.

Both schools are accused of contracting with a now-defunct company to recruit students. Apparently, universities aren’t allowed to offer companies a percentage of the “take” for that kind of recruiting if the students are eligible for federal loans. The law makes sense: The feds worry about “predatory” institutions chasing after federal loan dollars, leaving hapless students with big debt.

Meanwhile, what Liberty University is doing might not be illegal, to me it seems just as troubling. Recently the evangelical behemoth has been advertising a program that will leave students unemployable. The program in question is a fully online History PhD. Liberty promises that the program will help students land jobs. As they advertise (emphasis added by me),

Are you interested in a career in education, research, politics, archaeology, or management of national landmarks or museums? Whatever your history-related career goals are, Liberty University’s Ph.D. in History can provide the theoretical background, research and writing abilities, and experience you’ll need to excel in either academic or nonacademic career fields related to humanities or social sciences.

When you complete your doctorate in history, you’ll be prepared to pursue a variety of career opportunities. You might join the world of academia as a professor, professional researcher, or academic publisher or editor. Or you could pursue a position as a museum curator, international development specialist, author, archaeologist, or federal government employee.

Academics and many other career fields need people like you who are knowledgeable about the undercurrents, culture, and societal standards surrounding historical events. Prepare to excel in whichever career field you choose when you pursue our doctoral degree in history.

I don’t think there’s anything illegal about this sort of thing, but it does strike me as deeply misleading. The academic job market for history PhDs has not been strong since the late 1960s and these days it is positively dismal.Advertised-Job-Openings-Compared-to-the-Number-of-New-History-PhDsIn general, the very few jobs that are available in history departments have go to candidates with impeccable credentials. I have a hard time imagining that any history department would be willing to hire a candidate who had completed a fully online PhD program. In short, I do not think it is ethical for Liberty to tell people that they “might join the world of academia as a professor.”

I understand that the Liberty advertisement hedges its promises by talking about a “variety of career opportunities.” As do other desperate history programs who offer non-academic career advice, Liberty can fall back on its language about non-academic career paths as proof of its good intentions. I don’t think that’s enough. Even non-academic jobs for history PhDs are ferociously competitive and a candidate with an online degree will not be able to cut the mustard.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand why these evangelical schools make these sorts of insincere promises and shady deals. From the perspective of the recruiters’ offices, the prospect for the entire field of American higher education is scary and getting worse. There are fewer and fewer college-going young people and by 2025 the number will have dwindled even more.

Schools are closing and combining. Evangelical colleges have not been safe from this trend, as a recent shake-up at Gordon College attests. Nevertheless, I think it is fair to demand more than simple law-following from leaders of evangelical institutions. Bending the truth to get students in the door is something no one should tolerate, least of all people who want colleges to hold up the high ethical values of evangelical Christianity.

It’s Not Only Right-Wingers Who Get Schooled

It was embarrassing. Yesterday, NPR’s Cokie Roberts said a bunch of stuff about the history of abortion that just wasn’t true. After an academic historian exposed the goof, NPR had to retract the whole thing. Why did Roberts do it? Because to be a “real” historian, you don’t need a tenure-track university job or a PhD from an elite graduate program, but you do need to think a certain way about the past and be willing to spend the time to understand the past correctly.Dr Thompson Tweet Roberts apparently couldn’t be bothered.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH are probably sick of hearing about the ways academic historians “dunk” on right-wing history pundits such as Dinesh D’Souza. In those cases, academics such as Kevin Kruse debunk the false historical assertions made by pundits for purely political purposes, like when D’Souza claimed that the Republican Party was the true anti-racist, pro-civil-rights party. When D’Souza and other right-wing pundits like David Barton make their bad history, they tend to cherry-pick factlets without giving full weight to the broader, truer historical picture.

Yesterday’s case was different. NPR’s Cokie Roberts did indeed make a political point using history. She argued that today’s pro-choice politics assume that abortion was common—and dangerous—before Roe v. Wade. But Roberts did not just pick out a few truish facts to make an untrue argument. Instead, she misinterpreted the past based on her own lazy methods.

Originally (NPR has since removed Roberts’s goof), Roberts said,

there are many articles by abortion rights proponents who claim the procedure was so common that newspapers advertised providers. Look, I did a search of 19th century newspapers and couldn’t find them.

Dr. Lauren MacIvor Thompson, an historian at Georgia State University, quickly pointed out the huge hole in Roberts’s argument. Perhaps Roberts really had done a search of newspapers, but as a bad historian, she did a bad search. Roberts searched for phrases such as “abortion” and “birth control,” phrases that weren’t used in the 1800s, and found out—surprise, surprise—that they weren’t used in the 1800s. Her faulty conclusion? Newspapers did not advertise for abortions in the past.

As Dr. Thompson pointed out, Roberts made two huge mistakes that any trained historian would have avoided without even thinking about it:

1.) Roberts assumed that the terms we use were the same as the terms used in the past.

2.) Roberts did not take time to understand the historical context for her quick database search.

As Dr. Thompson pointed out, 19th-century newspapers really were full of advertisements for abortions and other anti-pregnancy medical interventions, but they used different language to describe them. Back then, newspapers referred to “menstrual regulation,” “medical relief,” “curing irregularities,” and so on.

Let’s be clear: There is absolutely no reason why someone needs a PhD or a tenure-track university job to be a “real” historian. All kinds of people do great historical work everyday, whether they are middle-school teachers, stamp collectors, historical re-enactors, or hard-working journalists.

What Cokie Roberts did is different. She skipped the hard work necessary to understand the past and instead accepted her own flitting google-search to be decent historical evidence.

The Only Percentage that Matters in Charter-School Politics

It seems like it should be a pretty straightforward equation, right? If charter schools are better for more students, they should be supported. If not, not. As today’s battle in California makes clear, though, those numbers and calculations are never as simple as they appear. For one thing, there has always been a huge hidden absolute value in educational politics that wonks tend to ignore. By paying attention to that hidden number, politicians will have a clearer path forward.

CAcharterrallyMarch13-320x215

Justice, yes. But how?

The racial politics of charter schools in California has gotten confusing. A basket of bills to limit charter growth has stalled. They seemed like a slam dunk at first. They were supported by the state NAACP and introduced by an influential member of the state’s California Legislative Black Caucus. Recently, however, three local NAACP chapters came out against the charter limits.

It has become extremely unclear if the African-American community in California supports or opposes charter expansion. Why?

Both sides can point to powerful statistics. African-American leaders who oppose charter expansion can cite the 2016 national NAACP anti-charter resolution. Charter schools, the NAACP charged, lack transparency; they divert funds from public schools; they expel and suspend African-American students at unfair rates; and they promote a

de facto segregation of the highest performing children from those whose aspirations may be high but whose talents are not yet as obvious.

For their part, charter supporters can point to their own powerful data. From Brookings, for example:

there is a subset of charter schools serving overwhelmingly black and poor students in large cities using a so-called “no excuses” education model in which students have experienced dramatically higher achievement than comparable students attending regular public schools.

And from CREDO at Stanford:

Black charter students in poverty have 36 more days of learning in reading and 43 more days of learning in math than their counterparts in TPS [Traditional Public Schools].

So are charter schools good for low-income African-American and Latinx kids or not?

credo increasesThe numbers and calculations can mask the most important statistic of all. Parents don’t wonder if 15% of local students will attend charters or public schools. They don’t fret if only 72% of children in their district are meeting reading or math goals, or if 81% of students are graduating from high school. No, for families dealing with crappy local schools, there is only one percentage to worry about: What kind of education is available for 100% of my kid?

This hidden number is the most important and explosive educational statistic of all. People who support charter expansion can’t wait for someday. They can’t trust sclerotic school boards to change things overnight. They need a better school today, and they need it to have room for their kids.

This 100%ism explains why support for charter schools differs by race among members of the Democratic Party. White Democrats tend to oppose charters at higher rates than do African-Americans or Latinx ones. Moreover, support for charters has dropped fast among white Democrats, but not among non-whites. This fact led the editors of the Washington Post mistakenly to chide leading 2020 Democratic politicians to support more charters. As the WaPo editors concluded,

We hope candidates keep in mind the polls that consistently show support for charters among black and Hispanic voters. It’s easy to oppose charters if you are well-off and live in a suburb with good schools. We hope we will also hear from candidates who know about the value of charters from their experiences — including as a mayor who used them to begin to turn around a failing district, as a partner in an administration that promoted charters, as a schools superintendent who made a place for charters.

support-for-charter-scools by raceThere’s a better way.

Here at ILYBYGTH, we agree wholeheartedly with parents’ rights to demand better public schools today, not someday. We support students’ rights to have a high-quality education in their own neighborhoods, surrounded by their friends and support networks. Most of all, we agree with the idea of doing what works to help students become better people and better scholars, instead of merely doing what has always been done before.

But none of that means we should ignore the equally desperate problems of charter schools. School districts have other options besides charters to turn to. Most notably, magnet and specialty programs within traditional public-school districts can accomplish the same things as charter schools, while still allowing transparency and public oversight over the schools and without draining funding from the public-school system.

There is no simple answer to racism, segregation, and poverty. But taking money out of the public-school system is not the way to start. Instead, politicians need to remain aware of the most important statistic in education and find a way to provide families with good schools right now for 100% of their kids. They just don’t need to do it with charters alone.

How to Woo The Turtle

Okay, I admit it: I have no idea how these things usually go, so I might be the weird one here. But I couldn’t help noticing a tiny little detail buried deep in the recent New York Times exposé of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and I just gotta ask–Is this how DC people really do things?

Sorry, Scoob…I’ll need ten grand.

The article as whole is worth reading. In case you were worried that Trump has put together a scandal-proof administration, Secretary Chao’s story puts those fears to bed. Her connections with her family business and its super-sweetheart deals with the Chinese government are astonishing.

mitch-mcconnell

Shell-shocked.

None of that truly shocked me, however. What did wow me was this lil nugget buried way at the end of the article. Secretary Chao is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, aka “The Turtle.” And dig this:

In 1989, shortly after their first date (at the Saudi ambassador’s home near Washington), Mr. McConnell was preparing for a re-election campaign. Greetings from Ms. Chao came in classic Washington fashion: a string of campaign donations, totaling $10,000, from Ms. Chao, her father, her mother, her sister May and May’s husband, Jeffrey Hwang, according to Federal Election Commission records.

Is THAT how these House-of-Cards types date? …really?

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Summer’s here–time to skip out on homework. If you missed some of the latest, here are a few big stories from the past week:

Can a very religious Joe Biden win the religious vote? At WaPo.

The death of charter schools, at WaPo.

much of the movement’s potency was a product of promises, rather than results. . . . Today, however, the grand promises of the charter movement remain unfulfilled, and so the costs of charters are being evaluated in a new light.

Handwriting on the wall for charter schools, here at ILYBYGTH:

How conservative politics are killing white churches, at RNS.RNS white church attendance REAL

Washington Post editors chastise Bernie and the Democrats for abandoning charter schools.

Prof. Miles introduces his new book, Religious Identity in US Politics, at RIP.

More powerfully than gender, and equally influential as race, religious identity shapes public approval of and trust in elected officials. At a time when it seems that partisanship, polarization, and conflict decisively diminish public evaluations of elected officials, religious identity motivates individuals to express trust in and approval of opposing partisans who share an identity.

Joe Biden announces his ed policy. At Politico.

The best parts look a lot like the Bernie Sanders education plan; the worst parts are echoes of the Obama years.

It’s true that Jimmy Carter’s 1976 campaign featured a pledge to create the U.S. Department of Education and that Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 run featured education as part of his “War on Poverty,” but the dollars and reach of these proposals — however significant at the time — are dwarfed by what Biden is contemplating, much less what Sanders or Warren have in mind.

Still not a lot of “out” atheists in politics. Ryan Burge asks why not, at RIP.atheist thermometer RIP

 

Betsy DeVos Has Saved Public Education

No one expected it. When Queen Betsy first took her position, her Dolores-Umbridge-style floundering was painful to watch and frightening for those of us who care about public education. Two years in, however, it is plain as day: DeVos’s sheer terribleness has forced a political realignment on the issue of charter schools. Charter schools used to be seen by both parties as the next great hope for public education. Now they are seen as a GOP stalking horse.

We’re used to it by now, but think back to DeVos’s shockingly inept interview on 60 Minutes in 2018. She evinced scant understanding or even interest in key educational issues. As Chris Cillizza wrote at the time,

DEVOS: Well, in places where there have been — where there is — a lot of choice that’s been introduced — Florida, for example, the — studies show that when there’s a large number of students that opt to go to a different school or different schools, the traditional public schools actually — the results get better, as well.

STAHL: Now, has that happened in Michigan? We’re in Michigan. This is your home state.

DeVOS: Michi — Yes, well, there’s lots of great options and choices for students here.

STAHL: Have the public schools in Michigan gotten better?

DEVOS: I don’t know. Overall, I — I can’t say overall that they have all gotten better.

STAHL: The whole state is not doing well.

DEVOS: Well, there are certainly lots of pockets where this — the students are doing well and —

If I was a boxing referee, I would have stopped this exchange about halfway through. If you are the secretary of education, you have to know you are going to be asked about the effects of school choice — particularly in your home state. So, if you’re going to argue that school choice has made public schools better, you had had better find a whole hell of a lot better spin that “I don’t know.”

And here’s Colbert’s take:

DeVos’s theory is that if you take money away from public schools and give it to charter schools, that will somehow help the public schools. It’s a system called . . . Stupid.

Before the DeVos era, politicians and pundits of both major parties tended to embrace charter schools as our most promising school-reform idea. No longer. Democratic 2020 hopefuls are scrambling to distance themselves from charter schools. Those who have the closest ties to the charter movement, like Senator Cory Booker, have the most work to do. As The (charter-loving) Economist put it,

Mr Booker is trying to navigate these treacherous waters. His proposed education manifesto for 2020 is to increase funding for educating special-needs children and to pay teachers more. These proposals are fine. Yet Mr Booker is the only candidate with a serious educational achievement under his belt—and the essential ingredients of that turnaround are not what he is promising now. His campaign replies that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for education reform.

It’s not only about charter schools. Other market-y style education reforms have become similarly tainted with DeVosite. Teach For America, another reform plan long despised by progressives but embraced by both major parties, has come under increasing fire. California is considering ditching the program and cities such as Houston already have.

betsy devos dolores umbridge

All Hufflepuffed up.

In a way, it’s a shame. The smart answer when it comes to TFA, charter schools, or any other reform plan is always “It depends.” Some charter schools have offered great educations to low-income students. Some TFA teachers have done great jobs, and sacrificed a lot to do it.

Because of Queen Betsy’s Trumpish cloud, however, charter schools have reached Chernobyl-level toxicity for Democratic politicians. And that means the idea of charter schools will no longer carry the day as it has done for the past thirty years. In the long run, that’s good news for public education as a whole.