It’s Really All Over for Charter Schools

Although some smart people apparently didn’t see it coming, the writing has been on the wall for charter schools for about two years now. The final nail in its coffin might have come yesterday when former President Barack Obama endorsed a mea culpa from the “ed-reform” movement.obama tweet

As SAGLRROILLYBYGTH are sick of hearing, the remarkable success of charter schools resulted, in large part, from the diverse political coalition that backed them. Conservative evangelicals liked the idea of a refuge from the supposedly secularized public schools. White segregationists hoped charters could stave off school integration. Urban African-American activists liked the notion of a better option for low-income youth. Secular free-marketeers wanted to break the monopoly of the teachers’ unions. Ambitious young overachievers liked the idea of entrepreneurship in education, instead of slogging up the teacher-career ladder.

To be sure, the so-called “reform” movement wasn’t only about charter schools. It also included a heavy emphasis on high-stakes standardized testing. The goal was to make sure lazy teachers and underresourced schools could no longer ignore children who didn’t sparkle. Reformers dreamed of displacing the “soft bigotry of low expectations” and making sure no child was left behind.

All laudable goals, and all goals that attracted support from across the political spectrum. Until, that is, Hurricane Betsy swept into town. As we’ve discussed in these pages, Secretary DeVos’s reign as educational Trumpist has changed the nature of the ed-reform discussion. Instead of a broad movement open to both Democrats and Republicans, charter schools and the rest of the “reform” movement have now become the signature ed policy of Trump-wingers.

Democrats have fallen over one another rushing for the exits. Leading 2020 contenders such as Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, and Beto O’Rourke all have significant histories as charter supporters and they’re all scrambling to find ways to deny it.

Yesterday, when St. Obama tweeted his agreement with a recent Atlantic article, the handwriting on the wall received its final punctuation. As President Obama wrote,

This is worth a read: a thought-provoking reminder that education reform isn’t a cure-all. As a supporter of education reform, I agree that fixing educational inequality requires doing more to address the broader, systemic sources of economic inequality.

By throwing his enormous party prestige into the mix, President Obama has surely spelled the doom of charter-schools and other “reform” measures among the Democratic Party. And when any reform becomes the signature issue of only one political party, it is surely doomed to deadlock, decline, and defeat.

Advertisements

From the Archives: The Bad Old Days of Educational Entrepreneurship

More proof, if more were needed, that today’s bold claims to “free” education from the cold dead hands of bureaucracy are not an innovation, but a step back into the ooze from which public schools evolved. As I argued recently in the pages of the Washington Post, Secretary Betsy Devos’s plans for public education mostly consist of returning schools to the bad old days of the early 1800s. In yesterday’s archive dig, I ran across a sad reminder: Entrepreneurship just doesn’t work when it comes to public education.arthur donaldson school announcementSAGLRROILYBYGTH need no reminder, but here’s a little historical background anyway: Before the mid-1800s, most towns and cities had a mish-mash of school options. In places such as Boston, Philadelphia, and New York City, there were tax-funded schools that were free to attend.

In most towns and cities, there were church schools or entrepreneurial “dame” or “master” schools. The former usually charged some kind of tuition but they also usually raised money to pay for lower-income students. The latter were businesses run by a teacher. These teachers survived by attracting pupils and charging tuition. All in all, it was a fine system for people with money or lucky people without money, but it left a lot of people out.

In 1810, Arthur Donaldson hoped to fix the situation. He was a teacher in a Quaker/Friends-run school for African-American kids. He hoped to broaden the school options for low-income African-American kids by raising more funds from wealthier people to open new schools for students who couldn’t afford to pay tuition. As Donaldson advertised, he wanted

to build a School-house, to admit of two schools, for the accommodation of Children of Colour, males and females separate. And as soon as the income arising from said school will admit (or other means obtained) to procure a well qualified person, to assist him therein. He also has it in view, as the school increases, to reduce the price of tuition, so as to make it more easy to parents of children. . . . he solicits the aid of the Benevolent minded, in hopes that he will meet with encouragement in his undertaking; believing it will be a means of laying a foundation for that which may be of lasting benefit to this neglected class of the community; whose welfare he has sincerely at heart; and is disposed to devote his whole time and attention, without any view of any thing more to himself than a reasonable and moderate living.

Hooray for Donaldson, right? Sounds like good news for the lower-income African-American children of Philadelphia. The catch was, these schools never opened.

Eventually, in 1822, the emerging public-school system of Philadelphia opened a tuition-free school for African-American kids on Mary Street. In 1826 Philly opened a second, the “Gaskill St. School for Negro Girls,” and the Mary Street School became boys-only. In 1828 they added another segregated tuition-free African-American school on Lombard Street.

The take-away? Let’s assume Mr. Donaldson had a pure heart and good intentions. He was a Quaker, a member of the Society of Friends, and he already worked as a teacher in the tuition-charging church school for African-American kids, so he doesn’t seem like a bad guy. As he stipulated, let’s assume that he only wanted to make a “reasonable and moderate living.” He thought the market could support a school for African-American kids. He thought Philadelphia’s wealthy elites could be cajoled into coughing up some of their money to pay for it.

He was wrong. Philanthropy wasn’t enough. Good intentions weren’t enough. Vim, vigor, and smarts weren’t enough. When schools are left to follow market forces, only people with money benefit.

The Original TFAer

Way before Wendy Kopp made her plan at Princeton to send graduates of elite colleges to Teach (briefly) For America, at least one wealthy American spent a brief time as a teacher before moving on to his “real” career. In Philadelphia, Roberts Vaux (yes, with an -s. Family name.) began his career as a philanthropist and man-about-town by teaching at the Adelphi School for one year.roberts vaux

For Vaux and his family, it wasn’t a TFA thing, it was a Quaker thing. The idea of self-sacrificing service was a strong one among his religious group, as it was (and is) among a lot of religious groups. So, at the tender age of twenty, Vaux taught briefly at the Adelphi School, a Quaker school for low-income kids. For him, the experience was transformative. After he completed school and established himself as a successful merchant, Vaux devoted himself to improving his city.

One of Vaux’s causes was public education. He was the first president of the Pennsylvania Society for the Promotion of Public Schools and the first president of the Board of Controllers for Philadelphia’s public schools.

Just as Wendy Kopp hoped it would do for a later generation of well-to-do young people, Vaux’s early experience teaching low-income children sparked a lifetime of interest in education and philanthropic work. As I read through his voluminous correspondence, it’s clear Vaux’s dedication to education for the poor was more than a whim or a hobby.

Lane letter schools work

We can’t tell if they really meant it or not, but lots of students wrote letters like this to Vaux.

Though it’s easy to mock the implied arrogance of Kopp’s Ivy-League TFA scheme, it’s hard to dislike Vaux. By the 1820s, Vaux was basically a full-time philanthropist, leading and participating in a million causes. He led the fight against slavery, even protesting against Quaker abolition societies for not going far enough. He also never did much self-promotion. That’s why there aren’t a lot of “Vaux-” named streets or buildings in Philly, even though he as a pillar of the community two centuries ago.

For Vaux at least, the experience of working as a teacher–even for just a short time–seemed to energize him for the rest of his life. Wendy Kopp would be proud.

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.

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!

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.

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.

WaPo Needs to Get Its Ears Checked on Charter Schools

Everyone else heard it. Even way up here in the woods of upstate New York we heard it. Every political person except for the editors of the Washington Post seems to have gotten the message loud and clear. As a bi-partisan program, charter schools are dead. There’s no need for Democrats to hug the corpse. Maybe a medical analogy that invokes the late great Gene Wilder will help get the message across.

Here’s what we’re talking about: Today the editors of the Post issued a rebuke to Democratic politicians like Bernie who have turned their collective backs against charter schools. As they wrote,

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.

The editors make a strong point. For students with no decent public schools nearby, the promise of higher-quality charter schools has always been appealing. And for that reason, political progressives have long supported the charter movement.

But no longer. The WaPo editorial team seems to have missed the changes that have swept the education-reform community over the past three years. Leading Democratic contenders like Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, and Beto O’Rourke had close ties with charter schools in the past, but they have all backpedaled furiously. (Well, maybe not Senator Booker.)

It’s not just that. Recent teacher strikes in Chicago have driven a broad-shouldered stake through the heart of the charter idea. Similarly, other ambitious school plans from the 1990s have died a shuddering death. There’s one big obvious reason for all this, and I think a medical analogy might help make sense of it.

When the charter-school movement took off in the 1990s, it had amazing success because it managed to do what very few political ideas can do. Namely, it attracted support from left, right, and center. The idea of publicly funded schools without all the red tape of regular public schools appealed to everyone who thought that regular public schools weren’t doing the job. And that’s a lot of people.support-for-charter-scools by raceNevertheless, historically speaking the idea of siphoning tax money away from the public-school network is a radical one, and it only held appeal as long as two factors remained true. First, large numbers of people needed to believe that public schools were in a state of desperate dysfunction. Second, people needed to believe that charters were a shared endeavor, still part of the broader vision of public education for all.

The first part is still true. At least, the WaPo editors continue to believe it. As they wrote this morning,

The most enduring — and unforgivable — civil rights offense in our country today is the consigning of so many poor, often minority children to failing schools.

The second part isn’t. At least, people don’t believe it. The obvious reason for that is the new educational sheriff in town, Betsy DeVos. Queen Betsy has become the public face of the charter school movement. Not Howard Fuller. Not Cory Booker. Not even Arne Duncan. Betsy DeVos.

And when Betsy DeVos becomes the face of charter schools, then the idea of charters takes on all the baggage of Team Trump. No Democrat wants to go to bat for charter schools anymore, you sillies, because they don’t want to buy a ticket on the Trump Train.

Consider this gruesome analogy: When would you agree to let doctors amputate your leg? Things would have to be pretty desperate, right? But if it seemed like the only way to prevent an even bigger health catastrophe, you’d go along with it. Before you did, though, you’d want to hear from a bunch of doctors and surgeons. You’d want to be convinced that the radical procedure was really necessary.

The idea of charter schools is just like that. It is a radical change to America’s public schools, and one with serious negative consequences. Funneling scarce dollars away from low-resource public schools and into charter schools is obviously no one’s first choice, but people were willing to risk it in order to get some students into better schools.

They were willing to try it, in large part, because all the experts lined up behind it. From Howard Fuller to Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee to Cory Booker, it seemed as if leaders from both parties agreed that the radical plan was the least-worst idea.

Not anymore. Secretary DeVos has managed to combine a striking ignorance about public education with a patent disregard for pressing educational issues. She has managed to unite left and right in opposition to her country-club blundering. And she has associated all her efforts with her fervent pro-charter agenda.

To drive the analogy home, it is like you are considering a radical amputation, and there’s only one doctor who tells you it’s a good idea: Dr. Frankenstein.

When the editors of the Washington Post urge Bernie and the other Democratic contenders to stay true to the charter dream, they are giving terrible advice. They are asking Democrats to stick their necks out for President Trump. They are asking Democrats to ignore the changes in ed-reform thinking of the past two years and pretend not to know which way the wind is blowing.

Should Bernie and the rest continue to support high-quality public schools for low-income people? Absolutely! But there are other ways to do it–ways besides the dead dream of charter schools. For the editors of WaPo to ask Bernie to support charter schools is like asking him to show up at a campaign rally wearing a MAGA hat.

TFA on the Rocks?

America loves a winner…until it doesn’t. Recent moves in Texas and California against Teach For America have me wondering—has the tide turned? Is TFA joining charter schools as a school reform that used to be popular on both sides of the aisle, but is now for the GOP alone? And if so, why now? There is one obvious reason that deserves more attention.

chicago charter protest

Which side are you on, Democrats?

Here’s what we know: As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, the idea for Teach For America was to get graduates of elite colleges into low-resource schools. TFA teachers promised to teach for two years. The plan was twofold. First, founder Wendy Kopp hoped to give low-resource schools an infusion of talent and enthusiasm, even if it was only temporary. Second, by experiencing life in low-resource schools, TFA alums—the thinking went—would be better-educated themselves about the challenges of real-life schools.

The program was a big hit for a while. Back in the late 20th century, almost a fifth of Harvard grads applied. School districts offered perks to the program, hoping to attract TFA teachers. Over the years, though, TFA also generated a lot of criticism. How could five weeks of training be enough? Why should no-experience teachers be acceptable in low-resource schools?

And now it seems those criticisms have begun to attract political support. They have moved beyond progressive howls in the wind. Houston has banned TFA teachers. California is thinking about doing the same. As one California lawmaker explained,

Our most vulnerable students are getting our least trained teachers. If they’re good enough for poor, low-income schools, why aren’t they good enough for the Beverly Hillses of the world? . . . Why do low-income schools have to be the guinea pigs?

Such criticisms are nothing new. TFA has always been unpopular among the progressive crowd. But now there seems to be a new political momentum against the program. What happened? Why did TFA suddenly become politically vulnerable?

To this reporter, the political swing against TFA is part of a broader realignment of education politics. For decades now, Democrats and Republicans have agreed on market-based “reforms” of public education. Charters, vouchers, tax-savings accounts, and alternative-certification programs were embraced on both sides of the aisle.

No longer. Democratic contenders for 2020 are scrambling to disavow their charter-loving pasts. Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, and Beto O’Rourke are all re-positioning themselves as charter skeptics, when they all enthusiastically promoted charter schools in the recent past.

The obvious culprit? The string of teacher strikes over the last two years has changed things. The strikes and protests have polarized the issue of public education. For Democrats, now, the primary goals are not to tweak TFA and charters to achieve best results, but rather to oppose any programs that stink of anti-teacher free-marketeering.

Did Bernie Just Throw Ed Progressives Under the Bus?

There’s been a ton of good news lately for teachers and for public education. Leading Democratic candidates such as Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren are making schools central issues in their campaigns. Now Senator Bernie Sanders has issued his ten-point “Thurgood Marshall Plan” for improving education. Like my progressive teacher friends, I’m thrilled by these developments. However, as a long-time observer of America’s educational culture wars, I have to ask an unpleasant question: Does Bernie really not care about progressive ed?

bernie mashall plan

Progressive politics, but not practices…?

Let me be clear: Compared to the GOP alternatives, I support Bernie’s plan. For that matter, I like Senator Warren’s plan, too, and Senator Harris’s. I could quibble with various details of the plans, but IMHO we should focus on the huge positive fact that our 2020 candidates are talking a lot about schools and education.

From a historical perspective, however, I can’t help but wonder at the way our progressive politicians seem to have abandoned progressive education.

Here’s what I mean: Bernie’s ten-point plan emphasized the need for American schools to fight racial bias and entrenched economic and social inequality. All to the good. However, when it comes to actual progressive classroom practices, Bernie seems surprisingly unaware.

For example, just like Queen Betsy, Bernie assumes the goal of our education system is to produce a competitive “workforce.”  Bernie also assumes that the primary purpose of good schools is to increase America’s competitive economic advantages in a “highly competitive global economy.”

And how does Bernie know America’s schools need fixing? In his words,

Among the 35 countries that are members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the U.S. ranked 30th in math and 19th in science. Reading scores for our students are not much better. The U.S. ranked 24th when compared to other highly industrialized countries such as Singapore, Canada and Germany.

For progressive educators, using this kind of standardized-test measure to evaluate our schools is dunderheaded. Making a well-trained “workforce” the main goal of education is backwards. And measuring the quality of schools by the economic advantage they create is absolutely irresponsible. Yet Bernie does not hesitate to do it. Nor does Bernie seem to have his ear to the ground when it comes to identifying the most pressing problems in American education. For example, Bernie laments the fact that

too many Americans end up taking higher-paying jobs on Wall Street or as accountants or as corporate managers simply to pay back their student loans.

…Really? THAT’S what Bernie thinks is the main problem with American higher ed? That too many graduates are taking high-paying jobs?

As progressive ed pundit Alfie Kohn wrote years ago, we shouldn’t confuse progressive politics with progressive education. As Kohn put it,

A school that is culturally progressive is not necessarily educationally progressive. An institution can be steeped in lefty politics and multi-grain values; it can be committed to diversity, peace, and saving the planet—but remain strikingly traditional in its pedagogy. In fact, one can imagine an old-fashioned pour-in-the-facts approach being used to teach lessons in tolerance or even radical politics.

Is that what’s going on here? Is Bernie pushing traditional educational practices in his effort to fight traditional social inequality? Does Bernie not know about progressive pedagogy? Or does he just not care?