The Temptation of “Training” Teachers

What do new teachers need to know? Should they learn specific teaching methods? Or instead a more generic intellectual approach to teaching and learning? The obvious answer, it seems to me, is a little bitta both. Historically speaking, however, long and bitter experience has proven that merely training teachers to deliver a single “system” has failed miserably.

system boys one through four

If new teachers simply learned his fool-proof system…

This old question was raised again recently in the pages of the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog by teachers Jasmine Lane and John Gustafson. As they warn, their teacher-ed program left them feeling abandoned. As they put it,

we were not trained in how to actually teach. Our training felt more like a philosophy of teaching degree than ensuring students could learn the tangible skills required for success in high school and beyond.

I feel for them. More than that, I remember feeling a similar way when I started—left on my own, scrambling to prepare for Monday and wondering if last Friday was helpful for my students. Even veteran teachers struggle to know what to do and too often new teachers are left feeling isolated and underprepared.

So should teacher-ed programs help new teachers know exactly what to do? I work every day with talented new teachers, so personally I share the desire to provide teachers with practical, helpful ways to deliver useful lessons and to evaluate student learning. But I’m still skeptical about a couple of things.

NYC manual 1820 2 diagrams alphabet wheel

…nothing could possibly go wrong. All teachers need is the right system and the right tools…

First, as a history teacher, I know far less than Lane and Gustafson do about specific methods of reading instruction. They advocate “effective whole-group instruction or the “Big 5” components of reading.” Would that be better? I admit it happily: I don’t know.

As a historian, however, I’ve seen the dismal effect of trying to impose a one-size-fits-all teaching “system” on new teachers. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing, I’m up to my eyeballs these days in research for my new book about America’s first major urban school reform.

Back in the 1810s, growing cities such as Philly, New York, Baltimore, and Cincinnati wondered what they could do with all their wild American children. They turned to young London reformer Joseph Lancaster. Since (about) 1798, Lancaster had run a school for low-income London youth. More importantly, he used his school primarily as a teacher-training institute.

Lancaster promised that he had created the perfect “system.” With Lancaster’s careful instruction, anyone could teach, because Lancaster provided perfect guidance. Lancaster’s system, in short, taught teachers exactly what to do. It taught teachers, in other words, “how to actually teach.”

As Lancaster wrote in 1807,

On this plan, any boy who can read, can teach; and the inferior boys may do the work usually done by the teachers, in the common mode: for a boy who can read, can teach, ALTHOUGH HE KNOWS NOTHING ABOUT IT…

What happened? In short, it didn’t work. Among other faults with Lancaster’s system, new teachers found that their “training” did not really teach them what to do. It did not teach them “how to actually teach,” because actual teaching requires flexibility and a wealth of methodological tools, not just one system or method.

In practice, as Lancaster-trained teachers fanned out around the world, they found themselves in exactly the same predicament as Lane and Gustafson, but from the opposite direction. That is, Lancaster-trained teachers found that the simplistic system they had learned did not prepare them for the exigencies of real-world classrooms. Unlike Lane and Gustafson, they yearned for a broader education about teaching and learning, instead of only one over-hyped “system.”

When they got to their new classrooms, Lancaster-trained teachers found they had to make things up on the fly. They found that Lancaster’s pre-fabricated instructions did not address important questions of teaching and learning. In a few years, the actual teaching practices in Lancasterian schools had come to vary widely. By 1829, Lancaster felt it necessary to denounce “erroneous practices” that had taken over Lancasterian schools.

What would have been better? To this reporter, it seems obvious that a simple training program for teachers has never been enough. Because real-world classrooms are infinitely complicated places, new teachers cannot be “trained” in only one method of teaching. Instead, new teachers should learn a mix of methods, ideas, histories, and, yes, even philosophies.

Dumped Chumps Plumped for Trump*

I admit it—I’m out of touch. I’ve been spending most of my time lately in the 1820s, so when I heard the news I thought I had just missed something. When I saw that Trump had proposed cutting federal funding for charter schools, I was totally surprised. Turns out I wasn’t the only one.

Trump and devos

–Did you do the reading? –I did not.

Here’s what we know: Trump’s new proposed budget makes big changes in ed policy. The overall proposal would cut about eight percent in education financing. Most surprising, the cuts include a total elimination of the federal Charter Schools Program. Last year alone, according to Chalkbeat, big charter networks such as KIPP and IDEA scored big grants through that program, $86 million and $116 million, respectively.

That’s not a huge chunk of the federal ed budget, but this switch still seems like a surprising symbolic turnaround. And if hasty straw twitter polling is any measure, it seems as if top ed scholars and pundits also found the proposal surprising.

Will the budget proposal matter? Most likely, it will not survive as proposed. But it marks another dramatic change in the politics of charter schools. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are painfully aware, one of the big surprises of 2020 has been the dramatic political realignment we’ve seen on the issue of charter schools. Not so long ago, Democratic contenders such as Senator Warren were big fans of charters and even vouchers. Once charters and choice became the signature issue of Queen Betsy, Democrats dropped them. Even St. Obama voiced some urbane skepticism about the ideology of the “reform” movement.

And now this. Charter school advocates found themselves forced to support Trump as the only game in town, only to have that support yanked away.

What does it mean? Maybe DeVos is hoping to open more space for vouchers and other programs. Or maybe—like with their major goof about the kid from Philly—the Trump administration simply hasn’t thought this proposal all the way through. Maybe they just saw a chance to cut the budget and that was enough.

                                                               *So sorry about this headline. I just couldn’t help myself.

Common Sense in School Reform: Too Common by Far

When you hear it out loud, it sounds so obvious it’s hard to imagine how anyone could disagree. When Diane Ravitch called recently for a return to “common sense” in education policy, it seemed like an obvious winner. Yet as Ravitch knows as well as anyone, sensible school reform has always been incredibly difficult to pull off. Why? It’s not because “common sense” is uncommon. Rather, it’s because the things that make sense in schools are often directly opposed to one another.slaying goliath

Ravitch was plugging her new book, Slaying Goliath. In her short piece at Time, she lambasted the “Bush-Obama-Trump” idea of high-stakes testing as an educational panacea. It didn’t work. It wasn’t ever going to work. Instead, Ravitch wrote, we need to return to “reforms that work.” They aren’t mysterious. As Ravitch put it,

Children and schools need stability, not disruption. They need experienced teachers and well-maintained schools. All children need schools that have a nurse, counselors, and a library with a librarian. Children need time to play every day. They need nutrition and regular medical check-ups.

All of this is common sense.

It’s hard to disagree. So why are these common-sense reforms so difficult to achieve? The first and most obvious explanation is the oldest story in American school reform. Yes, people want good schools, but they always want to do it on the cheap.

But it’s not just cheapness. Even when reformers have been willing to put money into it, school reform has suffered from an over-abundance of common sense. Ravitch’s vision of common-sense reform is obviously true, but too often, so is its opposite.

I think the late David Tyack and Larry Cuban put it best in 1997 in their book Tinkering Toward Utopia. America’s schools have always carried heavy expectations—expectations that often contradicted one another.tyack cuban tinkering

As Tyack and Cuban wrote, schools have always been expected to combine the uncombinable. As they put it, schools have been expected

to socialize [children] to be obedient, yet to teach them to be critical thinkers;
to pass on the best academic knowledge that the past has to offer, yet also to teach marketable and practical skills;
to cultivate cooperation, yet to teach students to compete with one another in school and later in life;
to stress basic skills but also to encourage creativity and higher-order thinking;
to focus on the academic ‘basics’ yet to permit a wide range of choice of courses.

Why don’t more schools and more education policy-makers recognize the obvious truth of Ravitch’s call for common sense? It’s not because common sense is uncommon, but because there are too many competing common-senses out there.

For a lot of Americans, it’s common sense to think that high-stakes tests will be a good measure of school effectiveness.

  • But it’s also common sense to notice that one-size-fits-all tests won’t work with America’s diverse educational landscape.

For a lot of Americans, it’s common sense to assume that more school choices will be good for families.

  • But it’s also common sense that creating competing schools will divert scarce tax dollars away from hard-up public schools.

We could go on all day. For every obvious reform, there has always been an equally plausible yet opposite reform. In the end we don’t suffer from a lack of common sense. We suffer from a lack of agreement about which common sense actually makes sense for our children.

Why Do Ed Leaders Keep Trying to Repackage Old Garbage? TN Edition

Does it count as an innovative “disruption” when politicians repackage the oldest failed idea in public education financing? This time we’re talking about Tennessee Governor Bill Lee. Lee is trying to sell it as a bold new idea, but it’s really the oldest idea in public education.

Here’s what we know: Governor Lee promised to increase funding for public schools. He wants to increase teacher pay and provide more mental-health counselors for schools. So far, so good.

The problem comes when Governor Lee explained his plan to pay for these improvements. He wants to engage in what he calls “disruption” of traditional public funding models. The old methods didn’t work, Lee said, so it was time for “extraordinarily different inputs.”

What’s wrong with that? As I argued in the Washington Post about Secretary DeVos’s similar call for new approaches to school funding, this “new definition of public education” is anything but new. In fact, as I’m finding in the research for my new book about the roots of American public ed, the system we have grew out of the inadequacies of mixing private and public funding.

Back in the 1820s, cities such as Baltimore, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and New York thought they could provide tuition-free public education for all children by mixing funding streams. They appealed to philanthropists to cough up money for this worthy cause.

It didn’t work. The money was never enough. School leaders were caught in a desperate, recurring bind. Every year, they had to plead with both legislators and philanthropists to provide enough money for basic services. Because the old system was so obviously inadequate, they successfully pushed for full public funding, enough to cover school costs.

With hindsight, the problems seem obvious. It seems obviously difficult to predict how many wealthy people will decide to give how much money for public schools.

What really stumps me is how so many leading politicians these days—it’s not only Secretary DeVos and Governor Lee—seem devoted to stubbornly ignoring those obvious lessons from our past. Not only that, they try to sell this old, failed model as a bold new program, an exciting innovation.

It almost seems as if people who don’t know their own histories are doomed to repeat them.

Why Won’t This Myth about Teachers Go Away?

It won’t be easy, but I’m going to avoid defending graduate programs for teachers. Instead, I want to take issue with a persistent myth about teacher pay that showed up once again in this article about teacher education. I can’t help but think that popular understandings of the history of teacher pay have had a bad influence on the way we think about teaching today.

If you’re involved in teaching you’ve probably seen the article. Too often, Grace Gedye alleges, hard-working teachers are forced to pay for useless graduate degrees. As Gedye charges,

the teachers I interviewed told me that they had spent too much time on theory and not enough on practical teaching skills; professors were too far removed from the classroom and using out-of-date pedagogy; and many programs simply weren’t rigorous.

I’m super biased so I won’t push the point too hard, but I have to briefly disagree with this premise. Feel free to discount my point, because I spend my days working with graduate students in a teaching program. The classes I teach focus on diving deeply into US history. Do my classes help my students on Sunday night with their plans for Monday morning? No. But knowing more about history and historical thinking can’t help but make them better history teachers. Right?

We can argue about graduate programs if we want, but instead I’d like to focus on a lil nugget buried deep in the heart of the article. Gedye mentions that teacher pay has long been tied to graduate education. As she recounts,

American teachers weren’t paid salaries at all well into the 19th century. Schools were largely community organized, and teachers’ compensation mostly consisted of free room and board.

Now, I’m not taking the author to task for this inaccurate summary of the history of teacher pay. She isn’t claiming to have done research about this history; she isn’t basing her argument on it. No, the problem is much bigger than that. The author is merely rehashing what she thinks is a commonly accepted truth. And she’s right: Generally, people tend to assume that this history of teacher pay is correct. It’s not. These assumptions about teacher pay are wildly false and hugely hurtful.

The assumption that teachers were historically unpaid or underpaid shows up all the time. For example, SAGLRROILYBYGTH may recall a recent flap about it from the Hoover Institution’s Eric Hanushek. Hanushek argued a few months back that teachers were generally underpaid because they went into the field “for love of kids, for feeling of social purpose, or for what-have-you.”

Certainly, plenty of teachers choose the field for those reasons. I did. But historically, teaching did not begin as a “service” profession, driven by low pay but high emotions. It’s no secret: In the USA, at least, teaching in the 1800s began as a highly paid, highly respected, highly unequal/hierarchical profession.

As I’m finding in the research for my upcoming book about the first big urban school reform, teachers originally had status as entrepreneurial businessmen and women. (Mostly men.) In the first decades of the 1800s, teachers ran schools as independent enterprises, making handsome incomes—not salaries—by attracting large numbers of tuition-paying students.

To be sure, there were also teachers who did not make big money, working at schools for lower-income students. Teachers at these “church schools” or “charity schools” were certainly the model for Dr. Hanushek’s vision of teacher motivation. But they were the exception.

What happened? When did teachers stop making big bucks? Here’s the important historical truth, the reason why this myth about teacher pay is so destructive: Teachers stopped making big paychecks when the government started paying for schools for all students. Once the taxpayers began footing the bill for low-income students, the race was on to find teachers who would work for peanuts.

Where could such teachers be found? It’s not a pretty story. First, cities like New York tried to get defenseless children to do it. In New York in 1818, the school board even flirted with the idea of making their youthful teachers indentured servants, to force them to work for free until they turned twenty-one.

When children proved unable to handle the task of teaching, reformers turned to another disempowered group, women. By the mid-1800s, child teachers were out of favor and women-teachers were in. Hiring women had the huge advantage of lower salaries, salaries that taxpayers would agree to pay.

Sorry to belabor this point, but I think this history of teacher pay matters. Why?

Well, first, I think it’s generally better to know the truth than to believe a convenient myth. But even aside from that lofty goal, we’ve got teacher pay back in the headlines, thanks to the presidential race. If we’re going to talk about teacher pay, we need to stop pretending that teachers have always been given skimpy salaries.

Imagining a past in which teachers worked for free is common, but leads to terrible assumptions. Namely, if teachers always worked for diddly, then we’ve made big progress. But it’s just not historically true. In fact, teachers went from highly paid experts to low-paid drones, exploited by their status as lower-powered members of society. First children, then women.

Knowing the real history clarifies what happened. There was a specific time when teacher pay dipped and respect for teachers dwindled—when the government took over paying for low-income students’ tuition. And knowing that history gives us a clear path to follow. Better teacher pay will happen only when the government stops trying to get something for next to nothing. Better teacher pay will come about through a saner government commitment to fully funding schools for all students.

The Greatest Ed-Tech Goof of All Time

I admit it. I only read one year-end top-100 list–Audrey Watters’ “100 worst ed-tech debacles of the decade.” And it got me thinking: What have been the top ed-tech goofs of all time? The top choice from my current research is pretty clear, c. 1804.

Reading sticks sketch

What was the biggest ed-tech goof of all time? Not these “reading sticks”…

SAGLRROILYBYGTH are probably sick of hearing about Joseph Lancaster. And I’m sorry. But his plan was such a perfect mix of tech-naïveté and Zuckerberg-level hubris that I can’t stop marveling over the 21st-century feel of Lancaster’s tech-obsessed school system.

NYC manual 1820 2 diagrams alphabet wheel

…not this either.

If you’re just joining us, Lancaster was a young man who opened a school for poor kids in London in 1798. He tried some new tricks, including banishing corporal punishment and using students as teachers. He really believed technology could solve all the problems of education and therefore of society.

For example, he dreamed of new systems of “reading telegraphs,” “alphabet wheels,” and benches with holes for hats. His assumption—like that of so many of his peers—was that the right machine could eliminate traditional problems with school organization.

None of those failed ed machines, however, gets my pick as the top ed-tech goof of 1804. No, by a landslide, that (dis)honor goes to Lancaster’s “basket.”1810 punishment the basket

The basket was a device that Lancaster used to discipline unruly boys (it was only used for boys) without resorting to lashes. If demerits failed, and other efforts didn’t work, boys would be suspended above the schoolroom in a basket. The other kids were encouraged to mock the “birds in a cage.”

A truly “terrible” way to humiliate a child, to be sure. But did it work? According to one enthusiastic Lancasterian, the “cradle” worked like a charm. As he wrote to Lancaster in 1812,

When [the students] first came, they were like so many wild donkeys of the Common, for they did not care for any thing; I threatened them with the cradle, but that, did no good. So I got the Head of them, put him in, and gave him a bit of a rocking: well! He begged and prayed for me to take him out, and he would not swear nor talk again, upon that condition I let him out & he has kept his word ever since; it took such an effect on all the Boys, that I have never had to punish one since: so, out of a set of wild donkeys, they are made a set of good behaved orderly children.

There was a cost, however. For understandable reasons, students did not like the cradle/basket/birdcage. They eventually stopped coming to Lancaster’s schools and their parents didn’t force them. Why? As one outraged African-American parent from New York wrote in 1827, their children should not be subjected to cruel teachers who only harped on the students’ “dulness and stupidity” all day.

Perhaps as a result of such gripes, Lancaster got rid of the basket. Though it plays a prominent role in early editions of his manual, by 1817 he had excised it. Like so many of the other ed-tech goofs we see in our decade, this technology came in with a blast of trumpets, only to exit with a whimper.

Why Can’t Scholars Guarantee Good Teaching?

It was the reef on which the first big school reform crashed two hundred years ago. This week, the latest big reform in teacher-ed has come in for withering criticism. They couldn’t figure it out then, and they can’t figure it out now: Why is it so hard to figure out how to teach teachers?

edtpa map

The hip sensation sweepin the nation…

First, the latest: A group of ed scholars recently published their review of the latest reform of teacher training. The Educative Teacher Performance Assessment (edTPA) portfolio has been mandated for the last few years in eighteen states—including the Great State of New York—for teacher certification. What did they think?

They had “serious concerns about scoring design, the reliability of the assessments, and the consequential impact on decisions about edTPA candidates.” In the end, they concluded that the problems outweighed the benefits. It should no longer be used to measure new teachers’ effectiveness.

Not so fast, said edTPA’s makers. The Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning, and Equity (SCALE)—who designed edTPA–and Pearson—who administers it—offered a quick response to the findings. They “categorically reject[ed] the conclusions” of the study and gave a point-by-point rebuttal.

We can argue about the evidence if we want, but this morning I’d like to ask a different question. Namely, why has it always been so impossible to establish an effective teacher-training program? It seems like it would be a relatively easy thing to do, but as I’m finding in my research about Lancasterian education, it has always been the second-most difficult challenge in American education.

Back in the early 1800s, Joseph Lancaster promised that his system would remove the need for expensive, trained adult teachers. As Lancaster explained in 1807,

On this plan, any boy who can read, can teach; and the inferior boys may do the work usually done by the teachers, in the common mode: for a boy who can read, can teach, ALTHOUGH HE KNOWS NOTHING ABOUT IT; and, in teaching, will imperceptibly acquire the knowledge he is destitute of, when he begins to teach, by reading.

Back then, Lancaster and his many supporters thought they had solved the problem of schools that were too expensive for low-income families. By eliminating expensive teacher salaries, and obviating the need for teacher training, Lancaster insisted he could solve poverty in one generation.

phil manual 3 reading circle 1

This teacher was trained…sort of…

The problem was, it didn’t work. In New York, outraged African-American parents complained in 1827 that their children were being taught by underprepared child-teachers. As two wrote in Freedom’s Journal,

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.

By 1828, parent and student complaints led Philadelphia’s school leaders to turn to a new group of teachers, “better educated than those usually employed in that service.”

That first generation of urban school reformers might justifiably claim ignorance and naiveté. They had not yet heard that implementing standardized teacher-training programs was incredibly difficult.

I don’t understand why today’s reformers are still struggling with the same problem, though. I understand that teaching is complicated, but I have to ask: Why haven’t we been able to come up with a teacher-training program that works?

Why Do School Leaders Need Teaching Experience?

Generals don’t have to start as privates. CEOs don’t start in the mailroom anymore. For that matter, Horace Mann himself never had any classroom teaching experience. Yet a new story from New Haven raises this question again: Why is it a bad idea to put people in charge of schools if they’ve never been teachers? This morning I’ll offer my three reasons. Are they enough? Or do teachers just feel an irrational desire to be flattered into thinking that their classroom experience matters?

broad yale

He’s betting $100 million that I’m wrong…

Here’s the background: Mega-rich ed donor Eli Broad just dished out a cool $100 million to Yale. Broad (apparently pronounced “Brode”) moved his center from LA to Yale’s business school. The goal is to offer an academic center that will offer, in the words of Yale’s leadership,

a tuition-free master’s degree program for emerging education leaders, advanced leadership training for top school system executives, and an extensive research endeavor aimed at assembling the premier collection of data on public education leadership.

Just in case you missed it, this program in school leadership is not part of Yale’s teacher-training program. In fact, Yale no longer offers teaching certification. No, this program will be part of Yale’s business school. The school leaders emerging from the Broad program will plan to take over districts and operate them more efficiently and productively, more like businesses.

Will it work? As Curmudgucrat Peter Greene pointed out in the pages of Forbes Magazine, Broad’s track record in education is not great. As Greene recounts,

Many of the most familiar names [of former Broad program grads] are familiar precisely because of their level of failure. Robert Bobb had a lackluster showing in Detroit. Jean-Claude Brizard received a 95% no-confidence vote from Rochester teachers, then went on to a disastrous term of office in Chicago. Oakland, CA, has seen a string of Broad superintendents, all with a short and unhappy tenure. Christopher Cerf created a steady drumbeat of controversy in New Jersey. Chris Barbic was put in charge of Tennessee’s Achievement School District, and resigned with all of his goals unfulfilled (and recommended another Broad grad as his replacement). John Deasy’s time at LA schools ended with a hugely expensive technology failure.

Yet in spite of this record, Yale seems eager to take the money and open a program for similar leaders. To be fair, Yale’s not alone. There seems to be no general objection to elevating school leaders who have no classroom-teaching experience. It’s not only Queen Betsy. Obama’s Ed Secretary Arne Duncan also had no real teaching experience.

So why do so many experienced teachers think that leaders should have a teaching background? Why do so many clamor for our next President to install a teacher in the top ed job?

Easy. It’s not that learning general business and management skills can’t be helpful to running a school district. But having classroom teaching experience gives people three big, necessary advantages when it comes to building- or district-level school management.

First, having teaching experience cures us of the misunderstandings that we all have from our time as students. Unlike most jobs, almost everyone thinks they understand school, because we all spend a lot of time in school as students. In order to be an effective school leader, however, we have to go through a difficult process of giving up our tendency to assume that our experiences are somehow typical or representative. In every case, they are not.

One of the first lessons of a lot of new teachers—the talented group of people I get to work with—is that most of their students are not like them. A lot of new teachers remember school fondly. They often excelled in their classes and enjoyed their time in class. That’s a big part of their reason for wanting to become teachers in the first place. It is only when they start teaching that they realize how unrepresentative their own experiences are. Working with groups of students teaches teachers that there is no single one-size-fits-all approach to learning and growth.

And that brings us to the second necessary lesson that teachers learn. Unlike business leaders, teachers do not plan to ignore parts of their “market” that are not “productive.” Unlike business leaders, teachers do not expect that some of their “customers” will not buy in. Unlike business leaders, teachers learn to help every single student that they work with; they don’t concentrate on the “likely buyers.”

Third, and maybe most important, teachers learn things about real schools that even smart, informed civilians never seem to understand. Let me give you one example that helped me understand this lesson. I get to teach different classes. I teach an undergraduate course that introduces juniors and seniors to basic issues in American education, such as charter schools, unions, and the role of religion, race, gender, and economics. I also work with people who are completing their student-teaching experiences. Both groups of students are intelligent and informed. In fact, they are very similar groups of students. The biggest distinguishing factor is that the student teachers have taught for a few weeks, while most of the undergrads have not yet.

Though these two groups of students are very similar, they have very different reactions to certain issues. In general, the undergrads are enamored of ideas such as using value-added measures to gauge teacher effectiveness. To them, it makes sense: If you want to know how good a teacher is, test their students at the beginning and end of the year. The difference = what the kids learned that year.VAM

Sounds good to smart, informed people. Yet ALL of the student teachers react with horror to the idea. Why? Because after even just little bit of experience as a classroom teacher, students learn that their students are living complicated lives. There is no simple way to slap a number on the changes that students will go through in one academic year. To assume that their teachers are the ones who are driving those changes—to teachers with even a little bit of experience—seems obviously kooky.

For all three of these reasons, it seems obvious to teacher-philes like me that school leaders should have experience as teachers, classroom aides, or paraprofessionals. They might learn important stuff at the Broad Center, but they will miss out on things they can only learn by working with students.

Common Core: The Rest of the Story

Where did Common Core standards come from? Where did they go? Recent reporting in the New York Times asks these questions, but the real answer is a little murkier. The story of the Common Core standards can tell us a lot of things, but at heart the story provides more proof—if any more were needed—that schools thrum to the beat of people, not policy. It can tell us, too, why Cory Booker will not have a lot of luck with his current ed proposals.

So…what happened to the Common Core? As Dana Goldstein puts it,

The disappointing results have prompted many in the education world to take stock of the Common Core, one of the most ambitious education reform projects in American history. Some see the effort as a failure, while others say it is too soon to judge the program, whose principles are still being rolled out at the classroom level.

And that’s all true enough. But the origins and career of the common-core idea can tell us about more than just high-stakes tests and math instruction. The history of the Common Core can tell us, for example, why Betsy DeVos matters more than almost anything else when it comes to current ed thinking.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH know, the Common Core did not have its roots in a reaction to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002. Rather, the Common Core had a much longer history as a conservative dream, a fantasy of restoring American schools to a mythic golden age of rigorous learning and non-nonsense testing. If anything, the most immediate precursor of Common Core was a conservative reaction to 1983’s Nation at Risk report. Leading educational conservatives such as Lamar Alexander and William J. Bennett began pushing rigorous, uniform standards as the proper way to save America from squishy progressive thinking.

common core hate it

Lots of haters, but what happened to the lovers?

It’s not a hidden history. As I’ve argued every chance I’ve gotten, conservatives have a long history of embracing federal power in ed policy when it suits their interests. Back in the 1980s, Bill Bennett and Lamar Alexander thought that common standards and high-stakes tests were the best way to make their conservative dreams come true.

I’m certainly not the only one to try to bring this history to light. From the Right, free-marketeers such as Michael Petrilli tried hard to convince conservatives to love Common Core. Petrilli and Chester Finn Jr. told the story over and over—Common Core represented a conservative win, a big one. Christian conservatives such as Karen Swallow Prior endorsed the standards, too.

From the Left(ish), too, analysts pointed out the true roots of Common Core. Writing for the Brookings Institution, for example, David Whitman hit the nail on the head:

The conservative roots of the Common Core are little known today. Even among reporters who cover the education beat, few are familiar with, and even fewer have written about, the efforts of Ronald Reagan’s secretary of education, William Bennett, to develop and promote a model core curriculum while in office. Nor have they recounted, except in passing, the sweeping, self-described “crusade” that Senator Lamar Alexander launched to promote national standards and voluntary national assessments when he was secretary of education in the elder Bush’s administration.

So what happened? How did Common Core become just as despised on the Right as it was on the Left? All kinds of conservatives stood up against this conservative reform, from culture-war street-fighter Phyllis Schlafly—who blasted the standards as “pornographic” and “encrusted with lies”—to high-brow Professor Patrick Deneen—who said the standards were based on a “desiccated and debased conception of what a human being is.”

Why? Because when it comes to ed politics, people matter more than policy. And when the Common Core standards were rolled out, it was during the Obama years. In the minds of many conservatives–both intellectuals and real people alike—the Common Core effort came to represent the crass overreach of the Obama White House. So instead of rallying behind the standards, conservatives joined progressives in trashing them. In the end, the high-profile support of standards by President Obama mattered more than the well-articulated support offered by prominent conservatives.

Why should Cory Booker care? Because a similar story is unfolding right now. For many years, charter schools and voucher funding enjoyed broad bipartisan support. Senator Booker was a big proponent, but so was Senator Warren and other leading Democratic lights. Queen Betsy has changed all that. By promoting charter schools so energetically, Secretary DeVos has made it difficult for people like Senator Booker to support them, even if they are basically a good idea in many cases.

What’s the takeaway? When it comes to schools, people matter more than policy. Voters and politicians care about who supports an idea more than what the idea actually is. And just like conservatives found it impossible to rally conservative support for “Obama-Core,” Senator Booker will not be able to rescue the charter-school baby out of the Queen Betsy bathwater.

Can We Talk about Charter-School Politics without Using the “BD Word”?

It seems like a big omission. It’s like talking about immigration policy without mentioning Trump. Or reviewing the history of impeachment without using the phrase “Talk to Rudy.” Yet in a recent piece about the politics of charter schools, two New York Times journalists left out the most important fact of all. Why?

NYT charters

We ALL want ALL kids to have awesome schools.

Here’s what we know: The New York Times article gave compelling testimony to the emotional power of the charter-school issue. As one parent and charter-school founder told the reporters,

We look at it as a burning ship going down with thousands of kids in it, and we’re trying to get kids on lifeboats.

And as another charter-school leader put it,

“It shouldn’t be about what’s better: charter schools or neighborhood schools,” he said. “It should be about what schools will help our children succeed.”

At the school’s campus in southeast Washington, where more than 90 percent of students are black, Eagle Academy seeks to provide the same resources that white, affluent children have: a swimming pool, a chef who serves fruits and vegetables and a “sensory room” modeled on private medical facilities where students can calm down.

With appeals like this, it is hard to see how anyone but a moral monster could oppose expanding charter schools. Yet as the article correctly points out, all but one of the leading Democratic 2020 candidates have turned their back on charter schools. Why? The journalists say only that

the leading Democratic candidates are backing away from charter schools, and siding with the teachers’ unions that oppose their expansion.

True enough, but the article leaves out the most important explanations for this sudden shift in Democratic Party thinking. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing, it was not at all unusual for leading Democrats to support expanding charters and vouchers as recently as last year. Yet now even St. Obama has agreed that charters and other market-based “reforms” are not a “cure-all.”

We could get all complicated and talk about the long history of greater conservatism among African-American Democrats than white ones. We could talk about the changed political landscape since the teacher walk-outs of the past few years. But if we want to understand the political shift about charter schools, there is one glaring fact that we absolutely can’t leave out: Betsy DeVos has become the public face of charter schools. And that changes everything.

betsy devos dolores umbridge

The elephant in the classroom…

I don’t mean to criticize journalists for not writing the story I wanted to hear instead of the one they needed to write. In this case, however—a story about the changing politics of charter schools—it seems oddly misleading to leave out the huge obvious fact of Queen Betsy’s school-reform revolution.