Why Harvard Can’t Be Fair

Throughout American history, earnest reformers have hoped to use schools to level out the playing field. It has never worked—at least never as well as we would hope. Why not? A recent piece in the New York Times helps explains a key fact about schools and inequality that is glaringly obvious yet surprisingly hard to see.

For most of us, the logic of schools and social reforms feels pretty straightforward. When we see inequality in our society, we think that school reform can help fix it. After all, it makes sense that better education will allow students from lower-income homes to move up the economic ladder.

Lecture flyer 1

How to save everyone, c. 1834

As I’m arguing in my new book, this logic has always dominated educational and social thinking. Two hundred years ago, Joseph Lancaster swept out of London to New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Boston. He promised a new type of school that would—in the words of this lecture advertisement—

Collectively afford the means of utterly exterminating ignorance in any State, Country, or Nation.

It didn’t work. Lancaster’s schools hoped to “uplift” the poorest children of every city. They couldn’t. Today’s piece in the New York Times helps explain why they couldn’t back then and they can’t now.

These days, as Asian-American applicants sue Harvard about racist admissions policies and New York elite high schools scramble to make their student bodies more representative of their city, there are still strong factors standing in the way.

As Natasha Warikoo and Nadirah Farah Foley explain,

Who deserves to get an elite education?

That question is being debated in Massachusetts, where court papers argue over Harvard’s use of race in its “holistic” admissions process, and in New York City, where politicians are trying to increase the number of black and Latino students at top public high schools.

But the answer has always been obvious: only the elite.

How does it work? In the case of Harvard admissions,

Harvard applicants who are recruited athletes or children of alumni enjoy significant advantages, and these candidates are disproportionately white and well-off.

As the authors put it succinctly,

In our highly unequal society, education systems have consistently found ways to favor elite, white applicants, whether it’s through slippery definitions of “merit,” giving added weight to athletes or children of alumni, or fighting to change admissions policies to schools in which Asians are more overrepresented rather than those where whites are.

Or, as we at ILYBYGTH like to say, schools can’t reform society; schools ARE society. In other words, schools are not external levers with which reformers can lift people up. Schools are all intensely bound up within the unequal mechanisms of society itself. If society is biased against poor children, or non-white children, or any sort of children, then schools will be too.

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Teachers Are Smarter than Elon Musk

Here’s a Sunday-morning challenge for you: How is it possible that the smartest people in the world aren’t able to figure out something that has been public knowledge for hundreds of years and that every good teacher figures out quick? As Professor Zeynep Tufekci brilliantly argued last week, the Elon Musks, Bill Gateses, and Mark Zuckerbergs of the world can’t fix schools. And though Prof. Tufekci makes a great case, it’s not new.

elon musk submarine

Elon Musk power-tube to the rescue!

Tufekci builds her case on Elon Musk’s petulant performance in Thailand. Like many of us, Musk was fascinated by the story of the trapped soccer team in Thailand. Unlike many of us, Musk has billions of dollars and twenty-two million Twitter followers. So Musk directed some lackeys to build a fancy new submarine-machine to rescue the soccer players. When local rescuers rejected Musk’s help, Musk complained on Twitter. Musk seemed unable to recognize that there was a better way to approach this problem.

As Prof. Tufekci wrote,

The Silicon Valley model for doing things is a mix of can-do optimism, a faith that expertise in one domain can be transferred seamlessly to another and a preference for rapid, flashy, high-profile action. But what got the kids and their coach out of the cave was a different model: a slower, more methodical, more narrowly specialized approach to problems, one that has turned many risky enterprises into safe endeavors — commercial airline travel, for example, or rock climbing, both of which have extensive protocols and safety procedures that have taken years to develop.

This “safety culture” model is neither stilted nor uncreative. On the contrary, deep expertise, lengthy training and the ability to learn from experience (and to incorporate the lessons of those experiences into future practices) is a valuable form of ingenuity.

Musk and his ilk do not limit their can-do arrogance to Thai cave rescues. As Tufekci argues, in public schooling as well, Silicon Valley richies tend to think they can plunk down their money, dig out incompetence, and fix schools in one fell swoop.

The Musks and Zuckerbergs of the world might be forgiven if we were in brand-new territory. But we’re not. As the late David Tyack and Larry Cuban argued so brilliantly over twenty years ago, school reformers have always tried to fix complicated educational problems with poorly prepared prescriptions.

Telegraph with numerals sketch

The technological solution to bad schools, c. 1805.

Time and time again, as Tyack and Cuban relate in Tinkering Toward Utopia, outside “experts” swoop in to fix schools with The Big New Thing. Closed-circuit television, market-based evaluation models, computerized personalized learning systems…all have been vaunted as the new solution. In every case, veteran teachers look for the good and reject the useless. In every case, teachers use the parts of the new system that help them do the real work of education, while quietly packing away the useless bits in a hallway closet.

And as I’m arguing in my new book about the historic roots of urban school reform, the Musk/Zuckerberg fallacy goes back to the very beginning. Back in the early 1800s, a young educational entrepreneur in London thought he had the solution to urban poverty. Joseph Lancaster promised that his elaborate new system—replete with cutting edge technology—would allow one school master to educate hundreds of low-income urban kids.

It didn’t work. But perhaps Lancaster can be forgiven, since his assumptions were fairly new and untested. The Musks of today have no such excuse. As Professor Tufekci concludes,

Education is a complex topic, and making a lot of money in tech is not a qualification for solving educational problems.

It’s something we have known for centuries. It is something that every teacher figures out right away. Why can’t our tech gurus see it?

Workin’ 9 to 5 (then 5 to 9)

We’ve heard the stories from the teachers’ strikes. Teachers in Oklahoma, West Virginia, Colorado, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Arizona walked off their jobs to protest low salaries and weak funding of public schools. One of the common complaints was that teachers had to work two or three jobs just to make ends meet. They were Uber drivers, bartenders, and tutors in addition to their day jobs. Are things really so bad for teachers?

New survey data puts some numbers behind those anecdotal claims. A report from the National Center for Education Statistics for 2015-2016 finds that significant numbers of teachers are working at least one additional job to earn a few thousand extra dollars. As I’m finding in my current research, teachers have always needed to work outside of school to make ends meet.

Two hundred years ago, for example, Joseph Lancaster’s daughter and son-in-law moved to Mexico to start some Lancasterian schools. They hoped at least to be able to make ends meet, but it turned out not to be so easy. Back then, son-in-law Richard M. Jones assumed he’d be able to set up a few income streams. He hoped to get a regular salary from a fully enrolled school. But he also counted on earning even more money teaching individual students on the side.

Unfortunately for Jones, he couldn’t find any students to tutor. No one seemed to want to hire Jones to teach their children English. As he wrote wryly to Lancaster in 1826,

so much for the desire to learn the English Language in the  Great City of Mexico.

Of course, Jones was blind to the likely effect of his own attitude. As he had written to Lancaster in March,

You have can have [sic] no idea of the miserably priest-ridden state of nine tenths of these people, the extreme disposition to indolence rob, gamble . . . without one speck of honor, love of country, or a due proportion of pride, rather beg than do the least thing for a livelihood.

Not the kind of attitude I would want in my kid’s tutor if I were an affluent Mexican parent!Teacher second jobs NCES

How about these days? The survey data from NCES shows that just about one in five public-school teachers work at least one additional job. The largest segment work as tutors. Let’s not forget, too, that these jobs are only the ones taken outside of the district system. Most teachers I know also take additional jobs INSIDE their districts. Athletic coaches, for example, can earn a little extra money while building good connections with students and helping school spirit.

The more frightening statistic, in my opinion, is the number of teachers who leave the field of education. Like Richard M. Jones in 1826, many teachers plan to

bid adieu to the System and teaching and all connected with it and turn my attention to business in some shape or other.

In the meantime, lots of teachers are working 5 to 9 to make ends meet. What do you think? Is it outrageous that so many teachers need to take on outside work to make a living?

From the Archives: Look at Me When I’m Talking to You!

SAGLRROILYBYGTH know I’m spending my summer nerdily buried in the archives researching my new book. Some of the language oozing out of 1804 sounds depressingly similar to twenty-first century school talk.

In these pages, we’ve talked at length about schools and social justice. Can we yell at students to make them be better citizens? Is it unhealthy if schools for low-income students have them sit silently at lunch, march militarily down halls, and chant rote answers to repetitive test-driven curricula?

At New York’s famous Success Academies, for example, students are famously dictated to for their own good. Teachers and students follow a scripted set of behavioral norms. Students are directed to sit with their hands folded properly, their backs straight, and their eyes always on the teacher. As the New York Times exposed a few years ago, the tone could sometimes get creepy.

In this vision of good public education, students are thought to need intense behavioral control for their own good. Silent lunches, single-file marching in silence from class to class, and instant obedience are the hallmarks of the “no-excuses” approach. As Joan Goodman of the University of Pennsylvania has argued, the goal is submission. As Dr. Goodman put it,

To reach these objectives, these schools have developed very elaborate behavioral regimes that they insist all children follow, starting in kindergarten. Submission, obedience, and self-control are very large values. They want kids to submit. You can’t really do this kind of instruction if you don’t have very submissive children who are capable of high levels of inhibition and do whatever they’re told.

In New York and other big cities these days, this approach is often touted as the latest thing, a new idea to help low-income students overcome unfair social hurdles to achieve academic success. As I’m finding in the archives, however, it’s the oldest approach in the books.

LOOK AT ME

Notes from 1804…or is it 2016?

In an 1804 note, for example, school reformer Joseph Lancaster clarified the proper way schools must exert total control over students from low-income homes. As Lancaster argued,

That whenever they are spoken to they give a respectful attention by looking at those who address them make the necessary reply without delay or hesitation but always be careful to speak consistently with their knowledge and to express themselves in as few comprehensive words as they are able.

Way back then, urban schools in Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, Albany, and elsewhere were already forcing low-income students to endure the rigors of a no-excuses approach. As Lancaster went on,

That they forbear talking to each other at meals—school hours or reading unless there be sufficient occasion. That they avoid running in the house but walk uprightly and take care to shut all doors after them (that they know out to be) with as little noise as possible.

Seems sad but true: When it comes to using schools to help children from low-income families, the answers have always involved creepy amounts of control and discipline. I can’t help but wonder: Do children from affluent families ever have to experience this sort of brow-beating and dictation?

Hello, Worcester!

Things might get a little quiet around the ILYBYGTH International offices for a few weeks. I’m off in scenic Worcester, Massachusetts, studying at the American Antiquarian Society. Thanks to the AAS, I’ve got a generous Alstott Morgan fellowship to support me here for a full month.

AAS reading room

My nerdy new home away from home…

I’m excited. The AAS has seventeen boxes of papers from Joseph Lancaster. [For more about this research, see here.] I can’t wait to dive in. Why, oh why, did Lancaster believe his “system” could solve urban poverty in one generation? And why did so many otherwise intelligent people believe him?

I’ll see if his papers hold the clue.

What Vouchers Can Do: Florida Tax-Funded Fundamentalism

I guess we shouldn’t really call it an “exposé” because it doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t expect. Still, it can be eye-opening to see the sorts of things voucher programs can do. This week, the Orlando Sentinel explores the content of fundamentalist textbooks used at area private schools. The story prompts us to ask a tough question about voucher programs: Is it fair to limit voucher programs only to religions we like?

ACE florida 1

Should taxes pay for these textbooks?

As I’ve argued in a couple of academic articles, the history of fundamentalist textbook publishing is key to understanding both the “Christian-school” movement and the subsequent evangelical homeschooling exodus.

Without the work of school publishers such as A Beka Book, Accelerated Christian Education, and Bob Jones University Press, I believe, conservative evangelicals in the 1970s and 1980s would not have been able to open so many small private schools. And without pre-made curricular materials, evangelicals would not have been able to leave school by their millions in the 1990s to homeschool.

Plus, no one should think that these fundamentalist textbooks are static or monolithic. As I explored in a chapter in AJ Angulo’s terrific book Miseducation, ACE, A Beka, and Bob Jones are all very different from one another, and all have radically changed their treatment of topics such as US History.

It’s not just me: Dr. Jonny Scaramanga has devoted his early academic career to exploring the curriculum to which he was subjected as a youth. Dr. Scaramanga argues that Accelerated Christian Education never escaped its racist, homophobic origins, despite some surface changes and lip service to liberalization.

As the Orlando Sentinel explains, voucher programs in Florida are sending tax dollars to schools that use textbooks by the “big three” fundamentalist school publishers. As the investigators discovered, the textbooks are full of creationism, ethnocentrism, and historical denialism. As OS puts it,

[Investigators] found numerous instances of distorted history and science lessons that are outside mainstream academics. The books denounce evolution as untrue, for example, and one shows a cartoon of men and dinosaurs together, telling students the Biblical Noah likely brought baby dinosaurs onto his ark. The science books, they added, seem to discourage students from doing experiments or even asking questions. . . .

The social studies books downplay the horrors of slavery and the mistreatment of Native Americans, they said. One book, in its brief section on the civil rights movement, said that “most black and white southerners had long lived together in harmony” and that “power-hungry individuals stirred up the people.”

We have to ask: Is this sort of thing okay for a tax-funded school? After all, there is nothing in this story that should come as a surprise. If we want to allow voucher programs that send tax money to private schools, we should expect some of those dollars to pay for curricula we disagree with. Is that okay?

ace florida 2

Hard-hitting curriculum for Florida’s third-graders. This sample comes from an Accelerated Christian Education reader.

Or, to put it in nerdier terms: How should policy-makers decide if religious schools qualify to participate in tax-funded programs? It can’t be simply on the basis of our own personal religious views. For example, I believe the ACE, BJU, and Abeka textbooks are terrible and I would never want my kid to use them in school. But my personal preferences can’t suffice to dictate policy. How can we decide which religious schools qualify for tax-funded voucher programs?

One option would simply be to make ALL religious schools off-limits for voucher-funded students. In some cases, though, that would seem to keep deserving kids from getting a higher-quality education than their local public schools can provide.

Another option would be to rule out schools that limit their students’ life chances. As one of the OS investigators argued, for example, using these creationist textbooks would hurt students. As the article explains,

“Students who have learned science in this kind of environment are not prepared for college experiences,” said Cynthia Bayer, a biology lecturer at the University of Central Florida who reviewed the science books. “They would be intellectually disadvantaged.”

But WOULD they? Anyone who knows the real story of American higher education knows that creationist students have plenty of creationist colleges they can attend. Is it fair to say that students can’t study creationist books because they don’t agree with mainstream science? Isn’t that the whole point of private schools in the first place?

Please don’t get me wrong: I’m firmly against using tax dollars to fund private religious schools. I think we should nix ALL religious schools from that sort of public funding. But we can’t do it only for some religious schools and not for others, based on the fact that we don’t like some of the religions. And we should not be surprised to find out that voucher programs are doing precisely what they were designed to do: Fund religious schools.

What’s Wrong with Safer Schools?

For anyone who thinks Dan Patrick has a solution to school shootings, I have a two-hundred-year-old solution to urban poverty to sell you. As-is.

NYC manual 2 diagrams alphabet wheel

The solution to urban poverty, 1820 style…

You may have seen it by now: In the aftermath to the latest horrific school shooting, Texas’s Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has suggested tightening up school architecture. As Patrick put it,

We may have to look at the design of our schools looking forward, and retrofitting schools that are already built and what I mean by that is there are too many entrances and too many exits. . . . There aren’t enough people to put a guard at every entrance and exit.

Let’s be clear: There’s nothing wrong with thinking about school architecture and changing doors. What IS wrong is diverting attention from a real problem by directing conversations toward secondary considerations. In this case, we need to talk about school cultures that coerce and alienate students. We need to talk about gun laws that put deadly weapons in the hands of angry boys.

Along the way, we might ALSO talk about entrances, but it can’t be our main focus. In this case, IMHO, Dan Patrick is trying to wiggle out of a difficult political position by diverting attention from the real problems.

And, as I’m finding in my current research, this sort of diversionary tactic is the oldest trick in the school-reform book. Two hundred years ago, city planners in places such as Philadelphia, Boston, and New York faced a difficult dilemma. They had crowds of children in their streets from low-income families. The families couldn’t afford to send them to school so the children were growing up without being able to read or write.

What could be done? From London, Joseph Lancaster promised a solution. He described his system for educating poor children in meticulous detail. With the right school architecture and equipment, he promised, cities could eliminate the problem of poverty in just a few short years.

It didn’t work.

Just like Lt. Gov. Patrick’s plans to block doors and windows, Lancaster’s supposed solution treated minor symptoms in order to ignore the underlying cause. The right reading strategy is a good thing, but it is not a cure for urban poverty.

Dictating Democracy

As I was reminded last week in the Philadelphia archives, it’s the oldest educational idea in the United States. Larry Cuban points out this morning that our dream of educating a new generation of democratic citizens might take us in surprising directions.

First, my full confessions: I have progressive prejudices that are hard to shake. I want public schools to make society better. I believe that better educational opportunities for all people will help achieve that goal. And…and this is the one that matters this morning…I think what goes on in classrooms matters. As John Dewey argued a century ago, if we want a democratic society we need to start by creating democratic classrooms.

Democracy-prep-vote

I can’t vote, and I can’t speak when I want to, and I can’t put my pencil where I want to, and I can’t get out of my seat when I want to…

So I join Professor Cuban in wondering if a school can create democratic citizens by controlling students tightly. Cuban looked at a study of Democracy Prep, a new charter network. The schools make one of their goals the civic education of children, meaning mostly that students learn about government, about public decision-making processes, and about getting out the vote.

As one thoughtful former Democracy Prep teacher noted, it’s hard not to think that the way students are educated matters. As he puts it,

schools are invariably where students go to experience the civic engagement of others. No child thinks of it this way, but surely, he or she picks up clear signals about their place in the world, how they are regarded by authority figures who are not their parents, and how much — or how little — is expected of them. If the relationship a child has with a school is coercive, punctuated by frustration and failure, leading to no good end, then there is no reason to expect strong civic outcomes.

And yet, as Prof. Cuban points out, students at Democracy Prep feel the heavy hand of authority at all times. As one visit to a DP school revealed, students’ actions were constantly tracked and dictated. As the visitor found,

Almost everything on a recent visit to a Democracy Prep charter was highly disciplined. Students spoke only when their teachers allowed them. They could lose points for talking out of turn, or chatting in the halls between classes.

Can it really be feasible, Cuban wonders, that this sort of top-down classroom will produce active citizens? That schools can coerce students into active democratic participation? The charter network has claimed some positive results. A recent alumni study by Mathematica Policy Research found that citizens who had attended Democracy Prep were more likely to register and to vote.

I’m skeptical. Surely a school culture that eliminates any possibility of student leadership will have a depressing effect on student political participation. At least, that’s what makes sense to me. Or is it really possible that schools can control their students all the way to active citizenship?

From the Archives III: Déjà Vu All Over Again

Close your eyes and it might be difficult to guess the decade, much less the century. Fears of a brash, vulgar populist President, a traumatic sense of rapid decline in our public institutions, and a desperate dream that stability might be right around the corner. Sound familiar?Inked1831 house report 1 political convulsions_LI

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing, I’m down in the Philadelphia archives these days researching my new book. I keep stumbling across head-scratchers that are too good not to share. This bit is from an 1831 report on education from the Pennsylvania house of representatives. They were worried that politics had gotten out of hand. They hoped that high-quality public schools could offer some hope for the future. As they put it,

when the age in which we live is so strongly marked by political convulsion—when all old institutions appear heaving from their base, and all new ones seem unsettled, if we would be preserved from that change for the worse that has been the fate of all who have preceded us, provision must be made for general education.

Clearly, the sorts of political upheaval we’re living through now have a long history.

Should we be reassured or depressed?

From the Archives II: A Dream Deferred

Sad but true: American public schools are segregated places. Kids’ chances of going to school with someone from a very different economic background are slim and getting slimmer. As I continue my work in the Philadelphia archives, I’ve come across another bit of evidence that this was not what Americans wanted.

mt vernon school philly

School for all (boys)…at least in theory

In 1828, the education committee of the state senate of Pennsylvania issued a report. There was no disagreement, they said, about the immense value of public education. As they put it,

The diffusion of education among the great body of the people, is an object very near the hearts of the benevolent and humane. It is conceded to be the most powerful means of furthering the cause of morality and religion; and its importance to a country possessing a republican form of government, is universally admitted.

Moreover, schools funded by the public should serve to unite the public. At Pennsylvania’s public schools, the committee promised (with emphasis added):

All the rising generation of a great community are instructed in the rudiments of learning. The doors of the common school houses are open to all without distinction, and the children of the rich and the poor meet there in the participation of a common benefit, upon terms of the most perfect equality. Such a system is above all praise, and deserves imitation every where.

At least, that was the dream. So far, it hasn’t happened. The children of the rich tend to go to schools with other children of the rich. Likewise for the children of the poor. But then again, it has only been 190 years. Maybe we’ll get there soon.