Too Much? Student Arrested for Finger Gun

Depending on where you sit, this could be a case of wildly disproportional panic by school administrators or a reasonable move to protect student safety. From the cheap seats, I can’t help but think that this case called for a different solution.

Here’s what we know: Two eighth-graders were talking in class. One asked the other which of their classmates she would kill first. The student made a pretend gun and pretended to shoot four specific students, then pretended to shoot herself.

Disturbing, for sure. Here’s the question for this morning: What would you do about it if you were the teacher or principal?

In this case, the principal called the student to his office. The student was handcuffed and arrested. She was charged with a felony for making a criminal threat. As a youthful first offender, her maximum sentence if found guilty would be a period of probation.

Was arresting the student the right move? I hate to second-guess the people who actually know her and the situation, but it seems like this should have been handled differently. Why not have counseling for both the arrested student AND the other student who prompted her with the question about shooting classmates?

I don’t take this kind of threat lightly, but it seems as if dragging this student out of school in handcuffs, then eventually allowing her back in school with everyone knowing this story will only increase the chances that this student will act on her threat.

What do you think? What would you have done if you were the principal?

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Why Do Charter Schools Have the Better Stories?

You probably remember Waiting for Superman. To the chagrin of pro-public-school folks like me, the movie told a compelling story of low-income students hoping against hope to find a spot at a charter school. Now a new movie is telling another pro-charter story, a compelling one. Does the anti-charter crowd have any stories that can compete?

First, a little full disclosure: I’m not neutral about charter schools. Like a lot of public-school advocates, I have long hoped to maintain funding and oversight of schools within the public-school system. But I recognize that plenty of charter-school advocates had good ideas and good intentions. I agree that some charter schools have done great things. No matter what our disagreements about school funding and oversight, though, the politics of charter schools have devoured the reasonable policy discussions about them.

This morning, though, I’d like to ask a different question: Why do the charter-school folks seem to have all the best movies? Waiting for Superman was emotionally compelling. And Miss Virginia sounds like it is, too. The story, as I hear it told by the charter-lovers at Fordham, is one of a heroic mother struggling against all odds to save her child from an inadequate public-school system.

She works her fingers to the bone to raise money for private-school tuition, all for naught. Finally she finds a political ally to help her in her Erin-Brockovich-style campaign. As the Fordham review describes,

[Virginia] Walden joins forces with an unlikely ally—white, Harvard-educated Congressman Clifford Williams, played by Matthew Modine. While most of the black elected officials fight against Miss Virginia’s efforts to increase educational options for the children in her community, this Ivy League–educated white dude who loves long-shot legislation and golf becomes invaluable to her efforts.

Sounds like a great story. And that’s the question for today. Where are the great stories from the anti-charter-school side? Are there movies and books out there telling the tragic human tale of scam artists squeezing out tax dollars to line their own pockets? Of charter-school students left high and dry when their inadequately supervised charter schools blow town and leave them holding the bag?

It’s not like we don’t lack the material for emotional, powerful, human-scale stories explaining why we need to maintain funding and oversight in the public-school system. But where are the movies/books/memoirs? Am I just not aware of them? And if they’re not out there, why not?

Badger Bound!

When conservative activists have won their battles about public education, how have they won? I’m excited to make my case next Monday at my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

bucky badger

Thanks, Bucky. It’s great to be back!

Thanks to an invitation from my grad-school mentor William J. Reese, I’ll be traveling to sunny Madison, Wisconsin this week to talk about the history of conservatism and American education. SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware that I explored this history in my second book, The Other School Reformers (Harvard University Press, 2015).

In that book, I wondered what it has meant to be conservative about education in these United States. It’s not as simple a question as it seems. Some conservatives want one thing, others want another. Most people–whether they consider themselves conservative or not–don’t have crystal-clear ideas about what they want out of schools.

In my talk next week, I’ll share some of that research, but I’ll also expand it to include my more recent findings. In short, I think that conservatives have won NOT by proving their case for conservative values and ideas, but rather by doing something else.

What’s the “something else?” Well, you’ll just have to come to Wisconsin on Monday to find out. Good seats still available: Monday, October 14, 12:00, Education Building room 245.

madison talk flyer

Ed Mystery: Why Don’t More Democrats Like It?

I understand why more Democrats don’t like the Ed Department right now, governed as it is by Michigan’s Evil Queen Betsy. But I’m surprised to find out that the Ed Department has garnered only minority support during the last ten years. There’s one obvious explanation, but are there more reasons?Pew fed agencies EPA or ED

Here’s what we know: New results from Pew show us that the Ed Department is one of the federal government’s least favorite agencies, with 48% of respondents feeling favorable and 48% unfavorable.

No surprise there. Ever since Jimmy Carter instigated the department it has been the target of conservative fury. Reagan’s first appointed secretary, Terrel Bell, was given the unusual mission to dismantle the department which he headed.

More recently, conservatives such as Texas’s Rick Perry have remembered that they wanted to eliminate the Ed Department, even if he couldn’t remember the other department he wanted to get rid of.

So there’s no surprise for the department’s low favorability among GOP respondents. But why do so many Democrats dislike it? Was something happening in 2010 that led a majority of Democratic respondents to say they didn’t like the Ed Dept?

Here’s my hunch: Back in 2010, teachers and schools were still trying to cope with the strictures of the No Child Left Behind act and the unmanageable requirements NCLB mandated for high-stakes testing. By 2015, those testing requirements were tamped down. Among Democrats, at least, the popularity of the Ed Department went up (in fits and spurts) until the ascension of Queen Betsy.

Is there another explanation I’m missing?

Preachers or Principals?

It’s not really good news, I guess. Recent poll results from the Pew folks suggest that Americans don’t trust many kinds of authority figures. pew principals or preachers

There is a glimmer of hope, though. When it comes to our school culture wars, it looks like people tend to trust school leaders a little more than the trust religious or “tech” leaders.

When asked if they think tech leaders or religious leaders act unethically all or some of the time, 77% of respondents said yes for tech leaders, 69% for religious leaders. It’s not a great result, but only 52% of people thought “K-12 public-school principals” did. And only 6% thought school leaders acted unethically “all or most of the time,” compared to 12% for tech leaders and 10% for religious leaders.

So if there is any hope for bridging our divides about teaching evolution, sex ed, and real US history, it’s not likely to come from religious leaders or tech whiz-kids, in spite of the fact that they get a lion’s share of headlines.

Pew principals or preachers II

And the school principals fare even better when the questions are phrased in positive terms. A whopping 84% of respondents said they thought school principals care about others or “people like me” all, most, or some of the time.

Of all the categories (principals, police officers, military leaders, religious leaders, local officials, journalists, members of Congress, and tech leaders), school principals scored highest on this measure.

Not really a lot to celebrate, but at least people still seem to have a high regard for the people who work in public schools. We can’t help but wish that the Pewsters had asked the same questions about public-school teachers. My hunch is that they would have a much better reputation than school principals, even.

“Opportunity” Has Never Been Enough

There it is again! The sound of well-meaning reformers missing the point. This time, it came in a NYT article about college admissions at elite colleges. As I’m finding in my current research about America’s first nation-wide attempt at urban school reform, reformers tend to shoot for the wrong goal. It’s not enough only to provide an educational “opportunity” for a few extraordinary youths. By definition, that kind of thinking will only make a tiny, symbolic dent in deep-seated social inequalities.

SYSTEM Reading circle

Hmmm…why didn’t more low-income students seize the ‘opportunity’ to toe the line? From Joseph Lancaster’s notebook, c. 1803.

It wasn’t the main point of the NYT article, but Paul Tough reported that elite universities like Harvard and Stanford have recently begun aggressively recruiting students with top-notch academic credentials from non-white, non-affluent backgrounds. As Tough reported, a few years ago elite schools began doing more than dropping tuition costs for low-income students. They began sending out

semipersonalized information packets, including application-fee waivers, to thousands of high-achieving low-income students, and the packets seemed to be changing the application behaviors of the students who received them, making them more likely to apply to and attend selective colleges.

Good news, right? A good example of the ways reformers can make society more equal by improving access to educational resources, right? Well, no.

Not that there’s anything wrong with trying to recruit more students from low-income homes into fancy colleges—though according to Tough the plan didn’t really work—but these sorts of efforts repeat the same old mistake that reformers have been making about educational equality for centuries.

As I’m finding in my current research, the reformers of the early 1800s often had their hearts in the right place. They worked hard to improve the chances that more poor kids would get a chance at school. Following the ideas of Joseph Lancaster, they built schools that cities could afford. Too often, however, students didn’t thrive in the new schools’ harsh conditions.

What did students do? A few extraordinary students took advantage of the opportunity to learn to read, write, and cipher. But most students simply stayed away. As a group of Philadelphia school reformers complained in 1823,

many parents seem to be utterly regardless of the advantages which would be conferred upon their offspring, if they duly appreciated the importance, and embraced the opportunity for improving their minds by literary and religious instruction. The children of such, instead of being placed in the public schools, are wandering about the streets and wharves, becoming adepts in the arts of begging, skillful in petty thefts, and familiar with obscene and profane language.

In the minds of the reformers, creating an opportunity was enough. Never mind the fact that their schools felt like prisons to the students, or that the students felt like they weren’t really learning anything. To the reformers, simply offering poor kids a chance to endure a hostile education was enough. If the students didn’t take advantage of the opportunity, it was their own fault.

This blind spot about the nature of education reform was not limited to white reformers. African-American leaders, too, tended to think creating an opportunity was enough—even a slim and unattractive opportunity. For example, on June 2, 1823, Bishop Richard Allen from Philadelphia talked to a group of New York’s African-American students at one of the few public schools open for African Americans. Too many of them, the Bishop warned, were inexplicably unwilling to seize

the opportunity now afforded them of acquiring a sufficient education.

Why not? Because the children knew what the Bishop didn’t. They knew that the “African Free School” didn’t really provide what most of them needed. For a few of them—an extraordinary few—the limited schooling was sufficient for them to learn academic skills. For most, however, the “opportunity” was not a real opportunity at all, but rather a holding pen where they were mocked for not mastering basic academic skills on their own.

What does any of that tell us about admission to Harvard? Too often reformers think the main challenge of education reform lies in increasing opportunity for a few extraordinary individuals from low-income families. There’s nothing wrong with doing that, but it misses the real goal and it can in fact divert and distract attention from the real goal.

What is that real goal? Not making sure that a few low-income kids can go to Harvard, but rather making sure ALL low-income kids have the same chances at great educations as ALL high-income kids.

Access to high-quality schools should not be the result of a happy accident of birth or good fortune in a charter lottery. Low-income students deserve not just a chance at a good education, but the same chance as high-income kids.

School Policy Heralds Trump’s Defeat

Bad news for the Splitter-In-Chief: Trump’s divisiveness is cracking his electoral foundation. Could it bring him down in 2020? After all, it has already transformed school politics.

Here’s what we know: At 538, Daniel Cox examines Trump’s waning support among younger white evangelicals. We know white evangelical voters have always been one of Trump’s firmest pillars of support, but Trump’s style—especially his anti-immigrant furor—does not play as well with young white evangelicals as older ones.

white evangelical youth immigration

…will immigration antagonism split Trump’s base?

As Cox writes,

Two-thirds (66 percent) of young white evangelical Christians (age 18 to 34) say that immigrants coming to the U.S. strengthen the country because of their hard work and talents, a view shared by only 32 percent of white evangelical seniors (age 65+). A majority (54 percent) of older white evangelical Christians believe that immigrants are a burden on American society.

Could Trump split his base? Could he drive away younger white evangelicals in his furious efforts to placate and mollify older white evangelicals? Hard to say. Plenty of younger white evangelicals still say they like Trump, although only a quarter of them say they like him a lot.

If school politics are any indication, though, I’d bet that Trump’s penchant for dividing people will hurt him in 2020. Why? Because his Ed Secretary has already sparked a revolution in the politics of charter schools. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, one of the reasons why charter schools have had such success is because they attracted unusual bipartisan support.

evangelical youth and trump 538

…still a lot of Trump-ism in there.

Just a few years ago, leading Democratic candidates such as Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, and Beto O’Rourke were loud and proud supporters of adding more charter schools. Now, Democrats are falling all over themselves scrambling for the exits.

There are a lot of reasons why, including a spate of teacher walk-outs and increasing accusations of charter-school segregation. The biggest single reason, though, IMHO, is Trump. Trump and his Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos have turned charter schools into a Trump thing.

Charter schools used to win support from both parties, from Arne Duncan as well as George W. Bush. They used to be one of the few areas in which both progressives and conservatives could agree, even if they did so for different reasons. The Howard Fullers out there could push charters for anti-racist reasons, even as the Walton Foundation pushed them for very different reasons.

Trump has put an end to all that. Charter schools are now political poison for Democrats.

What’s the lesson for younger white evangelicals and the 2020 election? Just this: Trump’s horse-in-a-hospital leadership style tends to divide people. It has already revolutionized charter-school politics. It seems entirely plausible that it will drive away younger white evangelicals who don’t share their elders’ anxieties about America’s future.

Zuckerberg’s 200-Year-Old Mistake: The “Teacher Problem”

Who could have predicted it? Anyone with the slimmest knowledge of the history of education. I can’t say I’m happy to see it, but I’m not surprised that Mark Zuckerberg’s $100-million plan has died a whimpering death in Newark. It’s the oldest story in ed reform, with over two hundred years of obvious lessons for anyone who cares to look.

booker on oprah

Trust us…we know how to fix schools.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH remember these two intertwined stories. The first one is the tech-bazillionaire-meets-urban-reformer-on-a-plane story, as giddily announced on Oprah. As related by skeptical reporter Dale Russakoff, here’s it is in brief: Mark Zuckerberg met Newark Mayor Corey Booker on a plane. They talked for a while and Zuckerberg decided that they could use Facebook money to fix Newark’s schools. He pledged $100 million in matching funds to back Booker’s aggressive plans.

Those plans included a lot of elements, but key to all of them was a new attitude toward Newark’s public-school teachers. Zuckerberg, like a lot of his contemporaries, imagined that schools could be saved by rewarding good teachers and eliminating bad teachers. After all, that’s how Facebook made its money.

It didn’t work. As Chalkbeat reports, the last vestiges of that magical moment have been eliminated from Newark’s schools, with a new new teachers’ contract that eliminates most of Zuckerberg’s merit-pay plans.

The second story is a lot older. It is well known to everyone who knows anything about the history of American education. Back then, the governor was DeWitt Clinton, not Chris Christie. The charismatic reformer with the solution to all urban woes was Joseph Lancaster, not Cory Booker. And the money came from the King of England, not Facebook.

But as I’m finding in my current research, the basics of the story are depressingly similar. Consider the situation of New York City’s public schools, circa 1818. The city had gone all in on Lancaster’s reform plan. Like Zuckerberg’s, the basics of the plan revolved around the “problem” of teacher pay. According to Lancaster, expensive teachers could be replaced with free student labor. These student-teachers, called “monitors,” would educate all the kids in New York City without costing much.

Phil manual 1817 show slates

The best kind of teacher has always been the free kind… (from Lancaster’s manual, 1817 edition)

What happened? You could ask Cory Booker. Turns out, teachers don’t like working for nothing. In 1818, New York found that their free student-teachers kept leaving for—get this—paid positions elsewhere. The New York administrators considered some radical options—such as forcing teachers to work for free until they turned 21. Turns out teachers didn’t like that either. The system fell apart.

How could Mark Zuckerberg, Cory Booker, Chris Christie, or Oprah have known any of this? Easy. They could have cracked a book. Just one book. As David Tyack and Larry Cuban pointed out two decades ago, school reformers tend to repeat these same mistakes, without giving heed to the obvious lessons of history. To wit: teachers might be part of the problem for schools, but teachers will always be most of the solution. Cramming a shiny new “system” down their throats will not yield good results.

Revolution Is (Not) Coming to a Classroom Near You!

Time for conservatives to freak out? No, not really, but you wouldn’t know it if you only read the Chicken Little-ism of Gilbert T. Sewall in the American Conservative. As have conservatives for a full century now, Sewall makes a fundamental mistake when it comes to American education.

Why is Sewall freaking out? It seems California has introduced a new curricular requirement to its public schools. Soon, to graduate from high schools Californians will have to complete an Ethnic Studies class. What will it mean? According to Sewall, it will be nothing less than

a revolutionary storm sweeping through educational leadership in the nation’s legislatures and metro school districts.

Except…it won’t. Of course it won’t. For good or ill, no single curricular requirement can have that much impact on the goings-on in America’s classroom.

What is Sewall worried about? As he describes,

Ethnic Studies is the “disciplinary, loving, and critical praxis of holistic humanity.” It is the study of “intersectional and ancestral roots, coloniality, hegemony and a dignified world where many worlds fit.” It “critically grapples with the various power structures and forms of oppression, including, but not limited to, white supremacy, race and racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, islamophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia.” . . .

“The foundational values of Ethnic Studies are housed in the conceptual model of the ‘double helix,’” the text professes, “which interweaves holistic humanization and critical consciousness.” The proposed course of study, while promising to help with the “eradication of bigotry, hate, and racism” and the promotion of “socio-emotional development and wellness,” seems intended mainly to stir ill will and delegitimize the nation’s white majority. The conviction that malign U.S. wealth and power exist at the expense of certified underdogs undergirds the entire document.

So, should conservatives panic? For that matter, should progressives celebrate? No and no. Why not? A little background: As I argued in my history of American educational conservatism, conservatives have long assumed that progressive school rhetoric reflected a revolutionary new reality in America’s classrooms. It doesn’t and it never has.

Zoll, Progressive Education Increases Delinquency

How to panic, c. 1949.

Consider, for example, the alarmist language of 1940s pundit Allen Zoll. Zoll was a hard-right hack who managed to build a mailing list of many respectable thinkers and activists. In his pamphlets, he snipped a few bits of progressive-ed language and baked them into an apocalyptic meringue for his readers. Consider this snippet from Progressive Education Increases Delinquency:

The tragic and terrifying thing about all this [progressive education] is that it represents not merely rebellion against a moral code, but denial that there can be any binding moral code.  It is a fundamental revolution in human thinking of the first order: it is mental and ethical nihilism.  If it goes on unchecked, it will mean not merely tragedy for millions of individuals, it will mean the disintegration and final extinction of the American society.

We don’t even need to argue that progressive classroom methods will do no such thing. All we have to do this morning is point out that such progressive methods never had anything near the influence Zoll assumed they did. Like many of his conservative allies, Allen Zoll read a few progressive pamphlets then told his many readers that those ideas reflected a terrifying new revolutionary reality in America’s classrooms.

They didn’t then and they don’t now. Think about it: If changing a curriculum could have sweeping revolutionary changes in the ways people think, we would have long ago have abolished both racism and radical young-earth creationism.

Exhibit A: When it comes to creationism, as political scientists Michael Berkman and Erik Plutzer noted, state standards for teaching evolutionary theory are generally pretty good. But that doesn’t mean that people are really learning evolutionary theory in schools. Obvs.

Exhibit B: As for racism, historian Zoe Burkholder argued that anti-racist academic activists such as Franz Boas and Margaret Mead had some real success introducing anti-racist materials in the New York City curriculum, way back in the 1940s. Did that mean that racism was eliminated? Sadly, no.

The point here is not that anti-racist or pro-evolution curriculum is a bad idea. Personally, I agree that every student should be exposed to such ideas. But just adding an idea to a mandated curriculum does not now and has not ever resulted in sweeping changes in the things people actually learn in school.

For me and my progressive friends, that can come as a sad and sobering wake-up call. For some conservatives, like Gilbert Sewall, it should come as a heavy dose of reassurance.

Because unlike what Sewall predicts, this change in California curriculum does not herald the destruction of traditional values or hierarchies. California, regardless of what Sewall says, has not really “abandon[ed] teaching and learning in favor of political indoctrination.”

For what it’s worth, I sympathize with Sewall. No one would read his article if he said, “I don’t like this change but it’s not really that big of a deal.” As have conservative pundits for a century now, Sewall chose to inflate the real danger in order to attract anxious readers.

However, this kind of educational alarmism is a problem. It leads readers to conclude that something profound has gone horribly wrong with America’s schools. Even when they see counter-evidence with their own eyes, Americans tend to listen to the unfounded panic-mongering of writers like Sewall instead of calmer, boringer voices.

gallup local schools

People LIKE the schools they know.

What should we do instead? It’s not easy, but it is obvious. Instead of browsing through state mandates, we should get to know real schools. We should visit local schools, attend school-board meetings, and talk with teachers and neighbors about what happens on a day-to-day basis. If more people did that, there would less panic and more pragmatism in every discussion of public education.

Why Do White Reformers Keep Making This Obvious Mistake?

It seems like it should be obvious. Yet news from KIPP—the nation’s largest non-profit charter-school network—shows that this simple idea is still very difficult for well-meaning school reformers to understand. Why has it taken decades for today’s “visionaries” to learn this centuries-old lesson?

Here’s the latest: According to Chalkbeat, the KIPP network shared some powerful mea culpas at its recent 25-year anniversary meeting. Historically, the schools have tended to attract middle-class white teachers to work with lower-income non-white students. And the KIPP tradition included a “no-excuses” type of classroom management. Students—at times—were required to maintain a rigid silence, marching single-file through hallways, enduring silent lunches, and generally submitting to a harsh-seeming disciplinary scheme.

In many cases, KIPP discipline insisted that non-conforming students be publicly humiliated. After twenty-five years, some of KIPP’s leaders are admitting that such systems don’t work. As Chalkbeat explained,

KIPP was among several charter networks to pioneer a “no excuses” approach to student discipline. That philosophy emphasizes classroom order and obedience in a bid to minimize distraction and raise students’ academic achievement — and has been heavily criticized for largely being meted out to students of color by white educators. Over the last decade, KIPP has walked back some of its earlier practices, notably a punishment known as “the bench,” where students were made to sit apart from their peers, sometimes wear a different colored T-shirt, and remain silent outside official class time.

Turns out, such practices can be effective in the short term. But they build up hostility and anger. They turn school into yet another place for low-income kids to resent and resist. And KIPP is hoping to end its use of public humiliation as a standard practice. As KIPP CEO Richard Barth told Chalkbeat,

“There are practices that we did in the beginning that we out-and-out abhor.” . . . “There were mistakes.” The charter network is still focused on providing “safe and structured environments,” he added, but “that’s very different than processes that shame kids.”

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are aware, I’m currently up to my eyeballs in research about America’s first broad attempt at urban school reform. Two hundred years ago, well-meaning white “visionaries” pioneered KIPP’s journey away from humiliation-as-a-tool.

In the early 1800s, London reformer Joseph Lancaster promised he had figured out a way to solve the problems of poverty. By reforming urban schools, he promised he could educate the hordes of children who thronged the streets of London. Instead of beating students into submission, Lancaster enthused, middle-class white teachers could simply humiliate them. Lancaster’s favorite tool was the “birdcage,” “cradle,” or “basket.”

1810 punishment the basketIn the 1810 edition of his school-reform manual, Lancaster described this technique:

Occasionally boys are put in a sack, or in a basket, suspended to the roof of the school, in sight of all the pupils, who frequently smile at the birds in the cage. This punishment is one of the most terrible that can be inflicted on boys of sense and abilities.

Even Lancaster acknowledged that this extreme form of public humiliation was “terrible,” but it worked. As one enthusiastic teacher wrote to Lancaster in 1812, suspending kids from the ceiling could work wonders with classroom management. As this teacher put it,

When they 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.

Just like KIPP’s leaders, however, Lancaster’s followers found out that public humiliation was not a good long-term strategy. By 1817, manuals of the Lancasterian system no longer advocated “the basket” or other tools of public humiliation. Instead, they moved to a simpler system of merits and demerits.

Why? Because when Lancasterian schools resorted to public humiliation, students stopped coming. Turns out people don’t like being publicly humiliated. Back in the early 1800s, especially, African-American students and families refused to have their children subjected to the same sorts of punishments that slave-owners had used on southern plantations.

It doesn’t seem like it should be a difficult notion to grasp, yet for two hundred years school leaders have had to “discover” this truth anew. Which leads us to our question for today: Why is it so difficult for reformers to understand that public humiliation is not a good strategy?