Swirling Round the Superbowl

Okay, nerds, here are some greatest Superbowl hits from the ILYBYGTH archives so you can feel involved in today’s festivities.

1.) What’s the deal with football and fundamentalism? Liberty University’s recent coaching hire has us all wondering once again what really matters at evangelical universities.

jesus_football

…to the ten…to the five…JESUS CHRIST with the TOUCHDOWN!!!!!

2.) The teams aren’t the same, but this culture-war drinking game idea from 2015 should still work.

3.) Why is school reform pricier than two entire Superbowls? The question came up back in August, 2017, but it is still sort of depressing.

4.) Tommy Brady and Bill Belichick help explain why school reform is so difficult.

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The Brave New World of “Workforce Preparation”

You almost feel bad for her. Queen Betsy’s ideas about ed history seem so rudimentary that it is almost too easy for historians such as Jack Schneider to tee off on her. Prof. Schneider pointed out recently how shoddy DeVos’s ideas about “workforce preparation” are. If we wanted to, though—if some sort of culture-war mercy rule didn’t kick in—we could take the critique one step creepier.

system show slates

When the whistle blows, Show Slates!

As Prof. Schneider notes, Sec’y DeVos has long asserted that today’s schools are trapped in an outdated “factory” mindset, that schools today were created to train assembly line workers. Instead, DeVos likes to say, we need schools that prepare students for today’s workforce. As Prof. Schneider writes,

DeVos’s solution is misguided in part because it’s based on a fabricated story. The actual history of workplace training in American schools is far less convenient for her reform agenda.

Nineteenth-century public education, Prof. Schneider says, was always about much more than just training factory workers. As Schneider puts it,

schools were intended to foster civic virtue, Americanize immigrants, and inculcate dominant values. But vocational preparation was not a common objective.

True enough. But as Prof. Schneider is well aware, there has been a long tradition of public schooling that makes Queen Betsy’s promise of “workforce preparation” sound even worse. In a sense, Sec’y DeVos isn’t wrong about nineteenth-century schooling. There WAS an element of vocational training to it, but that history doesn’t make her promises of “workforce preparation” any more enticing.

These days, I’m studying Joseph Lancaster and the earliest roots of America’s public school systems. His vision of “Workforce Preparation” is no one’s idea of good schooling, not even Queen Betsy.

system boys one through four

“Workforce Preparation,” c. 1812

For example, one of Lancaster’s biggest admirers in Europe was Robert Owen. Owen is best known in the US as a starry-eyed socialist, but his education schemes weren’t particularly naïve. Among the mill’s children, Owen implemented some of Lancaster’s school reform ideas. Did they work? In 1811, Owen wrote breathlessly to Lancaster that his educated workers made

by far the most valuable Servants.

From the get-go, “Workforce Preparation” has been about taming disobedient poor children, coercing them into accepting timetables and efficiency goals. It has been about turning “worthless” “despicable” “benighted” children into “valuable Servants.”

It wasn’t just Robert Owen. Consider the testimony of another enthusiastic Lancasterian teacher 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. [Emphasis added.]

What was this “cradle” he referred to? The “cradle” was one of the names Lancasterians gave to their trademark disciplinary device. It was also called a “birdcage” or a “sack” or the “basket.” Students were put into a kind of cage, then suspended by a rope above the large classroom. Often, a sign would prominently display the student’s alleged misdeeds. Other students were positively encouraged to mock and tease the caged student.

A ha, Queen Betsy might say, this history makes my point. These outdated factory-style teaching methods are exactly what we are trying to “disrupt.” And that is where she misses the boat most egregiously. Between roughly 1810 and 1840, Lancaster’s reform ideas were the biggest thing going in American reform thinking. They were all about “workforce preparation.” And they were based squarely on the idea that poor children could be non-violently coerced into being better factory workers, more “valuable Servants.”

As Prof. Schneider points out, by the later nineteenth century reformers had recognized some of the shortcomings of thinking about schools as sites of “workforce preparation.” They had moved away from the coercion and punch-clock discipline of Lancaster’s factory schools. By calling for a return to the days when schools focused on squeezing students to fit the needs of the economy, Queen Betsy is calling—seemingly blithely unaware—for a return to the very factory model she claims to want to disrupt.

Robo-Teaching: It’s Not Just about the Benjamins

The creepiest part might be its utter believability. Curmudgucrat Peter Greene warns this morning of the dangers of artificial intelligence in the classroom. For a long time now, however, dreams of teacher-bots have been about more than just saving money.

Greene is reacting to news out of the big Davos conference. Tycoons are lusting after fully automated workforces with no pensions, no health insurance costs, and no wages at all. What could this mean for classrooms? As Greene worries, why wouldn’t fat cats set their sights on eliminating teachers? After all, as he puts it, reformers

were going to “teacher proof” classrooms with instruction in a box, complete with scripts, so that anybody could do it. We were going to staff schools with Teach for America temps who would never stay long enough to make more than starting salary or earn a pension. We were going to identify the super-teachers and give them classes of hundreds of students (after we fired everyone else). We were going to implement merit pay, meaning we’d lower the base pay into the basement and give “bonuses” whenever we felt like it. We were going to get rid of tenure and FILO so that we could fire people who were too expensive. We were going to redefine success as high test scores keyed to a list of simplified standards so that no special expertise was needed to achieve success. We would break the teacher unions and strip them of negotiating power.

The common thread, Greene concludes, is all about money: these “reforms” “allow management to spend less money on trained professional teachers.”

True enough, but as Greene would likely agree, there’s always been another dream that AI promises to fulfill: Utter control.

Back in the twentieth century, for example, some of the fundamentalist school reformers I studied shared the goal of teacher-proofing every classroom. Yes, having fully scripted lessons would be cheaper. But there was a more important purpose as well. For many conservatives, the ultimate ideological and religious threat of schools came from independent-minded teachers.

What if your kid’s teacher decided to teach them too much about evolution, or sex, or a secular vision of American history? What if your kid’s teacher was a closet socialist, infusing every lesson with a distorted and subversive anti-Americanism?

Baker successful christian school

Taking the “fun” out of fundamentalism

As fundamentalist ed pundit A.A. “Buzz” Baker wrote back in 1979,

The public school’s philosophy over recent years has been to take a new teacher who has just graduated from college and place her in the classroom, allowing her to do pretty much what she wants to do.  This is often referred to as ‘academic freedom’ and translates into nothing more than ‘experimentation at the expense of the students!’

Instead, evangelical schools, Baker advised, should purchase his company’s pre-made curriculum. No more experimentation, no more fake teacher freedom. Instead, as he promised,

one of the greatest benefits of using day-by-day curriculums is that the principal can know what is being taught.  He can check the class and the curriculum to make certain that the job is getting done.  Substitute teachers can also step in and continue without a loss of valuable teaching time.

What would a pre-scripted fundamentalist curriculum look like? Baker offered a script that could be implemented by a robot just as easily as by a human:

Teacher’s Statement:
Heaven is a real place, just as real as this room.  It is a wonderful, safe, happy home where God lives.  God wants everyone to come there and live with Him.  Anyone who has taken Jesus as his Savior will be able to go to heaven and live forever with God; but anyone who has not taken Jesus as his Savior cannot go to heaven, but must go to a terrible place of eternal punishment.
Drill Questions:
1. Will everybody get to go to heaven? No.
2. Who gets to go to heaven? The people who trust in Jesus and who take Him as their Savior while they live here on earth.
3. Does God want everybody to go to heaven? Yes.
4. Why won’t everybody get to go to heaven? Because some people won’t take Jesus as their own Savior.

The folks at Davos don’t care about Jesus. But their vision of a teacher-free classroom would be just as appealing to ideologues worried about the moral influence of unpredictable humans. Would teacher bots save money? Sure. Promote efficiency? Definitely. But for Baker and the hundreds of thousands of students who attended this kind of private school, teacher-proofing was all about CONTROL.

The Real Promise of Teachers’ Unions

It’s not that they’ll get everyone to “eat the rich.” It’s not that they will manage to unite all teachers in a progressive political wave that will sweep through America’s 2020 elections. They won’t. Teachers are now and have always been a mixed bag, ideologically. But in today’s divided polis, a group like the unions still has enormous potential for good.

 

Pundits who dream that today’s wave of teacher strikes will bring a progressive millennium are fooling themselves. Anyone familiar with real teachers can tell you: We’re not easy to pin down. Sure, some teachers like me have a deep progressive political streak. But just go to any teachers’ lounge and you will hear a dizzying variety of political opinions.

As I argued in my book about twentieth-century educational conservatism, America’s teachers have ALWAYS been ideologically divided. The popular image of united left-wing teachers has never matched reality. Here are a few snapshots of conservative teachers throughout the years:

1939: One leader of a conservative campaign against left-leaning textbooks, Bertie Forbes, liked to tell a story: He was minding his business as a magazine editor when he was approached by teachers from his local New Jersey school district. These teachers, Forbes liked to recount, begged Forbes to get involved in educational politics. The teachers hated the lefty textbooks and wanted political support to teach old-fashioned patriotism in their local public schools.

1950: As Pasadena, California reeled over alleged progressivism in its classrooms, one teacher took to the editorial pages of the local paper. We teachers, she insisted, are not “in full accord with the tenets of progressive education.” She wanted old-fashioned tradition in the classroom, including corporal punishment. The progressive slop on offer, she wrote, led only to “arrogance, hostility, and defiance, even vandalism.” Teachers like her were on the front line against socialist “Pressure and propaganda” and they wanted the support of the conservative public.

1962: Who led the fight to battle communism? It wasn’t only the conservative American Legion. Throughout the cold war, including in this 1962 mash-up, National Education Association members teamed up with the Legion to purge left-wing propaganda from the nation’s public schools.

anti communist teachers

Find the left-wing teacher in THIS photo:

1974: In Kanawha County, West Virginia, a new set of textbooks sparked violent culture-war protests. One teacher took the opportunity to voice his ideas about proper public education. On December 12, 1974, public-school teacher Karl Priest reminded the National Education Association that its policy was always to combat discrimination. The new textbooks, Priest insisted, were “in fact, anti-Christian.” [Emphasis in original.] Teachers like him, Priest argued, were correct in their conservative fight against such discriminatory claptrap.

These days, too, teachers are hardly politically united. Even those who support today’s strikes cannot be assumed to be unified on any other political issue. Teachers, in other words, won’t become the left-wing vanguard that activists have dreamed of for decades.

But that doesn’t mean that today’s teachers’ unions won’t have a huge impact. As politicians are split more and more toward the far edges, any group that can unite disparate people toward specific goals can serve as a beacon of hope.

coming apart

What if politicians could act more like teachers’ unions?

The promise of the teachers’ unions doesn’t come from the fact that teachers are becoming more politically homogenous. The promise, rather, is that teachers’ unions are able to take action toward important goals in spite of the fact that their constituencies disagree on almost everything else.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading: Teachers’ Strike Special Edition

Maybe I’m just too close to see it clearly, but to my eyes the LA teachers’ strike is pushing last year’s teacher walkouts in new directions, directions that will shape our conversations about public education for years to come. Here are a few of the most compelling commentaries to come out so far:

When we lambaste the charter schools that urban parents may choose as undermining public education, but say nothing of the urban private schools and exclusive suburban public schools that enable affluent parents to exit struggling districts, we not only apply a dangerous double-standard, but we also place the blame for low-performing schools on those who must attend them.

these modern walkouts are about the very idea that public schools should be kept healthy at all.

What inspires well-paid teachers to deny the needs of kids they love in exchange for angry strikes they loathe? Union deception and brutality.

Numerous Latino teachers repeatedly told me that a sense of solidarity with their students is what’s driving them to the picket lines—a profoundly personal connection to those children, and a fear that current school conditions are not serving them.

My advice to the district: Hold strong. Replace them all. If they want a dramatic impact on education, fire the union and begin to repair the schools, just like Reagan fired the air traffic controllers.

Crime and Punishment

I don’t often agree with free-marketeer Michael Petrilli, but this time he’s exactly right. When pragmatic issues such as school discipline become culture-war footballs, students are always the losers. What we need instead are policies that put students first. Alas, the history of educational culture wars makes me pessimistic that we can replace polemics with pragmatics.

Petrilli recently lamented the unhelpful back-and-forth over the issue of school discipline. The Obama administration supported the idea that racial disparities in punishments could be cause for federal intervention. Trump’s administration, in chest-thumping contrast, rejected the notion.

 

As Petrilli rightly noted, schools need something different. They need policies that recognize the cruel injustices of racially loaded punishments while still creating safe schools. Petrilli hoped even

In this age of base politics . . . communities nationwide can reject such cynical approaches and craft school discipline policies that can bring us together rather than drive us apart.

That would be nice, but as I found in my research into the history of educational conservatism, school discipline has always been about more than pragmatic problem solving. Planting a flag for harsher school punishments has always been a hallmark of American conservatism.

Consider the flood of pro-discipline conservative outrage that confronted Pasadena’s superintendent in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The new superintendent, Willard Goslin, became the whipping-boy for a host of perceived problems with “progressive” education. As one furious conservative critic wrote in the local paper in 1949,

But pity the poor teacher!  After all, it is his job to pamper the pupils (in progressive schools), and it is worth his job if he tried any old-fashioned discipline.  Problem children are not only tolerated but pushed right along ‘to get rid of them’—out into society, for others to worry about.

Better-known conservative pundits have also always taken pot-shots at non-traditional ideas of school discipline. Max Rafferty, a nationally syndicated columnist and one-time state superintendent of public education in California, had nothing but scorn and contumely for new-fangled ideas about punishment.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

…he didn’t win.

In one 1964 column, Rafferty lambasted new ideas of school discipline in his typically colorful language. As he put it,

a child usually has neither the maturity nor the judgment to understand the need for self-discipline. Too many instructors, fresh from college and still pretty Dewey-eyed about things, compromise themselves and their careers in a hopeless attempt to convince some freckled-faced [sic] urchin with devilment coming out visibly all over him that he must discipline himself when all he really needs is a session after school with the ruler.

In every decade, in every educational situation, school discipline has always been an us-or-them culture-war issue. Progressives have always lamented the racially loaded and ineffective traditions of whipping and my-way-or-the-highway teaching. Conservatives have always been sure that new-fangled ideas about child-rearing tragically misunderstood real human nature. As Rafferty explained in 1964,

The psychologists had been right in one respect.  Junior certainly had no repressions.  He could have used a few.

What Today’s Educational Conservatives Need to Say Instead

I don’t see any good reason why they would listen to me. But if today’s conservative pundits and intellectuals are really serious about identifying the “future direction of American education,” they need to come to terms with the elephant in the conservatives’ room. At the Fordham Institute and Hoover Institution at least, they seem to be doing the opposite.

This isn’t only a conservative problem. Progressives like me need to be more willing to remind ourselves of the unpopular truths of the progressive tradition, too. We need to be willing to acknowledge the fact that excesses of campus left-wing Puritanism do not come out of nowhere. When smart students feel the need to exhibit their devotion and purity to radical egalitarian ideals, they are simply speaking the logical conclusions of the progressive tradition. At least, it’s ONE logical conclusion.

 

 

And when conservative intellectuals opine about American education, they need to do more to acknowledge their own history. As I argued in my book about the history of American educational conservatism, one idea has been awkwardly ignored and muffled by American conservatives. That hasn’t made it go away. Rather, it has only made it more pressing for conservatives to address it more forthrightly and explicitly.

I’m not surprised to see that they aren’t.

In a series they call “Education 20/20,” the Fordham Institute and Hoover Institution have brought a series of conservative speakers, thinkers, and policy-makers to Washington DC to tell one another what they want to hear.

For example, according to Chester Finn, the kick-off lecture by Heather Mac Donald warned that the real solution to school discipline problems had to come from addressing students’ “lack of self-control.” Speakers such as Ian Rowe told the conservative crowd that the main problem was not race, not class, but rather dysfunctional family structures, “particularly the presence or absence of two married parents.” Other speakers hoped schools could do more to teach traditional values, including

character, emotional well-being, and personal behavior, as well as help in making choices and following up on them.

What’s wrong with all that? Honestly, nothing at all. I think we can all agree that students in school should learn to control their own behavior. We all probably agree that healthy families are absolutely required for healthy schools. And all of us—even progressive history teachers like me that conservatives have always loathed—want to teach children to love America, “warts and all, yes, but also replete with heroes, principles, and triumphs.”

So where’s the beef? Why can’t we all agree on these goals and ideals?

There’s one obvious problem with events like this one. And it is a big one; one that conservatives need to address openly and bravely if they ever want to gain real traction in designing school reform that works. Namely, conservatives need to come to terms with the fact that their ideas have always been used as cover for racist policies.

I’m not accusing any of the speakers here of racism. Unlike some of my allies and colleagues, I don’t believe that conservatives are scheming to cover up their own racism. As I think we all should, I give my conservative friends the benefit of the doubt when they say they really want to heal racism’s ugly legacies, not promote it.

 

As the folks at Fordham Institute and Hoover Institution lament, when conservatives were able to get broad support for their policies, they have scored big successes. In their words,

Twenty years ago, conservative ideas were gaining traction in K–12 education. Charter schools were opening all over the place, vouchers were finally being tried, academic standards were rising, results-based accountability had become the watchword in policy circles, and reformers were taking the idea of “character education” seriously.

Why did charters and vouchers score so big in the 1990s? Because conservative activists were able to make common cause with center-left reformers to pitch them as a real solution for low-income, non-white families.

These days, lambasting non-white students for lacking self-control and non-white families for lacking proper structure is not likely to gain any sympathy outside of conservative circles. Talking about focusing on teaching American “ideals” is likely to be ignored by non-conservatives as mere cover for “Making America Great Again.”

If conservatives really want to get another taste of reform influence, they need to take the brave step and acknowledge the legacy of their own campaigns. Instead of saying “We’re not racist, but…” they need to say “These ideas WERE used by racists, but here’s why they are good anyway.”

Why Do We Keep Falling for School Scams?

It was a very depressing story. When the New York Times broke the ugly truth about Louisiana’s T.M. Landry school, the real question was why so many people believed the lies of the school’s leaders. Today, Will Stancil connects the dots. And as I’m arguing in my new book, this scam is no exception; it is the oldest story in the checkered history of American school reform.

Lecture flyer 1

Magic-bean level school reform, c. 1834.

You’ve heard the story by now. T.M. Landry College Preparatory School in small-town Louisiana seemed to have found the magic recipe. Its viral videos told the heart-warming stories of low-income African American students who beat the odds and went to elite universities such as Harvard and Princeton.

It didn’t take long for the sad other shoe to drop. As the New York Times reported,

In reality, the school falsified transcripts, made up student accomplishments and mined the worst stereotypes of black America to manufacture up-from-hardship tales that it sold to Ivy League schools hungry for diversity. The Landrys also fostered a culture of fear with physical and emotional abuse, students and teachers said. Students were forced to kneel on rice, rocks and hot pavement, and were choked, yelled at and berated.

We make a mistake if we just shake our heads and lament the gruesome conditions of this single scam school. The real problem is much deeper.  Given the remarkable claims of the school’s leaders, Will Stancil asked recently, why did so many of us believe them for so long? As he puts it, all of us need to take a hard look at ourselves. Americans treasured the unbelievable success stories coming out of T.M. Landry, Stancil writes,

because it offered something that a lot of people wanted to believe. Their viral videos told a story of black children magically beating the odds. . . . people took solace in the idea that such a transformation was possible, and moved on.

Other commentators have made similar points. As Casey Gerald noted recently,

When we highlight those few against-all-odds stories, we send the message that all it takes to succeed is grit and resilience and willpower.

For those who hope that the right school reform can offer a quick and easy fix to social inequality, the reality gets even worse. As I’m finding in the research for my current book, America’s head-in-the-sand addiction to Horatio Alger stories has always been a problem.

Two hundred years ago, Joseph Lancaster promised America’s elites a T.M. Landry-style solution to their burgeoning urban anxieties. As one industrial leader fretted in 1817, new cities and factories threatened to become

disgusting exhibitions of human depravity and wretchedness.

If they had the right schools, however, all could be well. As this industrialist explained, with only a small financial investment, American cities could install Lancasterian schools,

where good instruction will secure the morals of the young, and good regulations will promote, in all, order, cleanliness, and the exercise of the civil duties.

Just like T.M. Landry in 2018, back in 1817 these promises were obviously too good to be true. Yet, as one commentator described at the time,

The extent of the delusion . . . was so widely and so energetically advocated that thousands of intelligent men believed that a final and immediate remedy had been found for the evils of popular ignorance and that the era of universal intelligence had begun.

Things didn’t end any better for the students in Lancaster’s schools than they did for T.M. Landry’s. In a few years, parents, children, teachers, and eventually elite reformers realized that the promises of these school reforms couldn’t match the challenges of social inequality. Lancaster was exposed as a fraud. School leaders noted with chagrin that their miracle schools were not miracles at all. At the end of his rope, in 1838 Joseph Lancaster stepped out in front of a rushing horse carriage in New York and ended his life.

These scams and cons work because we want them to be true. We want to believe that society is fundamentally fair. We want to think that with a little gumption, a little “grit,” everyone can make it. What we don’t want to admit is the ugly truth: America has always been unequal. Some people are freer than others. Some live in a land of opportunity, but many don’t.

If only, we fantasize, if only there were a reading method or an ipad app that would make this problem go away. That’s why the Education Department pours billions of dollars into “innovation” grants.

As Will Stancil makes so painfully clear, our addiction to these sorts of fairy tales allow scammers to get us to believe the unbelievable. Americans like to hear about low-income African-American students “beating the odds,” because we can’t figure out how to make those brutal odds more equitable.

And as I’m finding out in my current research, it is America’s oldest educational fantasy. We need to reckon instead with the sobering truth: Schools can’t save society; schools ARE society. Unless and until society itself gives everyone a fair chance at success, schools won’t be able to.

The Keto Diet of Ed Reform

Why is it so difficult to find out if school reforms are working? Journalists tell us that big investments often don’t lead to big results. Why not? The real “dirty secret” of ed reform isn’t the difficulty involved. It is that reformers tend to fall into the Keto-diet trap. Instead of promoting things that work, they scramble for headline-grabbing new labels and gimmicks. Then they are forced to use skewed ways to measure their own success.

hechinger reform chart

What works? We need less flash and more uncomfortable conversations

Here’s what we know: Hechinger reported recently on the disappointing results of $1.5 billion+ in i3 funds from the Education Department. Only a few of the funded “innovations” actually led to measurable improvements in student test scores.

The researcher charged with measuring the success of this school reform investment explained,

That’s the dirty secret of all of education research. . . . It is really hard to change student achievement. We have rarely been able to do it. It’s harder than anybody thinks.

As she lamented,

We are desperate to find what works.

Except we’re not. Not really. We KNOW what works to improve schools and educational outcomes. Schools work better when they are connected to healthy communities. Schools work better when families and students have abundant resources, including flexible work schedules and access to community resources.

The problem is that those things are more difficult to talk about. As I’m arguing in my new book, it has always been easier to slap flashy “innovations” on schools for low-income kids than it has been to address the topics of inequality and poverty in the USA.

What does this have to do with Keto dieting? Just this: Like healthy eating, healthy schools are not really all that mysterious. They require investments of time and resources. They need involved teachers, families, students, neighbors, and administrators. They need to be connected to their communities and in touch with the dreams and backgrounds of their families and students.

keto diet

Let’s be real: No one buys books titled, “Good Food Is Good for You.”

It’s not a mysterious recipe, but it is a difficult one to pitch to grant programs. Instead, like the Keto diet, reformers are forced to create new names and new programs that highlight their “innovations.” Like the Keto diet, they are forced to focus—to an obviously unhealthy degree—on short-term, quantifiable outcomes.

What would be better? How about measuring education reforms by something other than student test scores? Why not survey families to see how happy they are in their schools? Why not hire trained researchers to gather qualitative data about a fuller range of improvements in students’ lives?

Like the authors of fad-diet books, too many grant funders are tied to flashy headlines and quick-but-fake improvements. What we need instead is a willingness to focus on the non-flashy things that we know will work.

Carts and Horses

I know, I know, it’s dangerous to conclude too much from one research study. Especially if that study seems to confirm our pre-existing ideas. But the news from Tennessee seems to confirm what school-reform mavens know: Just fixing classrooms isn’t enough. If we want to make a more equitable society, we have to include everything.cart before horse

Here’s what we know: A new study suggests that African American students can experience measurable benefits from having African American teachers. The authors say it is more than just about teaching methods; it is more to do with a “role-model effect.” As they put it,

black teachers provide a crucial signal that leads black students to update their beliefs about the returns to effort and what educational outcomes are possible.

We don’t want to exaggerate its importance, but this seems like yet more evidence for our vision of real school reform. SAGLRROILYBYGTH are tired of hearing it, but historically there have been competing visions of how schools can and should help make America a better place. Some well-meaning reformers have hoped to tweak classroom practices to help students from low-income families do better in school. If they can just succeed in school, the thinking goes, then they can go to college, get a good job, make more money, and escape the cycle of poverty.

If we can just scale up that sort of reform—the thinking goes (and we can’t, but that’s another story)—then schools can fix the woes of social inequality.

As I’m arguing in my new book, this vision of school and social reform is as old as public education itself. And it’s not bad, but it is wrong. Don’t believe it? Check out the archive of studies and evidence that all seems to point in the same direction: here or here or here.

And the current study from Tennessee seems to add more fuel to the fire. The real problems of education, poverty, and social inequality are bigger than any single, isolated curricular reform can fix. The problem is that American society includes a bunch of unfair hierarchies: racial, religious, ethnic, and economic. If we try to tweak classroom practices in isolation, we won’t be able to do much.

But, as this study suggests, if students can see a possibility of achievement, they will be more likely to achieve. If students can see glimmers of a society that rewards people like them for talent and hard work, they’ll be more likely to work hard to move ahead.

Is it a good thing to improve classroom practice? Sure. But fixing the insides of classrooms alone isn’t enough. Students need to live in a society that is less biased against people like them. Students need some reason to think that school achievement will pay off.

When it comes to the old chicken-and-egg problems of schools and social reform, we need to remember the refrain: Schools don’t change society; schools ARE society.