Gay Trump Card

Okay, folks, here’s another head-scratcher from the world of America’s educational culture wars. SAGLROILYBYGTH have probably already seen the latest expose of James Manning’s ATLAH school. So here’s the puzzle for this morning: In spite of long efforts on the Left to combat racism, is it really only on the fundamentalist Right that the war on racism has been won? Where white and black fundamentalists agree on the meanings of race and racism? I don’t know what to think.

manning atlah

Westboro, NYC.

First, a little background: If you haven’t seen the HuffPost expose, it’s worth your time. Pastor James Manning has attracted attention in the past for his fervent and ferocious anti-LBGTQ views. He made wild accusations that Starbucks was infusing lattes with semen. His church sign went into full Westboro mode at times, proclaiming “Jesus would stone homos” and “Obama is a Muslim. Muslims hate fags. They throw fags off buildings.”

Now Manning is facing accusations of abuse of his students and congregants. According to the HuffPost article, Manning locked a student in a dark basement, used sexually suggestive language with minors, and clamped down viciously on any murmur of dissent in his school and congregation.

The recent expose leaves lots of big questions unexamined. Most telling, the racial ideology/theology of Pastor Manning throws a monkey wrench into any simple culture-war divisions. For instance, according to HuffPost, his school uses both A Beka and Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) materials. ACE, at least, has been credibly outed as a congenitally racist and white supremacist outfit.

ACE MLK

What do white fundamentalist think about race and racism?

One might think that Manning simply didn’t care about the entrenched racist attitudes in the ACE materials because he was looking for fundamentalist schoolbooks and couldn’t find any that weren’t racist.

Maybe.

In other publications, though, Pastor Manning has insisted on some non-conventional racial attitudes. He furiously attacked President Obama. And in the clip below, he insists,

Not only am I not an African American, but I’m not a black man.

[Warning: Video below contains extremely offensive racial language.]

I don’t want to jump to too many conclusions, but I can’t help but wonder if Manning’s outside-the-box racial ideology makes him generally comfortable with the racial ideology of the Accelerated Christian Education materials. After all, fundamentalist curricular materials talk about more than just race.

When it comes to student learning and behavior, for example, Manning’s school touts its “memory/articulation/discipline” approach. It is a traditional approach that comports nicely with the classroom ideology of A Beka Book. As one of A Beka’s promoters promised, A Beka materials do more than just teach facts. At an A Beka school, one leader promised,

You learn the Bible.

You learn that God created.

You learn the worth of your soul.

You master the three R’s and other subjects.

You sit up straight and pay attention.

You learn that it is right not to cheat.

You learn to recite when called upon.

You learn honor and respect for your parents.
You learn respect for authority.

You learn that a man’s word is his bond.

You learn that a job worth doing is worth doing well.

You learn personal initiative.

You develop pride in America.

You learn that the free enterprise system is still the best system.

You learn that competition is healthy.

The goal of a school like this, according to A. A. “Buzz” Baker, is not only to teach a few fundamental religious truths. Rather, a good fundamentalist school will bundle those religious facts into a deeply conservative view of life and learning.

To this reader, Manning’s radically traditionalist, violently anti-LGBTQ school fits perfectly into this fundamentalist educational attitude. At first, we might think that the rest of the fundamentalist package—anti-gay, pro-discipline, pro-memorization, pro-Bible—allows African-American conservatives to overlook the racist component of fundamentalist textbooks.

I think the truth is more complicated than that. In the case of ATLAH schools, at least, the racial ideology/theology of white fundamentalism has leaped over the color line. In this one case, at least, both white and black fundamentalists embrace similar notions of race in these United States. I don’t think those notions are healthy, but like violent anti-LBGTQ rhetoric, they seem to have been taken to heart in some surprising quarters.

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Why Would Conservatives Want to Turn This Into a Religious Thing?

Not to beat a dead horse here, but I’m truly perplexed. During the long long hours I spent yesterday watching Endgame, I couldn’t stop thinking about our recent discussion. David French and other intelligent conservatives want to insist that America’s culture wars are primarily “a religious dispute.” I disagree, but the real question is this: Why do conservatives want to say that they are? The answer seems obvious to me, but maybe I’m missing something.

 

Here’s a little background: In his argument for free campus speech, French made the following assertion:

It’s time to recognize the American culture war for what it is — a religious dispute — and incorporate it into America’s existing religious pluralism.

As strategy, I get it. If conservative ideas are a religious imperative, they will get more respect. If culture wars are religious disputes, then both sides should get equal status, at least from the perspective of the government. But as an intellectually coherent way to understand America’s culture wars, I don’t get it. Lots of people share religious ideas yet find themselves on opposite sides of culture-war issues such as race, gender, and sexuality.

One sharp reader offered a better defense than French did. As PH put it,

we are certainly talking about competing ideas and systems of ethical and metaphysical values, beliefs, and commitments concerning the nature of reality, the basis for human flourishing, and ideal social norms. These are ideas based on faith as much as they are on reason or science. Personally, I think “religious” is a pretty good word for that, even if we’re not talking about formal organized religious groups or particular theological traditions.

The way I see it, though, people who share the same religion still disagree about key culture-war issues. For proof, we don’t need to look any further than the Veep’s office. Does Mike Pence represent conservative evangelical Protestantism? The community of Taylor University says both yes and no. And, as I argued recently in WaPo about Karen Pence’s lame defense of her anti-LGBTQ school, there is not a single, undisputed “orthodox” rule about proper social policy for LGBTQ people. Plenty of conservative evangelical Protestants are plenty “orthodox,” yet they disagree with the Pences on these issues.

So to me, it seems achingly obvious why some conservatives might want to redefine political disagreements as religious ones: For at least half a century now, politically conservative people have tried to insist that only their politically conservative version of religion is the true version of religion. They have argued that people who disagree with them cannot possibly be true Christians or Muslims or whatever.

is segregation scriptural

There was more than theology at play then, and there is now…

If real, “orthodox” Christianity insists on racial segregation, for example, as Bob Jones Sr. famously argued in 1960, then the US government has no right to demur. If real, “orthodox” Christianity requires belief in a literal six-day flood and a recent creation of humanity, for example, as Ken Ham famously argues today, then evangelicals have no business questioning it.

Just like questions of LGBTQ rights, however, neither of those ideas are really as simple as conservatives like to think. Debates about them divide people who share the same religious backgrounds. The cultural battles over racism, creationism, and sexuality are not battles between people who have different religions. They are fiercest between people who SHARE religious ideas but have different ideas about public policy.

So are America’s culture wars “a religious dispute?” Only if we use a tortuous definition of the phrase. To say that conservative positions on sexuality, race, or gender are just being “orthodox” only makes sense as a political strategy. As an actual description of the divides we face on such issues, it doesn’t help at all.

A Deal-Breaker for Biden?

I would not want to be Joe Biden right about now. In so many ways, he could be the 2020 front-runner for the Democratic Party if he decides to run. A recent expose in the Washington Post, however, might be enough to kibosh the whole thing.

biden 1975

Frosh Senator, 1972

First, some history for our younger readers: We all know SCOTUS’s 1954 Brown v. Board decision didn’t end racial segregation in schools. What some people might not know if they didn’t live through it was the bitter 1970s battle over busing that followed.

As Roy Formisano has described so brutally, cities such as Boston roiled over the topic. Anti-busing groups coopted 1960s-style protest tactics and language to oppose mandatory plans to shuttle children between schools. The goal was to achieve more racial equality; the effect was much different. The protests ripped the Democratic Party apart back then.

Could they do it again now?

Consider one episode that Joe Biden would like us all to forget: On September 9, 1974, a crowd of white working-class anti-bussers gathered to hear Senator Ted Kennedy speak in Boston. This demographic, usually a solid supporter of the Kennedys and the Democrats, showed their displeasure with Kennedy’s pro-busing stance by turning their backs on him as he spoke. Then, fired up, the crowd chased him from the podium, flinging eggs and expletives. The fury of the crowd was so intense they shattered the glass doors of the Federal building, chanting, “Pig, Pig Pig.”

ROAR button

Boston’s protesters also insisted they weren’t racist, but…

What does any of this have to do with Joe Biden and the 2020 elections? Everything.

The Washington Post uncovered a public statement Biden made against busing in 1975. Back then, the first-term senator from Delaware came out forcefully against busing, though he tried to maintain his support for equal racial rights. As Biden said back then,

I do not buy the concept, popular in the ’60s, which said, ‘We have suppressed the black man for 300 years and the white man is now far ahead in the race for everything our society offers. In order to even the score, we must now give the black man a head start, or even hold the white man back, to even the race.’

How were such comments perceived at the time? Although Biden can point to his long record in favor of civil rights, he won’t be able to spin this as anything but political surrender to the overwhelming unpopularity of busing. At the time, the infamous segregationist Jesse Helms welcomed Biden “to the ranks of the enlightened.”

What biden was trying to avoid

What Biden was scared of in 1975:

While some white Democrats were supporting busing and taking their lumps, Senator Biden was working the political middle, a middle that—at the time—lined up with Jesse Helms and Boston’s fervent racial protesters.

Morals aside, it might have been a savvy political calculation in 1975. However, will be be enough to undo Biden’s calculations for 2020?

The New Conservative Campus Strategy: Punch-bait!

You’ve heard it before: Conservatives have long felt bitterly estranged from mainstream higher education. I’m wondering if we’re on the cusp of a weird new conservative strategy, one in which young conservatives try their hardest to get punched in the face.

Here’s what we know: Hayden Williams has attracted a lot of attention recently as the victim of a conservative-bashing at Berkeley. President Trump brought Williams up on stage during Trump’s CPAC speech to help introduce Trump’s new hard line against universities. As Trump crowed,

Ladies and gentlemen — [Williams] took a punch for all of us. … Here’s the good news: He’s going to be a very wealthy young man. Go get ’em, Hayden.

Williams was on campus as part of Turning Point USA’s recruitment drive. In the past, Turning Point USA has provoked attention on campuses for recruiting students to its brand of millennial conservative campus activism. In Nebraska, for example, a Turning Point USA member garnered significant political support in her fight to be heard on campus.

Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk was quick to capitalize on the Berkeley bashing. As he told CNN,

Our amazing grassroots organizers courageously face threats of violence and discrimination as they fight for the right for conservative voices to be heard on college campuses.

So how about it? Maybe the most effective strategy for conservative pundits will be to get punched in the face. After all, nothing goes further to prove their claims of persecution and anti-conservative discrimination.

Blackface at Fundamentalist U

So we’ve seen a lot of ugly racist yearbook photos lately. Sexist ones, too. I thought I’d take a look at Bob Jones University’s yearbooks to see how they stacked up. After all, BJU might just be the most famously racist university in the country. Yet the yearbooks don’t have much in the way of blackface and other minstrel-show racism. I think I have an idea why not.

It’s not that there aren’t any. In 1954, for example, there is a typically nasty blackface performing group featured. And some sort of hooded goings-on that I can’t figure out.

BJU VINTAGE 1954 blackface

From BJU’s 1954 yearbook.

And it’s not that BJU wasn’t frankly and unapologetically racist. Up through the 1970s, there were no actual black faces on campus, period. At least not as students. Change was slow, with the school refusing to renounce its ‘no-interracial-dating’ policy until the twenty-first century.

BJU VINTAGE 1954 white robes

Another from 1954. ????

Plus, the yearbooks are deeply racist in other ways. In its 1970 year book, for example, BJU brags of visits to campus by the likes of Ian Paisley and John R. Rice. At the time, Paisley was best known as the angry face of virulent, violent Irish anti-Catholicism. Rice’s pro-segregation theology had gotten him uninvited from other conservative schools such as Moody Bible institute. (I tell this full story in Fundamentalist U if you’re interested.)

But in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, I didn’t see any pictures of students in blackface or other racist garb. At least, not in the handful I looked at this afternoon. I might have missed it—take a look if you have the time and let us know what you find.

Why not? Why would America’s most famously racist college have yearbooks mostly free of ugly racist images?

Here’s my suggestion: Unlike Governor Northam, students at BJU were not given much wiggle room to express themselves in their yearbooks. Consider this senior-class page from 1965. The men all wear identical outfits and only list their names, hometowns, and lit-society memberships.

BJU VINTAGE 1965 201

Not a lot of room for individuality, even the racist kind…c. 1965.

In other words, unlike the wilder and woolier yearbooks of non-evangelical colleges, those at schools like BJU were tightly controlled from the top. When blackface faded out of polite culture, the editors of BJU’s yearbooks edited out of their yearbooks, too.

That’s my guess, anyway. What do you think?

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.

Who’s Afraid of Teachers?

It’s not only in the pages of dusty history books nobody reads. As Curmudgucrat Peter Greene wrote recently, the effort to stifle teachers’ political opinions is alive and well. But here’s the question every real teacher keeps wondering: Why are people so worried about teachers?

Here’s what we know: Greene describes a recent bill in Arizona to limit teachers’ ability to talk politics in the classroom. The bill would combat teachers’ alleged aggressive political posturing. What would it do?

Teachers may not endorse, support or oppose any candidate or elected or appointed official. Teachers may not bring up any “controversial issues” not related to the course. . . . Teachers may not advocate for one side of a controversial issue; they must always present both sides.

Greene argues that this bill is not just an Arizona quirk but rather part of a vision to restrain teachers from voicing progressive opinions.

And it won’t come as any surprise to SAGLRROILYBYGTH that the fear of progressive teachers has a long history in the US of A.

Back in the 1930s and 1940s, for example, Harold Rugg of Teachers College Columbia earned the ire of many conservative activists with his progressive textbooks. It wasn’t only Rugg that conservatives worried about. As I noted in my book about conservative educational activism, people like Alfred Falk of the Advertising Federation of America and Homer Chaillaux of the American Legion warned one another that the problem was bigger than any single teacher or textbook. Rather, as Falk told Chaillaux privately in 1939, it was all part of a vast left-wing teacher conspiracy,

a deliberate plan worked up by a well-defined group of left-wingers and educators, collaborating for a number of years on this huge project of reconstructing our society.

In the 1960s, too, conservative activists assumed that teachers were part of a progressive plan to use their classroom authority to push left-wing ideas on unsuspecting youth. The Gablers asked their fellow conservatives some pointed questions about the proper role of teachers. As they put it,

Do educators have the right to use our children as guinea pigs in behavior modification experiments?  Should our children be under the direction of ideologues hostile to Judeo-Christian values and American constitutional liberty?

SH Gablers

Look out kids, it’s a…teacher!

For many conservatives, the notion that teachers are “ideologues” cramming Leninist doctrine down the throats of America’s schoolchildren is a hallowed truth. But why? Why do so many conservatives worry so unnecessarily about teachers’ political activism?

After all, ask any teacher, and they’ll tell you: We worry about far more prosaic issues in our classrooms. We worry if students are learning the material, and if there’s a better way we could present it. We worry that students aren’t understanding things, and if there’s something we could be doing to help.

We worry mostly about our students as people, not as partisans.

Moreover, as every study has shown, teachers do not swoop in from outside to cram politics down students’ throats. For example, as political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer found, when it comes to teaching evolution and creationism, most teachers reflect the majority values of their communities, because most teachers are products of that same community.

So why the worry?

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.

School Dictatorship by Facebook

What do conservatives want out of schools? In Brazil as in the USA, it’s a familiar checklist: communist subversion out, LGBTQ+ stuff out, union power out. In Brazil’s case, the new right-wing president has given conservatives new hope. But unlike in the past, Brazil’s conservatives have a new weapon at their disposal: Facebook.

bolsonaro

Hear no evil…

As reported in The Economist, President Jair Bolsonaro has energized right-wing school dreams in Brazil. We shouldn’t be surprised. Bolsonaro won the election in spite of—or because of—his inflammatory anti-gay statements and nostalgia for the old dictatorship.

When a presidential candidate promises to bring back torture, makes rape jokes, and brags that he would rather see his son dead than gay, it’s not a shocker that his policies move schools in right-wing directions.

In Brazil’s case, that means fighting the influence of Brazil’s most famous educational thinker, Paolo Freire. It also means an attempt to ban what Brazilian conservatives call “gender ideology.” Brazilian conservatives consider the left-wing ideas of Freire to be a blight on Brazil. As one right-wing group put it, Freire’s teachings turned

Innocent illiterate people into illiterate communists.

The plan? Bolsonaro has promised to

Take a flame-thrower to the ministry of education and get Paolo Freire out of there.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, those things are similar to what USA conservatives have wanted in schools for a long time. Conservatives here, too, have fretted about communist subversion, tried to get rid of the “homosexual agenda” in public schools, and threatened to eliminate the Department of Education.

What might be new, though, is the Brazilian strategy to enforce their right-wing changes. As The Economist reports, conservative activists have taken to Facebook to enforce their vision of proper public education. As one conservative teacher told students on Facebook,

“Attention students! . . . many doctrinaire teachers will be disconcerted or revolted” by Bolsonaro’s victory. “Film or record all partisan manifestations that . . . offend your freedom of thought or conscience.”

Bolsonaro’s Facebook page apparently includes video clips of left-wing teachers in action, including one in which a teacher shouts at a student,

I fought for democracy and you’re here talking about that piece of crap Bolsonaro.

Or another in which a teacher warned students not to listen to

idiotic police officers or your lowlife pastor.

The plan, clearly, is to shine a right-wing social-media spotlight on teachers. If they endorse rights for LGBTQ people, they can be “outed” for it. If they teach a sympathetic vision of socialism, everyone will know about it. If they teach anti-Bolsonaro ideas–the thinking goes–then right-wingers can target them. In Bolsonaro’s Brazil, at least, conservatives hope that Facebook can offer a new way to pressure teachers and schools to conform to their vision of proper public education.

Will it work? So far, some teachers have reported being threatened and disciplined for their anti-Bolsonaro or pro-LGBTQ classroom comments. Back in the twentieth century, USA conservatives tended to fight against textbooks instead of individual teachers, because they usually couldn’t find out much about what classroom teachers were actually doing on a day-to-day basis.

I wonder if Facebook will allow conservatives to take their fight right to the teachers themselves.

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.