Betsy Devos: Progressive Champion?

We could be forgiven for being confused. Ed Secretary Betsy Devos just delivered a rousing endorsement of progressive ideas about schooling and education. What gives?

SAGLRROILYBYGTH might be sick of all this—maybe it’s just too obvious even to mention. But since my years wrestling with the history of educational conservatism (you can read all about it here), I can’t help but obsess over the never-clear meanings of “progressivism” and “conservatism” when it comes to schools.

Betsy-Devoe

I hart progressive ed…or do I?

And now arch-conservative Queen Betsy just threw a Grand-Rapids-size rhetorical wrench into the culture-war works. If she’s talking this way, is there any meaningful way to differentiate the two sides? I think there is.

Here’s what we know: Secretary Devos delivered a prepared talk at the free-markety American Enterprise Institute. In her speech, she harped on progressive themes. Consider the following examples:

  • Progressives say: High-stakes testing is bad.

Quoth Queen Betsy:

As states and districts scrambled to avoid the law’s sanctions and maintain their federal funding, some resorted to focusing specifically on math and reading at the expense of other subjects. Others simply inflated scores or lowered standards.

  • Progressives say: Teachers have been disempowered.

Quoth Queen Betsy:

Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.

Quoth Queen Betsy:

we must rethink school.

  • Progressives say: Factory schooling is needlessly rigid and dehumanizing, yet it persists.

QQB:

Think of your own experience: sit down; don’t talk; eyes front. Wait for the bell. Walk to the next class. Repeat. Students were trained for the assembly line then, and they still are today.

  • Progressives say: Schooling should focus on the needs and experiences of every individual child.

QQB:

That means learning can, should, and will look different for each unique child. And we should celebrate that, not fear it! . . .

Our children deserve better than the 19th century assembly-line approach. They deserve learning environments that are agile, relevant, exciting. Every student deserves a customized, self-paced, and challenging life-long learning journey. Schools should be open to all students – no matter where they’re growing up or how much their parents make.

  • Progressives say: School must help make society more equitable. More resources must be dedicated to schooling for low-income Americans and students from minority groups.

QQB:

That means no more discrimination based upon zip code or socio-economic status. All means all….

We should hope – no, we should commit – that we as a country will not rest until every single child has equal access to the quality education they deserve.

What are we to make of all this intensely progressive-sounding rhetoric?

Some pundits pooh-pooh it. ILYBYGTH’s favorite progressive ed writer offers a perfect, pointed put-down: “poison mushrooms look edible.

It is not difficult, after all, to see how Secretary Devos’s endgame is different from that of most progressives. Unlike progressives, Queen Betsy’s final goal is an old conservative favorite, namely, the reduction of federal influence in public schooling. If Devos mouths progressive phrases, she also always returns to the same ultimate desire.

Consider these lines:

QQB:

  • federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped….

  • The lesson is in the false premise: that Washington knows what’s best for educators, parents and students….

  • The lessons of history should force us to admit that federal action has its limits.

In the end, then, what we’re seeing here is the same old, same old. All sides in our hundred-years culture war have shifted tactics from time to time, while generally keeping the same long-term strategies.  As I argue in my book (and if you’re really lazy you can read a brief version of this in my short essay at Time), for example, in the 1920s, it was conservatives who pushed hard for an increased federal presence in local schools. Why? Because they thought it would force greater Americanization of immigrants and pinkos.

Devos’s canny adoption of progressive rhetoric is another example of this culture-war scheme. All sides tend to use whatever language best helps them achieve their long-term goals. They We tend to fight for any short-term goal that promises to bring them us closer to their our ultimate aims.

For Devos and her allies, the big picture is more religion, more privatization, and more tradition in public schools. Right now, they apparently think local school districts are the most likely governments to help achieve those aims. If bashing “factory models” and “inequality” will help achieve the ultimate goals, so be it.

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Why Schools Will Always Be Segregated

How is this possible? Most of us want integrated public schools, but it’s not going to happen. Why not? As Nikole Hannah-Jones insisted in a recent interview, school segregation isn’t the result only of racist or white-supremacist feelings, but rather of a basic, ugly truth about what schools are really for.

It’s not something we like to talk about. We like to think of our public schools in Horace Mann’s terms. In his famous 1848 report, Mann called schools the “great equalizer.” For Massachusetts and America—Mann argued just as the spectre of communism stalked Europe—common schooling would temper the growing class divide. Instead of a revolution, Mann dreamed, common schools would help America gently rise up, all together. Ever since Mann’s day, politicians insist and assume that public schools can save America. Everyone from Barack Obama to Betsy DeVos harps on the notion that schools can make America more equal, more fair.

There is truth in that dream. We can all recite cases of extraordinary students and families who have used unequal schools to overcome difficult economic circumstances. Public schools really can offer opportunities to talented, hard-working people.

Segregation

70% of us want more integrated schools, but 99.9% of us want something else more.

As Hannah-Jones points out, though, there is another, more powerful purpose for schooling in these United States. Like it or not, this second vision will always trump Mann’s vision of school as the great equalizer. It’s not that white parents don’t want their children to go to integrated schools. They do. As recent poll results suggest, large majorities of parents want integrated schools.

The problem is something different. Hannah-Jones agrees that many white parents in her Brooklyn neighborhood, for example, love the idea of “curated diversity.” They want a smattering of non-white children to share their children’s high-quality schools. And they love the notion that their children will go to school with the children of affluent African Americans.

But they recoil from the prospect of having their children go to schools dominated by low-income non-white children. Why?

Because, as Hannah-Jones puts it,

Even in a community where the schools pretty much suck, if there’s a school with black kids, it’s going to suck worse.

In other words, many white progressives want their children to go to diverse schools. What they won’t abide, however, is that their children will be subjected to the terrible public schools that are the common fate of low-income families.

It comes down to an often unstated but fundamental purpose of American public education: For many parents, For most parents, the primary purpose of education is not actually to make children smarter or better in general. Those might be worthy goals, most people assume, but in fact the primary purpose of education—the way most Americans see it—is to give their children an advantage in the fight for good jobs and sweet lives. As Hannah-Jones says,

if one were to believe—which I believe—that having people who are different from you makes you smarter, that you engage in a higher level of thinking—and there’s been research that shows that—that you solve problems better, there are all these higher-level ways that integration is good for white folks. . . . those are all hard soft-arguments to make to people who fundamentally view education as, how my kid will rise to the top above every other kid and get into Harvard. They don’t actually give a damn about their kid being a better person.

It may sound excessively gloomy, but Hannah-Jones is depressingly right. When we stack up the politically active parents who want to use their children to help make society more equal against the parents who want to help their children squeeze every affordable advantage out of schooling, the equalizers will always lose.

The Headline You’ll Never Read

Cereal gets stale after about two weeks. Cheese can last a while. Milk goes bad much quicker. But conservatives never seem to tire of hysterical warnings about left-wing takeovers of public schools. Your humble editor experienced a dizzying bout of déjà vu this morning reading Newt Gingrich’s furious warning about the influence of “radical, left-wing” teachers. I had to check my watch and even my calendar to make sure what year it was. It serves as another reminder: When it comes to culture-war rants about public education, there is one headline that we’ll never see.

breaking-news

The headlines we’ll never see…

Don’t get me wrong: I understand why conservative activists like Gingrich want people to think left-wingers are taking over public schools. No conservative parent is likely to open her wallet for a politician who tells her there’s nothing much to worry about. So Gingrich tries to build back his political clout by warning FoxNews readers about a “thinly veiled attempt to instill radical, left-wing political views in impressionable children.”

Gingrich is reacting to an obscure story out of Minnesota, dug up by conservative muckrakers. In Edina, Minnesota (population 51,350), the school board is apparently implementing a new inclusivity curriculum. Students will read books such as A Is for Activism. [SAGLRROILYBYGTH may remember the title from earlier fuss-and-feathers controversies about it.] As Gingrich fumes, “This is pure, unapologetic political indoctrination of American youth.”

As I argued in my book about the history of educational conservatism, Gingrich is reading word-for-word from an old conservative playbook. In the 1930s, for example, conservative activists went haywire over a textbook series by progressive-ish scholar Harold Rugg. Back then, leaders of the American Legion foamed and fumed that Rugg’s educational scheme “encourages the totalitarian borers-from-within who would destroy our democracy.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Boring…boring…boring…(c. 1941)

There’s no doubt that Harold Rugg really did hope to push American school and society to the political left. And I’m guessing some of the teachers in Edina feel the same way. But the notion that teachers and education professors are able to sneakily install a mind-warping left-wing curriculum in American public schools is simply ludicrous. Even if we wanted to—and again, I admit that some teachers and ed-school professors really do want to—such conspiracy theories miss a central truth about American education.

And that fundamental truth about schools and schooling generates the headlines you’ll never see. By and large, when conservatives want to rile up their base, they need to dig pretty hard to find teachers and districts that veer very hard to the political left. By and large, most schools are fairly traditional places, focusing on non-controversial tasks such as preparing students for jobs or college. Teachers, by and large, tend to avoid controversy.gallup people like their local schools

And that, perhaps, is what makes Gingrich’s job so hard. We know that most people—whatever their political affiliation—are happy with their local public schools. When Americans actually send their kids to a public school, they tend to be very happy with that school, even if they are pessimistic about the state of public education as a whole.

For Gingrich to get any attention, he has to pick out unusual examples of school districts far away that are doing something fairly unusual. Why? Because most of Gingrich’s audience is actually HAPPY with their local schools. Those schools don’t dabble in anything even remotely controversial. If a local community is Gingrich territory, the schools will be, too

Can Anyone Really Teach For America?

It’s personal for me. I remember being shocked and perturbed when I started teaching and realized the kinds of lives some of our students lived. It’s one thing to see it on TV; it’s another to get to know a kid who only comes to school when he feels like it because he lives in a house without any responsible adults, where there is no food but there are plenty of drugs and prostitution. Every teacher wants to help. And every good teacher realizes he or she can never help enough–the problems are so big and so overwhelming for so many kids that one great history class seems awfully meaningless in comparison.

A new memoir brings this crusty old question up one more time: How much impact can a teacher really have on students’ lives? Reading with Patrick by Michelle Kuo tells the story yet again. Kuo goes from Harvard to Arkansas with Teach For America. She finds herself shocked and unprepared for the conditions in which her students live.

At The Atlantic, reviewers gush. They write that Kuo manages to avoid the “every kind of awful” clichés of the teacher-as-savior genre.

Veteran teachers aren’t so smitten. Curmudgucrat Peter Greene laments the stale story. As he puts it,

only in teaching do we get this. Students who drop out of their medical internship don’t get to write memoirs hailed for genius insights into health care. Guys who once wrote an article for the local paper don’t draw plaudits for their book of wisdom about journalism and the media.   But somehow education must be repeatedly Columbusized, as some new tourist is lionized for “discovering” a land where millions of folks all live rich and fully realized lives.

Coincidentally, this week I’m asking the grad students I work with to consider this very question. Given the many structural and social inequities that create “tough” schools, how much positive influence can one teacher have on students’ lives?

As Greene points out, in every generation affluent Americans like to “discover” the “shocking” conditions in some urban schools. It’s such a cliché that the Onion can parody the predictable storyline without even breaking a sweat. In my class, I’m asking students to consider both the question itself and the way American pop culture keeps finding itself surprised to hear the same story.

We start with the movie Blackboard Jungle. In 1955, this movie shocked audiences by its depictions of gang warfare, sexual assault, and unruly teenagers. Oh, and of course rock-and-roll music, which was apparently a big thing at the time.

Of no surprise to SAGLRROILYBYGTH, in Blackboard Jungle, an earnest new teacher has some trouble with these violent and turbulent teens. Of even less surprise, he manages to forge positive relationships and get most of them to reevaluate their ideas about school and literature.

Next up: Up the Down Staircase. This 1960s memoir told the same story. In the 1967 film version, we see the earnest and affluent teacher move in to an urban high school. The students are rowdy. They are not all white. They give the teacher trouble.

After some twists—including one frank African American drop-out who explains to the naïve teacher the uselessness of school credentials in his life—the teacher manages by dint of personal awesomeness to help her students get something out of school.

Last but not least, we hear the story again in 2007’s Freedom Writers. In this version, we have an earnest and affluent teacher—wait for it—teaching in a gritty and violent urban school.

I don’t know if you need to hear the rest. It’s the same story told in twenty-first century accents. After significant struggle, by dint of extraordinary effort and personal moxie the heroic teacher manages to connect with her students. The students recognize their own potential as writers, thinkers, and voices for social change.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying these stories aren’t heroic in some sense. Most Harvard grads don’t take Kuo’s detour through Arkansas before law school. And even fewer return when things get scary. And I’m certainly not saying I don’t share the moral dilemma of these teachers.

But I still struggle to make sense of a few key questions:

  • Why do Americans keep finding themselves surprised to hear this same story?
  • Are these really “inspiring” or “hopeful” stories, when nothing has actually changed for most students?
  • What long-term impact can isolated, self-sacrificing teachers have in a hierarchical society?

Take the Terrible Schools Challenge

This week, I’m asking graduate students to consider a tough question: Are America’s public schools terrible? For our seminar, I asked them to read arguments from a bunch of smart people who say that it is, for different reasons. It leads us to our ILYBYGTH challenge of the week: Can you find a pundit these days who DOESN’T think schools are a mess?

For class, we read snippets from Paolo Freire, E.D. Hirsch Jr., and Terry Moe and John Chubb. They don’t agree on much, but they all started from the premise that most schools are horrible.

For Freire, the big problem was that schools tend to recreate the social hierarchies of an oppressive society. Even well-meaning teachers tend to see school as, at best, a way to help students get ahead in an inherently unfair society.

For Hirsch, the problem was Freire. Well-meaning progressives, Hirsch argues, think that teachers need to liberate students from learning. Balderdash, Hirsch argues. If we really want to make a more egalitarian society, we need schools to pour information into students more efficiently. We can’t afford to have teachers who try not to “bank” information into students.

For Moe & Chubb, the problems are rooted in stultifying tradition and self-seeking politics. Too many schools keep repeating mistakes of generations past, locked into inefficient and unfair structures because of the political power of entrenched organizations such as teachers’ unions.

Three very different visions of how to make schools better, but all with a strong agreement that schools today are terrible. We know that most Americans tend to have a skewed vision about school quality. According to Gallup, people think their kids’ schools are great, their local schools are fine, but the nation’s schools are abysmal.public view of public schools gallup

Why is that? Why do so many of us assume without thinking about it that public schools are terrible, when the local schools that we see every day are great?

Could it be because every pundit begins with the assumption that public schools are, at best, a cruel joke? Like Freire, Hirsch, Moe, and Chubb, writers about education tend to start with dire alarms. Whether you read the retreat-and-regroup plans of neo-Benedictine Rod Dreher, the subway fare of the “failure factory” headlines in the NY Daily Post, or the neo-progressive hand-wringing of Diane Ravitch, you could be excused for assuming that we must be in the midst of an alarming educational crisis.

Whatever their politics, most pundits start from the assumption that schools are terrible. So here’s our challenge: Can you find news headlines that disagree? Can you find stories out there about successful schools and wonderful teachers?

The Amazing Historio!

That’s right, folks, the Amazing Historio can tell the future. I can predict with shocking accuracy the path any new school-reform panacea will take. Actually, it’s not very amazing. Any teacher can do it. Anyone who has been paying attention can do it. The pattern is so depressingly predictable that the only real challenge is figuring out why journalists keep buying tickets for the same show. This time around, the story comes from San Antonio.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH know I’m working on a new book about America’s first urban school reformer, Joseph Lancaster. It’s not to Lancaster’s credit that his loud-mouthed ego-trip school-reform plan established this depressing pattern in the 1810s.

Here’s how it goes: A well-meaning, energetic young person pours his or her heart into building a great school. It works. Soon, the students are doing far better than anyone believed possible.

Buoyed by success, the reformer will build his or her ideas into a marketable plan, something that he or she promises will be able to fix urban schools without costing any more tax money.

It doesn’t work. Turns out, the thing that was really fueling the improvement was not any specific method of teaching or of organizing schools, but rather the energy and dedication that the community poured into its original reform effort. As soon as the “reform” becomes standard, it loses its pep and becomes merely business as usual.

Soon, jealous hacks notice that the reformers’ big promises didn’t pan out, and after explaining away the failure for a while, the reformer goes into some sort of awkward retirement.

For Joseph Lancaster in the early 1800s, his big reform was the “Lancastrian” system, which set up hundreds of kids from low-income urban families in big school warehouses, goaded by older student monitors. It worked great at first, at the Borough Road School in London. Lancaster ate lunch with kings and presidents and promised his system could save every city from hordes of illiterate urchins.

borough road school 1805

The solution, c. 1805. Never again would urban students from low-income families suffer from lower-quality education.

But guess what: Lancaster’s schools didn’t save every city. Students hated them. Parents hated them. Soon, Lancaster was in monstrous debt and his many detractors accused him of venality and obfuscation.

You’d think we’d learn the lesson, but we haven’t. The pattern has repeated itself with every new promise of a silver-bullet reform that will “save” urban education. Ask Colonel Parker. Ask Rod Paige.

And now we can ask Julian Castro in San Antonio. As a recent profile in Politico reports, the former mayor has built his meteoric career on a school-reform plan for the Texas city. The heart and soul of the plan is to enroll every San Antonian four-year-old in high-quality pre-kindergarten with a progressive pedagogy.

SA pre k

The solution, c. 2017. Never again will students from low-income families suffer from lower-quality education.

So far, so good. Getting every student into great schools really IS a great way to reform urban education. The problem is not in the idea itself. Rather, the problem comes when ambitious reformers think they have found a simple, transferable method for fixing schools. The problems begin to pile up when those same reformers hope to build their political careers by wildly overpromising.

In this case, the CEO of San Antonio’s program read her lines directly from Joseph Lancaster’s disastrous centuries-old script. As Politico reports,

Pre-K 4 SA has posted impressive results. Its kids start below the national average in cognition, math and literacy, and finish the year above average. Its founders have become evangelists for the idea that early-childhood education is key to giving poor kids an equal chance to succeed in school and life. The goal, says Sarah Baray, Pre-K 4 SA’s CEO, is nothing less than “to change the trajectory of San Antonio in one generation.”

Again, I’m all for progressive pre-K programs. I’m all for giving all students a great early education. Those are great things.

The problem comes when ambitious reformers suggest that changing the methods or structure of school will solve the problems of low-income families. The problems come when politicians promise that their plan will level the playing field and solve the challenges of poverty in a single generation.

They won’t, and it seems nearly criminal to build a career by making these obviously extravagant promises. When the politicians and CEOs have moved on to Washington DC and cushy corporate sinecures, local schools are always left tackling the same problems as ever.

The recipe for real reform is obvious, but it is never easy. Every kid should attend a school in which the entire community is engaged and enthusiastic. That’s not easy and it’s not cheap. But as we all know, it is the only school reform that really works.

Anything else is just hot air.

Wait…WHAT Is “A” For?

A is for Activist. Or…no wait, turns out A is for Apologetics. No matter what your cultural politics, it seems everyone wants to indoctrinate the children. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH know, that’s just not how education really works.

Here’s what happened: I couldn’t help but notice the odd coincidence I stumbled across recently. From the progressive-y-est progressives to the staunchest fundamentalists, everyone seemed to be shilling similar sorts of books for young people—books meant to inoculate children politically or theologically against their environments.

a is for activist

A recent story in the New York Times describes the trend among lefties. Board books such as A Is for Activist have sold tens of thousands of copies. As one bookseller noted, prog parents seem to want to protect their children from Trumpism. As she put it,

When racist, misogynistic and hateful rhetoric has become mainstream, offering affirming and respectful messages to my children seems more urgent than ever.

The books offer cute lines for young readers, stuff like this:

‘F’ is for Feminist. For fairness in our pay.

‘J’ is for Justice! Justicia for all.

L-G-B-T-Q! Love who you choose.

Who buys such stuff? Progressive parents who worry that their children might not come to these conclusions on their own. As one mother told the Times,

Because we are a white, heterosexual, cisgender family living in a racially homogeneous area…we strove to have people of color in our books, or families, maybe, with two dads or two moms.

Will it work? Not really. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t shared across culture-war trench lines.

Among his summer outreach projects, for example, creationist impresario Ken Ham announced a new set of books for fundamentalist youth. Instead of A being for Activist, though, Ham’s books make A for Apologetics. (B, by the by, is for “Biblical Authority.” C is for “Chronological.”)AIG ABC

If we ignore the content of his warnings, Ham’s attitude sounds almost identical to that of the nervous progressive parents. Why do parents need new ABC books? Because, Ham warns, his “national research” has determined that too many fundamentalist children end up abandoning their faith. In these perilous times, Ham warns, parents and churches need new resources to help keep their children on the straight and narrow.

On both sides, parents are nervous about the future beliefs of their toddlers. Both sides worry that their environments are politically or religiously dangerous. And both sides hope that a well-placed book will make the difference between faith and failure.

And, of course, both sides are wrong. Books matter. But no book can turn any child into something he or she is not. No kid today, for example, would turn into a Puritan if he or she stumbled across the New England Primer.

NewEnglandPrimerAtoM

Whoops! Turns out “A” is actually for “Adam’s Fall.”

Rather, books—like formal schooling itself—are only a small part of the education of young people. If progressive parents raise their children in a homogenous, anti-diversity community, their children will probably think those values are right on. And if fundamentalists raise their children to inquire deeply into their faith, those children will probably grow up to do so.

Why Does America Stink?

It’s those damn teachers. At least, that’s the crusty old complaint revived for the Fourth of July holiday by crusty conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer. Whether you’re a flag-waver or a flag-burner, there are two big problems with Krauthammer’s sorts of accusations.

Krauthammer was responding to a Fox News poll that says only a bare majority of Americans are proud of America. And a huge majority think the Founding Fathers would be saddened by the way things are today.

Why the funk?

Krauthammer blames a long march of leftists. “Starting in the Sixties,” he told Tucker Carlson,

the counter-cultural left had a strategy…[they] went into the professions – the teaching professions, and they’ve essentially taken over. That generation of radicals runs the universities, they run the teachers’ unions, they run the curricula.

The left-wing teachers, Krauthammer insisted, had taught defenseless kids “abnormal, anti-American, and destructive” ideas. Since the 1960s, Krauthammer explained, the Left’s long game had undermined American patriotism.

Krauthammer Kommentary

Can you spot the two blunders…?

Let’s put to one side the most obvious problem with Krauthammer’s Fox-usations. The Fox poll found—surprise!—that Democrats tended to be less proud of the current state of the county. Well…duh. Of course a majority of Democrats are not “proud” of the current state of the United States. Of course a lot of Americans are feeling sketchy about the current direction of America’s leadership.

And, to be fair, that is the first place Krauthammer looked. He started by saying that people’s feelings about Trump are the most likely culprit for the poll results. But then he goes on to make two common assumptions that drive teachers and historians bonkers.

First, he inflated the power of schools and teachers. He related a story of his own family’s school. He had to protest, he said, to get his children’s school to teach any European history at all. Left to their own devices, the teachers would have utterly ignored anything European in their fervent quest to teach children about the rest of the world.

Ask any teacher, though, and they’ll tell you how it really is: Kids’ politics are shaped by their families and friends, not by their forty-five minute social-studies lessons. All of us who try to teach US History have had experiences similar to the one related by Stanford’s Sam Wineburg. Wineburg studied a history teacher who tried to teach his class about the Vietnam War. To his chagrin, he found that his high-school students had already made up their minds about it. For some students, the moral quandaries of the war had been settled at home around the dinner table, long before the school bell rang.

Moreover, Krauthammer repeats the wrong-headed assumption made by pundits both left and right. He assumes that the tension over patriotism and schooling began in the 1960s. As I argued in my book about the history of educational conservatism, Krauthammer’s jeremiad about leftist teachers could have come from almost any decade. Conservatives have ALWAYS assumed that left-wing teachers had taken over the schools. There’s nothing “Sixties” about it.

If you switched the dates around, in fact, it would be difficult to tell them apart, whether they came from the 1930s, the 1960s, or today. Consider the punditry of B. C. “Bertie” Forbes. Forbes built up his business journalism into the magazine that bears his name. Long before Fox News, long before the “Sixties,” Forbes was out-Krauthammering Krauthammer with his accusations against sneaky left-wing infiltration of the teaching professions.

Forbes complaint

Cranky before cranky was cool…

The problem, Forbes explained in his syndicated newspaper column, was that universities had been “infested” with “radical professors.” Those left-wingers, Forbes charged, had taken over the teaching profession. A set of textbooks by Harold Rugg, especially, set a dangerous tone. And, just like Krauthammer, Forbes assumed that those books had the power to instantly convert and confuse America’s schoolchildren. “If I were a youth,” Forbes wrote to his local school-board president,

I would be converted by reading these Rugg books to the belief that our whole American system, our whole American form of government, is wrong, that the framers of our Constitution were mostly a bunch of selfish mercenaries, that private enterprise should be abolished, and that we should set up Communistic Russia as our model.

Just like Krauthammer, Forbes relied on his own experiences to prove his accusations. Forbes visited a junior-high school, for example, and asked students if they loved America. They told him they weren’t allowed to. Their teacher—reading dronishly from her left-wing textbook—had informed them that “There are several other countries that have as good a form of government as ours.”

Forbes was shocked. He couldn’t blame the “Sixties,” but he didn’t need to. He took to the pages of his syndicated column to share his outrage. “Do American parents,” Forbes asked,

want their children taught such ideas? Do they want them to be inculcated with the idea that the United States is a second-rate country, that its form of government is open to question, that there are other countries more happily circumstanced and governed than ours?

For Forbes in 1939, just as much for Krauthammer today, the danger was real and immediate. Leftist teachers hoped to warp the minds of their pupils with their anti-American ideas.

So, SAGLRROILYBYGTH, let’s keep two things in mind as we celebrate the Fourth of July. First, whatever pundits might say, teachers and schools don’t have the power to dictate patriotism. Even if they wanted to—and they have wanted to!—schools couldn’t cram pro- or anti-American feelings down kids’ throats. In the end, schools only have a smallish influence on what people really think.

Second, if you share Krauthammer’s pessimism about schools today, don’t share his short-sighted historical blunders. We can’t blame or praise the “Sixties” as the roots of today’s culture wars. The Sixties were just another round of a conflict that had started long before.

HT: MM

The Third Rail in American History

It’s more than just “not easy to talk about.” Among the many controversial issues in American history, there’s nothing more difficult to address. A new educational outreach program tries to get people to talk about it, but I’m not very optimistic that it will have the kind of results it should. Why is this such a dynamite topic? I think it has something to do with pronouns. I’ll explain.

Let me back up a little bit and tell my story: A few years back I was invited to deliver a keynote address at a social-studies teachers’ conference at a large urban school district. They had invited me to speak because their annual theme was “Teaching Controversial Issues in US History.” I was delighted. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are painfully aware, I obsess over such questions.equal justice initiative

A few weeks before the conference, I was talking with the planners about my talk. I told them I planned to include a discussion of the topic of lynching. I planned to lead a workshop for teachers about the intense difficulties of teaching American students about it. I planned to share resources with them and get them to share their experiences.

The planners blanched. No way, they said. Not that they prohibited me from going ahead, but they told me that even mentioning the word “lynching” would cause immediate uproar. Let me repeat: This was a meeting of social-studies teachers. This was a group of people who taught history all day every day. And, in the opinion of people who knew them best, they would not tolerate a discussion of the topic of lynching.

It’s not just my experiences. A while back, an elementary teacher got in trouble in Florida for using a coloring book that featured an image of a lynching. It was considered too controversial to teach children about the history of lynching.

image-from-who-was-jim-crow-coloring-book

Too much knowledge?

Right now, I’m not interested in questions of free speech and anti-intellectualism. Rather, I’m concerned with the bigger question: Why is it so impossible to talk about lynching? Why is it so controversial to teach this topic in American classrooms?

It’s not because smart people aren’t trying to get us to talk about it. And it’s not because there aren’t good teaching materials out there. The Equal Justice Initiative has been trying to address this problem for a while now. They recently released their online platform to teach about lynching and the history of racial violence in America.

Will it get more teachers to talk about lynching? I wish I could be more optimistic. I think the problem is more deeply rooted than it might seem. It goes all the way down to the grammatical level. When most of us talk about history, that is, we talk about it in ways that make it very difficult to calmly consider the history of racial violence. If we’re talking about the Trail of Tears, for example, depending on who we are, we say things like, “We forced them to move;” or “They pushed us off our land.”

So when it comes to talking about lynching, we can’t teach students about it without saying things like, “We terrorized the African American community with whippings, burnings, and hangings;” or, “We have always been attacked when we tried to assert our rights.” We can’t teach the history without confronting students’ own moral culpability.

Please don’t get me wrong: I believe it is important to acknowledge and address historical culpability. But that is an effort that can and should be separated from historical education. I want students of all ages to know and understand the true history of these United States. As I’ve argued in the case of other controversial topics such as evolution education, I believe we can do that separately from a moral campaign (which I also happen to support) to address the grievous racial injustices that have always been part of American society and history.

Too often, the only times the history of lynching has been addressed has been as part of an effort at political indoctrination. That is, left-leaning historians have taught about it as a way to show that America has always teetered on the edge of racial apocalypse. Right-leaners have downplayed the importance of the subject, suggesting that such “unfortunate” parts of American history don’t really tell the whole story. Most often, as with every controversial topic, history teachers just politely ignore the subject. That’s more than a shame.

Burying the painful history of lynching in layers of ignorance and euphemism will not make it go away. We need to teach students the real history of this country. And we can do that without wrapping it in layers of ideology and indoctrination.

Call Me, Mark Zuckerberg!

B-ding! There it is again, the silver-bullet school-reform alert. As long as there have been rich people and schools, we have seen well-meaning but misplaced attempts at reform. The latest round comes from Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, our Facebook Overlords. In order to help people succeed in school and life, their foundation has established a “Manhattan Project” to bring equity to the standardized-testing game.

It won’t work. Historians don’t know much, but we do know one thing: No matter how much money we pour into silver-bullet schemes, they always prove disappointing. It’s not due (only) to mismanagement or incompetence, but rather to the nature of schooling itself. There’s a better way to go about it, but it doesn’t offer the same sort of headline-grabbing oomph.

Here’s the latest: Zuckerberg and Chan are donating a bazillion dollars to get SAT-prep courses to low-income students. The goal is to increase students’ test scores, even if the students can’t afford test-prep courses. So far, the SAT game has been skewed heavily in favor of students who take such courses. They have higher scores, not due to talent or even “grit,” but rather because they come from families with money and time to spare. So they get into college more easily. They get scholarships more easily. In other words, because they had more advantages to start with, they are given more advantages. The Facebook plan wants to offer similar bonuses to students who can’t afford to buy them.

It’s a good idea. And I’m glad Zuckerberg and Chan are looking for ways to give away their money, rather than just guzzling gold smoothies and target-shooting peasants.

But here’s the problem. Test wizard David Coleman of The College Board is over-promising. He is calling the Facebook plan a “Manhattan Project” that will radically improve educational equity. It won’t.

Just like Zuckerberg’s last ill-fated attempt to purchase social justice, this one needs to realize the scope of the problem it claims to address. Giving Cory Booker $100 million will not fix Newark. Making test-prep classes free will not give low-income students equal access to higher education.

The mantra is simple. It is not cynical. It is not depressing. But it does make it difficult for well-meaning reformers to fix things with a single stroke of their check-writing pen. SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing it, but here it is again: Schools can’t fix society. Schools ARE society.

In this case, allowing free access to test-prep materials is a good thing. But it does not address the real problems of social equity involved. It is not an accident that college success is based on things like family income and parents’ educational levels.

I’ll say it again: It is a good thing to help students from low-income families do better on high-stakes standardized tests. If the King of Facebook really wants to increase social equality, though, he should not focus on helping some students do better on those tests. He should recognize that fixing schools can only be part of fixing society.

As I argued in my book about educational conservatism, Zuckerberg’s naïve approach to social reform is not just a Facebook quirk. It has been universally accepted by all sorts of school reformers throughout history. No matter what they think society should look like, activists have always blithely assumed that changing schools would automatically make social change happen.

It’s just not that simple.

If Zuckerberg and Chan want to make society more fair, to make things less skewed in favor of the rich, there are still plenty of things they can do. They can even do it by investing in schools. They just need to think differently about the ways schools really work.

What would I do if I had Facebook money? I would invest in schools that don’t rely on SATs in the first place. I’d find schools and programs with proven track records of helping students from low-income families succeed. I’d ignore programs that focus on improving test scores, and donate instead to schools that focus on improving lives.

Priscilla and Mark, please give me a call. We can talk about the details.