The REAL Fight about School Reform

It’s not about charters. It’s not about vouchers. It’s not about the power of unions or the role of standardized tests. The fundamental disagreement at the heart of our protracted inability to improve our public schools comes from something else entirely. As a recent commentary from the free-marketeers at Flypaper makes clear, this basic disagreement fuels big dilemmas about school funding and function.

Recently, Ian Rowe made some powerfully true points about this tricky truth at the core of school reform. But he also demonstrated how easy it is to draw some powerfully false conclusions. Rowe worked briefly at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and he is reacting to the Gates’s recent self-examination of their twenty-first century school reform efforts.

As Rowe correctly points out, spending money—even Microsoft-style bajillions—on silver-bullet school reforms will never be enough to correct the glaring and lamentable differences between public schools for children from affluent families and public schools for low-income families. That is, simply by paying for new school formulas such as smaller schools, more invasive standardized testing, or new subject standards, school reform will never achieve its real goals. Even with new computers or standardized tests, schools for low-income students will never offer the same opportunities and life chances that richer students get.

Rowe is 100% correct that such silver-bullet attempts will always fail because they get the school-reform equation backwards. We shouldn’t think about using schools to equalize a ruthlessly hierarchical society—we first need to pay attention to the reasons that society itself is divided between haves and have-nots.

After that, however, Rowe goes off the rails. His intellectual crash-and-burn illustrates the real dilemma at the heart of school reform.

For Rowe, the real problem with educational inequality has its roots with the culture of low-income Americans. If schools are to offer real opportunities for people to climb up the economic ladder, we need to focus first and foremost on changing that culture. Too many families, Rowe notes, have only one parent. And too many families suffer from immature and even immoral parenting.

To heal America’s divisions, Rowe argues, we need to encourage “parent accountability.” Too many adults in low-income families, Rowe insists, mar their children’s chances at a good education because the adults themselves dawdle in a “state of perpetual adolescence.”

Rowe’s prescription is simple. Schools must change the culture of young people. As he puts it,

Educators can teach students the sequence of life choices—education, work, marriage, then children—that is highly correlated with economic and life success, and that would empower students to overcome substantial race- and class-based institutional barriers.

Rowe is entirely correct that school reform will always fail when it tries to use flashy new methods to offer students from low-income families the same life choices enjoyed by students from more affluent homes. But he is woefully, dangerously incorrect when he suggests that the answer is to use schools to teach children not to be like their parents.

Our latest research, after all, shows that schools are not the biggest factor in economic mobility. That is, success in getting through high school and maybe college to get a better job than your parent had is mostly not do to the schools themselves, but other factors. And Rowe is right that a big part of those outside factors is family structure.Rothstein

The real disagreement at the heart of our school-reform dilemma is about what comes next. By and large, Americans don’t like to talk about the real problem. We don’t like to talk about the fact that some Americans don’t have an equal shot at the American dream. We don’t like to acknowledge the obvious truism that band-aid reforms to some schools here and there are laughably inadequate solutions.

We can’t even agree on what poverty means. For many Americans, especially conservatives and religious Americans, the main cause of poverty is “individual failings.” If only people worked harder and delayed gratification, the thinking goes, they would move up to better jobs and nicer neighborhoods. As recent surveys show, the rest of us tend to blame social structure and “difficult circumstances.” The most important factor in persistent poverty—in this way of thinking—is the way society itself discriminates against poor people, squeezing them into worse houses, with worse schools and worse jobs.

Unless and until we can figure out this persistent disagreement about what it means to be poor in America, our sporadic attempts at school reform will continue to disappoint. Like Bill Gates, well-meaning but poorly informed reformers will wonder where all their money went with so little to show for it.

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Bill Gates Pushes a Rope

Must be tough. All that money and doodly-squat to show for it.

Bill Gates gave a speech yesterday about his plans to fix American education. He has found the secret, he explained. It took him seven years and ba-jillions of dollars, but he has found it. Seems like he could have just spent a few hours and thirty bucks to discover why his big plans are still doomed to failure.

Gates isn’t alone. Other new-rich tech types have also crashed on the reefs of education reform. Most recently, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg frittered away $100 million in a good-hearted but wrong-headed attempt to help Newark’s public schools.

To be fair, Bill Gates has spent more time and effort (and moolah) than Zuckerberg in his attempts to improve America’s public schools. His foundation has funded a host of reform efforts.

What has he learned? As he put it yesterday,

We set out on this path seven years ago. If I had to place our foundation somewhere on our own learning line today—where the starting point is absolute ignorance and the end point is knowing everything about great teaching and how to spread it—I would say we’re not even halfway to our goal.

But I believe we are on the right track. For today, and for the coming years, this is our vision: Every student deserves high standards. Every student deserves an effective teacher. Every teacher deserves the tools and support to be phenomenal. And all students deserve the opportunity to learn in a way that is tailored to their needs, skills, and interests.

Gates’s current plan focuses on improving teachers. In his words:

Building effective teacher feedback and improvement systems everywhere is the most important movement in American education today.

Good teachers make a huge difference, he argues correctly. And good school districts do what it takes to make their teachers better.

So what is wrong with Gates’s strategy? It’s not a secret and it’s not a surprise. Mr. Gates could have spent a few hours with David Tyack’s and Larry Cuban’s book Tinkering Toward Utopia to figure out something that every veteran teacher knows already. And it would only have cost him thirty bucks.

Read these works, ye mighty, and despair...

Read these works, ye mighty, and despair…

To wit: Good teachers are hungry for help. They want reform that will help them do a better job at what they are already doing well. But ALL teachers are good at dodging fads and gimmicks. They have to be. Every experienced teacher has survived wave after wave of “the latest thing.” We have tall bookshelves stacked with chart-packed three-ring binders about how to implement each new reform.

Teachers know what to do. When someone offers them something that helps them do it, they jump on board. Smartboards, for example, or teaching teams, are one-time “reforms” that have now become standard operating practice in many public schools. Why? Because they work. They help teachers do a better job at their jobs.

As Tyack and Cuban document, however, history is littered with the Ozymandian dreams of earlier generations of Gateses and Zuckerbergs. At the advent of television in the 1950s, for example, the US government and the Ford Foundation plunked down tens of millions of dollars to have a plane always circling the Great Plains states, broadcasting the latest educational TV programming for schools. No kidding. The plan was to have the country’s smartest experts teaching kids directly. No more vagaries of teacher quality or school efficiency. This multi-million-dollar reform was going to use the latest technology to fix American public schools in one fell swoop.

Did it transform schools? No. Why not? Because good teachers struggled to find a way to incorporate that expensive “reform” into their teaching. For some reason too mysterious for the experts to divine, students in Kansas did not want to sit quietly while fuzzy black-and-white professors laboriously explained sentence structuring or osmosis.

Bill Gates is pushing a rope. Trying to fix America’s teachers from the outside is a losing proposition. The language itself generates its own defeat. Instead of fixing America’s teachers, Gates and other well-heeled know-it-alls should focus on HELPING America’s teachers.

Bill Gates: Creation/Evolution Warrior ???

Bill Gates seems to be wading into the creationism/evolution controversies. But he doesn’t seem to know it. At least that’s the sense I get from an article in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine.

Bill-Gates-bashing is a popular sport these days among progressive-education types. I don’t usually go in for it. But this article makes it crystal clear that Mr. Gates really does have more money than sense. He seems utterly unaware of the history and context of his own pet projects.

The story focuses on Mr. Gates’ new vision for teaching World History in American high schools. Mr. Gates apparently became enamored of the lecturing style of one David Christian, an Australian historian with a penchant for offering what journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin calls a “unifying narrative of life on earth.”

Gates liked it. So he thought everyone should get it. He funded a project to bring Professor Christian’s style of “unifying” world history to high schools nationwide. Instead of lumbering through disconnected areas of culture and geography, the thinking goes, students will be electrified to see the connections behind seemingly disparate events and disciplines.

Let’s ignore for a minute the other painful moments in this article, such as when Mr. Gates gleefully notes his ignorance of the history of teaching biology in secondary schools. Gates told Sorkin happily that he had no idea about this basic history. “It was pretty uncharted territory,” Gates said, “But it was pretty cool.” Of course, this history of biology as a school subject is not at all “uncharted territory.” Even a two-second google search would have offered Mr. Gates some quick historical outlines of the issues involved.

Let’s also pass by Mr. Sorkin’s apparent ignorance of the roughest outline of American educational history, as when he states that high-school education began to be mandatory in the 1850s. It didn’t. In some states, such as Massachusetts, education became compulsory at that date. In other states compulsory education laws did not kick in until the 1910s. Even in compulsory-education states, high school was not required as such. Again, I’m not expecting a journalist like Sorkin to have delved deeply into this history. But even a check of Wikipedia would have helped.

But let’s politely ignore those howlers and move on to the main question: What does this new Gates history curriculum have to do with creationism?

Both Gates and Professor Christian do not seem aware of the long history of their sort of “unifying” history. As Jon H. Roberts demonstrated so brilliantly in his co-authored book The Sacred and the Secular University, the decisive shift away from religious moralizing in mainstream colleges came with the abandonment of the effort to offer students a satisfying “unifying” narrative.

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Roberts demonstrated, college presidents traditionally offered a capstone course in “moral philosophy.” This course hoped to give students a sense of the unifying nature of all forms of truth. In most cases, that truth was lodged in Christian theology. In other courses, too, professors in old-style colleges tended to suggest that there was a supernatural glue that held all knowledge together. It was the intellectual revolution that included Darwin’s evolutionary mechanism of natural selection that wrought a wholesale change in this sort of “unifying” education.

As Roberts’ co-author James Turner argued, this shift in university attitudes was pushed and accompanied by the rising prestige of disciplinary knowledge. In older schools, professors were supposed to pursue knowledge as such, to pursue the unifying sorts of knowledge that David Christian seems to prefer. In modern universities, that knowledge was parceled out into the academic disciplines we’re familiar with today.

What does any of this have to do with Bill Gates’ Big History Project?

Gates and Christian seem utterly unaware that the notion of a “unifying” sort of history class is not a new idea. It is, instead, a discarded idea. As philosopher Philip Kitcher might say, this is not “bad history” or “new history,” but rather “dead history.”

In its older incarnation, a sweeping history that unified all sorts of knowledge suggested that the unifying element was God. The reason students should seek knowledge in all its forms, the thinking went, was because all knowledge pointed toward the Creator.

Whether they mean to or not, Gates and Christian will have to choose what sort of unifying idea they prefer. And they seem surprisingly unaware that this choice is precisely at issue in our century-long culture war over evolution and creationism.

The Big History Project doesn’t put God at the center of its narrative. It begins with the assumption that the universe is 13.7 billion years old. It explains the roots of humanity in other forms of life. These are ideas at the center of the continuing creation-evolution controversies.   If Gates and Christian are looking to produce a Cosmos-like statement about the intellectual weakness of creationism, fine.

But they don’t even seem aware of the issue. In the NYT article, at least, Gates seems to worry only about educational bureaucrats getting in the way of his big idea.

Maybe I’m missing something. Perhaps Gates deliberately plans to bypass creationists entirely. Perhaps he hopes that by not mentioning creation/evolution controversies, he won’t have to engage with them. But for anyone even mildly aware of the current state of cultural tension over the teaching of humanity’s long history, such a curriculum seems fraught with controversy.  It seems like something they might want to think about.