I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Campus uproar, SCOTUS deliberations, and a few oddball stories, too. It’s been another whiz-bang week here at ILYBYGTH. In all the fuss, here are some stories we might have missed…

“Like trying to waltz with a wolf:” Jill Lepore in The New Yorker on the history of campus- and NFL free-speech battles.

Things are still weird in Mississippi. Hechinger looks at the ways history textbooks in the Magnolia State still leave out big chunks of uncomfortable history.Bart reading bible

SCOTUS gears up to rule on teachers’ unions. Can non-members really be forced to pay union fees?

Want to play football against the College of the Ozarks? Be sure none of your players take a knee during the national anthem.

Should Virginia Tech fire its alleged white-supremacist teaching assistant? Or is he protected by academic freedom?

Chris Lehmann takes apart the myth that good schools will lead to economic mobility, in The Baffler. HT: D

Why did so many academic historians pooh-pooh Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s new Vietnam War documentary? Jon Zimmerman offers a simple explanation at CHE. HT: NBR

Now they’ve got teachers doing it! Massachusetts substitute kneels during the Pledge of Allegiance. HT: MM

Mick Zais hated the Common Core all the way to the White House.

One liberal college’s attempt to attract conservative students, from Inside Higher Education.

Thanks to all SAGLRROILYBYGTH who sent in stories and tips.

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What Good Teachers Do

It’s a basic premise here at ILYBYGTH: If we want to understand why some parents are so ferociously opposed to evolution or sex ed or ugly history, we have to make an honest and sincere effort to see where they’re coming from. It works for the other side, too. If we hope to figure out why so many progressive teachers and activists are so deeply emotionally mortified by today’s push for teacher measurement, we need to figure out why they feel that way. As usual, the insights of Curmudgucrat Peter Greene offer an eloquent window into that world.

First, a little background. These days, the term “education reform” has come to be dominated by a certain way of thinking. Reformers such as Michelle Rhee and Arne Duncan have advocated a new way of looking at schooling. To oversimplify a little, this “reform” mindset wants to measure student progress at regular intervals. Only by getting hard data about student academic performance, the thinking goes, can we know what educational practices are actually effective.

A big part of this “reform” effort has included a new attitude toward teacher evaluations. In the past—again, speaking very generally—most teachers were evaluated by their school principals or department chairs. As today’s reformers are fond of pointing out, those in-house evaluations tended to sugar-coat their reviews. Almost all teachers turned out to be fantastic.

Reformers asked a fairly simple question: If all teachers were so fantastic, why were so many kids failing to learn?

There was also a fairly obvious follow-up: If we can replace faculty deadwood with effective teachers, our schools will improve dramatically.

Completing the syllogism, reformers implemented programs to use student test scores to measure teachers’ effectiveness. Good teachers could earn more money. Bad teachers could get help, or they could get the boot.

This approach to school reform has proved very powerful politically. It makes sense to a lot of people.

  • Good teachers = good schools.
  • Good schools = good test scores.
  • Good test scores = good teachers.

Yet for the past dozen years, we education-watchers have seen the rise of a new generation of teacher protests. Teachers have tried to explain to themselves and to the general public why this seemingly obvious logic doesn’t fit educational reality.

Most of these teacher-protests have consisted of patient but frustrated explanations of the difficulties with quantifying education success. Teachers feel beleaguered, attacked, demeaned, and misunderstood, they explain.

Such explanations might be helpful for outsiders to understand the tricky policy questions of teacher measurement. But they don’t quite capture the emotional distress many teachers feel. I think it is entirely reasonable for non-teachers to wonder if teachers are just lazy and spoiled. Why don’t teachers buck up—some might ask—and submit to evaluations that are a standard part of every other profession?

This morning we read an essay that might help bridge this gap. Peter Greene did not set out explicitly to deflate the presumptions of value-added reformers. Not in this essay, at least. His description and prescription for extra-curricular advising, though, is something every quantifier should read.

I’m biased, of course, because I whole-heartedly agree with Greene. On the narrow topic of advising as well as the bigger picture of the essential errors of those who seek to quantify good teaching. As always, I invite SAGLRROILYBYGTH to point out those places where my personal bias has led me astray.

Here’s Greene’s advice in a nutshell: teachers who serve as faculty advisors for student projects need to keep their priorities straight. Whether it is planning a prom or a yearbook, students need to be allowed to do the work themselves. They need to be allowed to make mistakes. In essence, students need to be allowed to be inefficient, unprofessional, and maybe even just plain wrong.

Why? Because that, Greene argues, is the essence of learning. As he concludes,

Lord knows, I have failed miserably many times. But I keep working at doing better. There are few things as cool as seeing your students realize their own strength, their own voices. For them to look at a project, a performance, a Thing they have created and to realize that the Thing is them, themselves, taken form in the world and taken a form that is completely in-formed by who they are.

But every time you take a choice or decision away from them, you tell them “Well, this is a thing you can’t do” or “You couldn’t handle it if anything went wrong” and that message just makes them smaller. Don’t give them that message. Don’t lead them to suspect that their voices aren’t legit, can’t hold up, shouldn’t speak out.

Confidence comes with competence, but students aren’t always good judges of their own competence (and in some times and places they don’t have much to judge). But we can help them build both by giving them support and freedom. Maybe you are a genius visionary and students will benefit immensely just by following in your wake and sweeping up the crumbs of your attention and direction. But for the rest of us mortals, giving students the safe space to figure out how they will get things done in the world and still be their best selves will just have to do.

What does any of this have to do with teacher evaluation? It doesn’t, at least not directly. For non-teachers, however, those who don’t understand why some teachers are so steamed by the imposition of value-added measures, it can help immensely.

Greene articulates in this essay two things good teachers do that value-added teacher evaluations make difficult. First, as Greene says, good teachers always work to remind themselves that the focus must be on the students, not the teacher. As Greene puts it, “It’s not about you. Yeah, we can type that out in forty-foot font.”

For good teachers, the continuous struggle is to remember that they themselves are not the main point of their work. Their excellent activities and creative lessons mean nothing if students don’t learn from them.

Value-added measurement pushes teachers to reverse that thinking. Instead of helping teachers with the difficult task of what Greene calls “the vanishing test,” value-added measures push teachers to make their own performance their first worry.

And, of course, there’s a more basic lesson to learn here. Good teachers do things that are both extremely difficult to do and utterly impossible to measure. Good teachers have the wisdom to give students what they need, when they need it. Good teachers put themselves last and students first, even if that means the students fail.

How can a test measure that? How can any number capture that?

Maybe more important, value-added measurement misses a basic and vital part of good teaching. Good teachers must allow students NOT to succeed sometimes. Learning, after all, does not happen by simply adding knowledge to ignorance. Real learning consists of fits and stumbles, mistakes and adjustments. Good teaching, Greene reminds us, is the impossible human task of guiding young people through those infinitely complicated steps.

If a test exists that can measure such things, it can’t be taken with a number two pencil.

Obama-Core?  More like Conserva-Core!

Who’s to blame?  In this year’s ferocious presidential debates, GOP candidates are falling all over themselves to point fingers about the Common Core State Standards.  Jeb Bush, who still supports the standards, has come under withering attack from folks such as Mike Huckabee, who used to.  A new report from the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution lays out the real history of the standards.  It’s true: If we have to assign praise or blame for these standards, we should be looking to the right.

Report author David Whitman does a nice job of detailing the story back to the 1980s. Still, I can’t help but be miffed when he says that this is a “surprising” story, one that “few are familiar with, and even fewer have written about.”  Of course, as SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, your humble editor has been trumpeting this history in these pages and in venues such as Time Magazine.

Conservative intellectuals, too, have done what they can to draw attention to this history.  In the pages of The Weekly Standard, for instance, free-market maven Michael Petrilli has told the story to anyone who will listen.

Such complaints aside, however, Whitman’s report is still worth reading.  He details the history of the Common Core standards themselves.  As he describes correctly, in the 1980s the drive for “high standards” was a leading conservative issue.  As Ronald Reagan’s second Secretary of Education, William J. Bennett pushed hard to make these standards a reality.

In the 1990s, Lamar Alexander continued the conservative push for more rigorous state standards.  Alexander never envisioned increasing federal control of local education.  Rather, he saw these standards as an appropriate way that the federal government could provide help to state governments as they hammered out their education policies.

Whitman also argues convincingly that conservative opposition to the standards is really about something else.  The standards themselves are fairly popular when they are not called “Common Core.”  Whitman blasts conservative politicians for using “the big lie technique” to smear the standards, to create misinformation among the public.  As Whitman cites, many Americans think the standards force children to learn about sex and evolution, when they really don’t.

Make no mistake about it: Whitman’s report is a partisan attack on conservative opposition to the Common Core.  And the SAGLRROILYBYGTH know that I generally don’t go for knee-jerk partisanship.  In this case, however, Whitman has his historical facts straight.

The Common Core was meant to be a conservative initiative.  It was meant to push schools toward more rigorous learning, away from touchy-feely progressive nostrums and toward ol-fashioned book learnin.

Whitman’s liberal glee at pointing out this irony is overdone at times, but his argument is still solid.  The Common Core represents an historic win for educational conservatives.  Why won’t they admit it?  Why do conservatives love to lose when it comes to education policy?

What Does It Mean to Be Conservative about Education?

John Miller of National Review recently sat down with yours truly to talk about my new book, The Other School Reformers: Conservative Activism in American Education. For you cheapskates out there who haven’t yet bought your copy, you can listen to this ten-minute interview to get the gist. Then go buy a copy.

What is "educational conservatism?"

What is “educational conservatism?”

Miller asks great questions that get at the heart of my efforts:

  • What does it mean to be “conservative” about education?
  • What lessons should conservatives learn from this history?
  • What can this history tell us about current conservative angst over the Common Core?
  • …and more!

Heavy Hitters Take on the Common Core, Sort of…

What is a conservative to think? Are the Common Core Learning Standards a threat? A blessing? As we’ve discussed recently in these pages, some conservative intellectuals have argued that the standards are a triumph of conservative activism. But tonight, the Family Research Council hosts a star-studded slamfest to explain all the reasons why conservatives should fight the standards. Yet it seems to me that this group will conspicuously leave out some of the most obvious reasons for conservatives to oppose the new standards.

They Are Coming for Conservatives' Children...

They Are Coming for Conservatives’ Children…

What’s the FRC’s beef with the standards? The name of tonight’s event says it all: “Common Core: The Government’s Classroom.” As have other leading conservatives including Phyllis Schlafly, Glenn Beck, conservative Catholics, and libertarians such as JD Tuccille, the heavyweights at tonight’s event will likely condemn the standards as another example of leftist government overreach.

For tonight’s roundtable, the FRC has assembled folks such as Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and University of Arkansas scholar Sandra Stotsky. Governor Jindal has taken the lead among conservative state leaders with his endless legal wrangling over the new standards. Professor Stotsky has become the academic leader of the antis. Her work with the standards’ development left her convinced that the Common Core was rotten. As Stotsky argued in a video jeremiad produced by the anti-Core Home School Legal Defense Association, the intellectual weakness of the standards presents as much of a threat as does the sneaky way they were introduced.

What is a conservative to think about the Common Core? Tonight’s video roundtable apparently hopes to convince more conservatives to fight it.

It will raise key questions about conservatism and educational politics. For example, from time to time, the anti-Core fight is tied to anti-evolution. As we noted a while back, Ohio’s now-defunct House Bill 597 pushed IN creationism as it pushed OUT the Common Core.

To this observer, it seems natural for conservatives to use the political muscle of creationism to fight against the Common Core. In some cases, conservatives have done just that, since the Next Generation Science Standards would likely push for more evolution and less creationism in America’s classrooms.

But this FRC event doesn’t mention evolution or creation. It doesn’t mention literature, history, or math, either, for that matter. Instead, the focus of tonight’s event seems to be on the federal-izing dangers inherent in the new standards.

But why not? Why wouldn’t the Family Research Council want to use every intellectual weapon at its disposal to discredit the standards in conservatives’ eyes? Maybe they will, of course.  The different panelists might emphasize different aspects of the standards.  One or some certainly might note the connection between evolution education and centralized power.  I’d love to watch and find out.

Unfortunately, I won’t be able to. If anyone has the time tonight to spend with this all-star conservative panel, I’d love to hear your thoughts…

Will the REAL Conservative Fan of the Common Core Please Stand Up

Are the new(ish) Common Core Learning Standards “conservative?” Some say yes, some say no. But even among those who say yes, we see a split. Leading conservative educational thinker Sol Stern offers one “conservative” vision of the Common Core, while Michael Petrilli gives another. And their differences can tell us a lot about the complicated world of conservative educational thinking.

Among some conservatives—some of them literally from an earlier generation—the new standards seem obviously objectionable, simply because of their provenance. Phyllis Schlafly, for example, emerged from the 1970s to bash the Common Core as a power grab by “Obama administration left-wing bureaucrats.” Some pundits from a newer generation agree. Glenn Beck and Michelle Malkin warn that the new standards are turning American kids into “guinea pigs.”

But among those conservatives who like the Common Core—or at least think the new standards are the least-bad option—we see different emphases. Both Stern and Petrilli agree that the new standards will offer a more rigorous academic experience. But Stern suggests that such rigor is the core of the conservative case for the Core, while Petrilli says that academic rigor is only one aspect of the conservative argument in favor of the new standards.

Writing in the pages of the New Criterion, Stern defends the Common Core as the best “chance of restoring traditional academic content to the classroom.” As Stern explains,

As a conservative, I remain convinced that, faults and all, the Common Core still presents a golden opportunity and a challenge for states and school districts to rethink what is taught in their classrooms. The Standards are more than just a list of learning objectives and skills that American students are expected to achieve by the end of each grade level. The most hopeful part of the new Standards is that they reject the instructional malpractice that prevents the public schools from fulfilling their historic mission of producing literate American citizens who know something about their country’s history and its republican heritage. Contrary to the conservatives’ complaints, the Common Core is, in fact, a document that the founders would approve.

Michael Petrilli does not disagree. He thinks the Common Core will indeed help re-introduce academic rigor to public schools. But as he argued a while back in the pages of the Weekly Standard along with co-author Chester Finn, the real score of the Core is elsewhere. As Petrilli tells the story, the road to the Common Core began back in the days of Bill Bennett, Reagan’s second secretary of education.

Petrilli argues that the new standards fulfill a generation-long conservative plan to make schools more measurable, more interchangeable. With such standards in place, free-market conservatives have thought, public schools could be freed from the dead hand of left-leaning teachers’ unions. Parents could be offered a market-friendly menu of charter schools and voucher-funded private schools.

In Petrilli’s words,

Standards do a good job of clarifying the public’s expectations for schools, and signaling to parents and taxpayers whether the campus down the street is educating its students poorly or well. But standards-based reform has never had a suitable answer for failing schools. It can identify them but has had little success turning them around.

Choice, on the other hand, is great at creating new school options, places that can replace the failures and give needy kids decent alternatives. Yet market-based reform needs reliable consumer information for it to lead to strong outcomes—information that standards and tests are excellent at providing.

We might describe this difference in conservative emphases as a difference between a “classroom” approach to conservative school reform and a “systemic” approach. Or maybe a “traditionalist” versus a “free-market” approach.  And, again, we don’t want to make these plans sound entirely exclusive.

But it seems as if Stern is arguing that the heart of “conservative” reform must be with an intellectual change in the way kids are taught. Stern excoriates pedagogical ideas such as “balanced literacy.” Instead, Stern celebrates the approach of anti-progressive E.D. Hirsch. Instead of looking at structural reforms, Hirsch and Stern wanted conservative reforms to begin in the classroom. Students needed to learn basic cultural information, to focus on “Core Knowledge.”

Petrilli, on the other hand, emphasizes a different approach. Academic rigor is important, Petrilli argues, but it is only one of the reasons for conservatives to support the Core. At least as important, Petrilli says, is the boost the standards will give to school choice. Without what Petrilli calls “true external standards,” it will always be impossible to introduce a true educational marketplace. After all, how can parents know what school is the best if there are not measures that compare schools in a fair way?

In any case, these conservative pleas in favor of the Common Core might be too little, too late. Recent polls have indicated plummeting popular support for the new standards. In spite of the smart arguments of intellectuals like Stern and Petrilli, parents might decide that these standards are just too iffy.

 

Common Core Poisons the Well

What’s wrong with the Common Core?  According to one conservative scholar, it threatens to take away the very glue that holds our culture together.

As we’ve seen, no one is quite sure what to make of the new Common Core State Standards.  In addition to debates over the efficacy of these new curriculum and assessment tools, progressives and conservatives all argue about whether or not these standards are ideologically dangerous.  Some conservatives say the standards are anti-Catholic.  Others blast them as a “progressive beer bong.”  Still other conservatives defend the Common Core standards as the least bad approach to public schooling.

In a recent speech, historian Terrence O. Moore of Hillsdale College revived another accusation: The Common Core is taking away our great stories.  According to the Christian Post, Moore blamed the new standards for culture-cide.  The standards, Moore insisted, “attempt to take away the great stories of the American people and replace them with the stories that fit the progressive, liberal narrative of the world.”

Too often, Moore concluded, the new standards encourage teachers and students to read about our culture’s great narratives, rather than spending time with the narratives themselves.  As a result, Moore said, the real aim of education is thwarted.  Instead of pushing the Common Core’s goal of “college and career readiness,” real education should push young people to become more human.

In his new book on the subject, Moore spells out his argument in fuller depth.  I admit, I haven’t read the book.  But I wonder if Moore is aware of his ideological genealogy.  In his book, Moore blames “The Story-Killers” of the Common Core standards for turning students away from their rich intellectual heritage.  He offers a “common-sense” solution to the problem.  With the general argument and even the offer of a new common-sense conservative approach to schooling, Moore is reviving the 1960s-era talk of Max Rafferty.

Max Rafferty isn’t a name we hear much in conservative talk about schooling and education, but it should be.  As California’s State Superintendent of Education in the 1960s and as a popular syndicated columnist, Rafferty spelled out many of the ideas that Moore seems to revive.

For example, in a 1963 collection of his newspaper columns, Rafferty complained of the mindless watering down of curriculum.  Students used to read our culture’s great stories, but since the 1930s more and more of them had been brutalized with intellectual pablum.  If you doubted it, Rafferty wrote, just try this experiment: Take any class of students.

suddenly, as though opening an enchanted window upon a radiant pageant, give them the story of the wrath of Achilles. . . .

Watch their faces. . . .

This is teaching.  This is what you trained to do. . . .

Let us say to these diluters of curricula, these emasculators of texts, these mutilators of our past, ‘We have had enough of you.  The world is weary of you. . . . With your jargon of behaviorism and Gestalt and topological vectors and maturation levels, you have muddied the clear waters of childhood long enough.  You have told us to teach the whole child, but you have made it impossible to teach him anything worth learning.  Little by little you have picked the meat from the bones of Education and replaced it with Pablum.  You have done your best to produce a race of barely literate savages.

Just as Moore apparently does in his recent book, Rafferty insisted that the solution for this “utilitarian” nonsense was simple “common sense.”  In a 1964 book, Rafferty laid out his vision of the power of common sense.  “Common sense,” Rafferty insisted,

                told us that the schools are built and equipped and staffed largely to pass on from generation to generation the cultural heritage of the race.

Common  sense took for granted that children could memorize certain meaningful and important things in early life and remember them better in later years than they could things that they had not memorized.

Common sense in recent years believed that putting children of like abilities together for at least a part of their school experience would help them to find their own rate of achievement and advance accordingly.

Common sense, since anyone could remember, had always held that children who did their homework covered more ground in school and learned more than children who didn’t.

Common sense told us that discipline, like good manners, had to be taught to a child over a period of years.

Does Professor Moore know about Rafferty’s arguments?  Or do these ideas just cycle back around for conservative intellectuals?

Max Rafferty’s books used to be widely read.  Not so much anymore.  I wonder if more conservatives would be interested in digging into their own intellectual heritage.

Catholics against the Common Core

Don’t do it, a group of Catholic academics advised their bishops recently.  Don’t let Catholic schools follow the new Common Core Learning Standards.

As with everything Catholic, the signatories of this letter were a diverse bunch.

They were led by Notre Dame’s Gerard Bradley and included prominent conservatives such as Anthony Esolen, Robert George, and Patrick Deneen.  Also signing on was Lehigh University’s intelligent-design black sheep, Michael Behe.

Why did this group want to keep the new standards out of Catholic schools?

For one thing, they argued the new focus on nonfiction threatens to water down the rich cultural heritage of Catholic schooling.  “Common Core,” the letter charges,

shortchanges the central goals of all sound education and surely those of Catholic education: to grow in the virtues necessary to know, love, and serve the Lord, to mature into a responsible, flourishing adult, and to contribute as a citizen to the process of responsible democratic self-government. . . . Perhaps a truck-driver needs no acquaintance with Paradise Lost to do his or her day’s work.  But everyone is better off knowing Shakespeare and Euclidean geometry, and everyone is capable of it.

But there is more at stake than just a profound, moral education.  Bradley’s letter worries that future new standards will directly contradict the specifically religious values at the heart of the Catholic faith.  As the letter put it,

In science, the new standards are likely to take for granted, and inculcate students into a materialist metaphysics that is incompatible with the spiritual realities—soul, conceptual thought, values, free choice, God—which Catholic faith presupposes.  We fear, too, that the history standards will promote the easy moral relativism, tinged with a pervasive anti-religious bias, that is commonplace in collegiate history departments today.

As Richard Perez-Pena noted in the New York Times, the letter-writers do not represent the entirety of Catholic opinion.  Sister John Mary Fleming, executive director for Catholic education at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said she viewed the new standards as an opportunity, not a threat.  And Sister M. Paul McCaughey, superintendent of Chicago’s Catholic schools, agreed that Catholic schools must maintain their high educational standards, but did not see the standards as a problem.