Teachers Are Smarter than Elon Musk

Here’s a Sunday-morning challenge for you: How is it possible that the smartest people in the world aren’t able to figure out something that has been public knowledge for hundreds of years and that every good teacher figures out quick? As Professor Zeynep Tufekci brilliantly argued last week, the Elon Musks, Bill Gateses, and Mark Zuckerbergs of the world can’t fix schools. And though Prof. Tufekci makes a great case, it’s not new.

elon musk submarine

Elon Musk power-tube to the rescue!

Tufekci builds her case on Elon Musk’s petulant performance in Thailand. Like many of us, Musk was fascinated by the story of the trapped soccer team in Thailand. Unlike many of us, Musk has billions of dollars and twenty-two million Twitter followers. So Musk directed some lackeys to build a fancy new submarine-machine to rescue the soccer players. When local rescuers rejected Musk’s help, Musk complained on Twitter. Musk seemed unable to recognize that there was a better way to approach this problem.

As Prof. Tufekci wrote,

The Silicon Valley model for doing things is a mix of can-do optimism, a faith that expertise in one domain can be transferred seamlessly to another and a preference for rapid, flashy, high-profile action. But what got the kids and their coach out of the cave was a different model: a slower, more methodical, more narrowly specialized approach to problems, one that has turned many risky enterprises into safe endeavors — commercial airline travel, for example, or rock climbing, both of which have extensive protocols and safety procedures that have taken years to develop.

This “safety culture” model is neither stilted nor uncreative. On the contrary, deep expertise, lengthy training and the ability to learn from experience (and to incorporate the lessons of those experiences into future practices) is a valuable form of ingenuity.

Musk and his ilk do not limit their can-do arrogance to Thai cave rescues. As Tufekci argues, in public schooling as well, Silicon Valley richies tend to think they can plunk down their money, dig out incompetence, and fix schools in one fell swoop.

The Musks and Zuckerbergs of the world might be forgiven if we were in brand-new territory. But we’re not. As the late David Tyack and Larry Cuban argued so brilliantly over twenty years ago, school reformers have always tried to fix complicated educational problems with poorly prepared prescriptions.

Telegraph with numerals sketch

The technological solution to bad schools, c. 1805.

Time and time again, as Tyack and Cuban relate in Tinkering Toward Utopia, outside “experts” swoop in to fix schools with The Big New Thing. Closed-circuit television, market-based evaluation models, computerized personalized learning systems…all have been vaunted as the new solution. In every case, veteran teachers look for the good and reject the useless. In every case, teachers use the parts of the new system that help them do the real work of education, while quietly packing away the useless bits in a hallway closet.

And as I’m arguing in my new book about the historic roots of urban school reform, the Musk/Zuckerberg fallacy goes back to the very beginning. Back in the early 1800s, a young educational entrepreneur in London thought he had the solution to urban poverty. Joseph Lancaster promised that his elaborate new system—replete with cutting edge technology—would allow one school master to educate hundreds of low-income urban kids.

It didn’t work. But perhaps Lancaster can be forgiven, since his assumptions were fairly new and untested. The Musks of today have no such excuse. As Professor Tufekci concludes,

Education is a complex topic, and making a lot of money in tech is not a qualification for solving educational problems.

It’s something we have known for centuries. It is something that every teacher figures out right away. Why can’t our tech gurus see it?

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Why Are Teachers Mad at Billionaires?

It’s not just because of the cars they drive. For as long as there have been school systems, there have been outsiders who have promised radical reform. Today’s crop of tech billionaires is no different and good teachers can only shake their heads and wait for the billionaires to figure it out. If only some of the billionaires had read one book—or maybe two—they’d see the problem with their approach.

In today’s New York Times, Natasha Singer wisely warns of the lack of democratic oversight in today’s tech-based school reforms. There is another lesson billionaires should learn, though, even if they don’t care about democratic input. The history is clear: Sweeping tech-based revolutions in schooling have (almost) always ended up stashed in the hallway closets of schools across the country. There is one obvious and important exception, as historians David Tyack and Larry Cuban pointed out over twenty years ago.

Of course, we need to be fair: It’s a good thing that billionaires devote some of their loot to improving public education. Mark Zuckerberg, for example, has repeatedly put his money where his mouth is. He pledged $100 million to Newark. His foundation is now promising to invest heavily in schools. Good for him.

The problem, though, is that such outsider attempts miss a vital part of real school reform. As Tyack and Cuban argued in 1995, school reform plans work when they allow teachers to do their jobs better. They flounder when they try to force schools to adopt tech-based answers to questions no one is really asking. It doesn’t matter how expensive the plan is or how good it looks on paper.

tyack cuban tinkering

Read these works, ye mighty, and despair…

Consider, for example, the 1950s attempt to bring better schooling to rural American kids. The Carnegie Foundation teamed up with the US Congress to pour tens of millions of dollars into a radical reform program. Believe it or not, they put planes in constant motion over the Great Plains states, beaming closed-circuit educational television programs to rural schools.

It seemed like a foolproof idea, a perfect solution to rural educational oblivion, made possible by the new technology of television.

It didn’t work, though. It seems too obvious even to mention, but rural schools found that the educational TV programs didn’t fit their classroom goals. Kids didn’t learn anything. The hokey programs went unwatched, and the expensive TVs were put into hallway closets to collect dust.

As I’m finding in my current research, this pattern of well-intentioned, expensive, and unproductive technology-based radical school reform has an even longer history.

Over two hundred years ago, English reformer Joseph Lancaster insisted he had solved the problems of urban education. His new-fangled modern factory model could educate the hordes of urchins that were cramming into modern American and European cities.

No surprise: It didn’t work either. Or, to be nerdily specific, it worked…but not in the ways Lancaster had over-promised.

Lancaster’s reform plan worked—as will any reform plan in any century—when it inspired teachers, parents, students, mayors, and taxpayers to pay a lot of eager attention to their local public schools. It didn’t work when it promised a tech-based anonymous reform plan that could instantly fix any school anywhere.

lancaster schools

Radical school tech reform, c. 1807

So why are teachers mad at billionaires? Because good teachers know this central truth about what Tyack and Cuban called “the grammar of schooling.” Like any other social institution, schools are impervious to silver-bullet tech reforms. Public schools will not be magically fixed because billionaires are suddenly and temporarily interested in them.

The recipe for improving schools is not new, nor is it secret. Every good teacher already knows it. Schools are made better when an entire community is excited and involved in them. Sometimes, that excitement and involvement can be boosted by eye-catching new technology. More often, though, involvement comes from long hours and years spent in classrooms, cafeterias, meeting rooms, and athletic fields.

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.

War of the World Histories: Or, Is Bill Gates Smarter than H.G. Wells?

Tom Cruise might remember him best for his science fiction, including War of the Worlds and The Time Machine. But in the 1920s and 1930s, author H. G. Wells tried to save the world by saving the history classroom. Wells’ plan sounds eerily similar to a new revolutionary plan by gagillionaire Bill Gates. Why didn’t Wells’ scheme work, and what does that tell us about Gates’ chances?

Can Tom save this child from Bad History?

Can Tom save this child from Bad History?

Alert ILYBYGTH readers may remember our snarky critique of Bill Gates’ ingenuous entry into the evolution/creation controversies. Gates wants to revolutionize the teaching of history by replacing today’s tired curriculum with a breathless new “Big History.” Students would learn about everything ever, from the Big Bang to today’s Big Game.

As scholar Ken Osborne describes in the latest issue of the journal Historical Studies in Education, Gates is unknowingly following in the footsteps of H. G. Wells. As Osborne describes, Wells dedicated the latter half of his career to an ambitious but ultimately fruitless mission to reform history education. As Wells put it in 1921, “Upon this matter of the teaching of history, I am a fanatic.”

Just as Bill Gates did, Wells noticed that most school histories were dry and lifeless. As Wells argued in 1931,

If so many of us had not experienced it, few would believe it possible. . . . It is partly like heavy stale gossip about incredible individuals, partly like trying to get interested in the litigation of an unknown people in a remote country, and partly like watching a university don playing soldiers on his study floor.

To Wells, this was more than just a matter of wasted time. History as taught, Wells believed, had led directly to the cataclysm of World War I. Young people in each country had been drilled to believe in patriotic pablum instead of understanding themselves as part of the great unfolding of humanity. Wells was not alone in this belief. As British Prime Minister Lloyd George argued in the last year of the Great War,

The most formidable institutions we had to fight in Germany were not the arsenals of Krupp, or the yards in which they turned out submarines, but the schools of Germany. They were our most formidable competitors in business and our most terrible opponents in war.

In the years following the war, Wells published his sweeping Outline of History. As he described it,

Its background is unfathomable mystery, the riddle of the stars, the measurelessness of space and time. There appears life struggling toward consciousness . . . through millions of years . . . until it reaches the tragic confusions and perplexities of the world of to-day, so full of fear and yet so full of promise and opportunity.

Like Bill Gates, Wells wanted students to see themselves in cosmological time. Not only as citizens of a particular country, but as denizens of a universe of abiding mystery. And just as Gates wants to do with his Big History project, Wells hoped to do an end run around a hopelessly hidebound educational system. In Wells’ opinion, schools remained “a conservative force in the community . . . controlled by authority and bound officially as well as practically to respect current fears and prejudices.”

From dinosaurs to diplomacy...

From dinosaurs to diplomacy…

To overcome these prejudices, Wells devised a painstaking hour-by-hour plan to fix education. Just as Bill Gates is hoping to do, Wells hoped his ideas would take off with teachers first. Then, bit by bit, those teachers would use Wells’ grand healthy history to supplant the old musty stories.

It didn’t work. As Ken Osborne concluded, “when [Wells’ plans] were not simply ignored, dismissed as impractically utopian, or condemned as rigidly doctrinaire, they were domesticated and de-radicalized.”

It seems Bill Gates is traveling down this same road in all innocence. It seems ironic that Gates wants to revolutionize the teaching of history, but does not seem to have spent any time actually studying history. If he had, he might have learned from the doomed efforts of predecessors such as H. G. Wells. Or, even more simply, he might have learned from historians such as David Tyack and Larry Cuban. Twenty years ago, Tyack and Cuban offered a compelling argument about why the reform efforts of folks such as Gates and Wells end up so often in the dustbin of educational history.

The best-intended plans—and even the best-funded ones—never have much effect if they do not adapt themselves to the ubiquitous “grammar of schooling,” Tyack and Cuban argued. When a new reform helps teachers do what they already want to do, it is adopted with alacrity. Blackboards, for example, and now smartboards, offer good teachers a way to do a better job. On the other hand, when reforms ask teachers to change everything, those reforms end up collecting dust in a back closet in a school-district warehouse somewhere.

It’s always tricky to use the past to predict the future, but in this case the parallels between Bill Gates and H. G. Wells seem too blatant to ignore. Both men hoped to ride to the rescue of schools. Both men hoped to sidestep the people who could actually make their “Big Histories” happen.

As a result, both plans will end up the same way.

Teachers’ Unions: The Root of All Evil

Last week a California judge decided that bad teachers can be fired.  In his decision in Vergara v. California, Judge Rolf M. Treu dealt a severe blow to the power of teachers’ unions.  Not surprisingly, conservative intellectuals rejoiced.  For almost a century, conservative school reformers have insisted that teachers’ unions represent a double-headed threat.  But here’s my question: why do today’s conservatives only focus on one half of their traditional gripe against teachers’ unions?

In Judge Treu’s decision, he argued that ineffective teachers have a negative impact on students.  And since the poorest students suffer most, the judge concluded that the situation was open to judicial remedy.

In the pages of the conservative National Review, writers celebrated the decision.  One “liberal” pundit shared her horror stories of terrible teachers and school principals, protected and made more arrogantly despicable due to their union-backed sinecures.  Andrew Biggs suggested taking the California decision national.  Biggs offered a simple four-word phrase to rejuvenate the nation’s public schools: Fire the Worst Teachers.

Not every conservative intellectual liked the decision.  Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute warned that the judge’s power-grab could spell out a future of terrible decisions by similarly activist judges.

But even Hess did not support the unions’ traditional role as the unpopular defender of teacher-tenure rules.  After all, conservative school reformers have for generations identified unions as the source of all that was rotten in America’s public-education system.

Perhaps most memorably, the late free-market economist Milton Friedman argued that the dead hand of teachers’ unions had strangled public schooling.  As I wrote a few years back in the pages of Teachers College Record, Friedman’s narrative of educational history pivoted on the development of teachers’ unions.  Most teachers, Friedman wrote, were “dull and mediocre and uninspiring.”  Nevertheless, beginning in the 1840s, Friedman believed, those teachers had captured control of America’s educational system.  Instead of working to improve education for all, teachers’ unions only worked for their own “narrow self-interest.”  The driving force of expanded public-education systems in the 1840s, Friedman argued in Free to Choose, was teachers’ selfish desire to

enjoy greater certainty of employment, greater assurance that their salaries would be paid, and a greater degree of control if government rather than parents were the immediate paymaster.

Today’s conservative complaints about the power of teachers’ unions owe a lot to Friedman-esque free-market critiques.  Schools suffer, free-market conservatives argue, when the market for good teaching talent is blocked by sclerotic union rules.  Instead of bringing in the best teachers, unions dictate a self-interested last-in-first-out rule that preserves seniority, no matter how incompetent.

But there is another reason why conservative intellectuals have long battled against the power of teachers’ unions.  Those unions, after all, have resolutely supported left-leaning or even frankly leftist social programs.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of this leftist tendency was the tumultuous history of New York’s Teachers Union.  From the 1930s through the 1950s, as Clarence Taylor has described in his great book Reds at the Blackboard, New York’s Teachers Union wrestled with questions of communism, reform, and subversion.  Again and again, the union suffered internal factional disputes, most famously the expulsion of the communist Local 5 faction.  And again and again, the union came under attack for harboring subversive teachers, most famously the purge of hundreds of affiliated teachers in the 1950s.  Throughout its history, though, the famous union supported left-leaning causes.  Internal factional disputes were not left versus right, but rather left versus left.

Even today, teachers’ unions often endure factional disputes on the left.  The militant Badass Teachers Association wants to push the more moderate American Federation of Teachers and the staid National Education Association to take more recognizably leftist positions.

Given all this history, why do conservative these days focus on the free-market angle?  That is, why don’t conservative pundits attack unions as islands of antiquated leftist ideology, instead of just attacking unions as inefficient and self-serving?

One possibility is that conservative school reformers these days take the tried-and-true school reform tactic of taking the politics out of education.  As historian David Tyack argued most memorably in his 1974 book The One Best System, school reformers always insist that their ideas are not about politics, but only about better schooling for all.  As Tyack showed, calls to “take the schools out of politics” never really want to take the politics out of schooling.  But reformers from every political background score more success when they appear to be impartial educators, interested in pedagogy, not ideology.

Is that what’s going on here?  Do today’s conservative intellectuals hope to eliminate the power of leftist teachers’ unions without making it look like a politically motivated hack job?  Do conservative pundits focus on the educational problems of teachers’ unions, instead of focusing on their left-leaning political positions, in order to make it look as if conservatives only want better schools for all?

 

The Ink Is Dry!

I’m tickled pink to announce I’ve signed a deal with Harvard University Press to publish my next book.  The subject?  No surprise to ILYBYGTH readers: the book takes a historical look at educational conservatism in America’s twentieth century.  What did conservatives want out of schools?  How did they work to make that happen?

I’m extremely pleased to have the book join HUP’s top roster of educational histories.  All my favorite books are on that list: David Tyack & Larry Cuban’s Tinkering Toward Utopia, Jon Zimmerman’s Whose America?, Jeffrey Moran’s Teaching Sex, and now Bill Reese’s Testing Wars.

I’m honored to join this all-star lineup.  My book—which at this point I’m calling The Other School Reformers: The Conservative Tradition in American Education—takes a look at the four most explosive school controversies of the twentieth century.  My approach has been to examine these four culture-war fights to see what sorts of educational reform conservatives wanted in each case.  At first, I thought I’d pile up histories of leading conservative organizations and individuals: the American Legion, Max Rafferty, the Gablers, etc.  But I couldn’t find a way to decide whom to include and whom to leave out.  Did the White Citizens’ Councils count as educational conservatives?  Did the Institute for Creation Research?  Did Arthur Bestor?

Instead of imposing my own definitions on the outlines of educational conservatism, I took more of a naturalist’s approach.  I set up my blind, so to speak, at the four most tumultuous fights over the content of American schools and watched to see what kinds of conservative activists showed up.

The school controversies were all very different.  First I examine the Scopes Trial of 1925.  Then the Rugg textbook controversy of 1939-1940.  After that, the firing of Pasadena’s progressive superintendent in 1950.  Finally, the literally explosive fight over schools and textbooks in Kanawha County, West Virginia, in 1974 and 1975.

What did I dig up?  In short, I argue that there is a coherent tradition linking conservative school reform across the twentieth century.  Not that these different activists had any sort of conscious organization or program.  Conservatives differed—often differed widely—about key issues such as public religion, race, and the role of government and experts.  More than that, the consensus among conservatives changed over time, as American culture and society changed.  For example, racial attitudes among white conservatives changed enormously between 1925 and 1975.  But in spite of all this change and difference, a recognizable tradition of educational conservatism linked these disparate school reformers.  Conservatives usually agreed with progressive school reformers that good schools were the key to a good society.  But unlike progressives, conservatives wanted schools to emphasize traditional knowledge and beliefs: patriotism, religion, and the benefits of capitalism, for example.

In addition, my book makes the case for the importance of understanding these conservative activists as school reformers in their own right.  Too often, the history of American education is told as the heroic tale of progressive activists fighting bravely against a powerful but vague traditionalism.  My book argues instead that educational conservatism is more than just a vague cultural impulse; conservatism has always been a raft of specific policy ideas for specific historical contexts, fought for by specific individuals and organizations.

So be sure to save some space in your holiday gift list for next year.  The book is slated to appear just in time for Christmas/Hannukah/Kwanzaa/Festivus 2014.

 

TRADITIONALIST EDUCATION IIc: VALUES. . . of what?

If the moral scheme of multiculturalism can’t deliver on its promise for a moral agenda for America’s public schools, what can traditionalists offer in its stead?  This is where traditionalists’ arguments carry the most weight, in my opinion.  They can draw on deeply embedded notions about the purpose and function of schooling, what historians David Tyack and Larry Cuban have called the “grammar of schooling.”  They can rely on ideas of schooling lodged so solidly in America’s idea of itself that they rarely need to be articulated at all.

In the early 1990s, historian Arthur Zilversmit commented on the strength and durability of these traditional notions.  Zilversmit had studied the ways self-proclaimed progressive ideas of schooling had had limited success in the middle decades of the twentieth century.  One of the leading reasons for this lack of success, Zilversmit argued, was the surprising strength of Americans’ “strange, emotional attachment to traditional schooling patterns.”

Of course, from the traditionalist point of view, there is nothing strange about this attachment.  Rather, traditionalists believe it reflects a sensible, rational commitment to time-tested ideas about schooling.  It only seems mysterious, strange, and emotional to those who assume that schools ought to be radically changing their approach to education.

What are these traditional values of America’s schools?  In future posts, I’ll explore each of the next three notions in more detail.  But in short, traditionalists can offer three clusters of values:  First, schools exist to teach young people things they did not know.  Young people go to school primarily to learn these things.  And that means that they should gain and retain information they did not previously have.

Related to this fundamental conception of schooling is another: Schools will help people improve their social and economic status.  If, that is, young people manage to gain skills and information at schools, they can use that knowledge to secure more lucrative, more prestigious employment. They can move up in society.

Finally, traditionalists can argue that the value scheme of America’s public schools does not need to be radically overhauled in order to include the rich pluralism of American society.  Such traditional values as honesty, bravery, kindness, tolerance, and hard work are common to many cultures, including traditional white European American culture.

These values are anything but strange and mysterious.  In fact, they are so commonly held that most people do not question them at all.  And in spite of decades, indeed, generations, of self-consciously “progressive” attempts to undermine these foundational values of schooling, Americans of all cultural backgrounds and economic classes have continued to cling to these ideas.

 

Further reading: Arthur Zilversmit, Changing Schools: Progressive Education Theory and Practice, 1930-1960 (Chicago, 1993); David Tyack and Larry Cuban, Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform (Cambridge, 1995).

WHAT ARE SCHOOLS FOR?

Teachers that I talk to often complain that everyone thinks they can do a better job, even though such folks never spent five minutes in a real school.  Politicians, neighbors, pushy relatives, all tell teachers loudly and repeatedly that it would be easy to fix schools.  Teachers often point out, sometimes publicly, sometimes only in teachers’ lounges, that those folks would never talk that way about other professions, like medicine or law.  But since everyone went to school, everyone thinks and talks as if they’re experts in school reform.

I think the teachers’ complaint makes a lot of sense.  I work with a lot of smart people who are planning to become teachers.  A lot of them are very well educated, very smart, very hard working, and very eager to help people by becoming teachers.  There is a huge difference in the way these folks view schooling and education reform before they start teaching, and once they’ve got a taste of life in real classrooms.  Many of them come into the teachers’ education program confident that they will be a new kind of teacher, one who doesn’t water down hard ideas for students, one who doesn’t take any guff, one who doesn’t softpedal the hard facts of intellectual life for students.  After they’ve tried it, even for just a few weeks, they often relate stories of shock and sometimes depression at the sheer impossibility of accomplishing their lofty goals.

Maybe it would help the conversation if everyone had to teach for a few years before they could suggest ways to fix schools.  But that’s not likely to happen.  Especially in the case of ambitious politicians, there will always be those who think they have a simple panacea to fix America’s schools.

In addition to the fact that some of these schemes demonstrate a profound ignorance of the realities of schooling, there is another enormous problem with all these reform ideas.  Depending on who’s talking, the fix for schools might be more discipline for those lazy kids.  Or it might be less discipline for those creative yet hounded students.  It might be less public money to encourage competition and entrepreneurialism.  Or it might be more public money for better teacher pay and student conditions.  Like a blanket pulled in every direction at once, with all these varied prescriptions, reform can go nowhere.

This is not incidental to the nature of American schooling.  America’s notions of the proper role of schooling have always pulled not only in different directions, but in precisely opposite directions.  Like a tug-of-war in many directions, this has resulted in short bursts of movement, followed by correction, and often accompanied by messy pileups.

As David Tyack and Larry Cuban argued in their 1995 essay “Tinkering Toward Utopia,” Americans have long held contradictory ideas about the purposes of institutional schooling.  In Tyack’s and Cuban’s words, Americans have always wanted schools to do lots of different things for their children:

“to socialize them to be obedient, yet to teach them to be critical thinkers;

“to pass on the best academic knowledge that the past has to offer, yet also to teach marketable and practical skills;

“to cultivate cooperation, yet to teach students to compete with one another in school and later in life;

“to stress basic skills but also to encourage creativity and higher-order thinking;

“to focus on the academic ‘basics’ yet to permit a wide range of choice of courses.”

To muddy the waters even further, I think it will be more accurate and more helpful if we change Tyack’s and Cuban’s ‘yets’ and ‘buts’ to ANDs.  That is, Americans have wanted both ends of these apparent dichotomies in their schools.  When one side appears to have worked itself into absurdity, public pressure grows to emphasize the other end.

In terms of the endless bickering over whether our schools need to be more “progressive” or more “traditional,” this multiplicity of ideas about the nature of schooling means that everyone can find something to be angry about at any time.  For example, a progressive, democratic parent or teacher can find lots to complain about if he or she wants schools to do a good job of teaching students to be cooperative.  Especially in these days of high-stakes standardized testing, students can spend most of a school day learning that the function of school is to move quickly through academic material.  Like the end of a zombie movie, students learn that the most vital notion of schooling is to keep moving.

On the other hand, parents, teachers, administrators, and students who hope for more “traditional” schools can gripe that schools do nothing but “fluff.”  They don’t prepare students with the real-world skills they’ll need to get and keep good jobs in a competitive economy.

Both sides can keep on talking, since they can both be right at the same time.  Both can claim the justice of having the vast majority of people on their sides (“Every intelligent teacher I know agrees with me”) while also claiming to be a victimized minority (“Why don’t the powers that be every recognize these obvious truths about school?!?”)

Perhaps this pull toward the middle is a good thing.  It might be far more terrifying if one group of zealous educators could simply seize control of America’s schools and declare a dramatically new direction.  As it is, the notion of “school” is tied up with so many conflicting and contradictory notions that it is more likely to maintain its basic structure than it is to change rapidly or dramatically.

 

Further reading: David Tyack and Larry Cuban, Tinkering toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995).