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?

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Socialists, Laggards, Perverts, and Baby-Killers

Why does everybody these days thank soldiers for their “service?” Even when the soldiers themselves don’t like it? At least in part, it must be a hangover from Vietnam-War-era culture-war battles, when soldiers were reviled as “baby-killers.” Here’s my question for SAGLRROILYBYGTH: When will teachers get thanked for their service? After all, for decades, teachers have been called names at least as bad as “baby-killers.”

As I described in my recent book, conservative activists have always accused teachers of terrible crimes and treasons. Teachers fill kids’ heads with lies about evolution, atheism, and communism. Teachers subject innocent young kids to mistruths and calumnies about American history and sex. Such accusations were a standard part of culture-war scripts from the 1920s through the 1980s.

Warning!  Commie Teachers!

Warning! Commie Teachers!

In the 1980s, for instance, Mel and Norma Gabler warned that the ranks of the teaching profession were full of “practicing homosexuals” who hoped to attract young children to their ranks. Such teachers pushed for more sex ed because they suffered from a perverted desire to lure children down the path to sexual sin and depravity.

There’s nothing new about this sort of no-holds-barred accusation against America’s teaching force. Back in 1923, anti-evolution activist T.T. Martin warned audiences about the sinister nature of public-school faculties:

under the cowardly sissy plea of ‘Academic freedom,’ [teachers] demand that we, with our taxes, pay their salaries, while they poison our children against the Bible as God’s real Word, and the Saviour as God’s Son who died for our sins to redeem us from all iniquity and send our children out into Eternity without real redemption; hence, to hell.

This week, I’m reading Natalia Mehlman Petrzela’s terrific new book Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture. Petrzela looks at the ways the fights over sex ed and bilingual ed played out in California between 1960 and 1990. Not surprisingly, she found that teachers were subjected to vicious, unrestrained attacks.

One parent, for instance, excoriated his local school’s teachers, saying they “fill schools with dope and filth and sex” and “teach [students] to make babies so they can kill them” (pg. 123).

Ouch.

As Petrzela relates, however, such extreme accusations were par for the course in culture-war battles over education in California.

So, dear readers, here’s my question for you: When will progressive types begin to thank teachers ostentatiously for their service? After all, it was backlash against the “baby-killer” accusations that led people to start thanking soldiers. Won’t there soon be a similar surge of support for beleaguered teachers? Or is there already and I’m just the last to notice?

We can see some glimmers of it. Progressive bloggers and scholars such as Diane Ravitch, Mercedes Schneider, and Peter Greene make a fetish of valorizing public-school teachers. Will it soon become an article of faith among progressives that teachers are America’s real heroes? Or has it already?

When Did Tests Become Conservative?

Something happened.

The idea of administering standardized tests to check the success of schooling has had a strange ideological career. Tests have been seen as a progressive panacea as well as a conservative coup. These days, a welter of standardized tests are used to evaluate teachers as well as students. In the eyes of some, these tests have become a hallmark of conservative educational policy. How did that happen? …and what does it mean?standardized-testing-comic3

Last night, historian and pundit Diane Ravitch talked to a crowd of teachers in my hometown, scenic Vestal, New York. Those familiar with Ravitch’s recent book and blog will have a good sense of her argument: Today’s testing regime is a scam by false-faced school “reformers” bent on installing corporate control over public education.

Testing was not always seen this way. As historian William J. Reese demonstrated in his latest terrific book, the first round of fights over standardized tests occurred way back in the nineteenth century. Early test mavens hoped to protect students from idiosyncratic and tyrannical schoolmasters who evaluated students by whim.

In the twentieth century, early testers hoped to use tests to help individualize instruction for children. They did not hope to replace the human touch. Rather, they hoped a set of tests could serve to move education in profoundly progressive directions.

These days, leading progressive pundits such as Ravitch and Mercedes Schneider denounce the testing regime as an attempt to corporatize education. They point to the suspicious support of billionaires such as the Koch Brothers and the Walton Family. Why do these corporate titans push for more tests? In order to strip teachers’ unions of power; in order to remake schooling in the image of corporate America.

Of course, the sophisticated and good-looking readers of ILYBYGTH (SAGLROILYBYGTH) know that the real situation is more complicated than these sorts of conspiracy theories allow. There are plenty of conservative pundits, too, who hate and fear the tests that accompany the Common Core standards. To these conservatives, a national testing regime gives progressives the opportunity to inject sneaky leftist ideas into classrooms across the country.

Plus, there are plenty of progressives who support more rigorous standardized testing as a way to ensure that lower-income students get their share of educational attention. Ravitch herself, in an earlier ideological incarnation, helped create today’s testing policy.  And Education Secretary Arne Duncan is no William J. Bennett. Duncan’s enthusiastic support of high-stakes tests does not come from the same sorts of cultural conservatism that animated President Reagan’s second Education secretary.

But there is something to Ravitch’s charges. There are plenty of conservatives who see testing as a way to find out what is really going on in public schools. Ravitch drew vigorous applause last night when she said she did not want to quantify kindergarteners’ college-and-career readiness. It was more important, Ravitch insisted, to be sure that children were happy, healthy, and improving every day.

And this, I think, is at the heart of today’s divide over standardized testing. Such tests have become “conservative,” I’m guessing, to the extent that they satisfy Americans’ traditional ideas about education. As I argue in my new book, across the twentieth century battles over education had a similar backstory: progressives wanted education to be mainly about the improvement of children; conservatives and traditionalists wanted education to be mainly about the delivery of information from teacher to student.

If the central goal of education is the transmission of information, then the success of that education can be measured by a simple paper-n-pencil test. This is an idea that resonates with lots of people. Not only self-identified “conservatives,” not only the scheming Walton family, not only Mayor Bloomberg, but lots of parents, teachers, and students buy into this fundamental notion of proper education.

To my mind, this situation is a good indicator of the tenuous hold of progressive education on the hearts and minds of Americans. Even self-identified progressive reformers such as Michelle Rhee embrace the notion that tests are a good measure of educational improvement.

The reason today’s test mania has been able to make such huge progress in public schooling is not due only to the funding of billionaires and the schemes of plutocrats, in spite of what smart people like Diane Ravitch may say. We Americans, with rare and beleaguered exceptions, never took to heart the central notions of progressive education. We tend to agree that real education means, in essence, the transfer of information from an authoritative adult teacher to a receptive child.

If that attitude is “conservative,” then it’s no wonder conservatism has come to dominate American public education.

Historians Rule the School

Why do educational historians have so much influence, relative to other kinds of educational scholars? This year’s Edu-Scholar influence rankings are in, and historians seem to be represented far beyond their numbers.

Like any ranking system, this one is imperfect. (It must be, since it didn’t include your humble editor.) Overall, the Edu-Scholar scale tries to couple academic influence with policy influence. As Rick Hess explains in the pages of EdWeek,

The rubric reflects both a scholar’s body of academic work—encompassing the breadth and influence of their scholarship—and their footprint on the public discourse last year. . . . I’m not sure that I’ve got the measures right or even how much these results can or should tell us. That said, I think the same can be said about U.S. News college rankings, NFL quarterback ratings, or international scorecards of human rights. For all their imperfections, I think such efforts convey real information—and help spark useful discussion.

Fair enough. Given those caveats, by this scale, at least, historians seem to punch far above their weight. Why?

Just in the top ten, for example, are historians Diane Ravitch (#1) and Larry Cuban (#8). At number four we find Gary Orfield, a sociologist whose work on desegregation is heavily historical.

We don’t have to go very far down the list (#26) to find Jon Zimmerman, ILYBYGTH’s house favorite. Penn’s Marybeth Gasman shows up at 18. Also included are David Labaree, Charles Payne (another sociologist who writes a lot about civil-rights history), and Sherman Dorn. Sam Wineburg is also on the list, and though he’s not officially an historian he writes about history and historical thinking.

That might not seem like a lot of historians, out of a total of 200 scholars. But when it comes to public policy, the surprise is that there are any academic historians at all. And doubly surprising to find more than one in the top ten! In general, academic historians get nervous when it comes to making pronouncements about current-day policy.

Many of the scholars here are full-time policy wonks. It would seem their work would do more to influence thinking about education than would the work of so many historians.

So why do all these wonderful historians exert so much influence on public discourse?

Does Wal-Mart Want More Jesus in Public Schools?

The Walton Family loves school vouchers.

For years, the heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune have pumped money into plans to privatize schooling in the US of A.  Most recently, we read that the Walton Family Foundation has donated six million bucks to the Alliance for School Choice.  Why?

The ASC has a track record of supporting vouchers.  Its enemies accuse it of being nothing but a front organization for “fundamentalist” schemes to re-religiousize public education.

Do the mega-rich Waltons hope to get more Jesus into America’s schools?

Readers of Bethany Moreton’s relatively recent book To Serve God and WalMart won’t be surprised to hear of the connection between conservative evangelical Protestantism and big-box retailing.  But even the most scathing critics of the Waltons’ educational policies have sometimes left out the religious angle.  Diane Ravitch, for example, blasted the Waltons for copying in education what Wal-Mart had achieved in retailing.  As she put it,

The foundation supports charters and vouchers, though it prefers vouchers. It seeks to create schools that are non-union and that are able to skim off students from the local public schools. In time, the local public schools will die, just as the Main Street stores died.

Other critics of the Waltons’ beneficence have focused more closely on the religious angle.  Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, for example, has long targeted both the Waltons and the Alliance for School Choice as leaders in the drive to sneak religion back into public schools through the back door of vouchers.  Rob Boston of Americans United, for instance, called ASC leader Betsy DeVos the “Four-Star General” leading a “Deceptive Behind-the-Scenes War on Public Schools and Church-State Separation.”

According to Boston, Devos is a “fundamentalist Christian and far-right political activist” with a sneaky goal: “nothing short of a radical re-creation of education in the United States, with tax-supported religious and other private schools replacing the traditional public school system.”

Here at ILYBYGTH, we have to ask the tricky question: what’s the relationship between free-marketism and Jesus?  Groups such as the ASC and the Walton Family Foundation seem committed to both.  In the realm of schooling, that means vouchers.  For many conservatives, vouchers seem to contain a triple promise.  They can weaken the grip of teachers’ unions by diverting tax money away from union-dominated public school systems.  They can bring more ol’-time religion into schooling by funding religious schools.  And they can give parents and families the magic wand of consumer choice.

It doesn’t seem as if there’s a logical or theological connection between these policy ideas.  That is, from my scanty understanding of Christianity, free-market principles don’t seem to be a central part of traditional evangelical theology.  Yet in school policy as in other areas, it seems Americans have historically connected capitalism with Christian virtue.

And there’s one other puzzle we need to suss out.  If these privatization campaigns are about both Jesus and capitalism, why don’t promoters mention either?  When the Alliance for School Choice tells us about itself, it does not mention religion or the panacea of the marketplace.  Why not?

For critics, this is all part of the ASC’s “sneak attack” on secular public schools.  The ASC wants more Jesus and more Milton Friedman, this line of argument goes, but wraps those goals in anodyne calls for more school choice for low-income families.  But why would conservatives try to hide their love for public religion or for capitalism?  Most conservatives make no secret of their goals.  Why would they hide their love for public religiosity or market-ism in this case?

 

Rhee and Jesus in Public Schools

Michelle Rhee wants to get Jesus involved in fixing America’s public schools.

Image Source: Time Magazine

Rhee, the former chancellor of DC schools, has long been the darling of conservatives.  Her anti-union, market-based approaches to fixing public education have won her plaudits as America’s best hope for reforming sclerotic public education systems.

Along the way, Rhee has become the bete noire of educational thinkers such as Diane Ravitch.

Most of the Rhee talk has centered around conservative shibboleths such as vouchers, union-busting, and market-based reforms.

Recently, however, Rhee organized a meeting of religious leaders in Atlanta to discuss the possible roles of religion in reforming public schools.

Rhee’s willingness to talk with folks who want more religion in public schools may signal her broader willingness to engage with the traditional ‘other half’ of conservative school reform.

Among conservatives, free-market ideas and religious traditionalism have long rubbed alongside one another in any discussion of fixing public education.

Now Rhee seems eager to cross that bridge, too.

IS There an Education Culture War?

People disagree about the nature and proper direction for American schools.  But do those disagreements rise to the level of culture war?  Unlike the evolution/creation divide, there is a lot of room in the middle.

For instance, are charter schools ‘progressive’ or ‘traditional?’  Some scholars suggest that charter schools are an attempt to privatize education and undermine the power of teachers’ unions.  They suggest
that charter schools tend to function regressively.

Other charter-school advocates say that charter schools give students and families a fairer chance at a quality
education.  This “Waiting for Superman” crowd promotes charter schools as the ‘progressive’ solution for poor people.

The same could be said for other educational ideas.  For instance, where does the notion of testing fit in?  For most of the twentieth century, the idea that tests could determine the individual strengths and weaknesses of students led the pack of progressive ideology.  With the proper array of tests, progressives believed, schooling could be tailored to each particular student.  The procrustean bed of institutional schooling could be shattered with a more individualized sense of personal experiences and beliefs.

Today, some educational thinkers promote the progressive possibilities of high-stakes standardized testing.  They argue that kids from lower-incomefamilies have been allowed to slip through the educational cracks.  For too long, they argue, such kids have been subjected to the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”   High-stakes testing promised to turn that around.  Embedded in the language of the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act was the notion that schools must improve test scores for all kids, including those from groups that historically underperformed on academic
measures.

Other education thinkers disagree.  They dismiss such talk as mere window-dressing for conservative attempts to seize school power.  Famously, New York University professor Diane Ravitch recently switched sides in the debate over the meanings and implication of high-stakes testing.  Ravitch helped design the original testing
megalith.  Now she argues that the focus on tests undermines the proper goals of schooling for all students, especially those from the most vulnerable categories.

This broad expanse of room in the middle for disagreement and debate about foundational ideas in the field of education suggests that there is no real culture war at work.  If people can agree on basic terms and notions, even if they disagree about policy and practice, then they must share fundamental ideas about the proper form and
purpose of schooling.  The fact that issues such as testing and charter schools attract different arguments from
conservatives and progressives implies that each side shares most of the notions of its opposition.  The
disagreements are more prosaic than in the starkly defined ideologies and theologies of creation or evolution.

More telling, I have had only a handful of firsthand encounters with culture-war clashes in my career in education.  We all have heard stories of teachers getting fired for offending people’s religious or political beliefs, but in my
experience parents are far more concerned with grades and achievement than in creeping secularism or dictatorial preachiness in schools.

On the other hand, one could argue that education is the ultimate culture-war battleground, since it forces Americans to define their values and rank the importance of foundational notions such as social inequality, race, religion, and the relationship between family and state.

For example, it is difficult to think of a culture-war issue that has not become a clash over schooling.  For instance, the forum for most disagreements over beliefs in creation and evolution has always been schooling.  Should schools teach evolution?  Creation?

Similarly, clashes over the role of race in American culture have been framed as questions about schooling.
Brown v. Board focused on the legitimacy of educational segregation.  George Wallace stood in the doorway of a school, the Foster Auditorium of the University of Alabama in 1963 to proclaim “Segregation now, segregation
tomorrow and segregation forever.”

Schools also are the field in which activists contend over fundamental notions of social and economic justice.  Schools in poor neighborhoods look, feel, and are funded in very different ways than schools in affluent ones.  Nicholas Kristof’s recent plea for more equalized funding for early-education programs only rehashes generations of
arguments about the power of schooling to combat the great inequalities of American life.

So IS there a culture war in education?  Do Americans fundamentally disagree with one another about the basic premises of schooling?  As with evolution and creation, do the two sides have such different worldviews that they claim not to be able even to understand the other side’s view?  Or is education an embodiment of Louis Hartz’ famous claim in 1955 that America really only has one fundamental political tradition, that of a general liberalism?

If you are a teacher, parent, or school administrator, have you had experiences with culture wars in your schools?  Or is this more evidence to back up Morris Fiorina’s claim that culture-war rhetoric is merely the creation of a myopic chattering class?