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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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.