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.

…Almost Makes You Want to Read It

Thanks to Mike Wakeford and the Society for US Intellectual History for offering a thoughtful review of my new book.   I was tickled pink to see it. Intellectual historians can be a tough crowd, so I was a little nervous when I starting reading it. But Dr. Wakeford captured my goals well and offered some kind words as well.

Get yr copy today!  The book one person is talking about!!

Get yr copy today! The book one person is talking about!!

SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing about the book. But new readers might not know that I looked closely at four of the most famous school controversies of the twentieth century. I wanted to figure out what had gone into making someone “conservative” when it came to education.

It would not have been kosher, I thought, simply to pick some of the best-known conservative groups and chronicle their activism. To do so, I would have had to impose a definition of what it meant to be a true “conservative.” By looking at school battles and examining instead what the conservative side wanted in each case, I was able to extract a definition of conservatism without imposing one from the outside.

That was the goal, anyway. Did it work? Dr. Wakeford thinks so:

Laats’ case-study approach is sound, effectively accomplishing his stated purpose of avoiding falling into easy stereotypes and generalizations (5).

Whew! My second goal in this book was to avoid imposing twenty-first-century connotations of “conservatism” onto earlier generations. I worked hard to get into a broad array of archives in order to get a handle on what conservatives themselves really cared about in the decades from 1920 to 1980. I was enormously gratified to read that Wakeford appreciated my labors. As he put it, my approach

also required that he dip into a remarkably eclectic source base, which ends up as one of the book’s strengths. Given the public nature of educational debates, national and local newspapers from Tennessee to Pasadena to West Virginia provide the core. But the study is enriched by Laats’ use of state legislative records and evangelical publications from the 1920s, the archival and published record of the American Legion and other conservative groups, local school board records, and, in the case of Kanawha County, author interviews with key figures.

In the book—and in my work here on ILYBYGTH—I worked hard not to impose my own progressive assumptions or stereotypes on conservative activists. I did not want to write a book simply damning the work of conservatives. Rather, I wanted to try to understand their goals and evaluate their strategies. Wakeford evaluated those attempts kindly as well:

To his credit, Laats rarely questions his subjects’ sincerity or the authenticity of their curricular visions, crediting them as meaningful participants in an important civic conversation about the purpose of schooling. But he is no sympathizer, and asks difficult questions about what has really made the movement tick.

Almost makes you want to read the book! Many thanks to Dr. Wakeford and the US Intellectual History blog.

A Conservative Takedown of Testing and Charters

Progressive education folks foam at the mouth when they talk about the new power of testing and charter schools.  Will conservatives join them?

We see recently a furious conservative condemnation of the current education “reform” mania. [The essay originally appeared last July in Crisis.]

Veteran history teacher Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg offered a conservative rationale for opposition to the Michelle Rhee/Waiting for Superman school reform crowd.

Those folks want to make public schooling more responsive.  They argue that schools should have more wiggle room to fire weak teachers; charter schools should be able to slash red tape to provide effective education for any child left behind.  Such reformers often also promise to hold teachers and schools “accountable” by mandating rigorous testing of students.  Such tests, the argument goes, will force teachers and schools to pay attention to the academic performance of all their students.

Progressive critics have teed off on this reform ideology for a while now.  Some have warned that charter schools are nothing but a capitalist scheme to siphon money away from public education.  And the mania for testing, progressives warn, represents a perversion of the promise of American public education.

Rummelsburg gives a different rationale for this same suspicion.  Placing hope in the panacea of charter schools, Rummelsburg argues, is a mistake.  Waiting for any kind of public-funded superman, Rummelsburg insists, misses the point.  The real responsibility for education must remain with the family, not with the government.  And standardized testing reduces the true goal of education to a series of bubbles filled in.

Rummelsburg doesn’t pull any rhetorical punches.  As he puts it,

Waiting for “Superman” illustrates how severely broken public education is and brings up the real issues of school reform and the voucher system. However, the “magic bullet” of charter schools is not the answer. A transfer of money and power from the dreadful public classrooms to charter schools is a bit like transferring the administrative duties of running Nazi death camps from the Germans to the Belgians, yet still the need for reform is beyond dire. However, reform is futile if the goal remains a high standardized test scores.

Ouch.  Will more conservatives join Rummelsburg’s condemnation of the current reform agenda?