Teachers Strike Back: Why “Left” and “Right” Don’t Work

They’re out there. In twenty-plus years of teaching and hanging around schools, I can say from experience that some of my friends and colleagues match the stereotype of the ardent, left-wing teacher, seeing their mission as introducing students to the disgusting excesses of capitalism. And maybe wearing scarves. And just as certainly, some teachers embody the tough-talking stereotype of the conservative teacher, pooh-poohing fads and frills and hoping to reach kids with the glories of self-sacrifice and flag waving. As the recent rash of teachers’ strikes has shown us, though, trite stereotypes of left and right don’t really help if we want to understand the cultural politics of teaching.

There shouldn’t be any doubt about the real reasons for these teacher strikes. In Oklahoma, West Virginia, Kentucky, and now Arizona and Colorado, teachers and public schools have faced crummy salaries and crummy conditions. Oklahoma’s teachers have shared pictures of their classrooms, textbooks, and paychecks. It’s not pretty.

oklahoma-textbooks-desks-exlarge-169

Crappy conditions, crappy paychecks….

At least one optimistic lefty has hoped that this wave of teacher strikes might be “the forefront of a major comeback by organized labor.”

I’m not so sure. But I can’t help but notice that pundits from both left and right have always assumed too quickly that teachers are somehow naturally politically progressive. In my research into the twentieth-century history of educational conservatism, for instance, I found that conservative activists assumed without even thinking about it that teachers tended to be soft on socialism.

The problem with schools and textbooks, many conservatives believed, was that too many teachers wanted to use their platform to push their students to the left. As one editorialist wrote in my local paper in 1940,

we don’t think it is fair to use taxpayer money in a democracy to teach the glory of collectivism to the budding citizens of a democracy.

Similarly, an American Legion activist at the time warned that too many teachers

will flavor their teaching with a bias in favor of the new collectivism which will subtly determine the content and method of their teaching.

We all know, of course, that some teachers really are politically progressive. Just dip a toe into the blogosphere and you’ll find plenty of examples. Some teachers really do hope to shake children free of the cruel thinking that undergirds capitalist society.

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Watch out for socialist teachers, c. 1949…

With all the attention to teachers in the recent spate of strikes, though, it’s more and more clear that political stereotypes and labels just don’t help much if we want to understand the way schools and teachers really work. Are today’s striking teachers really hoping to lead a comeback of organized labor? Maybe some are. Most of them are probably trying to pay their mortgages and teach their students.

As reporters in Arizona found out when they interviewed non-striking teachers, there is no simple way to categorize teachers’ politics. Are the teachers who voted against the walkout “conservative?” Maybe. Sort of. Kinda. But that label doesn’t begin to capture the mix of reasons teachers gave for opposing the walkout.

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More socialists in the schoolhouse, c. 1949…

One teacher and football coach, for example, seems like he was sent straight from culture-war central casting to fulfill the stereotype of the “conservative” teacher. He told reporters he felt he needed to show his students that he honored his contract. As he put it,

Life is about not getting what you want and finding a way to get it while you continue to fulfill your obligations and for me, my obligation is my contract.

As I argued in my book about the history of educational conservatism, this notion of teaching students tough lessons about traditional morality has always been central to conservative thinking about schools and education. And of course he’s the football coach.

Other strike-opposing teachers don’t seem quite so easy to put in one box or another. As one explained, she voted against the walkout for a mix of reasons. Primarily, she couldn’t stand to leave her students in the lurch. She told reporters,

The kids that I work with are at-risk kids … (the walkout) also puts them behind. A lot of them come from homes where it’s safer for them to be at school. A lot of kids I work with have severe and profound learning disabilities and their parents both have to work to provide for them. Now they can’t.

Plus, at age 57, she can’t afford not to work. Does she want to be paid more? Sure. She currently works three jobs to make ends meet. A walkout, though, puts her finances and her students’ well-being at risk.

Is that “conservative?” To this reporter, these walkouts help show once again that teachers are just as complicated as regular people.

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We’ve All Got It All Wrong

Whether you call yourself a conservative, a progressive, or something else, if you’re like me you’ve probably got it all wrong. As I was reminded in a discussion last night, those of us who try to shape schools usually make a huge mistake—one we could recognize if we just thought about it for half a second.univ of hawaii

Here’s the background: I was happy last night to talk with some graduate students at the University of Hawaii. (No, I didn’t get to go there in real life. I wish. We used cutting-edge interwebs technology to talk.) They had read my book about the history of educational conservatism and they had some great questions, ideas, and experiences to share.

As I argue in the book, it’s difficult to generalize about conservative activists. Just like progressives, conservative thinkers and doers come from a dizzying array of backgrounds and they are motivated by a huge spectrum of ideas and beliefs. But one thing they do share—at least the ones I studied—is an unexamined faith that school shapes society. I hate to quote myself, but this is how I put it in the book:

Educational conservatives have insisted, in short, on two central ideas. First, schools matter. Conservatives, like their progressive foes, have rarely questioned the notion that the schools of today generate the society of tomorrow. Second, because schools matter, their content and structure must be guarded ferociously. Ideas that challenge inherited wisdom must not be crammed down the throats of young, trusting students. And teachers must not abdicate their roles as intellectual and moral authorities. Educational conservatism, in other words, has been the long and vibrant tradition of defending tradition itself in America’s schools. Without understanding this tradition, we will never truly understand either American conservatism or American education.

One idea on which everyone can agree, in other words, is that schools shape society. The reason so many of us spend so much energy on school reform is precisely because we think it matters. For some conservatives in the twentieth century, teaching kids evolution was dangerous because it threatened to take away their moral and religious compass. For others, teaching kids about sex was a bad idea because it tended to unhinge their self-control. And for yet others, teaching kids socialist ideas was obviously terrible because it would lead to the corruption of their morals and of the entire society.

OTR COVER

You can fix schools all you want, but you can’t fix the outcomes…

Last night, the Hawaii students shared stories that helped puncture those school-reform assumptions. One student, for example, reported that he came to the realization that he was conservative in high school. He was guided to that realization by his favorite teacher. At first, I assumed that the teacher was a conservative, too, and inspired the student by reading Hayek and Burke and smoking a pipe. In fact, the student told us, his favorite teacher was a heart-on-her-sleeve liberal. She taught social studies in a progressive way, one that hoped to help students examine their own ideas and decide questions for themselves. In the student’s case, that meant he came to the realization that his ideas were apparently “conservative.” The left-y teacher, in other words, didn’t indoctrinate this student into leftism, but precisely the opposite.

Another Hawaii student told a very different story. She only realized that she was a liberal when she was teaching Sunday school at her church. The goal was to help young people deepen their religious faith, but it had the opposite effect on her. Instead of becoming more religious, teaching Sunday school convinced this student that her church was full of hooey.

What’s the takeaway? Once we hear the stories, it seems pretty obvious. School doesn’t really work the way we sometimes think it will. No matter what our politics, we can’t control the future of our students by teaching them X or Y or by keeping them away from Z or A. Students are not predictable, programmable outputs. They have their own ideas and backgrounds and sometimes our best-laid plans at shaping America’s future will come out in ways we didn’t predict.

When Did Conservatives Demand Local Control?

I’m no conservative, but I respect several conservative thinkers and writers. We may disagree—sometimes fiercely—but folks such as Rod Dreher, Patrick Deneen, and Mark Bauerlein are always worth reading, IMHO. In education, I put Rick Hess in this category. In a recent piece about localism, though, Hess makes some mistaken claims about the history of educational conservatism. I can’t figure out why.

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The first worry wasn’t desegregation, but communist subversion.

He’s not alone. Back when my book about the history of educational conservatism came out, I did a brief interview with conservative journalist John Miller. He wanted to know about the long history of conservative desire for charter schools. As I told him, there wasn’t one. The charter movement only became a darling of most conservative thinkers at the very tail end of the twentieth century. Before that, only a few lonely free-marketeers embraced Milton Friedman’s charter plan. (I have described this history in a different academic article, if you’re interested.)

Conservatives aren’t the only ones who don’t like to look their history square in the face, of course. Progressives don’t like to be reminded that WE were the racist ones back in the 1920s, as I also describe in The Other School Reformers.

Hess is too smart and too ethical to distort conservative school history in the usual ways. He frankly acknowledges that conservatives turned to localism in order to protect their right to racial segregation. As he and his co-author put it,

After Brown v. Board in 1954, demands for more “rational” and “less political” oversight were joined by a compelling moral claim—that many communities (and even states) could not be trusted to do right by all their students. Thus, the post-Brown era was marked by school reform agendas—in the states and in Washington—that frequently sought to reduce or even eliminate local control. These strategies came from both the right and left, from both legislatures and the courts, and included new directives regarding desegregation, standards, testing, discipline, funding, teacher quality, school interventions, magnet schools, school choice, and more.

In this telling, federal influence after 1954 pushed states and towns to desegregate. Conservatives pushed back, demanding local control in order to preserve segregated schools. In one sense, he’s not wrong. Brown v. Board marked a milestone in conservative thinking about schools and education. But 1954 was not the watershed year. For American conservatives, the big switch came earlier, in the New Deal era.

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A later effort (1963), but wow.

Through the 1920s, leading conservative public figures tended to call for increased federal involvement in local schools. By the 1940s, conservatives recoiled in horror at the notion of federal control.

What happened?

It wasn’t Brown v. Board. Brown v. Board strengthened conservative animosity toward the idea of federal educational leadership a thousandfold. But it did not create that animosity. Starting in the 1920s, conservative thinkers and activists became convinced that the academic leaders of educational thinking had gone to the socialist dogs.

In the 1930s, conservatives mobilized against the “experts” at places such as Teachers College, Columbia University. As one business leader warned an ally in the American Legion in 1939, professors such as Harold Rugg and George Counts

have been weaning [sic] over to their side a large and increasing population of educational authorities. This ties in with the whole progressive-education movement, which is another thing which some of old-fashioned believers in mental discipline believe is helping to weaken the moral strength and self-reliance of our youth.  That may not come under the heading of Americanism or un-Americanism, but it is a closely related consideration because the progressive educators and the spreaders of radical un-American doctrines are to a large degree the same people and they mix their two products together and wrap them up in one package.

For this patriotic conservative, the leading educational experts could no longer be trusted.

By the 1940s, it had become standard thinking among conservatives—all sorts of conservatives—that federal control meant leftist control. They warned one another that “they” were after your children. For decades, they investigated textbooks for subversive squirrels and other communist rats.

The trend was so powerful that organizations such as the National Association for Education tried to fight back. Federal aid to education, they told anyone who would listen, was nothing but a better way to fund local schools.

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NAE: Don’t hate me cuz I’m federal… (c. 1950)

Conservatives didn’t buy it.

By the time SCOTUS ruled in favor of school desegregation, conservative thinkers and activists had long distrusted the influence of the federal government. They had long since turned to the idea of local control as the only way to protect decent education.

To this reporter, it seems today’s conservatives would want to trumpet this version of conservative educational history, not ignore it. I can’t help but wonder: Why don’t they?

Betsy Devos: Progressive Champion?

We could be forgiven for being confused. Ed Secretary Betsy Devos just delivered a rousing endorsement of progressive ideas about schooling and education. What gives?

SAGLRROILYBYGTH might be sick of all this—maybe it’s just too obvious even to mention. But since my years wrestling with the history of educational conservatism (you can read all about it here), I can’t help but obsess over the never-clear meanings of “progressivism” and “conservatism” when it comes to schools.

Betsy-Devoe

I hart progressive ed…or do I?

And now arch-conservative Queen Betsy just threw a Grand-Rapids-size rhetorical wrench into the culture-war works. If she’s talking this way, is there any meaningful way to differentiate the two sides? I think there is.

Here’s what we know: Secretary Devos delivered a prepared talk at the free-markety American Enterprise Institute. In her speech, she harped on progressive themes. Consider the following examples:

  • Progressives say: High-stakes testing is bad.

Quoth Queen Betsy:

As states and districts scrambled to avoid the law’s sanctions and maintain their federal funding, some resorted to focusing specifically on math and reading at the expense of other subjects. Others simply inflated scores or lowered standards.

  • Progressives say: Teachers have been disempowered.

Quoth Queen Betsy:

Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.

Quoth Queen Betsy:

we must rethink school.

  • Progressives say: Factory schooling is needlessly rigid and dehumanizing, yet it persists.

QQB:

Think of your own experience: sit down; don’t talk; eyes front. Wait for the bell. Walk to the next class. Repeat. Students were trained for the assembly line then, and they still are today.

  • Progressives say: Schooling should focus on the needs and experiences of every individual child.

QQB:

That means learning can, should, and will look different for each unique child. And we should celebrate that, not fear it! . . .

Our children deserve better than the 19th century assembly-line approach. They deserve learning environments that are agile, relevant, exciting. Every student deserves a customized, self-paced, and challenging life-long learning journey. Schools should be open to all students – no matter where they’re growing up or how much their parents make.

  • Progressives say: School must help make society more equitable. More resources must be dedicated to schooling for low-income Americans and students from minority groups.

QQB:

That means no more discrimination based upon zip code or socio-economic status. All means all….

We should hope – no, we should commit – that we as a country will not rest until every single child has equal access to the quality education they deserve.

What are we to make of all this intensely progressive-sounding rhetoric?

Some pundits pooh-pooh it. ILYBYGTH’s favorite progressive ed writer offers a perfect, pointed put-down: “poison mushrooms look edible.

It is not difficult, after all, to see how Secretary Devos’s endgame is different from that of most progressives. Unlike progressives, Queen Betsy’s final goal is an old conservative favorite, namely, the reduction of federal influence in public schooling. If Devos mouths progressive phrases, she also always returns to the same ultimate desire.

Consider these lines:

QQB:

  • federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped….

  • The lesson is in the false premise: that Washington knows what’s best for educators, parents and students….

  • The lessons of history should force us to admit that federal action has its limits.

In the end, then, what we’re seeing here is the same old, same old. All sides in our hundred-years culture war have shifted tactics from time to time, while generally keeping the same long-term strategies.  As I argue in my book (and if you’re really lazy you can read a brief version of this in my short essay at Time), for example, in the 1920s, it was conservatives who pushed hard for an increased federal presence in local schools. Why? Because they thought it would force greater Americanization of immigrants and pinkos.

Devos’s canny adoption of progressive rhetoric is another example of this culture-war scheme. All sides tend to use whatever language best helps them achieve their long-term goals. They We tend to fight for any short-term goal that promises to bring them us closer to their our ultimate aims.

For Devos and her allies, the big picture is more religion, more privatization, and more tradition in public schools. Right now, they apparently think local school districts are the most likely governments to help achieve those aims. If bashing “factory models” and “inequality” will help achieve the ultimate goals, so be it.

Why Conservatives Should Love Obama

He did it! I don’t how it happened, but somehow President Barack Obama managed to accomplish one of the most dreamed-for educational goals of America’s social conservatives. During his presidency, that is, early teen sexual activity dropped significantly, according to the CDC.

I know, I know, it’s ridiculous to give Obama credit for something that merely happened to coincide with his time in the White House. But that’s what culture-war pundits do all the time. In this case, the numbers are pretty significant, and the cause is among those nearest and dearest to the hearts of American conservatives.

As I argued in my book about the history of educational conservatism, helping kids avoid the allure of premarital sex has always been one of the fondest educational dreams of social conservatives, especially conservative religious reformers. Why was evolutionary theory dangerous? If we taught children they were nothing but clever animals, they would certainly behave that way. Why was old-fashioned discipline important? Because children needed to learn to control their sinful, lusting nature.

I hate to do it, but let me quote myself here. When Alice Moore first joined the school board in Kanawha County, West Virginia in the 1970s, one of her first acts was to close down a progressive middle school. When I interviewed Moore I asked her about it. Here’s what I wrote in the book about Moore’s experience:

The school, Moore recalled, was not a proper learning institution. It had become a cesspool of unrestrained sloth and lust. The students, she recalled, did “whatever they wanted to.” As she walked in for her first inspection, a young couple stood in the doorway, wrapped in each other’s arms. She had to ask them to move out of her way, which they did only with notable resentment. Other students wandered around the school and neighboring fields, smoking and engaging in all kinds of sexual activity in nearby barns. When Moore asked the principal to explain this sort of behavior, he informed Moore that the school hoped to do more than simply transmit information to students; it hoped to transform them into agents of social change. Teachers should see their roles as co-learners, not as dictators.

This sort of progressive shibboleth exasperated Moore.

At the heart of warped progressive-ed thinking, Moore believed, was a mistaken notion of the nature of humanity. Lust needed to be schooled out of children, not winked and nodded at as a “natural” thing. Moore was not at all the only conservative activist to think this way. Consider William J. Bennett’s conservative index of cultural indicators. Bennett’s accusations were clear: Hippies had wrecked everything. Progressive attitudes in education had led to woeful increases in dangerous sexual activities among young people, in addition to crime, drug use, etc.

In short, for a hundred years now, educational conservatives have desperately dreamed of reducing the progressive dominance of “If it feels good, do it” attitudes among young people. And now, at long last, we seem to have some evidence that those dreams have come true, at least in part.

CDC teen sex chart 2

The  good news no one will holler about…

Here’s what we know: The excitingly named “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report” from the Centers for Disease Control notes significant declines in sexual intercourse among America’s 9th and 10th graders (roughly 14- and 15-year olds). As the authors state,

Nationwide, the proportion of high school students who had ever had sexual intercourse decreased significantly overall and among 9th and 10th grade students, non-Hispanic black (black) students in all grades, and Hispanic students in three grades. A similar pattern by grade was observed in nearly half the states (14), where the prevalence of ever having had sexual intercourse decreased only in 9th grade or only in 9th and 10th grades; nearly all other states saw decreases in some or all grades. The overall decrease in the prevalence of ever having had sexual intercourse during 2005–2015 is a positive change in sexual risk among adolescents (i.e., behaviors that place them at risk for human immunodeficiency virus, STI, or pregnancy) in the United States, an overall decrease that did not occur during the preceding 10 years.

Why? We don’t know. And of course I’m kidding when I give President Obama credit. There are some things we can confidently predict, however. First of all, I don’t think we’ll see pundits shouting about this good news. As we’ve lamented here at ILYBYGTH in the past, good news about America’s schools and youth just never gets headlines.

Second, the warped popular myths about America’s public schools will continue to dominate. Gallup polls make it startlingly clear: When people know public schools, they like them. But when they describe public schools in general, people call them terrible. The notion that America’s public schools are cesspools of drugs, sex, and sloth is not true, but it is very widely held. Similarly, this data about trends in youth culture will not likely change people’s assumptions about schools and youth.

Finally, this student data points out yet again that the common story about the history of American public education is just not true. Many of us assume that progressive types took over public education back in the 1930s. We think that since the 1930s (or maybe since the 1960s) public schools have been dominated by progressive educators from fancy teachers’ colleges and think tanks. It’s just not true. Throughout their existence, public schools have reflected the values of their local communities. When those communities change their ideas about sexual activity, so too do their local schools. Educational change hasn’t come from high-level meetings by New York leftists, but rather from more nebulous and  hard-to-trace shifts in social trends.

Why do more and more young people seem to be avoiding early sexual activity? I don’t know, but I’ll guess: It’s not due to any sex-ed curriculum they’re receiving in their Health classes. No, the change in reported sexual activity is more likely due to changes in our whole society about the allure of sexual intercourse. After all, as we like to say here at ILYBYGTH, schools don’t change society, schools ARE society.

Read This Before You Freak Out…

Conservatives might be shooting their guns in the air to celebrate. Progressives might be shedding a tear in their IPAs. Whether it’s a triumph or an apocalypse, it’s not a surprise: The Ed Department is filling its ranks with more and more conservative, creationist leaders. Before we freak out, though, let’s take stock of the real situation.

zais

He’s coming for your public school…

First, the creationism part. The new pick for the education department’s undersecretary has made no bones about his creationist sympathies. As head of South Carolina’s schools, Dr. Mick Zais supported the removal of the idea of natural selection from the state’s science standards. As Zais told a local newspaper, “We ought to teach both sides and let students draw their own conclusions.”

It’s not only creationism. Queen Betsy’s pick for undersecretary of education will make conservatives happy for a lot of other reasons as well. Zais comes to the nomination fresh off his post as South Carolina school superintendent. As Politico reports, Dr. Zais became a conservative ed hero for refusing to truckle to the Obama administration’s carrots and sticks.

In South Carolina, Zais pushed hard for vouchers. Time and time again, vouchers are embraced by conservatives who hope to shift public-school money to private schools, often religious schools.

When Zais’s zeal is added to DeVos’s enthusiasm, it might seem to progressives and conservatives alike that conservatives have finally triumphed in the world of educational politics. If ILYBYGTH cared about clickbait, we would certainly write something that exploited that sort of attitude. But we don’t and we won’t. Because, in historical perspective, this moment of conservative triumph looks much less triumphant than it might seem at first.

First, let me repeat the caveats SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing: My own politics skew progressive. I think creationism has no place in public-school science classes. I am horrified by Queen Betsy and I think President Trump’s leadership is a blight on our nation that won’t be easy to recover from.

Having said all that, I’m not interested this morning in fighting Trumpism but rather in understanding it. And when we see Queen Betsy’s reign from the perspective of the long history of conservative activism in education, we see just how wobbly her throne really is.

First, as I noted in my book about twentieth-century educational conservatism, today’s conservative push for charters and vouchers is both a novelty and a concession. Milton Friedman promoted the idea of charter schools way back in the 1950s, and nobody listened. Even the free-marketiest of Reaganites didn’t care much about promoting alternatives to traditional public-school funding.

Take, for example, Reagan’s second ed secretary, William J. Bennett. He was far more interested in pushing traditional moral values and classroom rules in public schools than in gutting public-school funding.

What happened? Only in the 1990s did conservative education pundits embrace the notion of charters and vouchers. They did so not as a triumph, but as a grim concession to the obvious fact that they had been stumped and stymied by their lack of influence in public schools.

So when conservative heroes like Queen Betsy and Superintendent Zais push for alternatives to traditional public schools, progressives should fight back. But we should also recognize that the conservative drive to fund alternatives results from conservatives’ ultimate failure to maintain cultural control of public schools.

Plus, the language used by conservatives these days represents another long-term progressive victory. In his public argument for voucher schools, for example, Superintendent Zais voiced his agreement with progressive ideas about the purposes of schooling and public policy. Why should we have more vouchers? Quoth Zais, vouchers will provide “more options for poor kids stuck in failing schools.”

I understand Zais may be less than 110% sincere in his zeal to promote social equity through public school funding. Nevertheless, the fact that he felt obliged to use that sort of progressive reasoning shows how dominant those progressive ideals have become.

In other words, if even South Carolina’s conservatives adopt the language—if not the authentic thought processes—of progressive thinking about the goals of public education, it shows that progressive ideas have come to dominate our shared beliefs about public education.

On the creationist front, too, Zais’s conservatism shows the long-term decline of conservatism. It wasn’t too long ago, after all, that creationists fought and often won the battle to have evolution utterly banned from public schools. These days, all Zais can dream of is maybe wedging some worse creationism-friendly science into public schools alongside real science.

Science educators won’t like it. I don’t like it. But once again, before we freak out, we need to recognize the long-term implications of our current situation. The dreams of creationists are so far reduced they no longer preach the abolition of evolution. If you ask creationist leaders these days what they want in public schools, they’ll tell you they want children to learn evolution, “warts and all.”

We don’t agree about that. And we don’t agree about the value of vouchers. I’m not even ready to concede that Dr. Zais and I agree on the best ways to use public schools to help alleviate poverty and improve the economic life chances of kids in lower-income families.

And I’m perturbed. I’m frightened by Queen Betsy. If he’s confirmed, I’m guessing I’ll be alarmed by Dr. Zais’s work.

I also know, though, that the seeming strength of conservative thinking these days is an illusion.

Why Do We Want our Schools to Fail?

The numbers are in, and they are good. So why aren’t we celebrating?

Here’s the story: For the past two years, graduation rates have continued to climb for Washington DC schools. And here’s the dilemma: Why don’t we hear more about our continuing love for and satisfaction with our public schools?

Most of us like our local public schools. As Gallup polls have showed over and over again, public perception of public schools is hugely skewed. Large majorities of respondents with kids in public schools are very happy with those schools. But majorities also say that public schools in general are in terrible shape.

gallup people like their local schools

We love our schools…except we don’t.

In our nation’s capital, the news has been good for the last couple of years. In 2016, new programs and policies led to increased graduation rates. That trend has continued this year.

So why don’t we see more headlines about the improving state of public education? Why don’t we hear more about the fact that most parents like their local public schools?

I have a hunch that won’t surprise SAGLRROILYBYGTH. When it comes to our bitter educational culture wars, both sides have an interest in promoting bad news.

Progressive types like me worry that schools for low-income and minority students have always suffered from a lack of funding and attention. When we look at the headlines from DC, it’s easy to a huge lurking BUT. Yes, graduation rates are improving and hitting all-time highs, but they still reflect the cruel inequities of our schools and society. As WaPo notes,

In D.C. Public Schools, black and Latino students also saw a boost in graduation rates — to 72 percent and 71 percent, respectively — but they still lag behind their white classmates by more than 10 points.

Plus, the improvements in graduation rates still vary tremendously by school. At selective high schools—schools that non-coincidentally educate a richer, whiter population—more students graduate on time. The numbers are much worse for neighborhood schools.

DC schools are good

Good news travels slow.

The takeaway? For progressive pundits, saying the news is good feels like a betrayal of all the students and families who still aren’t getting a fair shake.

Conservative education pundits don’t agree with that progressive argument, but they also tend to pooh-pooh any sorts of optimism. For many conservatives, the news from DC is still bleak. Public school systems, some conservatives think, are still throttled by sclerotic union-dominated bureaucracies. They don’t really teach kids. For proof, they can point to other parts of WaPo’s reporting:

At H.D. Woodson High School, for example, 76 percent of its students graduated on time, yet just 1 percent met math standards on national standardized tests linked to the Common Core academic standards. Just 4 percent met reading standards.

Shuttling a bunch of under-educated students across the graduation stage, conservatives might argue, doesn’t mean the schools are really doing a decent job of training students for jobs and passing along the big ideas of our culture. All it means is that union-ruled pencil-pushers are inflating their numbers. What public schools really need, conservatives might say, is an authentic shake up, a thorough-going privatization with charters and vouchers.

In every case, pundits tend to prefer bad news. It’s hard to fundraise when you tell people things are fine and getting better.

Will the Real Educational Conservative Please Stand Up?

No one can say Michael Petrilli doesn’t understand educational conservatism. As head of the free-marketeer Fordham Institute Petrilli has long championed aggressive conservative activism in schools and educational bureaucracies. In a recent piece at National Affairs, though, Petrilli tries once again to impose an ill-fitting definition of “conservatism” onto America’s educational landscape. This strategic attempt at a flattering self-image for conservatives might help conservatives sleep at night, but it doesn’t fairly depict historical realities.

school choice march

Is this conservative?

This isn’t the first time Petrilli has tried and failed to convince conservatives of what they should think. A few years back, when then-new Common Core State Standards reared their heads, Petrilli struggled to convince conservatives that the Common Core was conservative. He failed then and he’ll likely fail in his current attempt as well.

This time around, Petrilli is hoping to impose an image of educational conservatism as split between “accountability-plus-choice” and mere “choice.” All conservatives, Petrilli writes, make school choice a “paramount objective.” “Conservatives believe,” according to Petrilli,

that parents should be able to choose schools for their children that match their educational priorities and moral values. This principle stems from our deep respect for the family as the building block of a free society.

The split, Petrilli writes, is between conservatives who are happy with expanding choice and conservatives who also want to force traditional public schools to improve. Smart conservatives should want both, Petrilli thinks. As he puts it,

If we care about economic growth, upward mobility, and strong families, we should make improving America’s educational outcomes a priority. Education is both a private good and a public good, and a society has a legitimate interest in the education of its next generation — the more so when public dollars pay for it.

In short, Petrilli is hoping to convince conservatives that they should work to improve public schooling for all. He wants conservatives to see themselves as the true guardians of American values and prospects, the side of the future.

If we could all agree on improving public schools for everyone, we could likely skip much of our culture-war shouting and have drinks together on the patio. The problem is that Petrilli’s flattering definition of educational conservatism doesn’t match reality.

For example, Petrilli wants to convince his fellow conservatives that they have always been on the side of social justice for the least powerful members of American society. He writes,

Conservatives view upward mobility as a key objective of social policy, and want to empower poor families to choose schools that can catapult their children into the middle class.

Now, I’m happy to grant that Mr. Petrilli himself truly values such things, but it is more than a stretch to say that such lofty social goals have ever been a primary motivating factor for conservative educational activists. As I argue in detail in my book about educational conservatism in the twentieth century, the primary goals of conservatives have been starkly different.

From Grace Brosseau of the Daughters of the American Revolution to Norma Gabler of Longview, Texas; from Homer Chaillaux of the American Legion to Max Rafferty of California’s State Department of Education; from Bertie Forbes to Alice Moore…conservatives have wanted a bunch of different things out of schools, but elevating the economic prospects of “poor families” has never been their primary motivation.

What have they focused on? I hate to quote myself, but here’s how I put it in the 2015 book:

Educational conservatives have insisted, in short, on two central ideas. First, schools matter. Conservatives, like their progressive foes, have rarely questioned the notion that the schools of today generate the society of tomorrow. Second, because schools matter, their content and structure must be guarded ferociously. Ideas that challenge inherited wisdom must not be crammed down the throats of young, trusting students. And teachers must not abdicate their roles as intellectual and moral authorities. Educational conservatism, in other words, has been the long and vibrant tradition of defending tradition itself in America’s schools.

Of course, Mr. Petrilli is happy to offer any definition he wants for conservatism and his fans are welcome to agree with him. The rest of us, though, should understand that educational conservatism has been mostly about protecting kids from progressive trends in school and society.

And that leads us to Petrilli’s second big goof. Much as he might dislike it, school “choice” has never been anything but a convenient tactic for conservatives. Most conservatives have been decidedly blah about the notion of school choice unless that choice seemed like the best way to achieve their real goals of insulating their kids.

If we need proof, we don’t need to look any further than the mottled history of the idea of school choice itself. When Nobel laureate Milton Friedman proposed the notion of charter schools back in 1950, it met with a profound fizzle. Conservatives back then—everyone back then—mostly ignored the idea, as Friedman himself admitted.

It took nearly fifty years for conservative activists to embrace school choice as their number-one go-to plan for saving their kids from America’s schools. And even then, notions of school choice often take pride of place only in the wonky visions of brainy conservatives like Petrilli himself. Many more conservatives these days look instead to their traditional havens of private schools and the exciting new world of homeschooling.

Looked at one way, Mr. Petrilli might be right. The world of educational conservative activism might really be split in two. The sides, however, aren’t the ones Petrilli imagines. Instead of a split between conservatives who are happy with expanding charter schools and conservatives who also want to improve public schools for all, it might really just be a split between idealistic conservative reformers like Petrilli and almost all the rest of the conservatives out there.

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?

The Real Reason We Can’t Fix Our Schools

We all know public schools are not all equal. Rich kids get meticulous college-prep educations. Poor kids are often stuck in crumbling schools with shoddy expectations. Why haven’t we been able to fix this problem? We get a clue this week from an unlikely source. It underlines an unpopular argument I’ve been making for a while now: in spite of decades of “progressive” reform, our public education system is dominated by deeply conservative assumptions.

public school crappy

Do your local public schools look like this…

This week, our already-fractured academic world was thrown another culture-war bone to chew on by law professors Amy Wax (Penn) and Larry Alexander (UCLA). Writing at Philly.com, the two scholars articulated the unpopular idea that some cultures were better suited for modern American life than others. To help people in poverty, society should encourage them to live more stable personal lives, more in line with “bourgeois” culture.

Penn students and alumni condemned the essay as part of the culture of white supremacism. Some of Wax’s colleagues “categorically reject[ed] her claims.”

What does any of this have to do with school reform? A lot.

We don’t need to support or condemn Wax and Alexander in order to understand this. (Although, full disclosure, I personally put their argument in the same unfortunate category as James Damore’s Google goof. They twist social-science research to suit their own already-convinced positions. They play the provocateur merely to gain attention and they don’t mind articulating atrocious ideas in order to do so.)

public school fancy

….or more like this?

The point here is not whether or not Wax and Alexander are bold speakers of truth—as Jonathan Haidt has argued—or self-inflated stalking-horses for white supremacy.

The point, rather, is that this dust-up among elite academics shows the real reason why school reform is so difficult. It is not because we Americans are unwilling to invest in public education. As recent headlines from New York City have shown, we often have put bajillions of dollars into efforts to improve schools for students from low-income families.

As the case of the Wax/Alexander letter shows, the real reason we can’t fix public education is because we find it impossible to talk reasonably about poverty. Americans in general can’t even agree on the meaning of poverty. Some people think poverty is mainly due to personal failings. Others see the reason as structural inequality.

As a result, we talk instead about fixing schools so that poverty will be magically eliminated. Instead of talking about reforming society so that fewer students in public schools come from low-income families, we reverse the discussion. We talk about fixing schools so that more students from low-income families will get ahead in life.

In effect, our centuries-long strategy to avoid discussions of social reform by investing instead in school reform shows how deeply conservative our fundamental assumptions about schooling have always been. Instead of fixing society to eliminate poverty, we try to fix schools so that individual people might get a chance to escape poverty. Instead of directly addressing the third-rail topic of poverty in America, we sidestep the issue by making a few schools a little better.

The assumption is so deeply embedded in American culture that it is rarely noticed, let alone addressed. As long as kids from low-income families have access to a decent public school—the assumption goes—it is their own darn fault if they don’t improve their economic future. So money goes into shiny programs to make schools for low-income students a little better here and there, instead of going into programs that would change the fundamentally inequal structure of society itself.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing it, but I have to say it again. At the root of our endless failure to reform public schools is our endless failure to address the real problem. Schools can’t fix society, schools ARE society.