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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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.

Rule Us, Good Queen Betsy

In a recent commentary that got picked up by Newsweek, I suggested that Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos was promising to give conservatives “local control” of schools just when they wouldn’t want it. DeVos’s testimony yesterday before Congress seems to offer confirmation. At least in prospect. Mark it on your calendars: Your humble editor will make a prediction today about the way the next shoe will drop.

Here’s what we know: According to the New York Times, Secretary DeVos was grilled by unfriendly legislators from blue states such as Massachusetts and Connecticut. The new federal budget cuts many education programs and shifts bajillions of dollars to school-choice and voucher programs. Decisions about funding private schools will devolve to state leaders.

devos may 2017 congress

Erm…I don’t want schools to discriminate, but…

But would Secretary DeVos intervene if some of those private schools actively discriminated against gay and trans students? Against African-American students? Students with disabilities? She wouldn’t say. It would be the states’ job to make those rules.

As Emma Brown reported in WaPo, DeVos stuck to her noncommittal guns. Would the federal government intervene to protect students from discrimination? DeVos hemmed and hawed. She offered only this sort of response:

We have to do something different than continuing a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, the federal government has long assumed the role of anti-discrimination watchdog in American public education. From racial segregation (think Little Rock) to physical disability (think ramps), the federal government has always pushed states to enforce anti-discrimination rules. It hasn’t always been as aggressive as folks like me have hoped, but it has been a steady drumbeat.

DeVos’s performance yesterday suggests that things have changed. At the top, at least, the federal education bureaucracy now favors more privatization of public schools, more public funding of religious schools, and more freedom for schools to avoid expensive federal regulations.

And so, friends, please hold me to account. We historians hate to do it, but in this case I think we can safely make a few predictions. After all, as I argued in my book about the history of educational conservatism, some themes emerged in the twentieth century as rock-solid elements of educational conservatism. There’s no reason to think they will change now.

Here’s what we’ll see next: In some states, such as Massachusetts and my beloved New York, conservatives will flip. Instead of hoping for more local control, they will yearn for more federal control. After all, under the DeVos administration, the federal government will be the one pushing for more public funding of religion in schools, more freedom from federal regulations. Local blue-state leaders might enforce anti-discrimination, anti-devotional, and anti-privatization rules. But blue-state conservatives will know that DeVos wouldn’t.

And in redder states, educational conservatives will pick up the DeVos mumbles and run. They will decide to allow more public funding for schools that discriminate based on religious ideas. They will push more public money into private religious schools. They will free schools from federal requirements.

And when they do these things, they will celebrate the support they’re getting from the top. They might not say out loud that they want more federal influence in their local schools, but they will trump-et (sorry) the fact that their policies have support all the way up.

Tough Crowd

Woo! We were tickled pink to come across another academic review of The Other School Reformers. It’s in the (subscription only; sorry) January edition of American Historical Review.

AHR is the journal of the American Historical Association, the leading professional association for academic historians. As the editors humbly explain, AHR is

the journal of record for the historical profession in the United States since 1895—the only journal that brings together scholarship from every major field of historical study.

Its reviews are famous for no-holds-barred nerd attacks. So when we dialed up our library to access the review, it was with some trepidation. Was the author going to rip my book apart?

She was Emily E. Straus, author of Death of a Suburban Dream: Race and School in Compton, California, published in 2014 by the University of Pennsylvania Press. Clearly, Professor Straus knows the terrain of schooling, culture, and tumult.straus

I’m happy to report that Straus both understood what I was trying to do and thought I did a good job of it.

For one thing, she wrote that the book

fills in the shadow figures against whom progressives—a group that historians have written much more about—fought.

Excellent. That was my primary driving question in this research. Most of the books that I read in grad school found the progressive side to be the obvious protagonists of educational history. I did, too, but my experience as a high-school teacher made me think those histories were missing a big part of the story.

I also hoped to contribute to the growing history of American conservatism. A lot of my favorite books strangely sidestepped the obvious point that conservative activists and intellectuals cared a lot about schooling and education. Did I succeed? Straus says yes. According to her, my book

also broadens our understanding of conservatism in the twentieth century by illuminating the centrality of education.

In addition, I hoped to write something that could help people like me think about schools and education policy today. Straus kindly noticed my  efforts. As she put it,

By excavating conservatives’ activism around public school education and by helping to reframe the discourse around education, Laats’s account will enrich both historical and contemporary debates on education and politics.

Best of all, Professor Straus thought that my book might be a good way to go about this sort of thing in general. In her words,

Any scholar interested in how to tell a national story through a local lens will also benefit from reading Laats’s work.

Thank you, Professor Straus! You are obviously a scholar of great taste and discernment!

Trump & DeVos Give Conservatives What They’ve Always Wanted. Sort of.

What have educational conservatives always wanted? As I argue in my 2015 book, it’s not as simple as you might think.

Trump and devos

A gift for educational conservatives…

Today at History News Network, I make the case that President Trump’s latest offering to educational conservative might not be exactly what conservatives were after. Check it out!

The Tough Questions

How do we start?  What about students? …and isn’t it cheating to sneak in a definition after I say I’m not going to impose a definition?

floridagators3

They’ll bite!

Those were some of the smart and tough questions leveled at your humble editor last night after my talk at the University of Florida’s College of Education research symposium.  The edu-Gators (ha) were a wonderful group of scholars to talk with.  I got a chance to hear about their work in schools and archives, then I got to run my mouth a little bit about the culture-war questions that keep me up at night.

The theme of the symposium was “Strengthening Dialogue through Diverse Perspectives.”  Accordingly, I targeted my talk at the difficult challenge of talking to people with whom we really disagree.  I shared my story about dealing with a conservative mom who didn’t like the way I was teaching.  Then I told some of the stories from the history of educational conservative activism from my recent research.

University of Florida

The UF crew…

What has defined “conservative” activism in school and education?  Even though there isn’t a single, all-inclusive simple definition of conservatism—any more than there is one for “progressivism” or “democracy”—we can identify themes that have animated conservative activists.  Conservatives have fought for ideas such as order, tradition, capitalism, and morality.  They have insisted that schools must be first and foremost places in which students learn useful information and have their religion and patriotic ideals reinforced.

Underlying those explicit goals, however, conservatives have also shared some unspoken assumptions about school and culture.  Time and time again, we hear conservatives lamenting the fact that they have been locked out of the real decisions about schooling.  Distant experts—often from elite colleges and New York City—have dictated the content of schools, conservatives have believed.  And those experts have been not just mistaken, but dangerously mistaken.  The types of schooling associated with progressive education have been both disastrously ineffective and duplicitously subversive, conservatives have believed.

That was my pitch, anyway.  And the audience was wonderful.  They poked the argument (politely!) to see if it would really hold.  One student asked a tough question: Given all this history, all this poisoning of our dialogue between conservatives, progressives, and other, how do we start?  A second student followed up with another humdinger: I talked about conservative parents and school board members and leaders, but what about students?  What should a teacher do if she finds herself confronted with a student who has a totally different vision of what good education should look like?  Last but not least, a sharp-eyed ed professor wondered if I wasn’t doing exactly what I promised I wouldn’t do: Impose a definition on “conservatism” by offering a list of defining ideas and attitudes.

How did I handle them?

Well, SAGLRROILYBYGTH, your humble editor did his best, but those are really tough ones.  In general, I think the way to begin conversations with people with whom we have very strong disagreements is to start by looking at ourselves.  Are we making assumptions about that person based on things he or she isn’t actually saying?  Are we seeing them through our own distorted culture-war lenses?

And if students in class disagree with us about these sorts of culture-war principles, we need to remember first and foremost that they are our students.  If a student in my class, for example, is super pro-Trump, I want her to know first and foremost that I welcome her in my class and she is a member of our learning community.  It gets tricky, though, if a student wants to exclude other students based on these sorts of religious and ideological beliefs.

Last but certainly not least, I don’t think it’s unfair to offer themes and ideas that have defined conservatism over the years.  I’d never want to impose those definitions on historical actors, Procrustes-style.  But once we take the time to listen and learn to our subjects, we can and should suggest some things that they have had in common.

On to breakfast with graduate students and a chance to participate in Dr. Terzian’s schools, society and culture colloquium.  Bring on the coffee!

Hello, Florida!

Good morning, SAGLRROILYBYGTH!

Wish me luck–I’m on my way to the Sunshine State.  Thanks to my colleague Sevan Terzian, I’ll be giving a keynote talk at the University of Florida’s research symposium this evening.  I can’t wait.

What will I be talking about?  Well, you’ll have to wait until after the talk for a synopsis, but I can tell you that I’ll be using these images from my research into twentieth-century educational conservatism.

Allen Zoll’s attack on progressive education, from Pasadena, 1950

The American Legion warns of treasonous textbooks, 1940

Watch out for communism in your local school, c. 1951

Scopes Trial, 1925

Kanawha County’s protesters, 1974

School = Thanksgiving

Ah, Thanksgiving! Our favorite holiday of all. No gifts, no decorations, no sweat . . . just lots of food and friends and football. Your humble editor has retreated to an undisclosed location in scenic upstate New York to share the holiday with family.

simpsonsturkey

PS 101

Before we do, however, we must give in to our unhealthy compulsion to share some Thanksgiving reflections about schooling and culture wars. In the past, we’ve noted the central role Thanksgiving has come to play in those battles. Today, though, we want to point out a more basic connection: Why do we keep having culture wars over the teaching in our public schools? Because those schools are like Thanksgiving itself.

First, a review of our ILYBYGTH reflections about culture-wars and Turkey Day:

Today, let’s consider a more fundamental idea: Thanksgiving gives us a chance to see how public schools really function and why they serve so often as lightning rods for culture-war kerfuffles. Thanksgiving dinner might just be the best analogy for the way our schools work.

Because we know they don’t work the way anyone really wants them to.

For generations, progressive activists and intellectuals have dreamed of schools that would transform society. To pick just one example from my recent book, in the 1930s Harold Rugg at Teachers College Columbia hoped his new textbooks would transform America’s kids into thoughtful authentic small-d democrats. The books would encourage students to ask fundamental questions about power and political transparency. They would help young people see that true social justice would come from a healthy transformation of society, with power devolved to the people instead of to plutocrats.

For their part, generations of conservative activists have tried to create schools that would do something very different. There is no single, simple, definition of “conservatism,” of course, but by and large, as I also argue in my recent book, activists have promoted a vision of schooling as the place to teach kids the best of America’s traditions.

As one conservative intellectual asked during a turbulent 1970s school boycott,

Does not the Judeo-Christian culture that has made the United States the envy of the world provide a value system that is worth preserving?

Other conservatives shared this vision. Max Rafferty, one-time superintendent of public instruction in California and popular syndicated columnist, yearned for a golden age when

the main job of the schools was to transmit from generation to generation the cultural heritage of Western civilization.

Max Rafferty was never satisfied. Schools, he thought, failed in their proper job as the distributor of cultural treasures.

Harold Rugg wasn’t happy either. Neither he nor his progressive colleagues in the “Social Frontier” group ever succeeded in using the schools to “build a new social order.”

Why not? Because schools will not fulfill either progressive or conservative dreams. They are not distribution points for ideological imperatives. They are not outposts of thoughtful civilization scattered among a hillbilly hinterland.

Instead, it will help us all to think about schools as a sort of Thanksgiving dinner. At a Thanksgiving dinner, people of all sorts gather together to eat. Friends, family, co-workers, neighbors. Unless you’re lucky enough to escape to an undisclosed location in scenic upstate New York with only a few beloved family members and a dog, you will likely sit at a table with people with whom you don’t share much in common, intellectually.

In every family, you are likely to find some ardent conservatives and some earnest progressives. You are likely to find strong feelings about issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, evolution, and etc.

That’s why—until the booze kicks in, at least—most Thanksgiving dinners tend to stick with safe topics. We know we can disagree about football, for example. If my Green Bay Packers lose to the horrible Chicago Bears, my cousin knows he can tease me about that.

But we can’t disagree, out loud, at least, about things that really matter to us. If I have an imaginary uncle, for example, who thinks same-sex marriage means opening the door to pederasty and apocalypse, he knows he can’t tease me about it. Our disagreement on that issue won’t be something we can both just laugh about.

So our Thanksgiving dinner conversations, we hope, stick to fairly humdrum topics.

That might just be the best way to understand our schools, too. In spite of the dreams and hard work of intellectuals such as Max Rafferty and Harold Rugg, schools don’t push one ideological vision or another. At least, they tend not to do it very well or for very long.

Instead, they stick to the smallish circle of ideas that we as a society can roughly agree on.

This is why biology teachers tend not to teach a whole lot of evolution.

This is why health teachers tend not to teach a whole lot of sex.

This is why history teachers tend not to teach a whole lot of history.

There are plenty of exceptions, of course. But that also fits into our Thanksgiving analogy. Every once in a while, someone at Thanksgiving will insist on having it out…whatever “it” is. And our holiday turns into a smack-down, leaving everyone a little bruised and shaken.

Similarly, some teachers and some schools will occasionally push for a better vision of education, a more ideologically pure one. As I examine in my recent book, that is when we get culture-war flare-ups.

So as we sit around our tables and eat birds, let’s reflect on the ways this holiday might be the perfect analogy for schools. They are not change agents or tradition-upholders. At least, they are not only that.

Public schools are, rather, a meeting place in which we all implicitly agree to limit ourselves to non-controversial topics. We agree to keep the most interesting ideas, the most provocative ones, and, sadly, often the most educational ones, off the table.

A Field Test for Progressive Education

I’ve spent the past few years of my life trying to figure it out.  What has it meant to be “conservative” about American education? It’s not as obvious as it might look. Similarly, it can be extremely tricky to figure out what makes something educationally “progressive.” Peter Greene offers what might be a handy field test.

A test for the tests...?

A test for the tests…?

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are aware, my recent book argues that an identifiable tradition of “educational conservatism” emerged in the twentieth century. Speaking broadly, educational conservatives mixed free-market structures with Christian morality; they mixed traditional pedagogy with traditionalist social norms. Jesus and phonics, Friedman and fundamentalism. Time and again, conservative activists successfully asserted their right to be heard about textbooks, school rules, and classroom practices.

In recent months, I’ve been expanding my reading list to include more non-conservative arguments about education. One of my favorite progressive anti-testers has been Peter Greene at Curmudgucation.

Greene repeated his argument recently that there is an easy way to find out if any evaluation is authentic. Or, more precisely, he offers a quick way to decide if one is inauthentic:

The hallmark of inauthentic assessment is that it’s easy to cheat, because you don’t have to be good at what you’re allegedly being judged for– you just have to be good at the assessment task which, because it’s inauthentic, consists of faking proxies for the real deal anyway. What it really measures is the proxy-faking skills.

If we want a handy-dandy field guide to progressive education—a notoriously slippery concept to define—perhaps Greene’s warning might help.

We might call classroom practices “progressive” if they fundamentally make it impossible for students to cheat. Not by eagle-eyed watchfulness or elaborate security precautions, but because of the nature of the tasks themselves.

In a traditional classroom, for instance, information is transferred from teacher and textbook to student. The student is expected to incorporate this knowledge. At some point, a “test” will be administered, in which said student repeats back the knowledge. He is measured by how much and how well he repeats back the knowledge.

In a progressive classroom, in contrast, students will not have tests of that sort. Rather, they will be expected to make something, perform something, achieve something. Since the parameters are not set up in advance, it is impossible for a student to cheat.

For instance, if assessment is based on a student’s performance in a research-informed discussion, she is free to bring in as many notes as she wishes. If she is able to use that information in a coherent and convincing way, she will have done well on the project.

In a traditional classroom, methods of cheating are as traditional as the lectures themselves. Students cheat by writing facts on their arms, by copying answers from another student, or by any of an enormous corpus of tried-and-true methods.

Pssst...I find these methods of assessment inauthentic....

Pssst…I find these methods of assessment inauthentic….

Indeed, we might conclude that the overwhelming political support for traditionalist policies such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top results from the fact that progressive education has sunk such shallow roots in the United States. Even the most ardent fans of progressive education admit that it is “hard to beat, but also hard to find.”

By and large, progressive education—as classroom practice, not as political decision—has crashed on the reefs of testing. By and large, American parents and voters cling to the notion that “real” education means acquisition of knowledge. We cling to the idea that “real” education can be evaluated by “real” tests.

Is it true? I know SAGLRROILYBYGTH include self-styled progressives as well as self-styled conservatives. Do the “progressives” out there yearn for evaluations that simply can’t be cheated? And do conservatives agree that the heart and soul of real education can be measured with a good test?

Are Schools Conservative?

Binghamtonians!  Come on down to RiverRead Books on April 21 at 6:30 PM.  Five Court Street in scenic downtown Binghamton.  I’ll be sharing some thoughts from my new book about schooling and conservatism.  Free and open to all.  I’m planning to bring brownies, but we’ll see if I actually get it done.

The place to be...

The place to be…

The book works through several questions:

  • ARE most of America’s public schools conservative places?
  • What has it meant to be “conservative” about education in the USA?
  • How have ideas of “conservatism” and “progressivism” in schools changed over time?
  • What kind of brownies should I make?

As the sophisticated and good-looking regular readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) are aware, in my new book I examine four of the most famous educational controversies of the twentieth century: the Scopes Trial of 1925; the Rugg textbook controversy of 1939/40; the Pasadena superintendent ouster of 1950; and the Kanawha County textbook battle of 1974/75.   In each case, conservative activists articulated their ideas about proper education.  In each case, conservative leaders and thinkers viewed education as the best way to improve society.  If schools could be reformed, the thinking has always gone, then society could be saved.

What did they fight for?  How did they envision good schools?  How successful were they?

I’ll try to make the case that these “other school reformers” have played a leading role in determining the course of schooling in this country.  Whether we like it or not (and generally, I don’t), conservative thinking and political clout have played decisive roles in shaping America’s educational system.

So come on down to RiverRead to take place in the conversation.