Bursting the Conservative Bubble about Educational History

How did American public schools get started? Like the rest of us, conservative intellectuals and activists have always told themselves stories that confirmed what they wanted to believe. This morning, we see another expression of century-old conservative myths about educational history.

As I found in the research for my book about educational conservatism, conservatism has always been fueled by a false notion of America’s past. When it comes to schools and schooling, conservative activists since at least the 1930s have told themselves that schools used to be great, but scheming progressive New Yorkers took over at some point and ruined everything.

rafferty what they are doing

Schools USED to be great…

Consider this example from my favorite twentieth-century educational conservative, Max Rafferty. Rafferty was the superintendent of California’s public schools in the 1960s. He was a popular syndicated columnist and almost won the US Senate race in 1968. One of the reasons for Rafferty’s popularity was his persuasive but false vision of educational history. He told readers over and over again that American public schools used to be great, local institutions. The problem came, Rafferty explained, when New York “progressives” took over.

As Rafferty wrote in his 1964 book What They Are Doing to Your Children,

Wherever progressive education was allowed in infiltrate—and this was almost everywhere—the mastery of basic skills began insensibly to erode, knowledge of the great cultures and contributions of past civilizations started to slip and slide, reverence for the heroes of our nation’s past faded and withered under the burning glare of pragmatism.

This morning we stumbled across a 2018 update of this twentieth-century just-so story. Writing from Pepperdine’s American Project, Bruce Frohnen tries to explain why conservatives hate public schools. Along the way, Prof. Frohnen makes big false assumptions about the history of those schools.

First example: Like a lot of conservatives, Frohnen incorrectly assumes that federal and state leaders call the shots in public schools. As Prof. Frohnen puts it,

The problem is precisely that they are run by people and according to rules that are too distant from, and consequently hostile toward, our local communities.

Not really. Most teachers ARE the local communities.  As Stanford’s Susanna Loeb found,

A full 61 percent of teachers first teach in schools located within 15 miles of their hometown; 85 percent get their first teaching job within 40 miles of their hometown. And 34 percent of new teachers took their first job in the same school district in which they attended high school.

Similarly, Penn State political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer found that the most important factor driving teachers’ choices about evolution education was local values. If communities wanted evolution taught, teachers taught it. If they didn’t, they didn’t.

gallup local schools

If schools aren’t local, why are so many locals happy with them?

So, yes, the impact of federal funding has increased since 1950. But most of the day-to-day decisions about schooling and education are made at the very local level. This localism might explain why most American parents are actually very happy with their children’s schools. Gallup polls have consistently found that most people grade their kids’ schools highly, in spite of the hand-wringing by pundits like Dr. Frohnen.

Second example: Like a lot of people, Prof. Frohnen mischaracterizes the early history of American public education. As he argues [emphasis added by me],

Today, politicians, professional educators, and administrators all tell us that the federally-regulated public school is essential to American public life—that it is the place where children from widely divergent socio-economic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds come together to learn what it means to be an American. It is understandable that Conservatives harken back to this vision as they face an education establishment determined to undermine our common culture. But we need to remember that historically American schools integrated students, not into some national community defined by ideology, but into local communities defined by tradition, history, and local relationships. Nationalized education got its start with the famous 19th century educator, Horace Mann.

Nope. From the get-go, ed reformers promised that publicly funded schools would serve a national purpose. And those reformers preceded the attention-hogging Horace Mann. Consider just a couple of examples from my recent research into the career of Joseph Lancaster. Starting in 1818, Lancaster swept into Philadelphia, New York, and other cities, promising that his “system” could educate a new nation’s children.

Lancaster and his fellow reformers insisted that their goal was precisely to train NATIONAL citizens, not local ones. As he wrote in a 1817 guide to his system [emphasis added again],

Another inducement to pursue the Lancasterian system, as it respects the state at large, is the uniformity of principles and habits, which would be thus inculcated among the children of those citizens who are the subjects of this kind of instruction, a desideratum essential to the formation of correct national feeling and character.

In all of his early writing, Lancaster explicitly promoted his scheme as a way to foster “NATIONAL EDUCATION” [his emphasis this time]. Indeed, one of the reasons Lancaster’s reform plan was so popular in the 1810s was precisely because it promised to train national citizens—at the time, the security of the new nation was extremely shaky.

So, SAGLRROILYBYGTH, agree with Prof. Frohnen’s ideas about public schools or don’t. Embrace his vision of conservative principles or don’t. But whatever you do, don’t listen to pundits who tell you that America’s public schools are ruled by any distant power. And don’t buy the old line that schools in the old days used to be about purely local values.

It just ain’t so.

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Why AZ Teachers Still Aren’t Happy

Seems like a big fat win for Arizona’s striking teachers. Headlines this morning announced a whopping 20% salary raise over three years. So why are some teachers still mad?

az teacher strike

Is RedforEd Dead?

For one thing, many of Arizona’s teachers wanted more than a pay raise. As the legislators voted on the new budget that included their pay raises, the crowd of striking teachers applauded the “no” votes, not the yeses. As one striker told USA Today,

This was never about teachers’ salaries. This was about the future of our kids and the future of education in Arizona.

Striking teachers didn’t only want increased salaries. They wanted a vastly increased budget for public education in general. They wanted funding restored for programs and staffing.

As another strike leader told Jacobin magazine, the new budget—including promises of salary raises—is really only a stopgap, a half-measure meant to distract attention from the state’s real educational funding problems. As she put it,

We’re opposed to this budget, it does not give us what we want. It does not put $1.1 billion back in the funding. What it does give us is a tiny piece of the puzzle, $400 million dollars. Which means we’re responsible for going and getting that other $700 million. We’re going to pivot and go fight to get that money ourselves. We need to fight for the money for our kids and colleagues, because they’ve been left out — and that’s one of the main reasons why we don’t support this budget.

I didn’t hear any strikers mention it, but I can’t help but think that some striking teachers are also peeved at the way they are being talked about by some conservative politicians. I know I would be. For example, even as the budget was being passed, one republican legislator tried to cram in three anti-teacher amendments.

The first would have banned any school closures, except in case of non-political emergency. The second would have allowed lawmakers to call for an investigation of any school district that seemed to be too sympathetic to teachers. The one best calculated to provoke the ire of striking teachers, though, would have prohibited teachers from spouting political ideology in their classrooms, including possible fines of up to $5,000. As this conservative legislator fumed,

It’s far beyond time we rein in indoctrination in our public schools.

As I argue in my book about the history of educational conservatism, this notion that sneaky subversive teachers are using their positions to warp students’ minds has a long and bitter history. Conservative pundits and politicians have long assumed that left-wing teachers were out to corrode children’s faith in America and capitalism. And for most teachers, those sorts of accusations are not only bizarre, but profoundly insulting.

In addition, then, to feeling shorted on their real goals of increasing school funding and reining in charters, I imagine some Arizona teachers must be chagrined to be subjected to this sort of continuing casual slander from their state leaders.

College Professors: The Enemy Within

Want to understand the campus free-speech wars? Chronicle of Higher Education has published a fantastic description of the way one scuffle in Nebraska escalated into a national cause. As with other reporting, however, this article misrepresents the history of conservative ire over liberal colleges.

CHE conservative students

Conservative students under attack in Nebraska…

It’s really a spellbinding story for nerds interested in these sorts of things. Journalist Steve Kolowich tells the tale of one conservative Nebraska student confronted by a progressive student and a faculty member. Kolowich explains how Nebraska politicians and national activists seized upon the conflict as a symbol of their dislike for academic trends.

When it comes to historical context, though, Kolowich misses some important elements. As he writes, after the “culture-war” battles of the 1980s and 1990s, “Conservatives began seeing themselves as minorities in need of protection.” For conservatives, Kolowich explains, in recent years “the public university was transforming into an enemy within[.]”

True enough, as far as it goes. But as I argue in my book about the history of educational conservatism, conservative anger and dismay at the goings-on in higher education have a much longer history.

In the early 1920s, for example, anti-evolution celebrity William Jennings Bryan railed against trends in American higher education. In one public dispute with University of Wisconsin President Edward Birge, for example, Bryan offered the following memorable proposal. If universities continued to promote amoral ideas such as human evolution, Bryan suggested, they needed to post the following notice:

Our class rooms furnish an arena in which a brutish doctrine tears to pieces the religious faith of young men and young women; parents of the children are cordially invited to witness the spectacle.

Elite schools, Bryan warned, had begun actively to teach “moral laxity and corrosiveness.” Universities needed to warn parents that they no longer taught students right from wrong. This sense of conservative outrage at higher-educational trends was a driving force behind the culture wars of the 1920s.

It wasn’t only Bryan and it wasn’t only evolution. Since the 1920s, conservative intellectuals have voiced “with particular intensity” their sense that elite universities had gone off the moral rails. Consider the case made by some patriotic conservatives in the 1930s and 1940s against the anti-American direction of the elite higher-educational establishment.

In 1938, for instance, Daniel Doherty of the American Legion denounced elite institutions as mere “propagandists.” Universities such as Columbia had taken to “attacking the existing order and [to] disparagement of old and substantial values.”

These intense antagonistic feelings toward elite universities were widely shared among conservative thinkers in the 1930s. Bertie Forbes, for example, syndicated columnist and founder of Forbes magazine, warned that elite schools were “generally regarded as infested” with subversive and anti-moral professors.

When it comes to conservative skepticism about the goings-on in higher education, we need to remember the longer context. Recent polls have led some pundits to make a variety of short-term claims about why conservatives don’t like higher education.

If we really want to understand the relationship between conservatism and higher education in America, IMHO, we need to take a different approach. First of all, as I’ve argued before, conservative activists and intellectuals don’t really dislike higher education as an institution. They love it. What they dislike, in general, is the perceived takeover of higher education by progressives.

Second, we need to keep the long view. If we want to understand the Nebraska stand off that Kolowich describes so movingly, we need to keep in mind the full historical context. Conservatives have been griping about the progressive takeover of higher education for a long time. When Nebraska’s pundits and state senators get on board, they are able to dip into a much longer, much more robust political tradition.

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.

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.

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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.