I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Hello 2019! We’re starting strong with a full week of culture-war contention. Here are some of the stories that caught our eye this week:

How evangelicals can embrace evolution, at CT.

Jim Carrey I Dont Care GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

You probably heard Jerry Falwell Jr.’s odd Trumpist speech. What does it mean? One analysis at WaPo:

Like many heretics, Falwell and his fellow evangelical Trump apologists are on their way to founding a new religion, one in direct conflict with the old.

It’s not easy to be an anti-racist evangelical these days. A portrait of non-white activists in The New Yorker.

What are educational conservatives saying these days? A new speaker series hopes to restore the conservative glory days of the 1990s.

Do young-earth creationists have any answer to geocentric critics? RA says…still no.

Inclusive campuses for everyone—even Nazis. At IHE.

fuck nazis

Do Nazis deserve manners?

Stalker or romantic? At KCStar.

Will the USA extradite Fethullah Gulen? At RNS.

Update: anti-porn students find allies, at IHE.

Bad news for Trumpists: China’s Great Wall didn’t keep out invaders, at NG.

Michael Petrilli: School discipline needs to make sense, not just culture-war nonsense. At Flypaper.

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What Today’s Educational Conservatives Need to Say Instead

I don’t see any good reason why they would listen to me. But if today’s conservative pundits and intellectuals are really serious about identifying the “future direction of American education,” they need to come to terms with the elephant in the conservatives’ room. At the Fordham Institute and Hoover Institution at least, they seem to be doing the opposite.

This isn’t only a conservative problem. Progressives like me need to be more willing to remind ourselves of the unpopular truths of the progressive tradition, too. We need to be willing to acknowledge the fact that excesses of campus left-wing Puritanism do not come out of nowhere. When smart students feel the need to exhibit their devotion and purity to radical egalitarian ideals, they are simply speaking the logical conclusions of the progressive tradition. At least, it’s ONE logical conclusion.

 

 

And when conservative intellectuals opine about American education, they need to do more to acknowledge their own history. As I argued in my book about the history of American educational conservatism, one idea has been awkwardly ignored and muffled by American conservatives. That hasn’t made it go away. Rather, it has only made it more pressing for conservatives to address it more forthrightly and explicitly.

I’m not surprised to see that they aren’t.

In a series they call “Education 20/20,” the Fordham Institute and Hoover Institution have brought a series of conservative speakers, thinkers, and policy-makers to Washington DC to tell one another what they want to hear.

For example, according to Chester Finn, the kick-off lecture by Heather Mac Donald warned that the real solution to school discipline problems had to come from addressing students’ “lack of self-control.” Speakers such as Ian Rowe told the conservative crowd that the main problem was not race, not class, but rather dysfunctional family structures, “particularly the presence or absence of two married parents.” Other speakers hoped schools could do more to teach traditional values, including

character, emotional well-being, and personal behavior, as well as help in making choices and following up on them.

What’s wrong with all that? Honestly, nothing at all. I think we can all agree that students in school should learn to control their own behavior. We all probably agree that healthy families are absolutely required for healthy schools. And all of us—even progressive history teachers like me that conservatives have always loathed—want to teach children to love America, “warts and all, yes, but also replete with heroes, principles, and triumphs.”

So where’s the beef? Why can’t we all agree on these goals and ideals?

There’s one obvious problem with events like this one. And it is a big one; one that conservatives need to address openly and bravely if they ever want to gain real traction in designing school reform that works. Namely, conservatives need to come to terms with the fact that their ideas have always been used as cover for racist policies.

I’m not accusing any of the speakers here of racism. Unlike some of my allies and colleagues, I don’t believe that conservatives are scheming to cover up their own racism. As I think we all should, I give my conservative friends the benefit of the doubt when they say they really want to heal racism’s ugly legacies, not promote it.

 

As the folks at Fordham Institute and Hoover Institution lament, when conservatives were able to get broad support for their policies, they have scored big successes. In their words,

Twenty years ago, conservative ideas were gaining traction in K–12 education. Charter schools were opening all over the place, vouchers were finally being tried, academic standards were rising, results-based accountability had become the watchword in policy circles, and reformers were taking the idea of “character education” seriously.

Why did charters and vouchers score so big in the 1990s? Because conservative activists were able to make common cause with center-left reformers to pitch them as a real solution for low-income, non-white families.

These days, lambasting non-white students for lacking self-control and non-white families for lacking proper structure is not likely to gain any sympathy outside of conservative circles. Talking about focusing on teaching American “ideals” is likely to be ignored by non-conservatives as mere cover for “Making America Great Again.”

If conservatives really want to get another taste of reform influence, they need to take the brave step and acknowledge the legacy of their own campaigns. Instead of saying “We’re not racist, but…” they need to say “These ideas WERE used by racists, but here’s why they are good anyway.”

Building the Machine: Conservatives Debate the Common Core

She’s in a hurry.

Balancing a crate of oranges in one hand, a purse and bag of groceries in the other, a stylish, affluent, and beautiful mom hustles to answer a call on her iPhone from a friend. “Calling to see if you’re going to the special PTA meeting,” the friend asks as creepy music deedles in the background, “the school is changing the tests next Spring . . . something about the Common Core Standards?”

That’s the opening of a new short film about the Common Core Standards produced by the Home School Legal Defense Association. The forty-minute film, Building the Machine, examines conservative arguments for and against the new standards. As we’ve noted in these pages [check out ILYBYGTH coverage here, here, or here, for instance], conservatives have wondered about the implications of these new standards. I’m told by watchful members of the ILYBYGTH community that the film has made a big splash among conservative homeschoolers. What are conservatives supposed to think about the new standards? What do they need to know about them?

The conservative HSLDA certainly wants to portray the CCSS in a negative light. As HSLDA leader Michael Farris makes clear in the documentary, he feels the standards make a fetish of centralization, systematization, and data collection. But the film gives ample time for pro-CCSS conservative intellectuals to make their cases.

Most prominently, Michael Petrilli of the conservative-leaning Fordham Institute tries to allay conservative worries. The standards, Petrilli argues, resulted from an open and public process. They were not imposed top-down by grasping central elites. Best of all, they will improve education. They will hold teachers, unions, administrators, and students to higher standards. Are they perfect? Not according to Petrilli. But they are the nation’s best shot at renewing academic rigor in public education.

Petrilli is joined by conservative standards-boosters such as Mike Huckabee and Chester Finn. But most of the screen time is devoted to CCSS dissidents Sandra Stotsky and Jim Milgram. Both were part of the original validation committee in charge of the standards, and both refused to sign off on the final product. Why? Both Stotsky and Milgram assert that the new standards are not offering the rigorous academic benchmark that they claim to be. And both insist that their dissent was swept under the rug.

The HSLDA documentary also features conservative critics from the Heartland Institute and Pioneer Institute. The new standards, conservative intellectuals complain, were crafted in a secretive manner, rammed through by the federal government, and do not make academic sense. By aiming at the broad middle, by promising to make all students “college and career ready,” these standards fail to prepare students for either college or careers. More troubling, the standards represent a dictatorial overreach by central government. Mega-rich donors such as Bill Gates greased the slide and snuck this project past the complacent American public.

Perhaps more than the messages delivered by the talking heads, the film’s fast-cut montages and sinister musical background send a clear message: Take your kids and run for the hills. We can’t all be as hip, rich, and beautiful as the mom in the opening montage. But the film makes it clear. All of us—beautiful moms and the rest of us alike—need to wake up and smell the Common Core.

 

A Conservative Plea for the Common Core

Don’t throw the conservative baby out with the Common Core bathwater. That’s the plea this morning from two leading conservative intellectuals.

Writing in the Weekly Standard, Chester Finn Jr. and Michael Petrilli rally conservative support for the new standards.

As we’ve noted in these pages, all sorts of conservative activists, from Phyllis Schlafly to the Heritage Foundation to the Tea Party, have denounced the centralizing tendencies of the Common Core.

The conservative credentials of Finn and Petrilli are difficult to dispute.  Both have long been leading voices for the movement to introduce market choices into public education and reduce the influence of unions and left-leaning schools of education.  Both have worked in conservative think tanks and conservative political administrations to fight for such measures.

They want conservatives to embrace the Common Core as the best available program to heal public education.  As they argue,

the fact that Obama thinks well of it doesn’t means there’s anything (else) wrong with it. This is understood by the many respected conservatives who back the Common Core, including such scarred veterans of the education-reform wars as Jeb Bush, Bill Bennett, John Engler, Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, Sonny Perdue, Bobby Jindal, Rod Paige, and Mitch Daniels. They realize that academic standards are only the beginning, setting out a destination but not how to get there. They understand, however, that a destination worth reaching beats aimless wandering—and a big modern country is better off if it knows how all its kids and schools are doing against a rigorous set of shared expectations for the three R’s.

Finn and Petrilli offer three specific ways to use the Common Core to best conservative advantage.  Conservatives, they insist,

should maximize the good it can do and minimize its potential harm. Here are three useful steps:

  • Draw a bright line between the standards and the federal government. (Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley is onto one approach with his proposal to ban any further federal spending related to the Common Core.)

  • Overhaul No Child Left Behind as proposed by Senator Lamar Alexander and House education committee chairman John Kline, in effect rolling back the regulatory regime that has turned results-based school accountability into Uncle Sam’s business. (The tighten-the-screws alternative advanced by Senate Democrats would entangle Washington even further with states’ standards and accountability systems—as well as much more mischief.)

  • Continue to push aggressively in dozens of states for more school choice, both public and private—and allow voucher schools (and maybe charters, too) to opt out of their states’ standards and tests (Common Core or otherwise) if they can present alternatives that are just as rigorous. (Disclosure: the co-authors of this piece are still tussling over this one!)

Finn and Petrilli base their argument on a conservative vision of the recent history of American education.  As I’ve argued in the pages of Teachers College Record, conservative school reform proposals, no less than progressive ones, depend on their own interpretations of American history.

In this case, Finn and Petrilli remind their fellow conservatives that the fundamental ideas embraced by the Common Core, including elevated academic standards as well as rigorous standardized testing, began as conservative responses to a public education system that had strayed from its true mission. In the 1970s, they recount, control over public education had been seized by well-meaning but short-sighted leftists who emphasized equity at the expense of rigor.  After 1983’s Nation at Risk report, bold conservative reformers such as Ronald Reagan, Lamar Alexander, and William J. Bennett took steps to reverse that curse.

The solutions back then included increased public money for private education as well as ambitious new standards.  To lend heft to such standards, iron-clad standardized tests hoped to limit the ways educational bureaucrats could game the system.

The Common Core, Finn and Petrilli insist, represent an imperfect attempt to impose those higher standards.  In the end, by providing better information about school performance to parents and policy makers, the standards will fuel the conservative drive for greater privatization of public education.

So what is a conservative to do?  According to these scholars, the real conservative choice is to back the Common Core.  As they conclude, conservatives who take time to read the standards themselves “will be impressed by their rigor, thoroughness, solidity, and ambition—even their ‘conservative’ nature.”