Common Sense in School Reform: Too Common by Far

When you hear it out loud, it sounds so obvious it’s hard to imagine how anyone could disagree. When Diane Ravitch called recently for a return to “common sense” in education policy, it seemed like an obvious winner. Yet as Ravitch knows as well as anyone, sensible school reform has always been incredibly difficult to pull off. Why? It’s not because “common sense” is uncommon. Rather, it’s because the things that make sense in schools are often directly opposed to one another.slaying goliath

Ravitch was plugging her new book, Slaying Goliath. In her short piece at Time, she lambasted the “Bush-Obama-Trump” idea of high-stakes testing as an educational panacea. It didn’t work. It wasn’t ever going to work. Instead, Ravitch wrote, we need to return to “reforms that work.” They aren’t mysterious. As Ravitch put it,

Children and schools need stability, not disruption. They need experienced teachers and well-maintained schools. All children need schools that have a nurse, counselors, and a library with a librarian. Children need time to play every day. They need nutrition and regular medical check-ups.

All of this is common sense.

It’s hard to disagree. So why are these common-sense reforms so difficult to achieve? The first and most obvious explanation is the oldest story in American school reform. Yes, people want good schools, but they always want to do it on the cheap.

But it’s not just cheapness. Even when reformers have been willing to put money into it, school reform has suffered from an over-abundance of common sense. Ravitch’s vision of common-sense reform is obviously true, but too often, so is its opposite.

I think the late David Tyack and Larry Cuban put it best in 1997 in their book Tinkering Toward Utopia. America’s schools have always carried heavy expectations—expectations that often contradicted one another.tyack cuban tinkering

As Tyack and Cuban wrote, schools have always been expected to combine the uncombinable. As they put it, schools have been expected

to socialize [children] to be obedient, yet to teach them to be critical thinkers;
to pass on the best academic knowledge that the past has to offer, yet also to teach marketable and practical skills;
to cultivate cooperation, yet to teach students to compete with one another in school and later in life;
to stress basic skills but also to encourage creativity and higher-order thinking;
to focus on the academic ‘basics’ yet to permit a wide range of choice of courses.

Why don’t more schools and more education policy-makers recognize the obvious truth of Ravitch’s call for common sense? It’s not because common sense is uncommon, but because there are too many competing common-senses out there.

For a lot of Americans, it’s common sense to think that high-stakes tests will be a good measure of school effectiveness.

  • But it’s also common sense to notice that one-size-fits-all tests won’t work with America’s diverse educational landscape.

For a lot of Americans, it’s common sense to assume that more school choices will be good for families.

  • But it’s also common sense that creating competing schools will divert scarce tax dollars away from hard-up public schools.

We could go on all day. For every obvious reform, there has always been an equally plausible yet opposite reform. In the end we don’t suffer from a lack of common sense. We suffer from a lack of agreement about which common sense actually makes sense for our children.

Blind Football Faith in Comparative Testing

To all the parents and policymakers out there who are anxious about the USA’s performance on recent PISA tests, I’ll quote Wisconsin’s St. Aaron Rogers: R-E-L-A-X. As progressive-ed guru Alfie Kohn, Curmudgucrat Peter Greene and  Yong Zhao of the University of Kansas all pointed out recently, there are plenty of reasons for calm. History tells us, though, that Americans won’t listen. Why not? The answer comes back to St. Aaron and Americans’ shared vision of what proper schooling should look like.

You probably heard the kerfuffle about the most recent international PISA scores. American kids as a whole did only okay. Most worrisome, rich kids improved while poor kids did worse. About 20% of American high-schoolers can read only at a fourth-grade level.

Time to panic? Not really.

As Alfie Kohn put it,

for whatever these comparisons (and the exams that drive them) are worth, U.S. students actually do reasonably well, contrary to popular belief. But it makes no more sense to talk about the “quality of American schools” than it does to talk about the quality of American air. An aggregate statistic is meaningless because test scores are largely a function of socioeconomic status. Our wealthier students perform very well when compared to other countries; our poorer students do not. And we have a lot more poor children than other industrialized nations do.

Peter Greene agreed. As he asked in Forbes Magazine,

PISA coverage tends to overlook one major question—why should anyone care about these scores? Where is the research showing a connection between PISA scores and a nation’s economic, political, or global success?

In the Washington Post, Yong Zhao offered three big reasons why these PISA scores should not be used as evidence of anything other than PISA performance itself:

First, there is no evidence to justify, let alone prove, the claim that PISA indeed measures skills that are essential for life in modern economies. Second, the claim is an imposition of a monolithic and West-centric view of societies on the rest of the world. Third, the claim distorts the purpose of education.

All solid reasons for calm. Yet it doesn’t take much savoir-faire to know that pundits won’t be calm. Anyone with a complaint about our current system of schooling will use these scores to warn that the sky is indeed falling and we need to invest in ______ [insert flavor-of-the-day reform/tech here].

We have to ask: Why won’t Americans heed the advice of these ed experts? Why won’t we simply ignore the results of a fairly meaningless test?

As I found in the research for my book about educational conservatism, there is plenty of culture-war disagreement about what and how schools should be teaching. But there is widespread agreement about one thing. Throughout the twentieth century and into our twenty-first, everyone has largely agreed that one of the primary purposes of schooling is to fill kids with facts.

Although I agree with Yong Zhao that this is a “distorted and narrow definition of the purpose of schooling,” it is one that has persisted largely unquestioned throughout the history of education. Consider just a few pieces of historical evidence from our leading ed historians. (And one from me.)

testing wars in the public schoolsExhibit A: As William J. Reese demonstrated in his 2013 book The Testing Wars, back in the mid-1800s Boston reformers effected a sweeping revolution in schooling. How did they do it? By appealing to the public’s intuition that a standardized test would be a useful way—maybe the ONLY useful way—to evaluate teaching and learning.

Exhibit B: Twenty-plus years ago, Stanford’s David Tyack and Larry Cuban argued that high-stakes standardized tests often formed an unshakeable pillar of the “grammar of schooling.” As they put it, there is a tension between “Americans’ intense faith in education—almost a secular religion—and the gradualness of changes in educational practices.” One reason for that tension is that reformers have never been able to convince Americans that tests don’t matter, that learning could go on without ever-increasing SAT scores.

tyack cuban tinkering

Exhibit C: As I argued in The Other School Reformers, conservatives have had a lot of success in their arguments for more traditional classrooms. They have relied, historically, on both explicitly conservative arguments and on assumptions shared by people who are not particularly conservative. For example, they have often won political contests by insisting that only their preferred reforms could keep kids safe in school. That’s not a particularly conservative idea, but rather an assumption shared by most people. Similarly, conservatives have won by painting progressive reforms as an abandonment of traditional ideas of testing. Real schools, conservatives have insisted, are places that young people go to acquire knowledge they did not have before. And tests are the proper way to measure that process. This vision of the proper purpose of schooling may be “narrow and distorted,” but it is also extremely common, so common that most Americans don’t question it.

And that brings us back to St. Aaron. One way to understand Americans’ reluctance to relax about PISA scores might be familiar to lots of parents. We might want our kids to play sports just to have fun, get some exercise, and make friends. In most cases, however, those youth sports are also fiercely competitive.

If you wonder why it is so difficult for Americans to relax about PISA scores, just go to any youth soccer, football, or basketball tournament. Ask any parent in attendance if they know what the score is. Of any game. I’ll bet dollars to donuts no one will give you the answer that Alfie Kohn, or Peter Greene, or Yong Zhao, or I prefer. They won’t say, “Who knows? It’s only a game.” They won’t say, “We’re only here to promote social bonding among youth.” They won’t say, “We don’t keep score, because that would be a meaningless way to put unnecessary competitive pressure on our kids.”

No. Go to any game anywhere. Try to explain to the person sitting next to you why you don’t care about the score. Even if you’re Aaron Rodgers, you will get nothing but mean looks and sullen silence. And that’s why PISA scores will continue to matter. Despite experts’ best efforts, most Americans still view test scores as a fair measure of educational quality. And most Americans will want to win.

Waving the White Flag on High-Stakes Testing

No surprise to see Senator Warren come out strong against it. But even some of the most dedicated high-stakes-testers have now issued a new “hypothesis” about the real relationship between testing and student achievement. Seems like we have turned yet another corner on yet another school-reform panacea. What have we learned?

warren on pbs

Senator Warren: Testing is not the answer…

First things first: Just like the new partisan split about charter schools, we are seeing a new era of “second thoughts” about the value of high-stakes testing. Politicians such as Elizabeth Warren are now firmly against it. As Senator Warren told the National Education Association,

Education is what goes on in the classroom; what a teacher has said is the goal. And when a kid gets there, it is a teacher who knows it. We do not need high-stakes testing.

Similarly, formerly enthusiastic billionaires have noticed that their earlier school-reform focus was far too simplistic. As Nick Hanauer finally noticed recently,

We have confused a symptom—educational inequality—with the underlying disease: economic inequality. Schooling may boost the prospects of individual workers, but it doesn’t change the core problem, which is that the bottom 90 percent is divvying up a shrinking share of the national wealth.

Now testing mavens such as Michael Petrilli are getting on board. As Petrilli admitted recently, it seems possible that high-stakes testing did not actually improve things for students. Rather, any gains students made in schools might have been due largely to

prevailing economic conditions at the time of a cohort of children’s birth (or shortly thereafter).

In other words, ambitious politicians, policy wonks, and philanthropists have finally admitted that their feverish promises did not bear fruit. Their plans to solve social problems by ramming through school reforms have proven—once again—overly simplistic and wildly exaggerated.

petrilli graph

Hmmm…what’s the connection?

Can we blame them? In a word, yes. As teachers such as Peter Greene have pointed out, there has never been a lack of evidence available to the testers. As Greene put it,

We told these folks, over and over and over and over and over. “Don’t use poverty as an excuse,” they said. “Just have higher expectations,” they said. “Better scores on standardized tests will end poverty,” they said. Also, “Better scores will save your job and your school.”

Even if the starry-eyed testers didn’t want to listen to teachers, they might have read a book. After all, historians David Tyack and Larry Cuban argued long ago that school reforms are worthy goals, but they tend to make the same mistakes over and over again.

As I’m finding out in my current research, too, this story is the oldest one out there. Back in the early 1800s, the first generation of urban school reformers in the United States found it out the hard way. They thought they had found a silver-bullet reform, one that would eliminate poverty in one generation. A new “system,” they believed, would enable a single teacher to teach a thousand low-income students efficiently and economically.

Guess what? It didn’t work. And ever since then, the story has repeated itself over and over.

It seems obvious, then, that there isn’t a good excuse for the latest generation of arrogant school reformers not to see it coming. For centuries, outside reformers have been telling themselves that they had discovered a new system, a new program, a new algorithm that would fix social inequality without upsetting social hierarchies.

tyack cuban tinkering

….makes it hard to plead ignorance.

It’s just not that simple. We know what works: Schools that are well-connected to the communities they serve, with adequate resources to know every student and provide incremental improvements for every student. We need enthusiastic, invested teachers, parents, and students. We need schools that treat families as community members, not customers or clients or guinea pigs.

Should schools always be “reforming”?—changing the way we do things for the better? Of course! But too often, outside “reformers” assume that they have found a single, simple improvement that will revolutionize school and society without demanding a significant investment.

So maybe it’s worth reprinting the list of reminders for school reformers. It’s not new and it’s not original. It has been around for two hundred years now. Yet we never seem to be able to profit from its hard-won lessons. So here it is: For those who think that charter schools, Teach For America, new union leadership, improved teacher pay, or high-stakes testing will provide a cheap shortcut to the hard work of school and social improvement, here are a few reminders from the past two centuries of school-reform plans:

  • Teachers are often part of the problem, but they are always most of the solution.
  • One change to schools will—by itself—never heal social issues such as poverty and inequality.
  • Any school reform that promises big results without big investments will probably disappoint.
  • Low-income families deserve a high-quality education, not a “chance” for a high-quality education.
  • And maybe the hardest one of all for ed-reform newbies to accept: Schools alone can’t fix society; schools are society.

Dang, Bill…

You knew it was coming. Still, the venom expressed yesterday by leading Democratic 2020 candidates was surprising.

de blasio at nea

Haters gonna hate…

Mayor Bill De Blasio of New York, for example, took the party’s new anti-charter vibe to an extreme. Maybe trying to distinguish himself in the crowded field, Hizzoner seemed to want to come off as the most passionate voice for public education and teachers.

Sure, all the candidates now oppose spending too much public money on charter schools, but de Blasio cranked it up a notch. As he put it,

I am sick and tired of these efforts to privatize public education. I know we’re not supposed to be saying ‘hate’ — our teachers taught us not to — but I hate the privatizers and I want to stop them.

Moreover, Mayor De Blasio tried to set up a clear us-vs-them distinction on the issue of charter schools. As we’ve seen, there has already been a party realignment on the issue of charter schools. De Blasio wanted to make it a litmus test. “Too many Republicans,” he said,

but also too many Democrats, have been cozy with the charter schools. Let’s be blunt about it. We need to hold our own party accountable, too. And no one should ask for your support, or no one should be the Democratic nominee, unless they’re willing to stand up to Wall Street and the rich people behind the charter school movement once and for all.

Will it work? Will de Blasio’s big-city public-school credentials make him a winner with Democrats?

I doubt it. Time will tell, but I don’t think we’ll see the anti-charter movement take more than a secondary role in the primary campaign. Democratic primary voters will want a “public-education” candidate, but I don’t think they’ll make it as much of a leading issue as de Blasio seems to hope.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Your humble editor spent most of the week buried in the NSB, but a few stories still caught our attention:

White evangelicals still love The Donald, at PRC.Pew evangelicals and trump

How has religion contributed to political polarization? An interview with Peter Wehner and Melissa Rogers at R&P.

What I think is much more disturbing is this enthusiastic embrace of Trump. That I think is inexcusable. Because Christians, above all, ought to be people who understand that they’re citizens of a different city. There ought to be some distance from politics and the ability to speak truth to power. It’s fine for Christians to praise particular court appointments and particular policies, but when Trump engages in an effort to annihilate truth, when he engages in dehumanizing tactics, when he is cruel, when he unleashes his cascade of lies, they ought to speak to that too and unfortunately a lot of prominent white evangelical Christians don’t.

Another lawsuit: Christian parents accused of banning yoga in GA public school.

What’s wrong with high-stakes testing? They warp the system, at Curmudgucation.

When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

Mayor deBlasio condemns racial segregation in elite NYC high schools, at Chalkbeat.

From the Archives: If You Want Teachers to Cheat…

I’ll be the first to admit it: I wouldn’t have any idea how to run a complicated school district (or anything else, for that matter). But it doesn’t take much psychic talent to predict what is going to happen when districts put a lot of pressure on teachers to improve a single number. Teachers—being in many ways like people everywhere—will cheat. It happens in this century, and as I found on my recent NSB, it was all over the place in the early 1800s.

Pay per kid 1822

How to encourage teachers to cheat, c. 1822.

As I was riding down to the Big Apple, I was listening to a recent Have You Heard episode about the cheating scandal in Atlanta. You may remember the story of Atlanta teachers charged in 2013 with cheating on student exams in order to make their schools look better. As HYH host Jennifer Berkshire recounted,

it was the longest criminal trial in Georgia history. It started out with 35 educators, all of them Black, being charged under the RICO statute. And that is what is used to go after mobsters. Basically they were being accused of organized criminal activity and when the case finally wrapped up, 11 of the 12 defendants were found guilty. A number of them are still in jail.

The Have You Heard story digs into the story behind those headlines—a story about white flight, neighborhood gentrification, and finding convenient scapegoats for a floundering and biased education system. As co-host Jack Schneider explained, the story was first told as the story of predictably unpredictable outcomes with high-pressure standardized tests. As Schneider put it,

the theory of change behind test based accountability is that people will respond to increased pressure, and they will produce the kinds of results that you want to see from them. . . . The results, in this case being higher test scores. . . . the theory of action was that you would measure educators based on outputs like student standardized test scores and then hold them accountable for those scores and they would respond accordingly. But it’s really interesting that it was not foreseen that one of the ways that educators would get those scores would be through, you know, what is colloquially referred to as juking the stats. There are lots of ways to game these systems.

Looking back, it seems unbelievable that policy-makers didn’t predict this sort of cheating. When all the pressure is put on test scores, it makes a lot of sense that students, teachers, parents, and administrators would all collude to jack up those scores no matter what.

Atlanta’s case, the HYH folks argue, was not an exception because teachers cheated. It was an exception because it was singled out for punishment.

As I found to my surprise as I dug through the NYC archives doing research for my new book, Atlanta’s cheating scandal was also unexceptional in another surprising way. School administrators, it turns out, have ALWAYS made the rookie mistake of putting a lot of pressure on teachers to cheat, to “game the system.”

Here’s how it worked in 1822: The New York Free School Society ran a handful of schools exclusively for low-income students. After a few years, they realized that their system had a big problem. Namely, they paid teachers the same amount whether they taught 60 students or 600. One of their teachers, they thought, was purposefully discouraging students from attending his school so that his job would be easier.

As the trustees saw it, the system encouraged teachers to be lazy. A lazy teacher, they thought, would have a cushy no-work job, a “sinecure.” In 19th-century-speak, they concluded,

The place of the delinquent teacher becomes in a degree a sinecure.

What to do? Like administrators in the 1990s, they came up with a system that positively encouraged teachers to cheat. Here’s what they decided: Instead of paying a flat salary for every teacher, no matter how many students they taught, they would pay a bonus for more students. They thought this would encourage teachers to go out and recruit suitable low-income students. In today’s language, they were pushing teachers to be “entrepreneurial” in their recruitment. As they put it, the teachers would

seek themselves amongst the families of the poor, new objects of attention and instructions.

But here’s the kicker: When it came to reporting attendance, the trustees relied on teachers to keep track of students. In effect, the trustees unintentionally set up a plan by which teachers were promised more pay for more students, and were given that money based on their own self-reporting of student attendance.

I wasn’t all that surprised to find that the system broke down almost immediately. The teacher of school number two promised to raise his attendance rates. He was quickly discovered to have faked those rates in order to keep his job.

What did they think would happen? Just as in the cheating scandals of this century, the attendance scandals of the early 1800s seem predictable and fairly ridiculous. If you set up a system in which everything rides on one single number, teachers will be squeezed to fix that number in any way they can.

Swirling Round the Superbowl

Okay, nerds, here are some greatest Superbowl hits from the ILYBYGTH archives so you can feel involved in today’s festivities.

1.) What’s the deal with football and fundamentalism? Liberty University’s recent coaching hire has us all wondering once again what really matters at evangelical universities.

jesus_football

…to the ten…to the five…JESUS CHRIST with the TOUCHDOWN!!!!!

2.) The teams aren’t the same, but this culture-war drinking game idea from 2015 should still work.

3.) Why is school reform pricier than two entire Superbowls? The question came up back in August, 2017, but it is still sort of depressing.

4.) Tommy Brady and Bill Belichick help explain why school reform is so difficult.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

It’s been a busy week here in the offices of ILYBYGTH International! Here are some of the stories that came across our desk that we thought you might find interesting:

Trump’s proclamation for Education Week.

What was the “city on a hill” really about? Not what Reagan thought, at WaPo.

Two insufficient ways schools teach WWI. At TC.

wilson addressing congress

This WILL be on the test!

School privatization takes a hit in the mid-term elections, at T74.

Freaking out yet about the Asia Bibi case? At the Guardian.

What do you do if you support teacher strikes but lose your bid for Congress? Run for President, at Politico.

More swings than a school playground: Hillary Clinton is back IN the Texas history standards, at DMN.

Are evangelicals cracking up? Eric Miller interviews Paul Djupe at R&P.

we can foresee almost no circumstances at this point that would intervene in the mutual love affair—the equally yoked relationship—between white evangelicals and Trump. But, that necessarily entails a crackup of evangelicalism.

More than double-secret probation on the line: Dartmouth sued for allowing “Animal House” antics by three well-funded professors, at IHE.

Are the real anti-Semites on the Left? At Spectator.

What can conservatives and progressives agree on? Deriding tax breaks for Amazon, at the Federalist.

Jill Lepore on her new non-textbook textbook, at CHE.

A former school superintendent describes his disillusion with testing at Chalkbeat.

We’re not playing the long game for our kids.

Rutgers changes its mind: It’s okay if a white professor is anti-white, at FIRE.

Yale White Student Union_1542397045372.jpg_62387087_ver1.0_640_360

This isn’t what he wanted…

Money-laundering Bible college busted, at CT.

Will the real populist please stand up? R.R. Reno at TAM.

When the ruling class ignores or derides the unsettled populace (as is happening today — deplorables, takers, and so forth), the restlessness jells into an adversarial mood. A populist is anyone who gains political power on the strength of this adversarial stance.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

A collection of stories SAGLRROILYBYGTH might have missed this past week from around the interwebs:

From our great neighbor to the north: Alberta’s provincial government stands accused of funneling public money to a school that taught Scientology.  HT: DK

John Fea collected historians’ comments about President Trump’s latest foray into wacky history.

READING goofy washington

Words, words, words…

What’s the real black/white “achievement gap” in public schools? Maybe the problem is that white teachers are not as good as African American ones.

Lots of progressive teachers hate the way the federal government imposed tons of high-stakes standardized tests. Could the Trump administration become their anti-testing friend? California is testing the testing waters.

A new trend? Or a go-nowhere stunt? To alleviate the shortage of STEM teachers, North Carolina’s legislature is mooting a bill to allow college professors to teach in K12 schools without certification or licensure.

Check your calendar: What year is this? A NYC school official is accused of communism, as the New York Times reports.

Senator Mark Green is out. Trump’s creationist pick for Secretary of the Army has withdrawn his nomination, due to criticism over his anti-LGBTQ statements.

Campus protest as a “know-nothing” performance: John McWhorter makes his case at the Daily Beast.

Thanks to all the SAGLRROILYBYGTH who sent in tips and stories.

The One Thing We Know for Sure about Schools…

This week’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores prove it. When it comes to education, there is one reliable truth out there. It’s not news; any educational historian worth his or her mortarboard could tell you about it.

But first, the news: NAEP, the “Nation’s Report Card,” shows stagnant or declining scores in math and reading. A bummer, after fifteen years of emphasis on jacked-up standards and high-stakes testing in public schools.

Up, up, up, ... and down.

Up, up, up, … and down.

Understandably, teacher activists who have derided the latest test-heavy reform efforts have offered bitter I-told-you-sos. The test-hungry reformers have scrambled to explain the decline. Michael Petrilli at the Fordham Institute retreats to the obvious explanation: It’s complicated. It might be due to non-testing factors such as classroom confusion, Petrilli explains. It might be due to the declining economy. Most important, Petrilli says, we need to remember that this decline might be only a “blip,” not a “trend.”

But anyone who knows the first thing about educational history knows it’s simple. There is one reliable constant in American education.

We can see it in bombshell cases such as Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Reformers hoped that ending legal racial segregation in schools could go a long way toward healing racism in this country. Sixty-plus years later, those assumptions seem painfully naïve. Schools are still segregated by race; cities even more so.

We can see it all the way back in the roots of urban school systems. Two hundred years ago, school reformer Joseph Lancaster promised a new method of organizing schools that would solve America’s poverty problem. Hundreds of low-income students could be educated with a cheap and simple monitorial system.

How schools can save society, 1815.

How schools can save society, 1815.

Guess what? It didn’t work. As long as there have been public school systems in this country, there have been eager reformers who have offered one idea or another as a silver bullet. Each reform, we’ve heard, will be the ticket to healing America’s schools and society. We’ve been told for hundreds of years that America’s schools will FINALLY fulfill their promise to end poverty, fix the economy, and etc. etc.

It’s just not that simple. Today’s round of high-stakes testing made elaborate promises. No Child, we heard, would be Left Behind. Schools, we heard, could now finally fix social inequalities and heal society’s injustices.

Would that it were so.

What we have instead is another reminder of the one thing we can count on in schooling, the one reliable truth about education.

Ready for it?

Here it is: Schools can’t fix society. Schools ARE society.