Why School Reform Flounders

How can we make something better if we can’t agree what something is? In The New Yorker, Jill Jepore offers a review essay that raises a key question: Is Education a Fundamental Right? It’s an important question, but it sidesteps an even more fundamental problem: What IS education in the first place? If we can’t agree on that—and we can’t—we won’t be able to make progress toward improving schools.

As brainy observers such as Larry Cuban and Peter Greene have reminded us recently, when we can’t agree on the fundamental goals of education, we won’t be able to formulate sensible plans to improve it.

Prof. Lepore offers an insightful review of Justin Driver’s The Schoolhouse Gate: Public Education, the Supreme Court, and the Battle for the American Mind. Driver examines the key SCOTUS case of Plyler v. Doe, in which undocumented migrants sued for the right to send their kids to public schools.

The case raised difficult questions: Can education be considered a fundamental right? Do undocumented Americans have a right to send their kids to public schools, the way they have the right to fire protection if their house is ablaze?

As historians like Prof. Cuban have long pointed out, the question of whether or not education is a basic right needs to take its place in line with all the other fundamental questions about education. Is it a right? Is it a public utility? Is it a tool of class domination?

In every tough case, these multiple visions of the basic goals of education bump uncomfortably along together. Partisans of various political agendas and reform proposals usually insist on one or more definition of the fundamental purpose of education, even though they almost never notice that they are doing so.

The Plyler v. Doe case was no exception. As Prof. Lepore’s review demonstrates, leading voices in that case relied on different unexamined assumptions about the true nature of American education. Consider the following excerpts:

Education is a Right:

Prof. Lepore asks,

Is education a fundamental right? The Constitution, drafted in the summer of 1787, does not mention a right to education, but the Northwest Ordinance, passed by Congress that same summer, held that “religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” By 1868 the constitutions of twenty-eight of the thirty-two states in the Union had provided for free public education, open to all. Texas, in its 1869 constitution, provided for free public schooling for “all the inhabitants of this State,” a provision that was revised to exclude undocumented immigrants only in 1975.

Education is a Public Good:

During the Plyler hearings,

Witnesses presented testimony about economies: educating these children cost the state money, particularly because they needed special English-language instruction, but not educating these children would be costly, too, in the long term, when they became legal residents but, uneducated, would be able to contribute very little to the tax base.

Education is An American tradition:

As one lawyer in the Plyler case put it,

An educated populace is the basis of our democratic institutions. . . .  A denial of educational opportunities is repugnant to our notions that an informed and educated citizenry is necessary to our society.

Education is A vehicle for fixing social inequities:

In a related recent case, Lepore writes,

the Detroit plaintiffs . . . identified the absolute denial of education as a violation of the equal-protection clause, and ruled that no state can “deny a discrete group of innocent children the free public education that it offers to other children residing within its borders.” Dismissed by a district court in June, the case is now headed to the Sixth Circuit on appeal.

Education is An imposition on non-White/non-middle class children:

Lepore notes,

If the schoolhouse is a mini-state, it has also become, in many places, a military state.

Education is A public utility:

She records this interchange during the Plyler hearings:

Marshall: Could Texas deny them fire protection?

Hardy: Deny them fire protection?

Marshall: Yes, sir. F-i-r-e.

Hardy: Okay. If their home is on fire, their home is going to be protected with the local fire services just—

Marshall: Could Texas pass a law and say they cannot be protected?

Hardy: —I don’t believe so.

Marshall: Why not? If they could do this, why couldn’t they do that?

Hardy: Because . . . I am going to take the position that it is an entitlement of the . . . Justice Marshall, let me think a second. You . . . that is . . . I don’t know. That’s a tough question.

Marshall: Somebody’s house is more important than his child?

Who is correct? They all are. Education is a right, a public good, a public utility, a means for economic advancement, a tool of class domination . . . all at the same time.

With all these unrecognized assumptions about the basic nature of education, it is hardly surprising that improving education has remained such a chimera. Even regarding a SCOTUS case explicitly dedicated to figuring out if education is a right, lawyers, activists, and historians all appealed unreflectively to all the other fundamental goals of education as well. And, of course, there are many others we could add to the list. Depending on whom you ask and on the case at hand, the basic nature of American education can and has been defined as all of the following:

  • A private matter;
  • A religious affair;
  • A consumer product;
  • A national security imperative…
  • And many more.

Is education a fundamental right? Yes. Is it also all those other things? Also yes. Whenever Americans have a disagreement about the goals of education, they pull from this bubbling cauldron of conflicting and confusing fundamental goals to make their cases. And none of them are wrong.

In the end, they point to the reason why it is so difficult to fix schools. Not only is it difficult to tell what is broken; it is difficult even to find out what schools should do if they were fixed.

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Where Are All the Books about This?

It’s a question that has stumped me for the past twenty years, and Stanford’s Larry Cuban brings it up again this morning. Where are all the books about conservatism in American education?

fight for local control

There ARE great books out there…

Professor Cuban makes the crucial point: Public schools in the USA have always been driven by all the same contradictory impulses that drive political life. Some people want schools to be more progressive; others want them to be more conservative. As Cuban puts it,

The contradictory obligations of reforming schools while conserving traditional knowledge and classroom practices has been in the DNA of tax-supported public education for well over a century. It won’t go away. Those cheerleaders for the next new reform need to understand this paradox at the heart of U.S. schooling.

As I started my graduate work lo so many years ago, I was curious about the deep educational conservatism that I saw, felt, and heard as a teacher. To my surprise—and, to be perfectly frank, fueling my academic ambition—there were not shelves and shelves of scholarly work analyzing conservatism in education.

To be sure, there are some historical works out there. Prof. Cuban mentions my look at twentieth century educational conservatism and Diane Ravitch’s Left Back.

There are other books he could have mentioned. Michael Apple’s Educating the “Right” Way, or Herbert Kliebard’s Struggle for the American Curriculum, for example. Hearteningly, newish books have come out that plumb the depth and diversity of conservative activism in American education. Cam Scribner’s The Fight for Local Control, for instance, and Natalia Mehlman Petrzela’s Classroom Wars. And I’m sure SAGLRROILYBYGTH could point out another key title or two.

classroom wars

…but where are the REST of the great books?

But considering the vastness of the topic, the lack of academic work about educational conservatism still baffles me. As Prof. Cuban points out, conservative ideas and impulses have always been at least as powerful as progressive ones. As Cuban writes this morning, if the first obligation of public schools was to serve as a way to change students and society,

The second obligation was for the tax-supported school to actively conserve personal, community and national values ranging from inculcating traditional knowledge, obeying authority including that of teachers, show respect for religious beliefs, practicing honesty, and displaying patriotism.

If these conservative assumptions about the proper role of school are so very influential, where are all the academic studies of them?

Of course, it’s not at all difficult to find conservative how-to books about schools. From the Gablers to Dorothy Sayers to everyone in between, there have never been a lack of guides to make schools more conservative or more authentically conservative.

When it comes to an academic understanding of the meanings and activism of conservative thinkers and activists, though, we still have a decided gap between what happens (and happened) in schools and what academics talk about.

So where are the armies of historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and classroom researchers?

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

You may still be on summer break, but here at ILYBYGTH International we are back to school. And that means back to reading headlines and crying in our coffee. Here are some of the stories that upset us this week:

“The Lynching Industry:” W.E.B. DuBois’s 1916 account of a lynching, at Slate.

lynching crowd

The ugly historic truth…

The Maryland mess: Big-time-sporting unto death, at IHE.

Free college tuition? Or 2020 election scam? At Chalkbeat.

Americans aren’t the only ones who don’t know their history. Almost half of Russians are not aware of the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, at the Guardian.

“This will go down in your permanent record:” Florida’s new hyper-surveillance of students, at Curmudgucation.

Suddenly, the same-sex rules matter at an Indiana Catholic school, at FA.

Colorado’s no-gay-wedding baker back in the courts, at RNS.

Banning Alex Jones: Steve Coll at the New Yorker.

It’s not that white evangelicals are supporting Trump in spite of their religion. Some Trumpists are making Trump their religion, says Alex Wager at the Atlantic.

Trumpism proposes a system of worship formed in direct opposition to bourgeois moral logic, with values that are anti-intellectual and anti–politically correct. If mainline Protestantism is a bastion of the educated, upper-middle class, the Church of Trump is a gathering place for its castoffs.

Higher education on the ropes this week:

Conservative Master’s University is in danger of losing its accreditation, at The Signal.

Evangelical journalists blast evangelical university’s censorship, at World Magazine.

Test score fever: Larry Cuban tells a 1970s tale of test nuttiness.

Wowzers: Teaching a flat earth, at FA.

Canadian evangelical university scraps its mandatory student rules, at CT.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

The ILYBYGTH International Offices are back up and running after a short vacation. Here are some of the stories that swirled while we sang our vacation theme song:

From the Archives: Mildred Crabtree does her thing, at National Archives.

mildred-crabtree.png

Rockin the library, Crabtree-style.

Larry Cuban remembers creepy Channel One.

Non-white evangelicals in era of Trump: “When push comes to shove, I feel like you threw me under a bus.” At R&P.

Conservative Ben Shapiro challenges Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to a debate, at Fox. Does it count as sexual harassment?

In the belly of the beast: the American Humanist Association continues its fight against graduation prayers in the hometown of Bob Jones University.

The state of civics education in the USA, at Brookings.

Trumpism abroad: Evangelicals rally around a thug in Brazil, at The Conversation.

Peter Greene: Why heartwarming school stories don’t warm his heart.

No school should ever need a celebrity’s help. No nice people with cash should ever encounter a teacher shopping for classroom supplies. And it should never occur to anyone that a teacher might need a decent car. Thank you, nice people, for helping out teachers or schools in need. Now can we focus some energy on fixing the system so that schools and teachers never need to depend on the kindness of strangers ever again.

The other Benedict Option, at CT.

The oxymoronic quest of academics to build their brands, at CHE.

Teachers Are Smarter than Elon Musk

Here’s a Sunday-morning challenge for you: How is it possible that the smartest people in the world aren’t able to figure out something that has been public knowledge for hundreds of years and that every good teacher figures out quick? As Professor Zeynep Tufekci brilliantly argued last week, the Elon Musks, Bill Gateses, and Mark Zuckerbergs of the world can’t fix schools. And though Prof. Tufekci makes a great case, it’s not new.

elon musk submarine

Elon Musk power-tube to the rescue!

Tufekci builds her case on Elon Musk’s petulant performance in Thailand. Like many of us, Musk was fascinated by the story of the trapped soccer team in Thailand. Unlike many of us, Musk has billions of dollars and twenty-two million Twitter followers. So Musk directed some lackeys to build a fancy new submarine-machine to rescue the soccer players. When local rescuers rejected Musk’s help, Musk complained on Twitter. Musk seemed unable to recognize that there was a better way to approach this problem.

As Prof. Tufekci wrote,

The Silicon Valley model for doing things is a mix of can-do optimism, a faith that expertise in one domain can be transferred seamlessly to another and a preference for rapid, flashy, high-profile action. But what got the kids and their coach out of the cave was a different model: a slower, more methodical, more narrowly specialized approach to problems, one that has turned many risky enterprises into safe endeavors — commercial airline travel, for example, or rock climbing, both of which have extensive protocols and safety procedures that have taken years to develop.

This “safety culture” model is neither stilted nor uncreative. On the contrary, deep expertise, lengthy training and the ability to learn from experience (and to incorporate the lessons of those experiences into future practices) is a valuable form of ingenuity.

Musk and his ilk do not limit their can-do arrogance to Thai cave rescues. As Tufekci argues, in public schooling as well, Silicon Valley richies tend to think they can plunk down their money, dig out incompetence, and fix schools in one fell swoop.

The Musks and Zuckerbergs of the world might be forgiven if we were in brand-new territory. But we’re not. As the late David Tyack and Larry Cuban argued so brilliantly over twenty years ago, school reformers have always tried to fix complicated educational problems with poorly prepared prescriptions.

Telegraph with numerals sketch

The technological solution to bad schools, c. 1805.

Time and time again, as Tyack and Cuban relate in Tinkering Toward Utopia, outside “experts” swoop in to fix schools with The Big New Thing. Closed-circuit television, market-based evaluation models, computerized personalized learning systems…all have been vaunted as the new solution. In every case, veteran teachers look for the good and reject the useless. In every case, teachers use the parts of the new system that help them do the real work of education, while quietly packing away the useless bits in a hallway closet.

And as I’m arguing in my new book about the historic roots of urban school reform, the Musk/Zuckerberg fallacy goes back to the very beginning. Back in the early 1800s, a young educational entrepreneur in London thought he had the solution to urban poverty. Joseph Lancaster promised that his elaborate new system—replete with cutting edge technology—would allow one school master to educate hundreds of low-income urban kids.

It didn’t work. But perhaps Lancaster can be forgiven, since his assumptions were fairly new and untested. The Musks of today have no such excuse. As Professor Tufekci concludes,

Education is a complex topic, and making a lot of money in tech is not a qualification for solving educational problems.

It’s something we have known for centuries. It is something that every teacher figures out right away. Why can’t our tech gurus see it?

Dictating Democracy

As I was reminded last week in the Philadelphia archives, it’s the oldest educational idea in the United States. Larry Cuban points out this morning that our dream of educating a new generation of democratic citizens might take us in surprising directions.

First, my full confessions: I have progressive prejudices that are hard to shake. I want public schools to make society better. I believe that better educational opportunities for all people will help achieve that goal. And…and this is the one that matters this morning…I think what goes on in classrooms matters. As John Dewey argued a century ago, if we want a democratic society we need to start by creating democratic classrooms.

Democracy-prep-vote

I can’t vote, and I can’t speak when I want to, and I can’t put my pencil where I want to, and I can’t get out of my seat when I want to…

So I join Professor Cuban in wondering if a school can create democratic citizens by controlling students tightly. Cuban looked at a study of Democracy Prep, a new charter network. The schools make one of their goals the civic education of children, meaning mostly that students learn about government, about public decision-making processes, and about getting out the vote.

As one thoughtful former Democracy Prep teacher noted, it’s hard not to think that the way students are educated matters. As he puts it,

schools are invariably where students go to experience the civic engagement of others. No child thinks of it this way, but surely, he or she picks up clear signals about their place in the world, how they are regarded by authority figures who are not their parents, and how much — or how little — is expected of them. If the relationship a child has with a school is coercive, punctuated by frustration and failure, leading to no good end, then there is no reason to expect strong civic outcomes.

And yet, as Prof. Cuban points out, students at Democracy Prep feel the heavy hand of authority at all times. As one visit to a DP school revealed, students’ actions were constantly tracked and dictated. As the visitor found,

Almost everything on a recent visit to a Democracy Prep charter was highly disciplined. Students spoke only when their teachers allowed them. They could lose points for talking out of turn, or chatting in the halls between classes.

Can it really be feasible, Cuban wonders, that this sort of top-down classroom will produce active citizens? That schools can coerce students into active democratic participation? The charter network has claimed some positive results. A recent alumni study by Mathematica Policy Research found that citizens who had attended Democracy Prep were more likely to register and to vote.

I’m skeptical. Surely a school culture that eliminates any possibility of student leadership will have a depressing effect on student political participation. At least, that’s what makes sense to me. Or is it really possible that schools can control their students all the way to active citizenship?

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Another week, another round-up of the weekly news from all around the interwebs:

Larry Cuban on insider and outsider superintendents.

Life after fundamentalism: A red-letter story from Cedarville University, at RACM.

Trump & White Racism:

Evangelical college students don’t know about evangelical religion. And they don’t care. At FT.

Does evangelical political activism drive people away from religion? At PS.Bart reading bible

Changing charters: LA teachers organize unions, at TI.

Why do white evangelicals love Trump? It’s not their fault; it’s their psychology, at Slate.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Another week, another flood of ILYBYGTH-themed stories. Thanks to everyone who sent in tips…

What happens when computers grade essays, at Curmudgucation.

tank refurbish

My next dream job…

Rednecks bridge the racial divide, at FPR.

School reform? Or social reform? The “Loving Cities” plan, at The Progressive.

  • “promoting school choice as the solution is a distraction from the basic fact that parent income, along with interrelated racial and economic segregation, remain powerful determinants in the quality of education a child receives.”

Ixnay on ace-ray: Wisconsin school district bans talk of “white privilege,” at MJS.

I’ve found my next line of work, at PM.Bart reading bible

Historian John Fea on the coarsening of American culture, at TWOILH.

Has teaching changed? Larry Cuban reflects on the ways teachers taught in the past.

College cuts comedian’s mike. At CHE.

Loving Trump and hating the Age of Reasonthe long history of Christian politics in the US, at R&P.

Conservative commentator resigns in protest from Fox News, calling it a “propaganda machine.”

Why would a creationist praise an academic critic? At RACM.

Genetics and the new science-denial of race, at NYT.

human history map

New maps don’t start at the Garden of Eden…

March Madness and the history of anti-segregation in sports, at LSJ. HT: DW.

What’s wrong with new teacher-evaluation schemes? Peter Greene tees off at Curmudgucation.

  • Best line: “Reducing the evaluation of teacher quality to a “rigorous rubric” is not a positive. Academians and economists like it because it lets them pretend that they are evaluating teachers via cold, hard numbers, but you can no more reduce teaching to a “rigorous rubric” than you can come up with a rubric for marital success or parental effectiveness. . . . at the moment rubrics and checklists still take a back seat in most districts to Big Standardized Test scores soaked in some kind of VAM sauce.”

“Theoretical children . . . don’t fart:” At The Progressive, a call for less theory and more experience with real children.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Those of us who live our lives in semesters are feeling a dizzying sense of high-speed hoopla as we take the final plunge toward the end of the semester. In all the huff and stuff, here are some ILYBYGTH-related news stories you might have missed:

Why do conservatives hate higher education? At The Atlantic, Jason Blakely offers an explanation.

No more safe spaces—except for conservatives. House higher-ed bill throws some brontosaurus-sized bones to campus conservatives, as reported by Politico.

The conservative National Association of Scholars claims another win. AP European History changes its standards in response to NAS criticism. HT: DR

Selling the naming rights to your local school—Peter Greene objects.Bart reading bible

Is Silicon Valley taking over classrooms? Larry Cuban says yes and no.

The latest crisis in public education: Good News. The graduation rate is at an all-time high.

It’s all Greek to me: At The Atlantic, two opposing ancient concepts of free speech.

Moore-o-mania:

At CHE: Can Sexual Predators Be Good Scholars?

A Google, a Plan, a Canal

Why don’t start-up tech types understand school reform? They’re excited about it. By and large, though, their schemes flop. Why? The history of school reform offers a big-picture answer.erie canal

Googlers might think they have the wrong logarithm. Or the wrong charismatic leader. Or maybe the wrong business plan. There’s a simpler, better answer that my current research is making painfully clear to me. It might seem like google has nothing to do with the Erie Canal, but when it comes to school reform, they look depressingly similar. Like the school reformers of the early 1800s, today’s googlers are plagued by a fundamental problem they don’t even see:

The wrong metaphor.

Google-founded schools don’t work. They approach school like a start-up business, as curmudgucrat Peter Greene has pointed out time and time again.

It’s not only google, of course. Other techies have experienced similar flops when they thrust themselves into the school-reform game. We can’t forget, for instance, Mark Zuckerburg’s warm-hearted but dunderheaded efforts in Newark.

Today’s tech types have had enormous success with google and facebook and uber and etc. So they jump too quickly to assume that those successes will apply to school as well. In general, and with some exceptions I’m sure, techies invest in bad school reform schemes because they misunderstand the nature of schooling. They think of it too often as a question of information delivery. They assume—based on google’s big success at shepherding information—that they can improve schools the same way they improved the interwebs. If they can only get their proprietary app right—they assume—and get free of stuck-in-the-mud thinking and red tape, there ain’t nuthin they can’t do.

They aren’t the first to make this sort of goof. In fact (and this is the thing that really chaffs us nerds), though they think they are making ground-breaking social changes, today’s tech-fueled reformers are reading from a very old school-reform script. Though many of them are motivated by the best intentions, if they took time to read even one book they could dodge some of these predictable perils. Heck, they could even avoid the library and just spend time with Larry Cuban’s blog or Peter Greene’s.

clinton opening erie canal

Clinton connecting the waters, 1826.

It wouldn’t take much for today’s ambitious reformers to recognize their similarity to those of earlier generations. As I work on my next book about urban school reform in the early 1800s, I’m struck by the parallels. Take, for example, the big dreams of DeWitt Clinton. Clinton was the 19th-century equivalent of today’s tech heroes. He was brilliant, talented, connected, and far-sighted. Most important for our purposes, he embraced new technology in the face of old-fashioned opposition. He pushed through modern solutions to ancient problems, and it all happened fast enough for him to witness the amazing social improvements wrought by his efforts.

In Clinton’s case, it wasn’t the interwebs, but a really long ditch. Clinton believed in the possibilities of a transformational investment in the Erie Canal. Naysayers said nay, but Clinton was proven right. The canal utterly changed the face of American society. Small farmers and city-dwellers alike benefitted.

Elated and maybe a little puffed-up, Clinton looked around for new worlds to conquer. At the time, New York City was growing by leaps and bounds. Its schools couldn’t keep up. Clinton dived into school reform, putting all his chips on Joseph Lancaster’s scheme to transform and systematize schooling for all students, especially those without a lot of money.

You know the end of the story already: It didn’t work. At least, not the way Clinton planned. Unlike a canal, a school system is not something that can be created once and for all. A school system needs more than a one-time start-up investment. The problems that make schooling difficult are not the same as the problems that make a canal difficult.

urban apple orchard

They can thrive anywhere…

It might help if well-intentioned reformers thought of school differently. School isn’t a start-up business. School isn’t a canal.

What IS school? There are many ways we could think about it, but this morning I’d like to suggest one idea and I invite SAGLRROILYBYGTH to suggest their own.

To get school reform right, we can’t think of school like a start-up business. We can’t think of it like a canal. We might do better if we thought of school like an orchard. Why?

  • Orchards take a long time to be healthy and productive, but can be damaged or killed quickly.
  • Orchards are intensely local; they can’t be shipped or packaged easily.
  • Orchards take constant loving care from many people.
  • There are some things that all orchards need, like sunshine, water, and fertilizer.
    • The exact recipe for success, though, depends on local conditions.
    • …and it isn’t the ingredients themselves that lead to success, but the constant loving care with which they are applied and monitored.
  • Orchards can thrive anywhere, but in some places they need more intensive care and maintenance than others.
  • Orchards can be tweaked easily, but they can’t be radically transformed quickly.
  • A healthy orchard isn’t focused on the people taking care of it, but rather on the things it produces.
  • Different orchards can thrive while producing different things; one measurement won’t compare apples very easily.

Now that I see that list in black and white, I’m not sure. Maybe that’s not the best metaphor. I’m not sure if children are supposed to be the fruit…? Or if kids are the ones picking the fruit of education…?orchard

When it comes to thinking about schools, though, I can’t help but think that imagining schools as orchards is better than thinking about them as start-ups or canals. As today’s tech leaders have discovered, thinking about schools as start-up tech firms leads to predictable flops. As yesterday’s leaders found out, thinking about schools as canals didn’t work either.

So maybe thinking about schools as orchards isn’t the best metaphor. I bet people can come up with better. In the meantime, though, I’ll look forward to a multi-million-dollar school reform plan that starts with a more profound understanding of the way real schools work.