Why Are Teachers Mad at Billionaires?

It’s not just because of the cars they drive. For as long as there have been school systems, there have been outsiders who have promised radical reform. Today’s crop of tech billionaires is no different and good teachers can only shake their heads and wait for the billionaires to figure it out. If only some of the billionaires had read one book—or maybe two—they’d see the problem with their approach.

In today’s New York Times, Natasha Singer wisely warns of the lack of democratic oversight in today’s tech-based school reforms. There is another lesson billionaires should learn, though, even if they don’t care about democratic input. The history is clear: Sweeping tech-based revolutions in schooling have (almost) always ended up stashed in the hallway closets of schools across the country. There is one obvious and important exception, as historians David Tyack and Larry Cuban pointed out over twenty years ago.

Of course, we need to be fair: It’s a good thing that billionaires devote some of their loot to improving public education. Mark Zuckerberg, for example, has repeatedly put his money where his mouth is. He pledged $100 million to Newark. His foundation is now promising to invest heavily in schools. Good for him.

The problem, though, is that such outsider attempts miss a vital part of real school reform. As Tyack and Cuban argued in 1995, school reform plans work when they allow teachers to do their jobs better. They flounder when they try to force schools to adopt tech-based answers to questions no one is really asking. It doesn’t matter how expensive the plan is or how good it looks on paper.

tyack cuban tinkering

Read these works, ye mighty, and despair…

Consider, for example, the 1950s attempt to bring better schooling to rural American kids. The Carnegie Foundation teamed up with the US Congress to pour tens of millions of dollars into a radical reform program. Believe it or not, they put planes in constant motion over the Great Plains states, beaming closed-circuit educational television programs to rural schools.

It seemed like a foolproof idea, a perfect solution to rural educational oblivion, made possible by the new technology of television.

It didn’t work, though. It seems too obvious even to mention, but rural schools found that the educational TV programs didn’t fit their classroom goals. Kids didn’t learn anything. The hokey programs went unwatched, and the expensive TVs were put into hallway closets to collect dust.

As I’m finding in my current research, this pattern of well-intentioned, expensive, and unproductive technology-based radical school reform has an even longer history.

Over two hundred years ago, English reformer Joseph Lancaster insisted he had solved the problems of urban education. His new-fangled modern factory model could educate the hordes of urchins that were cramming into modern American and European cities.

No surprise: It didn’t work either. Or, to be nerdily specific, it worked…but not in the ways Lancaster had over-promised.

Lancaster’s reform plan worked—as will any reform plan in any century—when it inspired teachers, parents, students, mayors, and taxpayers to pay a lot of eager attention to their local public schools. It didn’t work when it promised a tech-based anonymous reform plan that could instantly fix any school anywhere.

lancaster schools

Radical school tech reform, c. 1807

So why are teachers mad at billionaires? Because good teachers know this central truth about what Tyack and Cuban called “the grammar of schooling.” Like any other social institution, schools are impervious to silver-bullet tech reforms. Public schools will not be magically fixed because billionaires are suddenly and temporarily interested in them.

The recipe for improving schools is not new, nor is it secret. Every good teacher already knows it. Schools are made better when an entire community is excited and involved in them. Sometimes, that excitement and involvement can be boosted by eye-catching new technology. More often, though, involvement comes from long hours and years spent in classrooms, cafeterias, meeting rooms, and athletic fields.

Advertisements

Bill Gates Pushes a Rope

Must be tough. All that money and doodly-squat to show for it.

Bill Gates gave a speech yesterday about his plans to fix American education. He has found the secret, he explained. It took him seven years and ba-jillions of dollars, but he has found it. Seems like he could have just spent a few hours and thirty bucks to discover why his big plans are still doomed to failure.

Gates isn’t alone. Other new-rich tech types have also crashed on the reefs of education reform. Most recently, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg frittered away $100 million in a good-hearted but wrong-headed attempt to help Newark’s public schools.

To be fair, Bill Gates has spent more time and effort (and moolah) than Zuckerberg in his attempts to improve America’s public schools. His foundation has funded a host of reform efforts.

What has he learned? As he put it yesterday,

We set out on this path seven years ago. If I had to place our foundation somewhere on our own learning line today—where the starting point is absolute ignorance and the end point is knowing everything about great teaching and how to spread it—I would say we’re not even halfway to our goal.

But I believe we are on the right track. For today, and for the coming years, this is our vision: Every student deserves high standards. Every student deserves an effective teacher. Every teacher deserves the tools and support to be phenomenal. And all students deserve the opportunity to learn in a way that is tailored to their needs, skills, and interests.

Gates’s current plan focuses on improving teachers. In his words:

Building effective teacher feedback and improvement systems everywhere is the most important movement in American education today.

Good teachers make a huge difference, he argues correctly. And good school districts do what it takes to make their teachers better.

So what is wrong with Gates’s strategy? It’s not a secret and it’s not a surprise. Mr. Gates could have spent a few hours with David Tyack’s and Larry Cuban’s book Tinkering Toward Utopia to figure out something that every veteran teacher knows already. And it would only have cost him thirty bucks.

Read these works, ye mighty, and despair...

Read these works, ye mighty, and despair…

To wit: Good teachers are hungry for help. They want reform that will help them do a better job at what they are already doing well. But ALL teachers are good at dodging fads and gimmicks. They have to be. Every experienced teacher has survived wave after wave of “the latest thing.” We have tall bookshelves stacked with chart-packed three-ring binders about how to implement each new reform.

Teachers know what to do. When someone offers them something that helps them do it, they jump on board. Smartboards, for example, or teaching teams, are one-time “reforms” that have now become standard operating practice in many public schools. Why? Because they work. They help teachers do a better job at their jobs.

As Tyack and Cuban document, however, history is littered with the Ozymandian dreams of earlier generations of Gateses and Zuckerbergs. At the advent of television in the 1950s, for example, the US government and the Ford Foundation plunked down tens of millions of dollars to have a plane always circling the Great Plains states, broadcasting the latest educational TV programming for schools. No kidding. The plan was to have the country’s smartest experts teaching kids directly. No more vagaries of teacher quality or school efficiency. This multi-million-dollar reform was going to use the latest technology to fix American public schools in one fell swoop.

Did it transform schools? No. Why not? Because good teachers struggled to find a way to incorporate that expensive “reform” into their teaching. For some reason too mysterious for the experts to divine, students in Kansas did not want to sit quietly while fuzzy black-and-white professors laboriously explained sentence structuring or osmosis.

Bill Gates is pushing a rope. Trying to fix America’s teachers from the outside is a losing proposition. The language itself generates its own defeat. Instead of fixing America’s teachers, Gates and other well-heeled know-it-alls should focus on HELPING America’s teachers.

Historians Rule the School

Why do educational historians have so much influence, relative to other kinds of educational scholars? This year’s Edu-Scholar influence rankings are in, and historians seem to be represented far beyond their numbers.

Like any ranking system, this one is imperfect. (It must be, since it didn’t include your humble editor.) Overall, the Edu-Scholar scale tries to couple academic influence with policy influence. As Rick Hess explains in the pages of EdWeek,

The rubric reflects both a scholar’s body of academic work—encompassing the breadth and influence of their scholarship—and their footprint on the public discourse last year. . . . I’m not sure that I’ve got the measures right or even how much these results can or should tell us. That said, I think the same can be said about U.S. News college rankings, NFL quarterback ratings, or international scorecards of human rights. For all their imperfections, I think such efforts convey real information—and help spark useful discussion.

Fair enough. Given those caveats, by this scale, at least, historians seem to punch far above their weight. Why?

Just in the top ten, for example, are historians Diane Ravitch (#1) and Larry Cuban (#8). At number four we find Gary Orfield, a sociologist whose work on desegregation is heavily historical.

We don’t have to go very far down the list (#26) to find Jon Zimmerman, ILYBYGTH’s house favorite. Penn’s Marybeth Gasman shows up at 18. Also included are David Labaree, Charles Payne (another sociologist who writes a lot about civil-rights history), and Sherman Dorn. Sam Wineburg is also on the list, and though he’s not officially an historian he writes about history and historical thinking.

That might not seem like a lot of historians, out of a total of 200 scholars. But when it comes to public policy, the surprise is that there are any academic historians at all. And doubly surprising to find more than one in the top ten! In general, academic historians get nervous when it comes to making pronouncements about current-day policy.

Many of the scholars here are full-time policy wonks. It would seem their work would do more to influence thinking about education than would the work of so many historians.

So why do all these wonderful historians exert so much influence on public discourse?

War of the World Histories: Or, Is Bill Gates Smarter than H.G. Wells?

Tom Cruise might remember him best for his science fiction, including War of the Worlds and The Time Machine. But in the 1920s and 1930s, author H. G. Wells tried to save the world by saving the history classroom. Wells’ plan sounds eerily similar to a new revolutionary plan by gagillionaire Bill Gates. Why didn’t Wells’ scheme work, and what does that tell us about Gates’ chances?

Can Tom save this child from Bad History?

Can Tom save this child from Bad History?

Alert ILYBYGTH readers may remember our snarky critique of Bill Gates’ ingenuous entry into the evolution/creation controversies. Gates wants to revolutionize the teaching of history by replacing today’s tired curriculum with a breathless new “Big History.” Students would learn about everything ever, from the Big Bang to today’s Big Game.

As scholar Ken Osborne describes in the latest issue of the journal Historical Studies in Education, Gates is unknowingly following in the footsteps of H. G. Wells. As Osborne describes, Wells dedicated the latter half of his career to an ambitious but ultimately fruitless mission to reform history education. As Wells put it in 1921, “Upon this matter of the teaching of history, I am a fanatic.”

Just as Bill Gates did, Wells noticed that most school histories were dry and lifeless. As Wells argued in 1931,

If so many of us had not experienced it, few would believe it possible. . . . It is partly like heavy stale gossip about incredible individuals, partly like trying to get interested in the litigation of an unknown people in a remote country, and partly like watching a university don playing soldiers on his study floor.

To Wells, this was more than just a matter of wasted time. History as taught, Wells believed, had led directly to the cataclysm of World War I. Young people in each country had been drilled to believe in patriotic pablum instead of understanding themselves as part of the great unfolding of humanity. Wells was not alone in this belief. As British Prime Minister Lloyd George argued in the last year of the Great War,

The most formidable institutions we had to fight in Germany were not the arsenals of Krupp, or the yards in which they turned out submarines, but the schools of Germany. They were our most formidable competitors in business and our most terrible opponents in war.

In the years following the war, Wells published his sweeping Outline of History. As he described it,

Its background is unfathomable mystery, the riddle of the stars, the measurelessness of space and time. There appears life struggling toward consciousness . . . through millions of years . . . until it reaches the tragic confusions and perplexities of the world of to-day, so full of fear and yet so full of promise and opportunity.

Like Bill Gates, Wells wanted students to see themselves in cosmological time. Not only as citizens of a particular country, but as denizens of a universe of abiding mystery. And just as Gates wants to do with his Big History project, Wells hoped to do an end run around a hopelessly hidebound educational system. In Wells’ opinion, schools remained “a conservative force in the community . . . controlled by authority and bound officially as well as practically to respect current fears and prejudices.”

From dinosaurs to diplomacy...

From dinosaurs to diplomacy…

To overcome these prejudices, Wells devised a painstaking hour-by-hour plan to fix education. Just as Bill Gates is hoping to do, Wells hoped his ideas would take off with teachers first. Then, bit by bit, those teachers would use Wells’ grand healthy history to supplant the old musty stories.

It didn’t work. As Ken Osborne concluded, “when [Wells’ plans] were not simply ignored, dismissed as impractically utopian, or condemned as rigidly doctrinaire, they were domesticated and de-radicalized.”

It seems Bill Gates is traveling down this same road in all innocence. It seems ironic that Gates wants to revolutionize the teaching of history, but does not seem to have spent any time actually studying history. If he had, he might have learned from the doomed efforts of predecessors such as H. G. Wells. Or, even more simply, he might have learned from historians such as David Tyack and Larry Cuban. Twenty years ago, Tyack and Cuban offered a compelling argument about why the reform efforts of folks such as Gates and Wells end up so often in the dustbin of educational history.

The best-intended plans—and even the best-funded ones—never have much effect if they do not adapt themselves to the ubiquitous “grammar of schooling,” Tyack and Cuban argued. When a new reform helps teachers do what they already want to do, it is adopted with alacrity. Blackboards, for example, and now smartboards, offer good teachers a way to do a better job. On the other hand, when reforms ask teachers to change everything, those reforms end up collecting dust in a back closet in a school-district warehouse somewhere.

It’s always tricky to use the past to predict the future, but in this case the parallels between Bill Gates and H. G. Wells seem too blatant to ignore. Both men hoped to ride to the rescue of schools. Both men hoped to sidestep the people who could actually make their “Big Histories” happen.

As a result, both plans will end up the same way.

The Ink Is Dry!

I’m tickled pink to announce I’ve signed a deal with Harvard University Press to publish my next book.  The subject?  No surprise to ILYBYGTH readers: the book takes a historical look at educational conservatism in America’s twentieth century.  What did conservatives want out of schools?  How did they work to make that happen?

I’m extremely pleased to have the book join HUP’s top roster of educational histories.  All my favorite books are on that list: David Tyack & Larry Cuban’s Tinkering Toward Utopia, Jon Zimmerman’s Whose America?, Jeffrey Moran’s Teaching Sex, and now Bill Reese’s Testing Wars.

I’m honored to join this all-star lineup.  My book—which at this point I’m calling The Other School Reformers: The Conservative Tradition in American Education—takes a look at the four most explosive school controversies of the twentieth century.  My approach has been to examine these four culture-war fights to see what sorts of educational reform conservatives wanted in each case.  At first, I thought I’d pile up histories of leading conservative organizations and individuals: the American Legion, Max Rafferty, the Gablers, etc.  But I couldn’t find a way to decide whom to include and whom to leave out.  Did the White Citizens’ Councils count as educational conservatives?  Did the Institute for Creation Research?  Did Arthur Bestor?

Instead of imposing my own definitions on the outlines of educational conservatism, I took more of a naturalist’s approach.  I set up my blind, so to speak, at the four most tumultuous fights over the content of American schools and watched to see what kinds of conservative activists showed up.

The school controversies were all very different.  First I examine the Scopes Trial of 1925.  Then the Rugg textbook controversy of 1939-1940.  After that, the firing of Pasadena’s progressive superintendent in 1950.  Finally, the literally explosive fight over schools and textbooks in Kanawha County, West Virginia, in 1974 and 1975.

What did I dig up?  In short, I argue that there is a coherent tradition linking conservative school reform across the twentieth century.  Not that these different activists had any sort of conscious organization or program.  Conservatives differed—often differed widely—about key issues such as public religion, race, and the role of government and experts.  More than that, the consensus among conservatives changed over time, as American culture and society changed.  For example, racial attitudes among white conservatives changed enormously between 1925 and 1975.  But in spite of all this change and difference, a recognizable tradition of educational conservatism linked these disparate school reformers.  Conservatives usually agreed with progressive school reformers that good schools were the key to a good society.  But unlike progressives, conservatives wanted schools to emphasize traditional knowledge and beliefs: patriotism, religion, and the benefits of capitalism, for example.

In addition, my book makes the case for the importance of understanding these conservative activists as school reformers in their own right.  Too often, the history of American education is told as the heroic tale of progressive activists fighting bravely against a powerful but vague traditionalism.  My book argues instead that educational conservatism is more than just a vague cultural impulse; conservatism has always been a raft of specific policy ideas for specific historical contexts, fought for by specific individuals and organizations.

So be sure to save some space in your holiday gift list for next year.  The book is slated to appear just in time for Christmas/Hannukah/Kwanzaa/Festivus 2014.

 

Of MOOCs and Monsters

Does Monsters University have a conservative anti-MOOC message?

I took my daughter to see it the other day.  It was great.  I laughed.  I cried.  There were lots of creatively imagined monsters, smart dialogue, and sight gags.  Plus a heartwarming story of friendship and dedication.

Monsters_University_poster_3But was it also a Disney-fied version of conservative arguments about the fate and future of higher education?

I couldn’t help wondering what the conservative intelligentsia would have to say about the movie’s implications for the future of higher education.  Especially about the latest craze to sweep the educational establishment, Massive Open Online Courses.

Conservatives have been divided about the moral and practical implications of MOOCs.

Some free-market aficionados have trumpeted the promise of the new approach.  By providing courses for free from elite universities such as Harvard and MIT, MOOCs make world-class learning more widely available than ever.  Economist Richard Vedder, for example, argued that a MOOC approach could cull out inefficiencies in higher education.

More recently, Benjamin Ginsberg fretted that MOOCs represented just another way for administrators to cut apparent costs, at the real cost of abolishing real learning.

Other conservatives have agreed that the MOOC model abandons the proper goal of higher education.  Rachelle DeJong complained that higher ed must take more responsibility for the formation of young minds and spirits. “The student,” DeJong wrote,

as yet unformed and uneducated, cannot judge what studies best suit his needs, his vocation, or his intellectual development. How can he discern a steep ascent to the mountaintop from a difficult dead-end, when all he knows are the briars, the rocks, and the stitch in his side?

In the pages of Minding the Campus, Peter Sacks warned that MOOCs will generate a crushing mediocrity and exacerbate the existing class divide among institutions of higher education.  Rich students will get a full learning experience, Sacks insisted, while less well-off students will only hear distant digital echoes of profound learning environments.

Such conservative arguments make sense to the historian in me.  Even a nodding acquaintance with the history of technology and education makes anyone skeptical of any new technological “revolution” for classrooms.  As Larry Cuban has demonstrated, new technologies often garner enthusiasm and enormous investment, only to crash against the reefs of complex educational reality.

Perhaps the best example was the flying broadcast technology of the 1950s.  The US government and the Ford Foundation poured tens of millions of dollars into this program, which sent planes circling over the Midwest and Great Plains.  These planes broadcast educational television programs to schools in those areas.  The idea was that the very best teachers could supply content for audiences of schoolchildren nationwide.

The program failed because schooling is about much more than simply receiving information from a TV screen.  CAN young people learn this way?  Of course.  Is such learning the equivalent of all the complex interactions that go into our notion of “school?”  Of course not.

A similar future seems in store for MOOCs.  Such distance learning is nothing really new and some students will likely benefit greatly from it.  But it will not replace the entirety of higher education, since that entirety includes such a broad range of ingredients.

What does all this have to do with adorable monsters?  I won’t give away any of the plot of Monsters University, but I can say that the movie centers around the dreams of a young adorable monster who yearns to attend Monster University.  The film includes long sweeping vistas of colored foliage and ancient-looking buildings.  It revolves around the intense traditions and intense personal interactions that make up higher education for monsters.

The main character, to be sure, went to MU for vocational reasons.  He wanted to earn a certain type of job.  Without giving away the plot, I can’t comment here on some of the movie’s ultimate implication about the career efficacy of those choices.

But for the main monster character, the allure of MU was at least as much about personal relationships between students and a hard-nosed dean as it was about attaining information.  The attraction of MU depicted in the film was at least as much about learning from fellow students as it was about downloading information from star professors.  The campus and its social scene played crucial roles in the education depicted in the film.

If the film gives us anything beyond two pleasant hours in an air-conditioned theater, it is an emotional, playful articulation of the drier anti-MOOC arguments made by conservative intellectuals.  College, in this film, is a whole-life experience.  College includes formal education, but it also requires a whole lot more.  In order to be educated, the film implies, young people must submit to a stupendous tradition.  Institutions of higher learning, as portrayed in this summer fantasy, are literally supernatural conglomerations of love, life, and learning.

Such conglomerations can never be replaced with online learning platforms.  No matter how much star power goes into them.

 

Libertarian Editor: No More Classrooms, No More Books, No More Teachers’ Dirty Looks

Do we need teachers anymore?  Can’t computers do the job?

Speaking at Las Vegas Reason Weekend 2013, Reason Magazine editor Katherine Mangu-Ward peeked into the bold libertarian school future.

The question is not whether or not computers can replace people, Mangu-Ward pointed out.  They already do so in innumerable ways, such as ATMs.

For schools, however, the promise of computer-guided education has not been fully realized.  Mangu-Ward did not suggest we replace all teachers with computers, but rather that we employ a cheaper, better, blended model.

Too often, Mangu-Ward argues, the notion that schools are only “warehousing” young people gets a bad rap.  Schools SHOULD warehouse the young, but not necessarily in stark, depressing, dystopic ways.  Kids should stay in school for longer days, and for longer school years.

Computers can help make that feasible.  Mangu-Ward praised some KIPP schools that use computers to change the classroom dynamic.  Instead of twenty students with two teachers, some schools have thirty students with two teachers and fifteen computers.  Large numbers of students can be working on computers at any given time.

The students on the computers will likely be learning more, not less, than their human-led colleagues.  For-profit companies, after all, are producing effective online curricula on a competitive basis.  According to Mangu-Ward, the market will ensure that these curricula will be the best, cheapest options available.

Computers, after all, make great teachers, Mangu-Ward argued. Computers are infinitely patient.  Computers have impeccable memories. Truly great teachers might be able to keep track of all students this way, Mangu-Ward said, but unfortunately, “A lot of teachers really really suck.”

Mangu-Ward ended on an optimistic note.  “There are a lot of ways,” she said, “to choose not to be part of the dysfunctional school system that we have right now, and they are increasingly online.”

Mangu-Ward didn’t mention it, but this sort of tech-topia sounds eerily familiar to educational historians.  As Larry Cuban has demonstrated most convincingly, the history of American schooling has been peppered with plans to replace teachers with one machine or another.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, for example, educational television promised to broadcast the best teaching to students nationwide.  A plane even circled several states in the Midwest, broadcasting programs meant to MOOC their ways into students’ brains.

By the 1970s, those ambitious programs had largely come to naught.  As one disappointed technophile complained, “If something happened tomorrow to wipe out all instructional television, America’s schools and colleges would hardly know it was gone” [quoted in Larry Cuban, Teachers and Machines, pg. 50].

But could our situation now be fundamentally different?

First of all, the internet is different from TV.  Right now, schools and colleges would probably grind to an awkward halt if the internet fizzled suddenly.

Second, educational TV was largely a top-down government enterprise.  The US Congress shelled out $32 million in 1962 to pay for educational TV, for example.

Here, the programs will be both better and cheaper.  The market, Mangu-Ward predicts, will force for-profit companies to produce the best materials for the lowest price.

We’re left with two big questions:  CAN computers replace teachers? . . . and SHOULD they?

For the libertarian Katherine Mangu-Ward, the obvious answer to both questions is an emphatic YES.

TRADITIONALIST EDUCATION IIc: VALUES. . . of what?

If the moral scheme of multiculturalism can’t deliver on its promise for a moral agenda for America’s public schools, what can traditionalists offer in its stead?  This is where traditionalists’ arguments carry the most weight, in my opinion.  They can draw on deeply embedded notions about the purpose and function of schooling, what historians David Tyack and Larry Cuban have called the “grammar of schooling.”  They can rely on ideas of schooling lodged so solidly in America’s idea of itself that they rarely need to be articulated at all.

In the early 1990s, historian Arthur Zilversmit commented on the strength and durability of these traditional notions.  Zilversmit had studied the ways self-proclaimed progressive ideas of schooling had had limited success in the middle decades of the twentieth century.  One of the leading reasons for this lack of success, Zilversmit argued, was the surprising strength of Americans’ “strange, emotional attachment to traditional schooling patterns.”

Of course, from the traditionalist point of view, there is nothing strange about this attachment.  Rather, traditionalists believe it reflects a sensible, rational commitment to time-tested ideas about schooling.  It only seems mysterious, strange, and emotional to those who assume that schools ought to be radically changing their approach to education.

What are these traditional values of America’s schools?  In future posts, I’ll explore each of the next three notions in more detail.  But in short, traditionalists can offer three clusters of values:  First, schools exist to teach young people things they did not know.  Young people go to school primarily to learn these things.  And that means that they should gain and retain information they did not previously have.

Related to this fundamental conception of schooling is another: Schools will help people improve their social and economic status.  If, that is, young people manage to gain skills and information at schools, they can use that knowledge to secure more lucrative, more prestigious employment. They can move up in society.

Finally, traditionalists can argue that the value scheme of America’s public schools does not need to be radically overhauled in order to include the rich pluralism of American society.  Such traditional values as honesty, bravery, kindness, tolerance, and hard work are common to many cultures, including traditional white European American culture.

These values are anything but strange and mysterious.  In fact, they are so commonly held that most people do not question them at all.  And in spite of decades, indeed, generations, of self-consciously “progressive” attempts to undermine these foundational values of schooling, Americans of all cultural backgrounds and economic classes have continued to cling to these ideas.

 

Further reading: Arthur Zilversmit, Changing Schools: Progressive Education Theory and Practice, 1930-1960 (Chicago, 1993); David Tyack and Larry Cuban, Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform (Cambridge, 1995).

WHAT ARE SCHOOLS FOR?

Teachers that I talk to often complain that everyone thinks they can do a better job, even though such folks never spent five minutes in a real school.  Politicians, neighbors, pushy relatives, all tell teachers loudly and repeatedly that it would be easy to fix schools.  Teachers often point out, sometimes publicly, sometimes only in teachers’ lounges, that those folks would never talk that way about other professions, like medicine or law.  But since everyone went to school, everyone thinks and talks as if they’re experts in school reform.

I think the teachers’ complaint makes a lot of sense.  I work with a lot of smart people who are planning to become teachers.  A lot of them are very well educated, very smart, very hard working, and very eager to help people by becoming teachers.  There is a huge difference in the way these folks view schooling and education reform before they start teaching, and once they’ve got a taste of life in real classrooms.  Many of them come into the teachers’ education program confident that they will be a new kind of teacher, one who doesn’t water down hard ideas for students, one who doesn’t take any guff, one who doesn’t softpedal the hard facts of intellectual life for students.  After they’ve tried it, even for just a few weeks, they often relate stories of shock and sometimes depression at the sheer impossibility of accomplishing their lofty goals.

Maybe it would help the conversation if everyone had to teach for a few years before they could suggest ways to fix schools.  But that’s not likely to happen.  Especially in the case of ambitious politicians, there will always be those who think they have a simple panacea to fix America’s schools.

In addition to the fact that some of these schemes demonstrate a profound ignorance of the realities of schooling, there is another enormous problem with all these reform ideas.  Depending on who’s talking, the fix for schools might be more discipline for those lazy kids.  Or it might be less discipline for those creative yet hounded students.  It might be less public money to encourage competition and entrepreneurialism.  Or it might be more public money for better teacher pay and student conditions.  Like a blanket pulled in every direction at once, with all these varied prescriptions, reform can go nowhere.

This is not incidental to the nature of American schooling.  America’s notions of the proper role of schooling have always pulled not only in different directions, but in precisely opposite directions.  Like a tug-of-war in many directions, this has resulted in short bursts of movement, followed by correction, and often accompanied by messy pileups.

As David Tyack and Larry Cuban argued in their 1995 essay “Tinkering Toward Utopia,” Americans have long held contradictory ideas about the purposes of institutional schooling.  In Tyack’s and Cuban’s words, Americans have always wanted schools to do lots of different things for their children:

“to socialize them 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.”

To muddy the waters even further, I think it will be more accurate and more helpful if we change Tyack’s and Cuban’s ‘yets’ and ‘buts’ to ANDs.  That is, Americans have wanted both ends of these apparent dichotomies in their schools.  When one side appears to have worked itself into absurdity, public pressure grows to emphasize the other end.

In terms of the endless bickering over whether our schools need to be more “progressive” or more “traditional,” this multiplicity of ideas about the nature of schooling means that everyone can find something to be angry about at any time.  For example, a progressive, democratic parent or teacher can find lots to complain about if he or she wants schools to do a good job of teaching students to be cooperative.  Especially in these days of high-stakes standardized testing, students can spend most of a school day learning that the function of school is to move quickly through academic material.  Like the end of a zombie movie, students learn that the most vital notion of schooling is to keep moving.

On the other hand, parents, teachers, administrators, and students who hope for more “traditional” schools can gripe that schools do nothing but “fluff.”  They don’t prepare students with the real-world skills they’ll need to get and keep good jobs in a competitive economy.

Both sides can keep on talking, since they can both be right at the same time.  Both can claim the justice of having the vast majority of people on their sides (“Every intelligent teacher I know agrees with me”) while also claiming to be a victimized minority (“Why don’t the powers that be every recognize these obvious truths about school?!?”)

Perhaps this pull toward the middle is a good thing.  It might be far more terrifying if one group of zealous educators could simply seize control of America’s schools and declare a dramatically new direction.  As it is, the notion of “school” is tied up with so many conflicting and contradictory notions that it is more likely to maintain its basic structure than it is to change rapidly or dramatically.

 

Further reading: David Tyack and Larry Cuban, Tinkering toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995).