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.
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I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

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

How evangelicals can embrace evolution, at CT.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inclusive campuses for everyone—even Nazis. At IHE.

fuck nazis

Do Nazis deserve manners?

Stalker or romantic? At KCStar.

Will the USA extradite Fethullah Gulen? At RNS.

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

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

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

Crime and Punishment

I don’t often agree with free-marketeer Michael Petrilli, but this time he’s exactly right. When pragmatic issues such as school discipline become culture-war footballs, students are always the losers. What we need instead are policies that put students first. Alas, the history of educational culture wars makes me pessimistic that we can replace polemics with pragmatics.

Petrilli recently lamented the unhelpful back-and-forth over the issue of school discipline. The Obama administration supported the idea that racial disparities in punishments could be cause for federal intervention. Trump’s administration, in chest-thumping contrast, rejected the notion.

 

As Petrilli rightly noted, schools need something different. They need policies that recognize the cruel injustices of racially loaded punishments while still creating safe schools. Petrilli hoped even

In this age of base politics . . . communities nationwide can reject such cynical approaches and craft school discipline policies that can bring us together rather than drive us apart.

That would be nice, but as I found in my research into the history of educational conservatism, school discipline has always been about more than pragmatic problem solving. Planting a flag for harsher school punishments has always been a hallmark of American conservatism.

Consider the flood of pro-discipline conservative outrage that confronted Pasadena’s superintendent in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The new superintendent, Willard Goslin, became the whipping-boy for a host of perceived problems with “progressive” education. As one furious conservative critic wrote in the local paper in 1949,

But pity the poor teacher!  After all, it is his job to pamper the pupils (in progressive schools), and it is worth his job if he tried any old-fashioned discipline.  Problem children are not only tolerated but pushed right along ‘to get rid of them’—out into society, for others to worry about.

Better-known conservative pundits have also always taken pot-shots at non-traditional ideas of school discipline. Max Rafferty, a nationally syndicated columnist and one-time state superintendent of public education in California, had nothing but scorn and contumely for new-fangled ideas about punishment.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

…he didn’t win.

In one 1964 column, Rafferty lambasted new ideas of school discipline in his typically colorful language. As he put it,

a child usually has neither the maturity nor the judgment to understand the need for self-discipline. Too many instructors, fresh from college and still pretty Dewey-eyed about things, compromise themselves and their careers in a hopeless attempt to convince some freckled-faced [sic] urchin with devilment coming out visibly all over him that he must discipline himself when all he really needs is a session after school with the ruler.

In every decade, in every educational situation, school discipline has always been an us-or-them culture-war issue. Progressives have always lamented the racially loaded and ineffective traditions of whipping and my-way-or-the-highway teaching. Conservatives have always been sure that new-fangled ideas about child-rearing tragically misunderstood real human nature. As Rafferty explained in 1964,

The psychologists had been right in one respect.  Junior certainly had no repressions.  He could have used a few.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Happy Halloween, SAGLRROILYBYGTH! There were plenty of tricks and a few treats in the news this week. Here are some of the headlines you might have missed:

School scams? Orlando Sentinel reporters investigate public money going to private-school ripoffs.

B-ding! There’s another one: Rich smart person teaches briefly in low-income school, writes memoir.

The most expensive evangelical building ever? CT reviews Hobby Lobby’s Museum of the Bible.Bart reading bible

A new gen-ed: “Patriotic Education and Fitness.” Will it help students at the College of the Ozarks be good citizens?

“Border science” and Nazi occultism. At Religion & Politics Michael Schulson reviews Eric Kurlander’s Hitler’s Monsters.

  • The takeaway? Schulson: “There’s the fascination with purity. And there’s the belief in secret histories, secret forces, and secret knowledge. These concepts are not fringe ways of thinking. They are familiar, I think, in one form or another, to most Americans.”

What should a conservative PhD student watch out for? Some controversial anonymous advice at IHE.

At HNN, Gary Nash asks why we have forgotten about white Christian anti-racist activists.

What’s a progressive parent to do? Do they have to support public education even if they don’t like public schools? One parent asks for progressive advice at The Nation.

How did Betsy DeVos change her daily routine when she moved from being a private-school activist to a public-school uber-administrator? According to the New York Times, she didn’t.

Schools are left-wing indoctrination centers, Newt Gingrich writes.

What do schools really need? At Flypaper, Michael Petrilli prescribes “a swift kick in the ass.”

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

This week the interweb’s series of tubes heated up with plenty of ILYBYGTH-related material. Here are some of the stories we might have missed:

It’s not just segregation. In NYT, John Rury and Derrick Darby on the history of racial imbalances in the rate of harsh school punishments.

Leo Ribuffo at HNN on Trump, Nixon, and anti-Semitism in the Oval Office.

Evangelicals for Obamacare.Bart reading bible

Inside the mind of school-choice maven Eva Moskowitz. Why do teachers call the NYC charter-school leader “Evil” Moskowitz?

Why is young-earth impresario Ken Ham mad at Princeton University?

AG Sessions: Free speech for campuses, not for NFL sidelines.

“Why in the hell would I pay 60 grand a year to have my child’s life ruined?” Mary Poplin at Christianity Today on the dangers of “secular privilege” in higher education.

Can an academic journal nowadays publish a defense of colonialism? The latest on the Third World Quarterly hullabaloo from CHE.

What will make conservative parents happy? Michael Petrilli looks at school choice at National Affairs.

Harvard, Queen Betsy, and school choice: Peter Greene tears apart Devos’s Harvard speech.

Will the Real Educational Conservative Please Stand Up?

No one can say Michael Petrilli doesn’t understand educational conservatism. As head of the free-marketeer Fordham Institute Petrilli has long championed aggressive conservative activism in schools and educational bureaucracies. In a recent piece at National Affairs, though, Petrilli tries once again to impose an ill-fitting definition of “conservatism” onto America’s educational landscape. This strategic attempt at a flattering self-image for conservatives might help conservatives sleep at night, but it doesn’t fairly depict historical realities.

school choice march

Is this conservative?

This isn’t the first time Petrilli has tried and failed to convince conservatives of what they should think. A few years back, when then-new Common Core State Standards reared their heads, Petrilli struggled to convince conservatives that the Common Core was conservative. He failed then and he’ll likely fail in his current attempt as well.

This time around, Petrilli is hoping to impose an image of educational conservatism as split between “accountability-plus-choice” and mere “choice.” All conservatives, Petrilli writes, make school choice a “paramount objective.” “Conservatives believe,” according to Petrilli,

that parents should be able to choose schools for their children that match their educational priorities and moral values. This principle stems from our deep respect for the family as the building block of a free society.

The split, Petrilli writes, is between conservatives who are happy with expanding choice and conservatives who also want to force traditional public schools to improve. Smart conservatives should want both, Petrilli thinks. As he puts it,

If we care about economic growth, upward mobility, and strong families, we should make improving America’s educational outcomes a priority. Education is both a private good and a public good, and a society has a legitimate interest in the education of its next generation — the more so when public dollars pay for it.

In short, Petrilli is hoping to convince conservatives that they should work to improve public schooling for all. He wants conservatives to see themselves as the true guardians of American values and prospects, the side of the future.

If we could all agree on improving public schools for everyone, we could likely skip much of our culture-war shouting and have drinks together on the patio. The problem is that Petrilli’s flattering definition of educational conservatism doesn’t match reality.

For example, Petrilli wants to convince his fellow conservatives that they have always been on the side of social justice for the least powerful members of American society. He writes,

Conservatives view upward mobility as a key objective of social policy, and want to empower poor families to choose schools that can catapult their children into the middle class.

Now, I’m happy to grant that Mr. Petrilli himself truly values such things, but it is more than a stretch to say that such lofty social goals have ever been a primary motivating factor for conservative educational activists. As I argue in detail in my book about educational conservatism in the twentieth century, the primary goals of conservatives have been starkly different.

From Grace Brosseau of the Daughters of the American Revolution to Norma Gabler of Longview, Texas; from Homer Chaillaux of the American Legion to Max Rafferty of California’s State Department of Education; from Bertie Forbes to Alice Moore…conservatives have wanted a bunch of different things out of schools, but elevating the economic prospects of “poor families” has never been their primary motivation.

What have they focused on? I hate to quote myself, but here’s how I put it in the 2015 book:

Educational conservatives have insisted, in short, on two central ideas. First, schools matter. Conservatives, like their progressive foes, have rarely questioned the notion that the schools of today generate the society of tomorrow. Second, because schools matter, their content and structure must be guarded ferociously. Ideas that challenge inherited wisdom must not be crammed down the throats of young, trusting students. And teachers must not abdicate their roles as intellectual and moral authorities. Educational conservatism, in other words, has been the long and vibrant tradition of defending tradition itself in America’s schools.

Of course, Mr. Petrilli is happy to offer any definition he wants for conservatism and his fans are welcome to agree with him. The rest of us, though, should understand that educational conservatism has been mostly about protecting kids from progressive trends in school and society.

And that leads us to Petrilli’s second big goof. Much as he might dislike it, school “choice” has never been anything but a convenient tactic for conservatives. Most conservatives have been decidedly blah about the notion of school choice unless that choice seemed like the best way to achieve their real goals of insulating their kids.

If we need proof, we don’t need to look any further than the mottled history of the idea of school choice itself. When Nobel laureate Milton Friedman proposed the notion of charter schools back in 1950, it met with a profound fizzle. Conservatives back then—everyone back then—mostly ignored the idea, as Friedman himself admitted.

It took nearly fifty years for conservative activists to embrace school choice as their number-one go-to plan for saving their kids from America’s schools. And even then, notions of school choice often take pride of place only in the wonky visions of brainy conservatives like Petrilli himself. Many more conservatives these days look instead to their traditional havens of private schools and the exciting new world of homeschooling.

Looked at one way, Mr. Petrilli might be right. The world of educational conservative activism might really be split in two. The sides, however, aren’t the ones Petrilli imagines. Instead of a split between conservatives who are happy with expanding charter schools and conservatives who also want to improve public schools for all, it might really just be a split between idealistic conservative reformers like Petrilli and almost all the rest of the conservatives out there.

Nine Best ILYBYGTH Ten-Best Lists

The year is skidding to a halt. As always, logorrhetes like your humble editor begin frantically compiling year-end lists. This year, ILYBYGTH has scratched together a list of the nine best end-of-year ten best lists. (I tried for ten, but I didn’t want to dilute these pages with chaff.) What were the year’s biggest stories in religion, education and culture?

First, for pure bravado, is Michael Petrilli’s “My Ten Best Articles of the Year.” The free-marketeer explains why poverty does not explain weak test scores, why schools should be more eager to get rid of disruptive students, and how schools can help fix the “marriage crisis.”

Next, Religion Dispatches offers a list (okay, it’s only six) of the biggest religion-related survey finds of 2015. Do Americans think the US is a Christian Nation? Do we think Christians are being discriminated against? Is the Pope a (helpful) Catholic? And more!

PRRI-Christian-Discrimination-chart

Who’s the victim here?

Number three: The Chronicle of Higher Education has gathered its own top ten stories. They are locked up, I’m afraid, but if you have a subscription it’s worth exploring. There are some biggies in here, including Steven Salaita’s reflections on his experience as a loud-mouth academic walking the line between “freedom” and “hate speech;” Laura Kipnis’s essay about campus revolutionaries eating their young (and their old); and thoughts on the reality of transitioning from one race to another.

Four: What did evangelicals think? Christianity Today put together a list of its top twenty stories. (Sorry, they didn’t read the ILYBYGTH rules, either.) What do evangelicals think about same-sex marriage? What makes a church a cult? Plus porn, Christian colleges, and missionaries.

And fifth, what were the science geeks at the National Center for Science Education up to in 2015? Minda Berbeco reviews their efforts to combat creationism, climate-change denialism, and other modern science bugbears.

What did 2015 look like from the perspective of a smart-mouthed progressive penguin?

tom  tomorrow 2015

Seeing clearly through nostalgic red visors…

What books did thoughtful non-conforming conservative intellectuals enjoy in 2015? Check out the American Conservative’s list of the year’s top reads.

Coming in at number eight, at ThinkProgress, Dylan Petrohilos gives us a sobering account of the numbers of people killed by police in 2015.

Last but not least, Lauren Turek at Religion in American History has compiled a list of religion panels at the upcoming meeting of the American Historical Association in Atlanta. It’s not a top-ten list, and it’s not a look back at the glories of 2015, but I’m including it anyway. For one thing, it starts off with our culture-wars panel (more on that to come). Also, listing all these retrospectives was getting a little maudlin, so I wanted to include something about the future.

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.

Obama-Core?  More like Conserva-Core!

Who’s to blame?  In this year’s ferocious presidential debates, GOP candidates are falling all over themselves to point fingers about the Common Core State Standards.  Jeb Bush, who still supports the standards, has come under withering attack from folks such as Mike Huckabee, who used to.  A new report from the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution lays out the real history of the standards.  It’s true: If we have to assign praise or blame for these standards, we should be looking to the right.

Report author David Whitman does a nice job of detailing the story back to the 1980s. Still, I can’t help but be miffed when he says that this is a “surprising” story, one that “few are familiar with, and even fewer have written about.”  Of course, as SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, your humble editor has been trumpeting this history in these pages and in venues such as Time Magazine.

Conservative intellectuals, too, have done what they can to draw attention to this history.  In the pages of The Weekly Standard, for instance, free-market maven Michael Petrilli has told the story to anyone who will listen.

Such complaints aside, however, Whitman’s report is still worth reading.  He details the history of the Common Core standards themselves.  As he describes correctly, in the 1980s the drive for “high standards” was a leading conservative issue.  As Ronald Reagan’s second Secretary of Education, William J. Bennett pushed hard to make these standards a reality.

In the 1990s, Lamar Alexander continued the conservative push for more rigorous state standards.  Alexander never envisioned increasing federal control of local education.  Rather, he saw these standards as an appropriate way that the federal government could provide help to state governments as they hammered out their education policies.

Whitman also argues convincingly that conservative opposition to the standards is really about something else.  The standards themselves are fairly popular when they are not called “Common Core.”  Whitman blasts conservative politicians for using “the big lie technique” to smear the standards, to create misinformation among the public.  As Whitman cites, many Americans think the standards force children to learn about sex and evolution, when they really don’t.

Make no mistake about it: Whitman’s report is a partisan attack on conservative opposition to the Common Core.  And the SAGLRROILYBYGTH know that I generally don’t go for knee-jerk partisanship.  In this case, however, Whitman has his historical facts straight.

The Common Core was meant to be a conservative initiative.  It was meant to push schools toward more rigorous learning, away from touchy-feely progressive nostrums and toward ol-fashioned book learnin.

Whitman’s liberal glee at pointing out this irony is overdone at times, but his argument is still solid.  The Common Core represents an historic win for educational conservatives.  Why won’t they admit it?  Why do conservatives love to lose when it comes to education policy?

Teachers, Tests, and Gay Marriage

Quick: What do high-stakes tests have to do with gay marriage? Michael Petrilli argues that teachers who discourage students from taking the tests are like government officials who refuse to issue same-sex marriage certificates. Whether you like his argument or not, Petrilli is drawing on a long but ambivalent American tradition.

By now you’ve heard of Kim Davis. She is the county clerk of Rowan County, Kentucky. She has attracted national attention with her refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Heroically flouting the Constitution?

Heroically flouting the Constitution?

Petrilli, in many ways the leading public voice of market conservatism in education, implies that progressives might not want to be so quick to condemn Davis’s pugnacious policy. After all, Petrilli writes, many progressive teachers these days encourage parents to opt-out of high-stakes tests. Are those teachers similar to Davis? Petrilli asks,

Here the question isn’t whether parents have a right to excuse their children from taking the state assessment. (They almost certainly do.) The issue is whether educators can face sanctions for encouraging parents to engage in an act of civil disobedience. Is that akin to refusing to give the test (which surely is reason for dismissal)? What if they merely inform parents of their rights?

As I argued in my recent book, this argument about the role of teachers has long roots. When it comes to educational culture wars, the winds have blown both ways. When conservatives felt that school law enforced their side, they insisted teachers must obey. When they felt otherwise, they lauded brave teachers who resisted.

Back in the 1920s, for example, William Jennings Bryan knew he had popular opinion on his side. He refused to allow teachers to teach evolution against the wishes of their local communities. As Jennings famously argued back then, “The hand that writes the paycheck rules the school.”

Similarly, when left-leaning teachers from the 1930s through the 1950s were thought to be too friendly to communism, conservative activists insisted on teacher obedience. In 1950s Pasadena, for instance, conservative leader Louise Padelford blasted progressive teachers who sought to drill suggestible students in the need for “social change,” rather than simply teaching “reading, writing, spelling, grammar, arithmetic, history, etc.”

When the shoe is on the other foot, of course, conservatives have praised teachers for bravely resisting the dictates of educational higher-ups. Writing from the Pacific Justice Institute, for instance, Brad and Susanne Dacus have offered teachers a handy guide for safely and legally evangelizing in public schools. Too many teachers, the Dacuses warn, cower before the seemingly invincible might of secularism. “Would you be willing,” they ask,

to take a stand for the sake of the young, innocent children who are bombarded by a pro-homosexual agenda? As a parent, would you be willing to stand up for your child’s right to express his religious views? Many are timid about standing by the Word of God when it has the potential to create a ruckus. Reading through the Gospels reminds us that Christ was not afraid to make a ruckus in the name of truth. The New Testament, especially the book of Acts, focuses on the apostles’ goal to take a stand for the Gospel, regardless of the circumstances. We are not alone in this challenge. Be reminded of the verse in Joshua, which says,

“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you, wherever you go.”

To be fair, Petrilli will have none of this argument. He specifically notes, for instance, that public-school science teachers have a responsibility to teach evolution—and only evolution—as science. If they don’t like it, they can resign.

Petrilli’s argument, like those of other conservative activists going back a hundred years, relies on the fact that we Americans aren’t quite sure of what we want teachers to do.

Do we expect teachers to be brave rule-flouters, a la Dead Poets Society?

Or instead to we insist that teachers embody “the rules,” a la Principal Skinner?

The correct answer, of course, is “Yes.” We Americans expect the impossible of our teachers. We count on them to be both daring iconoclasts and sober rule-followers. We depend on them to encourage students to wonder and to inhibit students from wiggling.

So is Michael Petrilli right? Are dissenting teachers like dissenting county clerks? Only half. In the American tradition, teachers do indeed have to embody the rules and respect for the rules. But teachers also have to embody the right moral decisions, even when those decisions go against the rules.