Charter Schools and 2020: The Huge Elephant in the Classroom

It’s not just about the unions. As we gear up to hear leading Democratic 2020 candidates at the National Education Association forum this afternoon in Houston, pundits keep missing the point about charter schools and our new political landscape.

nea forum

I, too, …erm…would just like to say that I have always advocated the position I recently adopted…

One thing is hard not to notice: Leading Democrats have flipped on charter schools. Until very recently, leaders like Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Beto O’Rourke were positively rosy about the prospects of improving education with charters. No longer. Even Senator Booker, the candidate most thoroughly associated with charter reform, has backpedaled.

For some reason, pundits keep missing the obvious explanation for this important partisan realignment. Writers assume that the only reason Democratic hopefuls bash charters is to please the NEA and other teachers’ unions. As Bloomburg put it,

On charter schools, the top Democrats seem intent on placating teachers’ unions at the expense of low-income families.

Another pro-charter activist warned Democrats like Beto O’Rourke that “pandering” to union interests won’t pay off in the end. “The Presidential campaign trail,” she writes,

is littered with candidates who have won the union endorsements and never made it to the White House or even the nomination. They should remind themselves that our north star in education must be what’s best for children.

Will we see candidates pandering to the NEA this afternoon? Probably. I can’t imagine many of them pushing for more charters and voucher programs in front of this crowd. But there is a bigger, more obvious reason for this; candidates aren’t simply telling the audience what it wants to hear.

Here’s the scoop: Like most education-reform ideas, charter schools could never possibly deliver on the inflated promises of advocates. As historians know—and as I’m finding more and more as I complete the research for my book about America’s first urban school-reform movement—school reform ideas tend to follow a predictable pattern. Confronted with intractable social problems, reformers and politicians glom on to a “silver-bullet” idea that promises to save education in one fell swoop.

Charter schools were never the solution to America’s social and educational problems. They are also not the problem. Some charter schools do a great job of educating children. Some don’t. Since the 1990s, however, charter schools have been unfairly touted as the Next Big Thing, the cure-all for structural problems such as poverty, inequality, racial segregation, and underfunding.

betsy devos dolores umbridge

All Hufflepuffed up.

Until 2016, leaders from both parties embraced this convenient political fiction. It wasn’t the rise of union-backed teacher protests that killed it. Rather, it was the rise of Queen Betsy, the stumbling elephant in the ed-reform china shoppe. By associating charter schools with only the Trumpist wing of the GOP, Queen Betsy has forced Democratic hopefuls to swing the other way.

Do Democratic candidates hope to secure NEA votes? Sure. Will they bash charters to do so? Most likely. But the real elephant in the classroom is Queen Betsy. By making charter schools her signature issue, she has forced a widespread political realignment on the issue.


Creationists Love Angry Science Teachers

Why would America’s leading young-earth creation ministry go to the National Education Association convention?  After all, Answers In Genesis castigates the NEA for its “godless, liberal agenda.”  AIG frets that the NEA combats conservatives’ right to homeschool their children and to teach godly creationism.

But that anti-God bias is exactly why the creationists go every year.  Answers In Genesis tries to engage NEA attendees with the gospel of creationism.  The creationist outreach at the NEA convention hopes to explain the goals of creationists and melt the hard hearts of some secular teachers.

The folks at AIG are not the first conservatives to try such tactics.  For generations now, the National Education Association has been perceived by conservative education activists as the enemy.  The NEA is seen as promoting secularism and a wrong-headed moral relativism.  As conservative gadflies Mel and Norma Gabler argued in the 1970s, the NEA had always tried to get public schools to teach that “there was no absolute transcendental God, Bible, or system of beliefs.”

And even long before the Gablers, conservatives tried to maintain their influence with the NEA.  As I note in my upcoming book about conservative educational activism in the twentieth century, the patriotic school activists in the American Legion pioneered this approach.  For the stalwart conservatives in the American Legion, the NEA offered the best way to influence American public education.  Therefore, they held their noses and collaborated on American Education Week.  Starting in 1921, the Legion and the NEA encouraged schools nationwide to focus on a certain theme for a week.  They tried to get everyone in every community engaged with their public schools.  For the conservative leaders of the American Legion, this was a way to promote patriotism and religion in public schools.  For the leaders of the NEA, this seemed like a good way to direct the public’s attention toward its schools.

For conservatives, then, the NEA has long been a target.  Generations of conservatives have hoped to influence the NEA with conservative educational ideas.  Does it work?  The conservative creationists at AIG seem to think so.  One missionary to the NEA relates the story of “Tom,” a hostile secular science teacher.  After spending time with the creationists at the NEA convention, Tom was able to understand more about the wholesome gospel mission of the creationists.  Walls were broken down, hearts were touched.


Teachers’ Unions: The Root of All Evil

Last week a California judge decided that bad teachers can be fired.  In his decision in Vergara v. California, Judge Rolf M. Treu dealt a severe blow to the power of teachers’ unions.  Not surprisingly, conservative intellectuals rejoiced.  For almost a century, conservative school reformers have insisted that teachers’ unions represent a double-headed threat.  But here’s my question: why do today’s conservatives only focus on one half of their traditional gripe against teachers’ unions?

In Judge Treu’s decision, he argued that ineffective teachers have a negative impact on students.  And since the poorest students suffer most, the judge concluded that the situation was open to judicial remedy.

In the pages of the conservative National Review, writers celebrated the decision.  One “liberal” pundit shared her horror stories of terrible teachers and school principals, protected and made more arrogantly despicable due to their union-backed sinecures.  Andrew Biggs suggested taking the California decision national.  Biggs offered a simple four-word phrase to rejuvenate the nation’s public schools: Fire the Worst Teachers.

Not every conservative intellectual liked the decision.  Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute warned that the judge’s power-grab could spell out a future of terrible decisions by similarly activist judges.

But even Hess did not support the unions’ traditional role as the unpopular defender of teacher-tenure rules.  After all, conservative school reformers have for generations identified unions as the source of all that was rotten in America’s public-education system.

Perhaps most memorably, the late free-market economist Milton Friedman argued that the dead hand of teachers’ unions had strangled public schooling.  As I wrote a few years back in the pages of Teachers College Record, Friedman’s narrative of educational history pivoted on the development of teachers’ unions.  Most teachers, Friedman wrote, were “dull and mediocre and uninspiring.”  Nevertheless, beginning in the 1840s, Friedman believed, those teachers had captured control of America’s educational system.  Instead of working to improve education for all, teachers’ unions only worked for their own “narrow self-interest.”  The driving force of expanded public-education systems in the 1840s, Friedman argued in Free to Choose, was teachers’ selfish desire to

enjoy greater certainty of employment, greater assurance that their salaries would be paid, and a greater degree of control if government rather than parents were the immediate paymaster.

Today’s conservative complaints about the power of teachers’ unions owe a lot to Friedman-esque free-market critiques.  Schools suffer, free-market conservatives argue, when the market for good teaching talent is blocked by sclerotic union rules.  Instead of bringing in the best teachers, unions dictate a self-interested last-in-first-out rule that preserves seniority, no matter how incompetent.

But there is another reason why conservative intellectuals have long battled against the power of teachers’ unions.  Those unions, after all, have resolutely supported left-leaning or even frankly leftist social programs.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of this leftist tendency was the tumultuous history of New York’s Teachers Union.  From the 1930s through the 1950s, as Clarence Taylor has described in his great book Reds at the Blackboard, New York’s Teachers Union wrestled with questions of communism, reform, and subversion.  Again and again, the union suffered internal factional disputes, most famously the expulsion of the communist Local 5 faction.  And again and again, the union came under attack for harboring subversive teachers, most famously the purge of hundreds of affiliated teachers in the 1950s.  Throughout its history, though, the famous union supported left-leaning causes.  Internal factional disputes were not left versus right, but rather left versus left.

Even today, teachers’ unions often endure factional disputes on the left.  The militant Badass Teachers Association wants to push the more moderate American Federation of Teachers and the staid National Education Association to take more recognizably leftist positions.

Given all this history, why do conservative these days focus on the free-market angle?  That is, why don’t conservative pundits attack unions as islands of antiquated leftist ideology, instead of just attacking unions as inefficient and self-serving?

One possibility is that conservative school reformers these days take the tried-and-true school reform tactic of taking the politics out of education.  As historian David Tyack argued most memorably in his 1974 book The One Best System, school reformers always insist that their ideas are not about politics, but only about better schooling for all.  As Tyack showed, calls to “take the schools out of politics” never really want to take the politics out of schooling.  But reformers from every political background score more success when they appear to be impartial educators, interested in pedagogy, not ideology.

Is that what’s going on here?  Do today’s conservative intellectuals hope to eliminate the power of leftist teachers’ unions without making it look like a politically motivated hack job?  Do conservative pundits focus on the educational problems of teachers’ unions, instead of focusing on their left-leaning political positions, in order to make it look as if conservatives only want better schools for all?


A Strange Sort of “Lion’s Den:” AiG at NEA

If I ever get thrown into a lion’s den, I want it to be the sort leading creationists complained about recently.

America’s leading young-earth creationist calls the National Education Association the “Lion’s Den,” “one of the most humanistic, pro-abortion, pro-“gay” marriage, anti-creation organizations in the USA.”

If so, why are creationists associated with Answers In Genesis spending time, effort, and money to make an appearance at the NEA convention?

Image Source: Creation Science Educators' Caucus

Image Source: Creation Science Educators’ Caucus

In leader Ken Ham’s words, the teachers and administrators affiliated with the NEA are “in dire need of the creation-gospel message (though we praise God for the Christian teachers who are something like “missionaries” in the public school systems).”

In order to reach those wayward teachers, Answers In Genesis supported a booth at this year’s convention.  As ever, as intrepid creationist Jobe Martin reported, the main goal is to spread their version of evangelical Christianity.  The topic of creation, Martin said, “is a great platform from which to spring off into the gospel.”

How did the creation ministry fare at NEA?

Results were mixed.  As young-earth creationists might have predicted, the booth provoked a lot of animosity.  In Dr. Martin’s words,

This year a man walked all the way around the booth, saying in a loud voice with a determined look on his face: “Lies! Lies! Lies!” A woman (who called herself a Christian) came by yelling that she was going to have us “kicked out” of the NEA convention. Many teachers passed by us with a comment that they seemed to think is original with them, but we hear this smug remark every year:  “No thank you, I teach science.”

As regular ILYBYGTH readers know, I’m no creationist.  But I try hard to be open-minded and sympathetic to creationists’ claims.  In other essays, I’ve defended Ken Ham’s right to his ministry, and encouraged my fellow non-creationists to reach across the culture-war trenches.

In this case, however, Ken Ham and his colleagues sound like the boys who cried lion’s den.

Full disclosure: I am a proud NEA member myself.  But I don’t think I’m offering here a knee-jerk defense of my union.  Based solely on the reporting from the young-earth creationists themselves, they seem to have been welcomed to the NEA convention.  According to Dr. Martin, the NEA has even offered official status to a caucus of creation scientists.  What’s more, though the creation booth attracted hostile attention, according to Dr. Martin, it also welcomed several creationist teachers who thanked them for their presence and took home bagloads of free curricular materials.

Is that life in a lion’s den?  It sounds to me more like life in a vibrant pluralistic organization, one that welcomes all kinds of people into its ranks, even when the leaders of the organization disagree vehemently with some of those people.




Recent posts (see here and here) have noted the repressive and depressing realities of much of American education.  Much of the school talk these days reflects a surprising ignorance about those realities.  Politicians and business leaders offer shockingly naïve reform proposals for schools, to which every good teacher responds, “This guy hasn’t set foot in a real school since he graduated.”  In this post, I’ll try to offer a detailed look at what happens in real schools.  I’ll argue that a truly progressive education is possible, but it must do more than simply try to change one classroom.  It can and must work in two ways.  First, educators must work to divest themselves of dictatorial authority in the classroom.  This is not due to any touchy-feely desire to be nice; it is a hard requirement of effective schooling.  As I’ve argued in recent posts, when students see learning as an imposition from above, they will resist it accordingly.  Teachers and students must work together to build a classroom culture in which students buy in to the work; students must shift from seeing classwork as breaking rocks to seeing classwork as working with a personal trainer.  But this cannot be done in isolated classrooms by isolated teachers.  Educators must work to change the structure of education itself.  That is, educators must work as citizen activists to even out the funding of schools, no matter where they are.  They must work to change the administration of those schools.  Schools can’t be run effectively as stalags; they must become places in which students embrace the rules.  Neither of these two things can be achieved independently.  A classroom teacher crammed into a classroom of 35 students, in a school that encourages students to see themselves as targets of a cruel and bureaucratic authoritarian school regime, cannot have much hope of transforming her corner of that school into a garden of authentic learning by empowered students.

That doesn’t mean that teachers don’t try.  In my career as a middle- and high-school teacher and teacher mentor, and now working with lots of people training to be teachers, I have seen a depressingly predictable pattern.  A new teacher steps into her new school, determined to be a different kind of teacher.  She wants to guide students to embrace more than just the dry facts and regurgitative lists of historical details.  (My experience is mostly in history and social-studies classrooms, but I’m guessing it is similar no matter what the subject.)  She attempts to empower students, but finds that both the school administration and the students themselves reject all of her attempts.

For instance, instead of simply telling students about the Civil War, she plans a research project in which students will develop their own research questions and use primary sources to explore the authentic past.  She is not trying to do it all on her own; she devised a practical teaching unit based on student use of the incredibly rich resources at the Valley of the Shadow website from the Virginia Center for Digital History and the University of Virginia Library.  This website is the answer to her prayers, she thinks.  In one place, it offers military records, letters, newspapers, and even battle maps of various units in the war.  She devises a clear step-by-step guide in which students will select one participant in the war and track his or her experiences throughout the Civil War.  Her plan is to entice the students to generate their own questions about the Civil War.  Why did so many Virginians oppose secession?  Why did families go to war?  What did it mean for their lives?  The new teacher’s hope is that many—in her fantasies she imagines most—of her students will jump at the chance to find answers to these questions, once they see that the Civil War was more than just a chapter in a book.

What happens?  First of all, the school gets in the way.  Second, the students themselves reject her attempts to empower them as learners.  Here’s what can happen: In order to run this unit, the teacher needs students to have access to the website.  They need computers.  Over the summer, the teacher made sure to familiarize herself with the school’s technology.  She was thrilled to hear that the school, thanks to a federal grant, has three laptop carts with fast new computers.  Great.  She reserves the carts for the days her class will need them.

Some of the students, however, can’t log in.  They forgot their school username, perhaps.  Or the laptops have not been maintained properly and they won’t turn on.  With a classroom of twenty-eight students, the teacher can’t adequately help each student figure out how to get online.  When students can’t sign in, they start doing other things, non-educational things.  Soon the teacher is fully occupied with the frustrating task of telling students they can’t just poke each other with pencils, or worse.  Meanwhile, those students who have managed to get online notice that the teacher is not really paying attention to them, so they begin to check their Facebook accounts, ESPN, or other non-Civil War-related websites—whatever sites young people find interesting these days.  They’re not allowed to see those sites, and the school has put in place an online screen to block access to non-educational sites, but every student knows how to circumvent that screen.  When a teacher wants to use Youtube, however, the block will prevent that.  Meanwhile, of the class of twenty-eight, there may be a few students who persevere in following the directions the teacher laid out.  They may be exploring the Valley of the Shadow website.  But when and if they have a question about it, a question about the nature of the Civil War or the organization of the website, they can’t get the teacher’s attention because she is busy keeping other students from punching each other.  Soon enough, they realize there’s no real reason for them to keep at their assigned task.  The more polite ones may just wait for the bell to ring.  The more energetic ones will join in with the pencil-poking and punching.  Two days later, the new teacher is called in after school to the principal’s office.  The principal has been told that students in the new teacher’s class have been using laptops to access porn.  Turns out the laptops had mementoes of their surfing experiences that popped up the next time a teacher tried to use the laptop cart.

What can the teacher do?  When she tried to make the regime more useful and less dictatorial, she was beset from both sides.  The school culture made it difficult.  First of all, with a large classroom and not enough technical support, there was no way for her to get all her students up and running on their laptops within the class period.  But more important, since most of the classes in the school functioned with a stern authoritarian teacher, students viewed her attempt to loosen that discipline as an opportunity to be exploited, rather than as a chance to engage in learning.  Even worse, even when some students managed to access the website, they tended to avoid engaging with the material.  Instead, they did the very minimum amount of work they could do to get by.

What can the teacher do?  She can quit.  And lots of new teachers do.  As Barry Farber called it twenty years ago, the high rate of teacher turnover is a main cause of the “Crisis in Education.”  In the 1980s, over a third of new teachers left the field after four years or less.  More recent surveys by the National Education Association indicate that the number of teachers who leave the profession within five years hovers around forty percent.

More depressing, like the students who stay in school but disengage from the dictates of the school regime, the new teacher may keep her job but accept the necessity of dumbing down her teaching.  Instead of exploring the Valley of the Shadow, she may revert to stern, authoritarian recitations of historical facts, punctuated by perfunctory examinations of student knowledge.  The students won’t learn, and she won’t teach, but she and they will get through each day.

In order to avoid this outcome, a truly progressive solution has to do more than transform classroom methodology.  It must transform institutional education itself.  This will mean that all teachers must act as more than classroom leaders; they must become political actors as well.  It will also mean that all adults become active educators by engaging with the educational regime.  It will mean that all adults, teachers and otherwise, must demand and enact changes in the ways schools are funded.  They must change the ways those schools are operated.  They must demand that teachers in all classrooms and administrators at all levels put student engagement at the top of their lists.  Even if their children are not in those schools.  Even if they can afford to move to a higher-income area in which these problems are not as glaringly apparent.

A single teacher in a single classroom has very limited options.  In order to make each classroom more progressive and more effective, we need to change the entire system.  Schools, after all, are the collective public institution of our society.  We must shape them to be the vision of the society we want, not merely the holding pens for young people trapped in the society we have.


FURTHER READING: Barry A. Farber, Crisis in Education: Stress and Burnout in the American Teacher (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1991).