Teacher Fired for Heroic Incompetence

I’m no cynic. But anyone who’s paying attention knows that schools serve a range of purposes. We see depressing evidence today that one of their primary functions is to contain and control young people. How do we know? Because a teacher in New York City was fired, according to her, for talking about structural racism in a way that would “rile up” her African American students. Yikes.

Lee Walker Fired

Fired for heroic incompetence…

The story is grim. Jeena Lee-Walker has sued New York schools for her termination. Beginning in 2012, school administrators asked her to tone down her teaching about the Central Park Five case. As all New Yorkers remember, a group of young men were falsely convicted of raping a woman. They were eventually freed, but only after spending long years in prison.

Lee-Walker taught her students about the case. Many of them, she thought, “should be riled up” about the deep injustice done, as well as about continuing injustices in American society.

Her administrators thought differently. They gave her several bad evaluations and eventually fired her for “insubordination.”

Let me be crystal clear here: I think all teachers should be like Ms. Lee-Walker. All teachers should “rile up” their students about injustices in our society.

But we need to recognize two complicating factors. Though I’m a big fan of his, I think Curmudgucrat Peter Greene misses the boat here when he says Lee-Walker was “fired for competence.”

She was fired for two other reasons, reasons central to the successful functioning of any school. Even as we praise Ms. Lee-Walker’s bravery and integrity, we need to be a little more clearheaded about what was really going on. In short, Ms. Lee-Walker’s unwillingness to go along with the school system really DID make her incompetent as a teacher. Heroic, yes, but not willing to do the job.

That might sound odd, so let me offer two long-winded explanations.

First, teachers are not simply private citizens. Ms. Lee-Walker will not have luck protesting that her First Amendment rights have been breached. And, by and large, none of us want to cede to teachers such rights. Consider, for example, what we might think if she had been accused of promoting political or religious agendas with which we don’t agree. What if she “riled up” students by denouncing abortion? Or by denouncing evolution?

In principle, then, we need to acknowledge that teachers are bound to stick within curricular guidelines established by the school and community. I’ll repeat: in this case I think those guidelines are utterly bogus. I think we should encourage all New York City high schools to emulate Ms. Lee-Walker’s decision to teach the Central Park Five case. It is the truth and young people deserve to learn about it.

But if and when a heroic teacher decides to go against her superiors, she should be prepared to be kicked out. That is equally true whether we agree or disagree with the teacher’s ideas. I’m going to say this again, just because I think it could be misinterpreted: In this case, I side wholly with Ms. Lee-Walker. Her protest, however, should not be taken as a simple case of good teaching vs. evil administrating. Rather, this is a heroic attempt to push the curriculum in New York City schools toward this sort of teaching. Ms. Lee-Walker should have expected to get fired—even WANTED to get fired—because that was her only chance to take her appeal to a wider stage.

We don’t have to like it, but I think we need to be clear about our terms. In this sort of case, the closest analogy is that of Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses. To some, she was a hero, to others a poorly coiffed villain. In the end, however, she was a government bureaucrat who refused to do her job. Whatever we think of her politics or religion, no institution can function if it doesn’t purge such folks.

Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis celebrates her release from the Carter County Detention center in Grayson Kentucky

Fired for heroic incompetence…

That brings us to our second point. This story drives home the depressing custodial role schools and teachers play in our society. We tend to think of schools as educational institutions—and they are—but they are also holding pens of varying levels of pleasantness.

As a result, a big part of the job of school administrators is to keep the students relatively calm. With a dizzyingly high student-to-teacher ratio, most schools rely on passive and compliant students. When and if students choose to throw off schools’ restraints, there is not much administrators can physically do to coerce them into submission.

In some schools, this results at worst in hijinx such as food fights. In other schools, we get a prison-like atmosphere in which students are continually monitored and physically controlled.

Is that a good thing? Not at all. But if we want to make sense of this case and the many other cases like this, we need to understand the many things that schools do in our society. Teachers are not merely Socratic wisdom-peddlers in the agora. They are street-level bureaucrats who help process large numbers of young people in educational containment systems.

The point of Ms. Lee-Walker’s actions—if she was acting intentionally—was not merely to teach children something true. The point was to make a public spectacle of the fact that New York City schools do not regularly include that sort of teaching. She was not “fired for competence,” but for her stubborn insistence on principled incompetence, her brave unwillingness to go along with a system that fails students so miserably.

What Today’s Campus Radicals Should Be Doing

Not instead of, mind you, but in addition to. We all know elite colleges and college-watchers are aflutter with the recent batch of campus protests. A dean at Claremont McKenna was roasted for inappropriately worded sympathy. An instructor at Yale was blasted for inappropriately worded revelry. Cafeteria workers at Oberlin were attacked for inappropriately sautéed chicken.

protestingoncampus

What do we want? Not sure! When do we want it? Now!

With good reasons, pundits have excoriated these overly precious effusions of moral indignation. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH know, I’m bullish overall on this round of campus activism. But I think we old folks should humbly remind today’s students of some of the more elementary rules of social activism. In short, we need to remind today’s activists that it is more important to hit em where it hurts than to garner big negative headlines.

What effect do today’s protests have? They allow people around the country to laugh up their sleeves at the ways fancy students react to the tiniest smidgens of intellectual discomfort. That is not their aim. Rather, I think today’s protests are, at heart, admirable attempts to make elite colleges more truly inclusive, more truly welcoming.

That is an enormously important goal. If elite colleges remain the province of an already privileged minority, we will see nothing but a fierce doubling-down of America’s yawning class divide.

Today’s elite university students are in a unique position to change the game. If students can push colleges to do more than change their ideological window-dressing, they might make higher education more welcoming to all.

But just chanting and blocking aren’t enough.

Elite colleges these days only retain their inflated prestige due to their ability to set potential students against one another. The competition for spots at elite schools has become fiercer than ever. That allows the top schools to reject most applicants, retaining their “selective” status and feeding the vicious cycle.

What can today’s campus radicals do? Go on an application strike. If no top students applied to Oberlin, Yale, or Claremont McKenna, the elite status of those schools would be instantly deflated. That is something school administrators absolutely could not allow. They would be willing to make real, dramatic changes to their admissions policies in order to bring back top applicants.

Could it work? Probably not, because applicants have nothing in common except their deep insecurities and hyperactive resume-building. And this scheme would face the eternal problem of labor solidarity. If a few scabs chose to take advantage, the entire scheme would be defeated.

Moreover, as Peter Greene has recently noted, elite college students today are literally killing themselves in their competition with their fellow applicants. That sort of mindset does not lend itself to picket-line solidarity.

Plus, this kind of activism would require real sacrifice on the part of student activists. They would have to gamble with their collegiate futures. Instead of just protesting on Monday, then graduating and moving into their high-powered careers on Tuesday, this plan might leave them out in the cold, forced to attend less-Olympian schools.

Nevertheless, I think it’s worth talking about. The real problem of inclusion at today’s top universities is not a question of culturally appropriative Halloween costumes or cafeteria offerings. The real problem, instead, is that students are fighting each other tooth and nail for admission. Only students who are already privileged stand a chance to get into the even-more-privileged world of high-end higher education.

Change that, and you could make some real changes in the inequities of schools and society.

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.

A Field Test for Progressive Education

I’ve spent the past few years of my life trying to figure it out.  What has it meant to be “conservative” about American education? It’s not as obvious as it might look. Similarly, it can be extremely tricky to figure out what makes something educationally “progressive.” Peter Greene offers what might be a handy field test.

A test for the tests...?

A test for the tests…?

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are aware, my recent book argues that an identifiable tradition of “educational conservatism” emerged in the twentieth century. Speaking broadly, educational conservatives mixed free-market structures with Christian morality; they mixed traditional pedagogy with traditionalist social norms. Jesus and phonics, Friedman and fundamentalism. Time and again, conservative activists successfully asserted their right to be heard about textbooks, school rules, and classroom practices.

In recent months, I’ve been expanding my reading list to include more non-conservative arguments about education. One of my favorite progressive anti-testers has been Peter Greene at Curmudgucation.

Greene repeated his argument recently that there is an easy way to find out if any evaluation is authentic. Or, more precisely, he offers a quick way to decide if one is inauthentic:

The hallmark of inauthentic assessment is that it’s easy to cheat, because you don’t have to be good at what you’re allegedly being judged for– you just have to be good at the assessment task which, because it’s inauthentic, consists of faking proxies for the real deal anyway. What it really measures is the proxy-faking skills.

If we want a handy-dandy field guide to progressive education—a notoriously slippery concept to define—perhaps Greene’s warning might help.

We might call classroom practices “progressive” if they fundamentally make it impossible for students to cheat. Not by eagle-eyed watchfulness or elaborate security precautions, but because of the nature of the tasks themselves.

In a traditional classroom, for instance, information is transferred from teacher and textbook to student. The student is expected to incorporate this knowledge. At some point, a “test” will be administered, in which said student repeats back the knowledge. He is measured by how much and how well he repeats back the knowledge.

In a progressive classroom, in contrast, students will not have tests of that sort. Rather, they will be expected to make something, perform something, achieve something. Since the parameters are not set up in advance, it is impossible for a student to cheat.

For instance, if assessment is based on a student’s performance in a research-informed discussion, she is free to bring in as many notes as she wishes. If she is able to use that information in a coherent and convincing way, she will have done well on the project.

In a traditional classroom, methods of cheating are as traditional as the lectures themselves. Students cheat by writing facts on their arms, by copying answers from another student, or by any of an enormous corpus of tried-and-true methods.

Pssst...I find these methods of assessment inauthentic....

Pssst…I find these methods of assessment inauthentic….

Indeed, we might conclude that the overwhelming political support for traditionalist policies such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top results from the fact that progressive education has sunk such shallow roots in the United States. Even the most ardent fans of progressive education admit that it is “hard to beat, but also hard to find.”

By and large, progressive education—as classroom practice, not as political decision—has crashed on the reefs of testing. By and large, American parents and voters cling to the notion that “real” education means acquisition of knowledge. We cling to the idea that “real” education can be evaluated by “real” tests.

Is it true? I know SAGLRROILYBYGTH include self-styled progressives as well as self-styled conservatives. Do the “progressives” out there yearn for evaluations that simply can’t be cheated? And do conservatives agree that the heart and soul of real education can be measured with a good test?

Why Didn’t They Talk about Schools?

There was plenty of talk. Senator Sanders admitted he was “sick and tired of hearing” about Secretary Clinton’s emails. Senator Webb jabbed Wall Street. Governor O’Malley championed the middle class. And Governor Chafee was also there. But nobody said anything about K-12 education. Why not?

There was some talk about higher education. Both Senator Sanders and Secretary Clinton insisted we need some way to relieve student debt loads, maybe with free college tuition. Governor O’Malley bragged about low tuition rates in his state.

But only Secretary Clinton mentioned early childhood education, saying offhand that every child needed it to live up to his or her “God-given potential.”

Seems odd. The Democratic Party, after all, is the party of both Head Start and Race To The Top. The Democrats’ Big Tent includes both “Test-Em-n-See” Arne Duncan and Curmudgucrat Peter Greene.

It seems in the high-stakes world of primary debates, these stark differences between leading Democratic voices would offer a chance for some lively back-and-forth on key issues. What should we do with the Common Core? How should teachers be evaluated? How do we know if a school is doing a good job?

We didn’t hear it.

Loudmouth education parvenu Campbell Brown calls it a conspiracy. The Democratic Party, she claims, is in the back pocket of the teachers’ unions. They don’t even dare RSVP to her debate invitation.

Peter Greene thinks the answer is even simpler: “when it comes to public education in this country, none of the candidates actually gives a shit.”

In The Atlantic, David Graham thought there was just nothing much to disagree about. “Overall,” Graham opined, “the Democratic candidates simply don’t have the same divisions that the Republicans one [sic] do.”

But none of those explanations makes sense. This sort of forum offers candidates a chance to grab attention. Clinton’s identification with the Obama administration makes her an easy target. Yet none of them took it.

Here in the Great State of New York, we’ve seen how protest candidates can and do win votes by blasting other Democrats. I’m stumped why none of these candidates—not even the fire-breathing Senator Sanders—took this opportunity to do so.

Here’s my hunch: In the fervent calculations of any serious presidential campaign, candidates must make careful bets about issues and positions. In the face of Mr. Greene’s assertion that the candidates don’t care, I think candidates will care about what they think voters will care about.

Why didn’t candidates make political hay about K-12 education? Because they thought it would not win them any votes. With their finely tuned political antennae, these leading candidates concluded that Democrats in general did not want to hear about it.

Compare that to the GOP, where every candidate is forced to pay lip service to creationism. Compare that to the GOP, where every candidate falls all over him- or herself to show off his or her penchant for “education reform.”

Leading Democrats, in contrast, don’t air their differences in public. Why not? I’m no cynic, but it seems obvious to me that all candidates have agreed implicitly that their differences will not give them a competitive advantage. In short, none of them is willing to bank on a groundswell of support for iconoclastic progressive educational notions.