We Have Failed You

Nostra culpa. I don’t know if I’ll ever really understand how it happened, but every once in a while we see new evidence of a depressing truth: We have failed you and failed America in two huge ways.

MASTERY-superJumbo

Mastery-based learning today…

Today’s reminder comes from the pages of the New York Times and the Hechinger Report. It sounds cheerful enough: some schools in New York and elsewhere are switching to a shiny new “mastery” system that abolishes grades and focuses on individual student learning goals.

The problem is that even well-informed journalists and educators talk about this as if it were something new, something novel, an exciting innovation made possible by twenty-first century technology. It’s not. Not even a little bit. The push for this sort of child-centered, goal-focused approach to education is as old as modernity itself.

And that’s how we’ve failed you.

Both educational historians and progressive educators have failed to convey the huge potential contributions of their work. Ed historians are all aware of the long history of goal-focused education. Progressive educators have fought for such things for centuries. Centuries!

And yet smart, informed people keep talking about these sorts of reform as “new,” as innovations, as solutions that ambitious reformers have finally figured out. It’s a big problem, since it robs reformers of any sense of the lessons of history. It sets up each new generation of progressive reformers to repeat the mistakes and the unnecessary conflicts of their parents, their grand-parents, and their great-great-great-great-etc.-grand-parents.

Why, oh why have we failed so miserably? I’m really stumped.

Every new teacher, for instance, has to take some sort of “foundations” class in which they are exposed to the historical outline of formal education. They all hear about the experiments and theories of Rousseau, Froebel, Pestalozzi, Montessori, Dewey, and Col. Parker. With some tweaks over time, those ideas are basically the same as the ones today’s reformers are embracing as a “new” solution.

progressive ed in pasadena

…and how it looked when it was “new” in 1929.

Why do educated educators, then, fall into the trap of overpromising and under-researching these tried-and-failed education reforms?

To be fair, the article notes the genealogy of this idea, but the author traces it back only to the work of Benjamin Bloom at Chicago in the 1960s. Neither the author nor anyone else apparently is aware of the much longer history of these reform plans. The article suggests that new computer technology will solve the problems of earlier efforts, but that’s exactly the sort of promise every new reform generation has made.

In my book The Other School Reformers, to cite just one example, I examine a similar case from Pasadena. In 1950, the new superintendent tried something almost identical. He promised that new communication technology allowed him to abolish deadly old report cards and Procrustean letter grades.

It didn’t work, and today’s reformers would surely benefit from understanding this historical context. It seems more than naïve for today’s reformers to stumble along unaware of the predictable reactions to their plans. Back then, for example, one critic excoriated the new superintendent in an open letter to the local newspaper. The idea of abolishing grades, this outraged parent noted, means

there is no incentive for the average student or the exceptionally bright student to do any better than the slower ones.  During the first six years there are no grades given out so there is no competitive spirit.  The report cards are marked only Satisfactory and Unsatisfactory, and the parent is unable to find out what the child is really capable of doing.  They acquire indolent habits, and when they arrive at Junior High School they are supposed to get down to work, but they don’t because they have been allowed to coast along for six years, doing as much or as little as they wished to.  They have not been made to feel that it is important to do the best they are capable of doing.  There were some who formerly flunked out of class and had to take the classes over, but at least they eventually learned what was given in that grade before they went on, and today they are passed, many of them without having learned it, to flounder in the next grade, when they are not ready.

Pasadena parents tended to agree with this curmudgeon. In the end, the superintendent was hounded out of town with his progressive plans thrown out after him.

There is no good reason—no good reason I can see—that school reformers like the ones described in the New York Times article shouldn’t be aware of their own checkered history. In every generation, from Rousseau’s day to our own, earnest progressive teachers have assumed that their powerful new child-centered approach would surely carry the day, sweeping outdated crusty methods before it.

It never has.

As progressive educators, we have failed to convince America as a whole how much better it will be to focus on individual learning instead of letter grades.

As educational historians, we have failed to share the story of America’s never-ending cycle of educational reform and reaction.

As a result, even the smartest and most well-meaning reformers go into every old experience as if it were new. School boards and parents are promised the world every time, only to react with predictable and preventable resentment when those laudable goals prove out of reach.

I don’t blame reformers and journalists for not doing their research. They shouldn’t have to. By this point, the long and gripping story of child-centered educational reform should be common knowledge.

So why isn’t it?

Helen A. Handbasket, America’s Schoolteacher

It can get weird. Sometimes, as a mild-mannered historian, I get a overwhelming sense of déjà vu. Sometimes stories from today’s headlines seem to shamble straight out of the past.

Case in point: As I warm my heels down here in sunny Florida, I got a little freaked out by the startling similarities of the letters in today’s local newspaper to those I uncovered in the research for my book about educational conservatism. Whatever the decade, it seems, people like to take potshots at teachers. Since the 1920s at least, it has been a popular national pastime to criticize the vast incompetence and presumed political chicanery perpetrated by our local teachers.

First, some background. SAGLRROILYBYGTH might have noticed a warmer, more humid tone in these pages lately. It’s due to the fact that I’ve been enjoying some family vacation time in sunny Florida. As a compulsive culture-war chatterer, though, I couldn’t just sit back and sip something. I cracked open the local paper, and 1949 jumped out.

Florida newspaper

Hello? It’s 1949 calling…

The story in the Charlotte Sun from Executive Editor Jim Gouvellis concerned a controversial recent event by local politician Paul Stamoulis. Stamoulis had given a series of lectures about the dangers of Islam. Some folks thought it was a good idea. Others thought it was a scary abuse of power by a right-wing ideologue.

Editor Gouvellis opened up the pages of today’s paper to letters from the community. The issue of political Islam was relatively new, but the tone of the letters was eerily similar to those I found in archives around the country, from the 1920s through the 1980s.

In particular, I was creeped out by the echoes from Pasadena’s school controversy between 1949 and 1951. Back then, an intrepid local newspaper editor tried the same thing. He asked for letters from the community. What did people think of their schools?

Pasadena indep

Nossir…I don’t like it.

The issues were different. Today’s Floridians are weighing in about the propriety of an elected official using public money to make inflammatory speeches. In Pasadena, parents were mad about the alleged misdemeanors of “progressive education.” You’d think the two things would have nothing in common.

But they do. Lots of people–wherever they live, whenever they lived–seem to assume that teachers are terrible. Public-school teachers, at least.

And to your humble editor, the tone and target of today’s letters seem shockingly similar to that of Pasadena, 1949. So similar, in fact, that I thought I’d try a little experiment. I’ll post below a clip from today’s Florida newspaper mixed in with a bunch from Pasadena, California, 1949.

Can you pick out the local one? Without cheating and clicking on the story link above?

  1. There is a growing feeling among parents that there is something amiss in our public schools.
  2. As for your comment and others’ regarding [XXX]’s lack thereof of a formal educational background, I do believe that perhaps we need more such “teachers” in our educational system today, based upon the misinformation being spoon-fed to our children by today’s so-called educators.
  3. Another claim that the teaching fraternity continually push forward is that they are grossly underpaid.  My observation is that in [XXX] this is untrue.  For nine months’ work and occasional brush-up courses in the summer they receive the same salary or better than competent office help receive for 11 ½ months’ work.
  4. I have personally felt that the modern school system of education is based on politics. . . . This larger percentage is easy prey to propaganda leaders and naturally look up to them, thinking the fault lies in themselves and not in the school system of education.
  5. In my opinion, the honorable school board is using our youngsters as educational guinea pigs.

Can you tell which one of these is today’s newspaper and which is from your grandparents’?

School = Thanksgiving

Ah, Thanksgiving! Our favorite holiday of all. No gifts, no decorations, no sweat . . . just lots of food and friends and football. Your humble editor has retreated to an undisclosed location in scenic upstate New York to share the holiday with family.

simpsonsturkey

PS 101

Before we do, however, we must give in to our unhealthy compulsion to share some Thanksgiving reflections about schooling and culture wars. In the past, we’ve noted the central role Thanksgiving has come to play in those battles. Today, though, we want to point out a more basic connection: Why do we keep having culture wars over the teaching in our public schools? Because those schools are like Thanksgiving itself.

First, a review of our ILYBYGTH reflections about culture-wars and Turkey Day:

Today, let’s consider a more fundamental idea: Thanksgiving gives us a chance to see how public schools really function and why they serve so often as lightning rods for culture-war kerfuffles. Thanksgiving dinner might just be the best analogy for the way our schools work.

Because we know they don’t work the way anyone really wants them to.

For generations, progressive activists and intellectuals have dreamed of schools that would transform society. To pick just one example from my recent book, in the 1930s Harold Rugg at Teachers College Columbia hoped his new textbooks would transform America’s kids into thoughtful authentic small-d democrats. The books would encourage students to ask fundamental questions about power and political transparency. They would help young people see that true social justice would come from a healthy transformation of society, with power devolved to the people instead of to plutocrats.

For their part, generations of conservative activists have tried to create schools that would do something very different. There is no single, simple, definition of “conservatism,” of course, but by and large, as I also argue in my recent book, activists have promoted a vision of schooling as the place to teach kids the best of America’s traditions.

As one conservative intellectual asked during a turbulent 1970s school boycott,

Does not the Judeo-Christian culture that has made the United States the envy of the world provide a value system that is worth preserving?

Other conservatives shared this vision. Max Rafferty, one-time superintendent of public instruction in California and popular syndicated columnist, yearned for a golden age when

the main job of the schools was to transmit from generation to generation the cultural heritage of Western civilization.

Max Rafferty was never satisfied. Schools, he thought, failed in their proper job as the distributor of cultural treasures.

Harold Rugg wasn’t happy either. Neither he nor his progressive colleagues in the “Social Frontier” group ever succeeded in using the schools to “build a new social order.”

Why not? Because schools will not fulfill either progressive or conservative dreams. They are not distribution points for ideological imperatives. They are not outposts of thoughtful civilization scattered among a hillbilly hinterland.

Instead, it will help us all to think about schools as a sort of Thanksgiving dinner. At a Thanksgiving dinner, people of all sorts gather together to eat. Friends, family, co-workers, neighbors. Unless you’re lucky enough to escape to an undisclosed location in scenic upstate New York with only a few beloved family members and a dog, you will likely sit at a table with people with whom you don’t share much in common, intellectually.

In every family, you are likely to find some ardent conservatives and some earnest progressives. You are likely to find strong feelings about issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, evolution, and etc.

That’s why—until the booze kicks in, at least—most Thanksgiving dinners tend to stick with safe topics. We know we can disagree about football, for example. If my Green Bay Packers lose to the horrible Chicago Bears, my cousin knows he can tease me about that.

But we can’t disagree, out loud, at least, about things that really matter to us. If I have an imaginary uncle, for example, who thinks same-sex marriage means opening the door to pederasty and apocalypse, he knows he can’t tease me about it. Our disagreement on that issue won’t be something we can both just laugh about.

So our Thanksgiving dinner conversations, we hope, stick to fairly humdrum topics.

That might just be the best way to understand our schools, too. In spite of the dreams and hard work of intellectuals such as Max Rafferty and Harold Rugg, schools don’t push one ideological vision or another. At least, they tend not to do it very well or for very long.

Instead, they stick to the smallish circle of ideas that we as a society can roughly agree on.

This is why biology teachers tend not to teach a whole lot of evolution.

This is why health teachers tend not to teach a whole lot of sex.

This is why history teachers tend not to teach a whole lot of history.

There are plenty of exceptions, of course. But that also fits into our Thanksgiving analogy. Every once in a while, someone at Thanksgiving will insist on having it out…whatever “it” is. And our holiday turns into a smack-down, leaving everyone a little bruised and shaken.

Similarly, some teachers and some schools will occasionally push for a better vision of education, a more ideologically pure one. As I examine in my recent book, that is when we get culture-war flare-ups.

So as we sit around our tables and eat birds, let’s reflect on the ways this holiday might be the perfect analogy for schools. They are not change agents or tradition-upholders. At least, they are not only that.

Public schools are, rather, a meeting place in which we all implicitly agree to limit ourselves to non-controversial topics. We agree to keep the most interesting ideas, the most provocative ones, and, sadly, often the most educational ones, off the table.

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?

Socialists, Laggards, Perverts, and Baby-Killers

Why does everybody these days thank soldiers for their “service?” Even when the soldiers themselves don’t like it? At least in part, it must be a hangover from Vietnam-War-era culture-war battles, when soldiers were reviled as “baby-killers.” Here’s my question for SAGLRROILYBYGTH: When will teachers get thanked for their service? After all, for decades, teachers have been called names at least as bad as “baby-killers.”

As I described in my recent book, conservative activists have always accused teachers of terrible crimes and treasons. Teachers fill kids’ heads with lies about evolution, atheism, and communism. Teachers subject innocent young kids to mistruths and calumnies about American history and sex. Such accusations were a standard part of culture-war scripts from the 1920s through the 1980s.

Warning!  Commie Teachers!

Warning! Commie Teachers!

In the 1980s, for instance, Mel and Norma Gabler warned that the ranks of the teaching profession were full of “practicing homosexuals” who hoped to attract young children to their ranks. Such teachers pushed for more sex ed because they suffered from a perverted desire to lure children down the path to sexual sin and depravity.

There’s nothing new about this sort of no-holds-barred accusation against America’s teaching force. Back in 1923, anti-evolution activist T.T. Martin warned audiences about the sinister nature of public-school faculties:

under the cowardly sissy plea of ‘Academic freedom,’ [teachers] demand that we, with our taxes, pay their salaries, while they poison our children against the Bible as God’s real Word, and the Saviour as God’s Son who died for our sins to redeem us from all iniquity and send our children out into Eternity without real redemption; hence, to hell.

This week, I’m reading Natalia Mehlman Petrzela’s terrific new book Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture. Petrzela looks at the ways the fights over sex ed and bilingual ed played out in California between 1960 and 1990. Not surprisingly, she found that teachers were subjected to vicious, unrestrained attacks.

One parent, for instance, excoriated his local school’s teachers, saying they “fill schools with dope and filth and sex” and “teach [students] to make babies so they can kill them” (pg. 123).

Ouch.

As Petrzela relates, however, such extreme accusations were par for the course in culture-war battles over education in California.

So, dear readers, here’s my question for you: When will progressive types begin to thank teachers ostentatiously for their service? After all, it was backlash against the “baby-killer” accusations that led people to start thanking soldiers. Won’t there soon be a similar surge of support for beleaguered teachers? Or is there already and I’m just the last to notice?

We can see some glimmers of it. Progressive bloggers and scholars such as Diane Ravitch, Mercedes Schneider, and Peter Greene make a fetish of valorizing public-school teachers. Will it soon become an article of faith among progressives that teachers are America’s real heroes? Or has it already?

Watch a Conservative Lawmaker Abort a Progressive Ed Project

For a hundred years now, progressive educators have pleaded with teachers to help their students learn by doing. In New Hampshire recently, a bold teacher who tried to do so with a fourth-grade class got a brutal public smack-down from a conservative legislator. The vicious culture-war politics of abortion took over.

Teacher James Cutting had helped his fourth-grade class engage with real-world issues. The students, he told NH1, took the initiative and proposed a bill to make the red-tailed hawk the official state raptor. They delivered their bill to the state house and watched as it moved through committee. When the bill had a hearing in the full legislature, the students were in the gallery to watch the proceedings.

What they saw there might have blown their minds.

One conservative legislator, Warren Groen of Rochester, took the podium to denounce the bill. The students’ choice for state raptor, Representative Groen intoned, was a vicious bird.

It grasps [its victims] with its talons then uses its razor sharp beak to basically tear it apart limb by limb, and I guess the shame about making this a state bird is it would serve as a much better mascot for Planned Parenthood.

This was not the first time that Representative Groen used his time in Concord to fight against abortion. In an earlier speech, Groen compared abortion to slavery.

When Did Tests Become Conservative?

Something happened.

The idea of administering standardized tests to check the success of schooling has had a strange ideological career. Tests have been seen as a progressive panacea as well as a conservative coup. These days, a welter of standardized tests are used to evaluate teachers as well as students. In the eyes of some, these tests have become a hallmark of conservative educational policy. How did that happen? …and what does it mean?standardized-testing-comic3

Last night, historian and pundit Diane Ravitch talked to a crowd of teachers in my hometown, scenic Vestal, New York. Those familiar with Ravitch’s recent book and blog will have a good sense of her argument: Today’s testing regime is a scam by false-faced school “reformers” bent on installing corporate control over public education.

Testing was not always seen this way. As historian William J. Reese demonstrated in his latest terrific book, the first round of fights over standardized tests occurred way back in the nineteenth century. Early test mavens hoped to protect students from idiosyncratic and tyrannical schoolmasters who evaluated students by whim.

In the twentieth century, early testers hoped to use tests to help individualize instruction for children. They did not hope to replace the human touch. Rather, they hoped a set of tests could serve to move education in profoundly progressive directions.

These days, leading progressive pundits such as Ravitch and Mercedes Schneider denounce the testing regime as an attempt to corporatize education. They point to the suspicious support of billionaires such as the Koch Brothers and the Walton Family. Why do these corporate titans push for more tests? In order to strip teachers’ unions of power; in order to remake schooling in the image of corporate America.

Of course, the sophisticated and good-looking readers of ILYBYGTH (SAGLROILYBYGTH) know that the real situation is more complicated than these sorts of conspiracy theories allow. There are plenty of conservative pundits, too, who hate and fear the tests that accompany the Common Core standards. To these conservatives, a national testing regime gives progressives the opportunity to inject sneaky leftist ideas into classrooms across the country.

Plus, there are plenty of progressives who support more rigorous standardized testing as a way to ensure that lower-income students get their share of educational attention. Ravitch herself, in an earlier ideological incarnation, helped create today’s testing policy.  And Education Secretary Arne Duncan is no William J. Bennett. Duncan’s enthusiastic support of high-stakes tests does not come from the same sorts of cultural conservatism that animated President Reagan’s second Education secretary.

But there is something to Ravitch’s charges. There are plenty of conservatives who see testing as a way to find out what is really going on in public schools. Ravitch drew vigorous applause last night when she said she did not want to quantify kindergarteners’ college-and-career readiness. It was more important, Ravitch insisted, to be sure that children were happy, healthy, and improving every day.

And this, I think, is at the heart of today’s divide over standardized testing. Such tests have become “conservative,” I’m guessing, to the extent that they satisfy Americans’ traditional ideas about education. As I argue in my new book, across the twentieth century battles over education had a similar backstory: progressives wanted education to be mainly about the improvement of children; conservatives and traditionalists wanted education to be mainly about the delivery of information from teacher to student.

If the central goal of education is the transmission of information, then the success of that education can be measured by a simple paper-n-pencil test. This is an idea that resonates with lots of people. Not only self-identified “conservatives,” not only the scheming Walton family, not only Mayor Bloomberg, but lots of parents, teachers, and students buy into this fundamental notion of proper education.

To my mind, this situation is a good indicator of the tenuous hold of progressive education on the hearts and minds of Americans. Even self-identified progressive reformers such as Michelle Rhee embrace the notion that tests are a good measure of educational improvement.

The reason today’s test mania has been able to make such huge progress in public schooling is not due only to the funding of billionaires and the schemes of plutocrats, in spite of what smart people like Diane Ravitch may say. We Americans, with rare and beleaguered exceptions, never took to heart the central notions of progressive education. We tend to agree that real education means, in essence, the transfer of information from an authoritative adult teacher to a receptive child.

If that attitude is “conservative,” then it’s no wonder conservatism has come to dominate American public education.

OK: AP not OK

What does creationism have to do with the Continental Army? What does George Washington have to do with the Genesis Flood? This week the news from Oklahoma gives us an example of the ways conservative ideas influence every classroom, not just the science labs.

We will have more success understanding those ideas if we see them as part of a conservative notion of proper education. These are not just ideas about science, or the Book of Genesis, or George Washington at Valley Forge, but they combine all these things into a powerful educational impulse. As I argue more extensively in my new book, in order to make sense of any aspect of educational conservatism, we need to look at it as a whole, not just as a series of separate incidents.

First, let’s look at the goings-on in the Sooner State. Representative Dan Fisher has introduced a bill that will challenge the teaching of Advanced Placement US History in Oklahoma’s public schools. Why? As do many conservatives, Fisher believes that APUSH teaches a warped, slanted, leftist view of America’s past. The new APUSH framework, Fisher explains, emphasizes “what is bad about America.”

Fisher wants to blast progressive history out of Oklahoma's schools.

Fisher wants to blast progressive history out of Oklahoma’s schools.

Fisher is not alone. As we’ve explored in these pages, conservative activists have lashed out at the new APUSH framework. I’ve argued also that many conservatives see these AP standards as only the latest efflorescence of a vicious left-wing assault on real American history. These conservative notions about sneaky progressive subversion in history classrooms have a long history themselves, as I describe in the book. At least since the 1920s, conservative thinkers and activists have lambasted history curricula as hopelessly skewed. Children learn that the USA has been built on a legacy of greed and genocide. Children learn that traditional heroes such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson have feet of clay, or worse.

Representative Fisher, for instance, is a member of the Black Robe Regiment, according to the Tulsa World. As do many religious conservatives, this group ties together a romantic history of the United States with conservative attitudes about Scripture and religion. In those connections we catch a glimpse of the ways conservative thinking about education can link creationism with US History.

I want to be careful about what I’m saying here. I’m not arguing that there is some sort of vast underground conservative conspiracy connecting creationism with Fisher’s anti-APUSH activism. Nor am I saying that Fisher’s brand of religious conservatism is somehow the most real sort of conservative attitude about education. There are plenty of conservatives who will have no truck with this kind of religious and traditionalist interpretation of America’s past. But I do believe that deeply held attitudes about proper education fuel both creationism and Fisher’s sort of historical revanchism.

What’s the connection? At its heart, I suggest that this sort of conservatism springs from a notion that real education must come from a delivery of correct information from authoritarian sources to learners. That is, many conservatives—perhaps a better word would be “traditionalists”—believe that education must be a transmission of truth from top to bottom. That truth, if we back it up to its source, must come from God as the ultimate authority.

Perhaps this definition of proper education as the delivery of truth to each new generation seems unobjectionable. It is not. For about a century, educational thinkers have suggested that this “transmission” method is not good education. These “progressive” reformers have tried to impose instead an idea that students must construct knowledge on their own, not merely accept it or download it from authoritarian sources.

In the specific case of the new APUSH framework at issue in Oklahoma, historians have insisted that historical learning does not simply mean transmitting facts to children. And smart conservatives acknowledge that real education includes much more than just telling young people things that are true. But at its core, we might separate “traditionalist” from “progressive” ideas about education along these lines: Traditionalists think of education primarily as moving information from authoritative source to learners. Progressives think of education primarily as having learners construct knowledge.

With this sort of general attitude about education and knowledge, it’s easy to see the connections between creationism and the Continental Army, between George Washington and the Genesis Flood. For some religious conservatives, including apparently Representative Fisher of Oklahoma, knowledge about any subject must rely on traditional truths. Those truths have been delivered to us from on high. Proper education, in this mindset, consists of passing those truths along, not subjecting them to smarmy and self-satisfied criticism.

What Conservatives Want in Schools

When I started the research for my new book, lo those many years ago, my first stop was College Park, Maryland. The National Archives hold the papers of William J. Bennett, Reagan’s second Secretary of Education. To my thinking back then, Bill Bennett personified the tradition of conservative activism in education. In a recent long interview with Bill Kristol on The Weekly Standard, Secretary Bennett shares his memories of his conservative leadership in education. Among other things, Bennett articulates a long twentieth-century tradition of conservative thinking about proper education.

In addition to some wacky stories of practical jokes by President Reagan, Secretary Bennett explains what motivated him about America’s schools.

When he first took the job, Bennett explains, he visited 120 schools. Over and over again, teachers and students told him they needed some way to teach basic truths about American virtue, about American culture. The question he heard again and again, he explains, was, “How do we teach these kids moral values? They’re so different. They come from diverse backgrounds.”

It’s simple, Bennett insists: “There are certain common values.” Not only that. Students should not be taught vaguely how to learn, but rather should be taught knowledge. As he put it, “You have to start by learning something. . . . Content is what really develops the mind, the brain.”

The most important thing he has done in his entire career, Bennett explains, is his publication of his best-selling Book of Virtues. After it came out in 1993, the BoV spent eighty-eight weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. The big accomplishment of the book, Bennett says, is that it salvages traditional stories from our culture that are in danger of being lost. It insists that we all share common values, no matter our religious or cultural backgrounds.

As I argue in my new book, this notion about the first goal of American education has long been a central unifying theme of diverse conservative politicians and activists. Long before Bennett took over as Education Secretary, Max Rafferty had articulated similar sentiments from his post as State Superintendent of Public Education in California.

In addition to his bully pulpit in California, Rafferty authored a syndicated column that took his conservative ideas nationwide. Many of those ideas sound as if they could come directly from the mouth of Bennett himself. For instance, in one column from the 1960s, Rafferty argued,

Without the great hero-stories, we are left in the schools with statistics on immigration and economic development, dry-as-dust treaties and proclamations, accounts of population trends and antitrust legislation to give the children in the guise of history. They will grow up inevitably with the same amount of love and reverence for their native land which they would feel for a mathematical theorem or a chemical formula.

The best education, Rafferty wrote in another 1960s column, must include

the grand old stories that you and I remember so fondly from our childhood. Ben Franklin and his famous pun about hanging together or hanging separately. . . Sam Houston at San Jacinto, reminding enemy dictators for all time to come that Americans would forget attempts to enslave them only when Texans forget the Alamo—these and a hundred more great stories cluster about our history, bulwarking and supporting it, mingling it in a Red, White and Blue mist, clamorous with voices out of our past, dramatizing American history and American institutions so that wide-eyed children will always remember.

As Secretary Bennett remembers in this interview, his biggest success has been in putting a compilation of these traditional stories into the hands of millions of students, parents, and teachers. Like his boss President Reagan, Bennett argues that traditional stories teach virtue. Having students memorize these ancient nuggets of wisdom has done more to educate generations of Americans than all the progressive nostrums oozing out of high-falutin schools of education.

There is no simple definition of “educational conservatism.” But in this interview, Secretary Bennett articulates something that comes pretty close: the notion that proper education consists of transmitting traditional facts and values into each generation of schoolchildren.

Whose Values Rule the Schools?

What are the dominant values in American public schools? Progressive activists tend to think schools are dominated by conservatism. But conservatives say that progressives are in charge. New poll data suggest that conservatives are wrong. When it comes to general attitudes toward children and education, conservative values seem enormously powerful.

Progressives have always hoped that schooling would soon be transformed into a progressive paradise. But they have also always acknowledged widespread public resistance. As far back as 1925, scholars Otis Caldwell and Stuart Courtis—from the progressive bulwark of Teachers College, Columbia University—argued that the “new philosophy” of progressive education could transform schools into a “childish utopia.” Unfortunately, they wrote, most Americans weren’t interested. Instead, most people “blamed teachers and schoolmen generally for ‘new-fangled methods.’”

These days, leading progressives agree. Pundits such as Alfie Kohn insist that progressive ideas are the best. As Kohn once put it, progressive education is “hard to beat, but also hard to find.” In spite of the clear superiority of progressive methods, Kohn writes, most schools only use them in dribs and drabs. Conservative, traditional schoolrooms, Kohn notes glumly, tend to be the norm.

We might think that conservative activists would celebrate their domination of American public education. But in fact we see just the opposite. Historically, conservative activists have taken progressive dominance for granted. Many conservatives have assumed without question that the progressive nostrums of philosopher John Dewey had long ago triumphed.

Writing in the wake of a tumultuous school battle in 1950s Pasadena, California, for instance, conservative activist Mary Allen explained that “traditional education” had been abandoned in the 1930s. Why? Because at that time “some of Dewey’s followers prepared to use the schools to introduce a new social order.” To Allen as to generations of conservatives, conservative values had long since been kicked out of public education.

Today’s educational conservatives voice similar frustration. For example, Peter Collier has lamented the dominance in public education of the progressive tentacles of Columbia University’s Teachers College. A pernicious leftist stew of “critical pedagogy,” Collier noted, “slowly infiltrated leftist ideas into every aspect of classroom teaching.”

How important is "curiosity" as an educational goal?

How important is “curiosity” as an educational goal?

New poll data from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press suggest that conservatives have this one wrong. When it comes to basic attitudes about children and proper education, conservative ideas tend to dominate. Those who call themselves “consistently liberal” find themselves on the outside looking in.

Who's the outlier here?

Who’s the outlier here?

To be fair, the poll also suggests that Americans of all ideologies share broad agreement about the proper way to raise children. Huge majorities of the “consistently liberal,” the “mostly liberal,” the “mixed,” the “mostly conservative,” and the “consistently conservative” agree that children must be taught responsibility.

But in a couple of other categories, those who call themselves “consistently liberal” stand out. And those differences tell us something about the values that dominate our schools and society.

For example, the “consistently liberal” place a much higher value on teaching curiosity than do any other groups, by a huge margin. Nearly a quarter of the consistently liberal place this among the three most important factors for children, and over three quarters think it is important. In contrast, none of the other groups, including the “mostly liberal,” thought that teaching curiosity was nearly as important. Only nine percent of the “mostly liberal” called curiosity one of the most important values, and only fifty-eight percent considered it important. And though fifty-seven percent of the “consistently conservative” agreed that curiosity was important, only a paltry three percent of consistent conservatives placed it at the top of their lists.

In addition, large majorities of every group except the “consistently liberal” placed a high value on teaching obedience. Even among the “mostly liberal,” sixty percent found this important. At the high end, two-thirds of the “consistently conservative” thought obedience was an important idea for children, compared to just over one-third of the “consistently liberal.”

Of course, it’s notoriously difficult to define “progressive” and “conservative” ideas about education. But in general, it’s fair to say that progressives tend to value curiosity above obedience, exploration above authoritarianism. Yet those values are only shared by a small sliver of the respondents in this survey.

The good news for conservatives? They are wrong about the values that guide American public education.   Progressive notions of child-centered learning, of students freed from the dictation of authoritarian teachers and exploring the creative curiosity of youth, have not sunk the deep roots that conservatives have often assumed.

Instead, when it comes to central ideas about obedience and curiosity, this poll suggests that conservative attitudes are the norm.