Why Are Teachers Mad at Billionaires?

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

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

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

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

tyack cuban tinkering

Read these works, ye mighty, and despair…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

lancaster schools

Radical school tech reform, c. 1807

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

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

Call Me, Mark Zuckerberg!

B-ding! There it is again, the silver-bullet school-reform alert. As long as there have been rich people and schools, we have seen well-meaning but misplaced attempts at reform. The latest round comes from Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, our Facebook Overlords. In order to help people succeed in school and life, their foundation has established a “Manhattan Project” to bring equity to the standardized-testing game.

It won’t work. Historians don’t know much, but we do know one thing: No matter how much money we pour into silver-bullet schemes, they always prove disappointing. It’s not due (only) to mismanagement or incompetence, but rather to the nature of schooling itself. There’s a better way to go about it, but it doesn’t offer the same sort of headline-grabbing oomph.

Here’s the latest: Zuckerberg and Chan are donating a bazillion dollars to get SAT-prep courses to low-income students. The goal is to increase students’ test scores, even if the students can’t afford test-prep courses. So far, the SAT game has been skewed heavily in favor of students who take such courses. They have higher scores, not due to talent or even “grit,” but rather because they come from families with money and time to spare. So they get into college more easily. They get scholarships more easily. In other words, because they had more advantages to start with, they are given more advantages. The Facebook plan wants to offer similar bonuses to students who can’t afford to buy them.

It’s a good idea. And I’m glad Zuckerberg and Chan are looking for ways to give away their money, rather than just guzzling gold smoothies and target-shooting peasants.

But here’s the problem. Test wizard David Coleman of The College Board is over-promising. He is calling the Facebook plan a “Manhattan Project” that will radically improve educational equity. It won’t.

Just like Zuckerberg’s last ill-fated attempt to purchase social justice, this one needs to realize the scope of the problem it claims to address. Giving Cory Booker $100 million will not fix Newark. Making test-prep classes free will not give low-income students equal access to higher education.

The mantra is simple. It is not cynical. It is not depressing. But it does make it difficult for well-meaning reformers to fix things with a single stroke of their check-writing pen. SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing it, but here it is again: Schools can’t fix society. Schools ARE society.

In this case, allowing free access to test-prep materials is a good thing. But it does not address the real problems of social equity involved. It is not an accident that college success is based on things like family income and parents’ educational levels.

I’ll say it again: It is a good thing to help students from low-income families do better on high-stakes standardized tests. If the King of Facebook really wants to increase social equality, though, he should not focus on helping some students do better on those tests. He should recognize that fixing schools can only be part of fixing society.

As I argued in my book about educational conservatism, Zuckerberg’s naïve approach to social reform is not just a Facebook quirk. It has been universally accepted by all sorts of school reformers throughout history. No matter what they think society should look like, activists have always blithely assumed that changing schools would automatically make social change happen.

It’s just not that simple.

If Zuckerberg and Chan want to make society more fair, to make things less skewed in favor of the rich, there are still plenty of things they can do. They can even do it by investing in schools. They just need to think differently about the ways schools really work.

What would I do if I had Facebook money? I would invest in schools that don’t rely on SATs in the first place. I’d find schools and programs with proven track records of helping students from low-income families succeed. I’d ignore programs that focus on improving test scores, and donate instead to schools that focus on improving lives.

Priscilla and Mark, please give me a call. We can talk about the details.

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

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

Can Tom save this child from Bad History?

Can Tom save this child from Bad History?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From dinosaurs to diplomacy...

From dinosaurs to diplomacy…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Want School Reform? Go Medieval!

It’s hard to cross the street these days without bumping into a new panacea to fix America’s schools.  Longer school days, more parent choice, uniforms, more art, more math, more tech, less tech…everybody’s got a new idea to fix education.

We read today in the pages of Forbes Magazine a different sort of proposal.  To fix America’s high schools, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry writes, we should go medieval.  To be specific, we should emulate the tutorial style of education developed in the middle ages at Oxford University.  Could it work?  Or, more intriguing, could proposals like Gobry’s serve as a new grand educational rapprochement between conservatives and progressives?

In that tutorial system, Gobry argues, students read a book every week and write a short essay about it.  Then they share the essay with a small group, including a tutor and two or three fellow students.  There is no grading, there are no test scores.  The reading list would include great books, however we wish to define them.

Could it work?  Gobry insists that this plan is both practical and “urgent.”  Elsewhere, Gobry wrote that too often education is misunderstood.  His plan would put it back on track.  Even liberal leaders, Gobry pointed out recently, seem to agree that education is meant mainly to produce technically qualified but dead-eyed engines of economic growth. “Nobody stops to ask what education is for,” Gobry lamented,

because the answer is implicitly accepted by all: an education is for getting a job. It is, in other words, for being a cog in the giant machine of post-industrial capitalism. It is, in other words, for the opposite thing that our forefathers wanted for us. I do not use these words lightly, but it is against–in the sense that a headwind is against a ship–the very foundations of our liberty and our civilization.

We could nitpick about whether Gobry’s plan could work.  As a ten-year veteran classroom teacher, I can see plenty of holes that Gobry does not seem to recognize.  But a more interesting question for ILYBYGTH readers is this: Could Gobry’s proposal serve as the foundation of a grand rapprochement between liberals and conservatives?

Here’s what I mean: At the roots of both “progressive” and “conservative” educational reform traditions there lurks a desire to free students of mindless routine and push them to more rigorous study, more authentic, transformational learning.  John Dewey, for example, hoped his school reform program would eliminate mind-numbing recitations and force students to engage more thoughtfully with the big ideas.  And William F. Buckley sparked the post-war conservative fusion movement with his searing critique of the soft and soulless education peddled at his alma mater.

Dewey became the spokesperson for progressivism, while Buckley personified conservatism.  But when it came to the goals and process of learning itself, the two thinkers were not very far apart.  This may seem a shocker, but Gobry’s short essay supports the notion.  What thinking conservative would not support a notion of education that presses students to engage profoundly with the formative documents of our civilization?  That forces teachers to do more than process young humans and train them in lock-step obedience?  And what thoughtful progressive does not want an education that makes human freedom its primary goal?  An education that tears up meaningless standardized tests and instead engages students of every background to struggle with humanity’s oldest problems?

In the end, I don’t really think Gobry’s great-books plan will work as a silver bullet to fix America’s public schools. But Gobry’s line of thinking might serve as a way to get conservative and progressive intellectuals to come together in recognition of their vast similarities.