What Today’s Educational Conservatives Need to Say Instead

I don’t see any good reason why they would listen to me. But if today’s conservative pundits and intellectuals are really serious about identifying the “future direction of American education,” they need to come to terms with the elephant in the conservatives’ room. At the Fordham Institute and Hoover Institution at least, they seem to be doing the opposite.

This isn’t only a conservative problem. Progressives like me need to be more willing to remind ourselves of the unpopular truths of the progressive tradition, too. We need to be willing to acknowledge the fact that excesses of campus left-wing Puritanism do not come out of nowhere. When smart students feel the need to exhibit their devotion and purity to radical egalitarian ideals, they are simply speaking the logical conclusions of the progressive tradition. At least, it’s ONE logical conclusion.

 

 

And when conservative intellectuals opine about American education, they need to do more to acknowledge their own history. As I argued in my book about the history of American educational conservatism, one idea has been awkwardly ignored and muffled by American conservatives. That hasn’t made it go away. Rather, it has only made it more pressing for conservatives to address it more forthrightly and explicitly.

I’m not surprised to see that they aren’t.

In a series they call “Education 20/20,” the Fordham Institute and Hoover Institution have brought a series of conservative speakers, thinkers, and policy-makers to Washington DC to tell one another what they want to hear.

For example, according to Chester Finn, the kick-off lecture by Heather Mac Donald warned that the real solution to school discipline problems had to come from addressing students’ “lack of self-control.” Speakers such as Ian Rowe told the conservative crowd that the main problem was not race, not class, but rather dysfunctional family structures, “particularly the presence or absence of two married parents.” Other speakers hoped schools could do more to teach traditional values, including

character, emotional well-being, and personal behavior, as well as help in making choices and following up on them.

What’s wrong with all that? Honestly, nothing at all. I think we can all agree that students in school should learn to control their own behavior. We all probably agree that healthy families are absolutely required for healthy schools. And all of us—even progressive history teachers like me that conservatives have always loathed—want to teach children to love America, “warts and all, yes, but also replete with heroes, principles, and triumphs.”

So where’s the beef? Why can’t we all agree on these goals and ideals?

There’s one obvious problem with events like this one. And it is a big one; one that conservatives need to address openly and bravely if they ever want to gain real traction in designing school reform that works. Namely, conservatives need to come to terms with the fact that their ideas have always been used as cover for racist policies.

I’m not accusing any of the speakers here of racism. Unlike some of my allies and colleagues, I don’t believe that conservatives are scheming to cover up their own racism. As I think we all should, I give my conservative friends the benefit of the doubt when they say they really want to heal racism’s ugly legacies, not promote it.

 

As the folks at Fordham Institute and Hoover Institution lament, when conservatives were able to get broad support for their policies, they have scored big successes. In their words,

Twenty years ago, conservative ideas were gaining traction in K–12 education. Charter schools were opening all over the place, vouchers were finally being tried, academic standards were rising, results-based accountability had become the watchword in policy circles, and reformers were taking the idea of “character education” seriously.

Why did charters and vouchers score so big in the 1990s? Because conservative activists were able to make common cause with center-left reformers to pitch them as a real solution for low-income, non-white families.

These days, lambasting non-white students for lacking self-control and non-white families for lacking proper structure is not likely to gain any sympathy outside of conservative circles. Talking about focusing on teaching American “ideals” is likely to be ignored by non-conservatives as mere cover for “Making America Great Again.”

If conservatives really want to get another taste of reform influence, they need to take the brave step and acknowledge the legacy of their own campaigns. Instead of saying “We’re not racist, but…” they need to say “These ideas WERE used by racists, but here’s why they are good anyway.”

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I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Here it is at last: ILYBYDDTR, Christmas Steve edition! If you need a little extra ed stuff to read over the holidays, here are a few of the stories that caught our attention this week:

Christmas Steve

Hi there…

Will Stancil looks at a scam school and asks two smart questions: 1.) Why did they get away with it for so long, and 2.) What does this story tell us about elite college admissions. At The Atlantic.

Success stories suggest that, even among the poor children of color who face pervasive societal burdens, the truly deserving can prevail in the end. When inequality is defeatable, it stops feeling so much like injustice.

Earn more, marry less: The effects of going to a selective college for women, at IHE.

Even Gandhi? University removes statue due to Gandhi’s racist comments, at the Guardian.

gandhi statue

Hey hey! Ho ho! This…erm…anti-imperialist ascetic has got to go!

Why is school reform so hard? At Hechinger.

White supremacist Silent Sam statue disappears at UNC: Jonathan Zimmerman says that’s bad, at CHE.

From Righting America: Campus bombings from the KKK in the 1920s.

dayton KKK

Campus bombings, 1920s style…

So there’s this: Jerry Falwell Jr. had a special “friendly relationship” with a good-looking young man, at BF.

Why Do We Keep Falling for School Scams?

It was a very depressing story. When the New York Times broke the ugly truth about Louisiana’s T.M. Landry school, the real question was why so many people believed the lies of the school’s leaders. Today, Will Stancil connects the dots. And as I’m arguing in my new book, this scam is no exception; it is the oldest story in the checkered history of American school reform.

Lecture flyer 1

Magic-bean level school reform, c. 1834.

You’ve heard the story by now. T.M. Landry College Preparatory School in small-town Louisiana seemed to have found the magic recipe. Its viral videos told the heart-warming stories of low-income African American students who beat the odds and went to elite universities such as Harvard and Princeton.

It didn’t take long for the sad other shoe to drop. As the New York Times reported,

In reality, the school falsified transcripts, made up student accomplishments and mined the worst stereotypes of black America to manufacture up-from-hardship tales that it sold to Ivy League schools hungry for diversity. The Landrys also fostered a culture of fear with physical and emotional abuse, students and teachers said. Students were forced to kneel on rice, rocks and hot pavement, and were choked, yelled at and berated.

We make a mistake if we just shake our heads and lament the gruesome conditions of this single scam school. The real problem is much deeper.  Given the remarkable claims of the school’s leaders, Will Stancil asked recently, why did so many of us believe them for so long? As he puts it, all of us need to take a hard look at ourselves. Americans treasured the unbelievable success stories coming out of T.M. Landry, Stancil writes,

because it offered something that a lot of people wanted to believe. Their viral videos told a story of black children magically beating the odds. . . . people took solace in the idea that such a transformation was possible, and moved on.

Other commentators have made similar points. As Casey Gerald noted recently,

When we highlight those few against-all-odds stories, we send the message that all it takes to succeed is grit and resilience and willpower.

For those who hope that the right school reform can offer a quick and easy fix to social inequality, the reality gets even worse. As I’m finding in the research for my current book, America’s head-in-the-sand addiction to Horatio Alger stories has always been a problem.

Two hundred years ago, Joseph Lancaster promised America’s elites a T.M. Landry-style solution to their burgeoning urban anxieties. As one industrial leader fretted in 1817, new cities and factories threatened to become

disgusting exhibitions of human depravity and wretchedness.

If they had the right schools, however, all could be well. As this industrialist explained, with only a small financial investment, American cities could install Lancasterian schools,

where good instruction will secure the morals of the young, and good regulations will promote, in all, order, cleanliness, and the exercise of the civil duties.

Just like T.M. Landry in 2018, back in 1817 these promises were obviously too good to be true. Yet, as one commentator described at the time,

The extent of the delusion . . . was so widely and so energetically advocated that thousands of intelligent men believed that a final and immediate remedy had been found for the evils of popular ignorance and that the era of universal intelligence had begun.

Things didn’t end any better for the students in Lancaster’s schools than they did for T.M. Landry’s. In a few years, parents, children, teachers, and eventually elite reformers realized that the promises of these school reforms couldn’t match the challenges of social inequality. Lancaster was exposed as a fraud. School leaders noted with chagrin that their miracle schools were not miracles at all. At the end of his rope, in 1838 Joseph Lancaster stepped out in front of a rushing horse carriage in New York and ended his life.

These scams and cons work because we want them to be true. We want to believe that society is fundamentally fair. We want to think that with a little gumption, a little “grit,” everyone can make it. What we don’t want to admit is the ugly truth: America has always been unequal. Some people are freer than others. Some live in a land of opportunity, but many don’t.

If only, we fantasize, if only there were a reading method or an ipad app that would make this problem go away. That’s why the Education Department pours billions of dollars into “innovation” grants.

As Will Stancil makes so painfully clear, our addiction to these sorts of fairy tales allow scammers to get us to believe the unbelievable. Americans like to hear about low-income African-American students “beating the odds,” because we can’t figure out how to make those brutal odds more equitable.

And as I’m finding out in my current research, it is America’s oldest educational fantasy. We need to reckon instead with the sobering truth: Schools can’t save society; schools ARE society. Unless and until society itself gives everyone a fair chance at success, schools won’t be able to.

The Keto Diet of Ed Reform

Why is it so difficult to find out if school reforms are working? Journalists tell us that big investments often don’t lead to big results. Why not? The real “dirty secret” of ed reform isn’t the difficulty involved. It is that reformers tend to fall into the Keto-diet trap. Instead of promoting things that work, they scramble for headline-grabbing new labels and gimmicks. Then they are forced to use skewed ways to measure their own success.

hechinger reform chart

What works? We need less flash and more uncomfortable conversations

Here’s what we know: Hechinger reported recently on the disappointing results of $1.5 billion+ in i3 funds from the Education Department. Only a few of the funded “innovations” actually led to measurable improvements in student test scores.

The researcher charged with measuring the success of this school reform investment explained,

That’s the dirty secret of all of education research. . . . It is really hard to change student achievement. We have rarely been able to do it. It’s harder than anybody thinks.

As she lamented,

We are desperate to find what works.

Except we’re not. Not really. We KNOW what works to improve schools and educational outcomes. Schools work better when they are connected to healthy communities. Schools work better when families and students have abundant resources, including flexible work schedules and access to community resources.

The problem is that those things are more difficult to talk about. As I’m arguing in my new book, it has always been easier to slap flashy “innovations” on schools for low-income kids than it has been to address the topics of inequality and poverty in the USA.

What does this have to do with Keto dieting? Just this: Like healthy eating, healthy schools are not really all that mysterious. They require investments of time and resources. They need involved teachers, families, students, neighbors, and administrators. They need to be connected to their communities and in touch with the dreams and backgrounds of their families and students.

keto diet

Let’s be real: No one buys books titled, “Good Food Is Good for You.”

It’s not a mysterious recipe, but it is a difficult one to pitch to grant programs. Instead, like the Keto diet, reformers are forced to create new names and new programs that highlight their “innovations.” Like the Keto diet, they are forced to focus—to an obviously unhealthy degree—on short-term, quantifiable outcomes.

What would be better? How about measuring education reforms by something other than student test scores? Why not survey families to see how happy they are in their schools? Why not hire trained researchers to gather qualitative data about a fuller range of improvements in students’ lives?

Like the authors of fad-diet books, too many grant funders are tied to flashy headlines and quick-but-fake improvements. What we need instead is a willingness to focus on the non-flashy things that we know will work.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Happy December! The ILYBYGTH International offices moved this week to the Situation Room to monitor the “War on Christmas.” But we still had time to gather these stories we thought you might like:

“Education is a business.” Libertarian abandons public schools, at Reason. HT: MM.

History majors keep declining, at AHA.

Background on the missionary-killing Sentinelese at NYT.

Creationism? Evolution? Glenn Branch looks at fifty years of struggle for better evolution education at SA.

How Berkeley students are freeing speech, at IHE.

Oh, wow. The weird, wild scam history of evangelical Olivet University, at NYT. HT: MG.

Tennessee study: Big boost for students who have an African American teacher, at NBER.

Is education a civil right? Students in RI sue for theirs, at the Atlantic.Suzanne WilsonHow to avoid solving educational problems, c. 1942, from Larry Cuban.

When I think of (and listen to) current debates about problems like inequality, racism, and poverty as they influence what teachers do, how schools operate, and effects on students, I recall many times when I heard and saw school board members, superintendents, principals, teachers, and parents engage in what Diederich [described in 1942].

Creationism, eh? New poll about evolution and teaching creationism in Canada, at NCSE.

Carts and Horses

I know, I know, it’s dangerous to conclude too much from one research study. Especially if that study seems to confirm our pre-existing ideas. But the news from Tennessee seems to confirm what school-reform mavens know: Just fixing classrooms isn’t enough. If we want to make a more equitable society, we have to include everything.cart before horse

Here’s what we know: A new study suggests that African American students can experience measurable benefits from having African American teachers. The authors say it is more than just about teaching methods; it is more to do with a “role-model effect.” As they put it,

black teachers provide a crucial signal that leads black students to update their beliefs about the returns to effort and what educational outcomes are possible.

We don’t want to exaggerate its importance, but this seems like yet more evidence for our vision of real school reform. SAGLRROILYBYGTH are tired of hearing it, but historically there have been competing visions of how schools can and should help make America a better place. Some well-meaning reformers have hoped to tweak classroom practices to help students from low-income families do better in school. If they can just succeed in school, the thinking goes, then they can go to college, get a good job, make more money, and escape the cycle of poverty.

If we can just scale up that sort of reform—the thinking goes (and we can’t, but that’s another story)—then schools can fix the woes of social inequality.

As I’m arguing in my new book, this vision of school and social reform is as old as public education itself. And it’s not bad, but it is wrong. Don’t believe it? Check out the archive of studies and evidence that all seems to point in the same direction: here or here or here.

And the current study from Tennessee seems to add more fuel to the fire. The real problems of education, poverty, and social inequality are bigger than any single, isolated curricular reform can fix. The problem is that American society includes a bunch of unfair hierarchies: racial, religious, ethnic, and economic. If we try to tweak classroom practices in isolation, we won’t be able to do much.

But, as this study suggests, if students can see a possibility of achievement, they will be more likely to achieve. If students can see glimmers of a society that rewards people like them for talent and hard work, they’ll be more likely to work hard to move ahead.

Is it a good thing to improve classroom practice? Sure. But fixing the insides of classrooms alone isn’t enough. Students need to live in a society that is less biased against people like them. Students need some reason to think that school achievement will pay off.

When it comes to the old chicken-and-egg problems of schools and social reform, we need to remember the refrain: Schools don’t change society; schools ARE society.

More Proof: America Has No Public School System

We could be mad that it took them this long to notice. Or we could celebrate the fact that we’re finally getting some attention to the issue. In addition, though, we have to recognize another big implication of this story.

First, the bummer. How can it be “news” that American public school teachers are working too hard? A recent series in USA Today profiled fifteen teachers across the United States. As they reported,

We found that teachers are worried about more than money. They feel misunderstood, unheard and, above all, disrespected.

That disrespect comes from many sources: parents who are uninvolved or too involved; government mandates that dictate how, and to what measures, teachers must teach; state school budgets that have never recovered from Great Recession cuts, leading to inadequately prepared teachers and inadequately supplied classrooms.

We’re glad to get some front-page attention to the difficulties of teaching, of course, but it’s difficult not to say…well, duh. Of course teachers have a tough row to hoe. After we digest that non-bombshell, though, there’s more in this story that we should notice.

As historian Jack Schneider wrote recently for WaPo, Americans tend to have a unique love/hate relationship with public schooling. We hear over and over again that public schools are failing, yet most of us cherish our local public schools. And statistics tell us that—as a whole—America’s public schools are doing as well academically as they ever have.

Behind the fake-exposé headlines of the USA Today series, we can see a glimmer of truth that helps explain the weird relationship of Americans to their public schools. Reporters fanned out across the country to tag along with teachers.

manseau usa today

Oh give me a home…

In one case, that meant braving the wilds of Montana, where Traci Manseau teaches seventeen kids of all ages, all with the same last name, all in the same one-room schoolhouse. The students are all Hutterites, and they leave school at age sixteen to work on the communal farm.

At another school, 1,584 miles away (I looked it up) in Detroit, students wear a different sort of uniform. Instead of bonnets and cowboy shirts, the mostly African-American students wear uniform polo shirts and khakis. Their teacher, Felecia Branch, loves to hear them relate to fiction. And she hates it when they fight.

Down in Phoenix, meanwhile, teacher Rebecca Garelli welcomes 21 students in her English-Language-Learners class (ELL). Two of them come from Rwanda. Many of them speak only Spanish. Her job is to teach them—according to Arizona law—in English. And get them all to learn science.

branch usa today

…where the Chevrolets roam…

Are there similarities? Sure. All teachers feel stressed. And all good teachers care a lot about all their students. Whatever their backgrounds and locations, teachers want the best for their students and they can get frustrated when bad rules or bad situations make that unlikely.

But the vast differences between just these three examples show how inappropriate it is to talk about an American public school “system.” What it means to go to school in the United States can mean vastly different things.

Of course, SAGLRROILYBYGTH did not need to open the pages of USA Today to find that out. All of us can see the huge disparities in public education if we just take a tour around our local area. Even in the same city, the populations and possibilities of public schools can be worlds apart.

As Professor Schneider concluded,

Our schools haven’t failed. Most are as good as the schools anyplace else in the world. And in schools where that isn’t the case, the problem isn’t unions or bureaucracies or an absence of choice. The problem is us. The problem is the limit of our embrace.

If we waste our time asking about the American public-school system, we’ll always end up at an impasse. America’s schools are so diverse that there’s really no system to it all. When it comes to our sad history of educational culture wars, pundits on all sides have been able to say whatever they wanted about America’s schools and find real evidence to back it up. They could always find proof of almost any trend they wanted to celebrate or despise.

Are America’s schools mere “sorting machines?” Yep. Do they harbor left-wing teachers who sneakily try to subvert patriotic traditions? Uh-huh. Do America’s schools remain trapped in ancient ruts? Of course. Do they engage in innovative, world-class education? That, too.

Like the blind scholars and the elephant, pundits and politicians will always be able to prove anything they want to about America’s schools, because they can all be right.

Chicken? Egg?

At the very least, it has to be in the top five least surprising headlines for any experienced classroom teacher: “Home Life Influences School Performance.” Yet the idea that students’ lives outside of school are decisive parts of their school performance has had a surprisingly contentious history. This week we see a renewed interest in the interaction between educational performance and alleviation of poverty.chicken and egg

As I’m finding in the research for my new book, Americans have long assumed that improving schools would simply and quickly eradicate poverty. In the early 1800s, school-reform celebrity Joseph Lancaster promised that he could eradicate poverty with his simplistic school plan. His fans believed him. For example, New York Governor DeWitt Clinton lauded the Lancasterian reform

as creating a new aera [sic] in education, as a blessing sent down from Heaven to redeem the poor and distressed of this world from the power and dominion of ignorance.

Or, as the New York Free School Society wrote in 1814, thanks to the “Lancasterian system of education,”

the darkness, which has overshadowed the minds of the poor, will gradually disappear.

The assumption that better schools could “fix” poverty has been so strong that a fifty-year old sociological report on the subject remains controversial. As historian Leah Gordon has noted, the Coleman Report of 1966 suggested, in part, that changes in schooling could do little to improve students’ lives.

As James Coleman wrote,

For most minority groups, then, and most particularly the Negro, schools provide little opportunity for them to overcome this initial deficiency; in fact they fall farther behind the white majority in the development of several skills which are critical to making a living and participating fully in modern society. Whatever may be the combination of nonschool factors poverty, community attitudes, low educational level of parents-which put minority children at a disadvantage in verbal and nonverbal skills when they enter the first grade, the fact is the schools have not over-come it.

Coleman’s work was controversial at the time and it remains so. Can it really be true that schools don’t hold the golden ticket to economic mobility? That making schools better isn’t the first and best way to help people improve their lives, economically?

Or, as Coleman suggested, was the key to improving lives and increasing equality to be found outside of school, in factors such as family income, family education levels, and other non-school factors?

wash-learn-edited-900x0-c-default

This just in: Benefits for students benefit students.

Writing in Chalkbeat recently, Matt Barnum reviewed studies of the relationship between improving students’ living conditions outside of school and those students’ educational achievement. Not surprisingly, when students had better home conditions, their school performance improved. As Barnum wrote,

A large and growing body of research . . . [shows] not only that poverty hurts students in school, but that specific anti-poverty programs can counteract that harm. These programs — or other methods of increasing family income — boost students’ test scores, make them more likely to finish high school, and raise their chances of enrolling in college.

Seems obvious, right? As every teacher knows, though, it really isn’t only one thing or another. In order for students to thrive in both school and life, it makes the most sense to improve everything at once.

If we want students to do better in life, we should work to improve schools. And if we want students to do better in school, we should work to improve their lives.

Why School Reform Flounders

How can we make something better if we can’t agree what something is? In The New Yorker, Jill Jepore offers a review essay that raises a key question: Is Education a Fundamental Right? It’s an important question, but it sidesteps an even more fundamental problem: What IS education in the first place? If we can’t agree on that—and we can’t—we won’t be able to make progress toward improving schools.

As brainy observers such as Larry Cuban and Peter Greene have reminded us recently, when we can’t agree on the fundamental goals of education, we won’t be able to formulate sensible plans to improve it.

Prof. Lepore offers an insightful review of Justin Driver’s The Schoolhouse Gate: Public Education, the Supreme Court, and the Battle for the American Mind. Driver examines the key SCOTUS case of Plyler v. Doe, in which undocumented migrants sued for the right to send their kids to public schools.

The case raised difficult questions: Can education be considered a fundamental right? Do undocumented Americans have a right to send their kids to public schools, the way they have the right to fire protection if their house is ablaze?

As historians like Prof. Cuban have long pointed out, the question of whether or not education is a basic right needs to take its place in line with all the other fundamental questions about education. Is it a right? Is it a public utility? Is it a tool of class domination?

In every tough case, these multiple visions of the basic goals of education bump uncomfortably along together. Partisans of various political agendas and reform proposals usually insist on one or more definition of the fundamental purpose of education, even though they almost never notice that they are doing so.

The Plyler v. Doe case was no exception. As Prof. Lepore’s review demonstrates, leading voices in that case relied on different unexamined assumptions about the true nature of American education. Consider the following excerpts:

Education is a Right:

Prof. Lepore asks,

Is education a fundamental right? The Constitution, drafted in the summer of 1787, does not mention a right to education, but the Northwest Ordinance, passed by Congress that same summer, held that “religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” By 1868 the constitutions of twenty-eight of the thirty-two states in the Union had provided for free public education, open to all. Texas, in its 1869 constitution, provided for free public schooling for “all the inhabitants of this State,” a provision that was revised to exclude undocumented immigrants only in 1975.

Education is a Public Good:

During the Plyler hearings,

Witnesses presented testimony about economies: educating these children cost the state money, particularly because they needed special English-language instruction, but not educating these children would be costly, too, in the long term, when they became legal residents but, uneducated, would be able to contribute very little to the tax base.

Education is An American tradition:

As one lawyer in the Plyler case put it,

An educated populace is the basis of our democratic institutions. . . .  A denial of educational opportunities is repugnant to our notions that an informed and educated citizenry is necessary to our society.

Education is A vehicle for fixing social inequities:

In a related recent case, Lepore writes,

the Detroit plaintiffs . . . identified the absolute denial of education as a violation of the equal-protection clause, and ruled that no state can “deny a discrete group of innocent children the free public education that it offers to other children residing within its borders.” Dismissed by a district court in June, the case is now headed to the Sixth Circuit on appeal.

Education is An imposition on non-White/non-middle class children:

Lepore notes,

If the schoolhouse is a mini-state, it has also become, in many places, a military state.

Education is A public utility:

She records this interchange during the Plyler hearings:

Marshall: Could Texas deny them fire protection?

Hardy: Deny them fire protection?

Marshall: Yes, sir. F-i-r-e.

Hardy: Okay. If their home is on fire, their home is going to be protected with the local fire services just—

Marshall: Could Texas pass a law and say they cannot be protected?

Hardy: —I don’t believe so.

Marshall: Why not? If they could do this, why couldn’t they do that?

Hardy: Because . . . I am going to take the position that it is an entitlement of the . . . Justice Marshall, let me think a second. You . . . that is . . . I don’t know. That’s a tough question.

Marshall: Somebody’s house is more important than his child?

Who is correct? They all are. Education is a right, a public good, a public utility, a means for economic advancement, a tool of class domination . . . all at the same time.

With all these unrecognized assumptions about the basic nature of education, it is hardly surprising that improving education has remained such a chimera. Even regarding a SCOTUS case explicitly dedicated to figuring out if education is a right, lawyers, activists, and historians all appealed unreflectively to all the other fundamental goals of education as well. And, of course, there are many others we could add to the list. Depending on whom you ask and on the case at hand, the basic nature of American education can and has been defined as all of the following:

  • A private matter;
  • A religious affair;
  • A consumer product;
  • A national security imperative…
  • And many more.

Is education a fundamental right? Yes. Is it also all those other things? Also yes. Whenever Americans have a disagreement about the goals of education, they pull from this bubbling cauldron of conflicting and confusing fundamental goals to make their cases. And none of them are wrong.

In the end, they point to the reason why it is so difficult to fix schools. Not only is it difficult to tell what is broken; it is difficult even to find out what schools should do if they were fixed.

Where Are All the Books about This?

It’s a question that has stumped me for the past twenty years, and Stanford’s Larry Cuban brings it up again this morning. Where are all the books about conservatism in American education?

fight for local control

There ARE great books out there…

Professor Cuban makes the crucial point: Public schools in the USA have always been driven by all the same contradictory impulses that drive political life. Some people want schools to be more progressive; others want them to be more conservative. As Cuban puts it,

The contradictory obligations of reforming schools while conserving traditional knowledge and classroom practices has been in the DNA of tax-supported public education for well over a century. It won’t go away. Those cheerleaders for the next new reform need to understand this paradox at the heart of U.S. schooling.

As I started my graduate work lo so many years ago, I was curious about the deep educational conservatism that I saw, felt, and heard as a teacher. To my surprise—and, to be perfectly frank, fueling my academic ambition—there were not shelves and shelves of scholarly work analyzing conservatism in education.

To be sure, there are some historical works out there. Prof. Cuban mentions my look at twentieth century educational conservatism and Diane Ravitch’s Left Back.

There are other books he could have mentioned. Michael Apple’s Educating the “Right” Way, or Herbert Kliebard’s Struggle for the American Curriculum, for example. Hearteningly, newish books have come out that plumb the depth and diversity of conservative activism in American education. Cam Scribner’s The Fight for Local Control, for instance, and Natalia Mehlman Petrzela’s Classroom Wars. And I’m sure SAGLRROILYBYGTH could point out another key title or two.

classroom wars

…but where are the REST of the great books?

But considering the vastness of the topic, the lack of academic work about educational conservatism still baffles me. As Prof. Cuban points out, conservative ideas and impulses have always been at least as powerful as progressive ones. As Cuban writes this morning, if the first obligation of public schools was to serve as a way to change students and society,

The second obligation was for the tax-supported school to actively conserve personal, community and national values ranging from inculcating traditional knowledge, obeying authority including that of teachers, show respect for religious beliefs, practicing honesty, and displaying patriotism.

If these conservative assumptions about the proper role of school are so very influential, where are all the academic studies of them?

Of course, it’s not at all difficult to find conservative how-to books about schools. From the Gablers to Dorothy Sayers to everyone in between, there have never been a lack of guides to make schools more conservative or more authentically conservative.

When it comes to an academic understanding of the meanings and activism of conservative thinkers and activists, though, we still have a decided gap between what happens (and happened) in schools and what academics talk about.

So where are the armies of historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and classroom researchers?