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.

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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?

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Another week in the books. Here are some of the ILYBYGTH-themed stories that swirled around the interwebs this week:

Forget Nixon, forget Mussolini: A better historic parallel to Trump, at HNN.

TRUMP CHARLES

The closer parallel?

Why did school-based Catholic priests commit more abuse? At HP.

The ugly truth from Alabama: Evangelicals, racism, and Trump, at WaPo.

Are low-income students being squeezed out of elite universities? Nope. But another group is. At AEI.

Is there a “socialist surge” among Democrats?

Did you see this one? Eighteen Oklahoma teachers explain why they’re quitting, at VICE.

How do elite schools stay so white? At NYT.

Historians wonder what to do in an era of “fake news” at CHE.

Why Harvard Can’t Be Fair

Throughout American history, earnest reformers have hoped to use schools to level out the playing field. It has never worked—at least never as well as we would hope. Why not? A recent piece in the New York Times helps explains a key fact about schools and inequality that is glaringly obvious yet surprisingly hard to see.

For most of us, the logic of schools and social reforms feels pretty straightforward. When we see inequality in our society, we think that school reform can help fix it. After all, it makes sense that better education will allow students from lower-income homes to move up the economic ladder.

Lecture flyer 1

How to save everyone, c. 1834

As I’m arguing in my new book, this logic has always dominated educational and social thinking. Two hundred years ago, Joseph Lancaster swept out of London to New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Boston. He promised a new type of school that would—in the words of this lecture advertisement—

Collectively afford the means of utterly exterminating ignorance in any State, Country, or Nation.

It didn’t work. Lancaster’s schools hoped to “uplift” the poorest children of every city. They couldn’t. Today’s piece in the New York Times helps explain why they couldn’t back then and they can’t now.

These days, as Asian-American applicants sue Harvard about racist admissions policies and New York elite high schools scramble to make their student bodies more representative of their city, there are still strong factors standing in the way.

As Natasha Warikoo and Nadirah Farah Foley explain,

Who deserves to get an elite education?

That question is being debated in Massachusetts, where court papers argue over Harvard’s use of race in its “holistic” admissions process, and in New York City, where politicians are trying to increase the number of black and Latino students at top public high schools.

But the answer has always been obvious: only the elite.

How does it work? In the case of Harvard admissions,

Harvard applicants who are recruited athletes or children of alumni enjoy significant advantages, and these candidates are disproportionately white and well-off.

As the authors put it succinctly,

In our highly unequal society, education systems have consistently found ways to favor elite, white applicants, whether it’s through slippery definitions of “merit,” giving added weight to athletes or children of alumni, or fighting to change admissions policies to schools in which Asians are more overrepresented rather than those where whites are.

Or, as we at ILYBYGTH like to say, schools can’t reform society; schools ARE society. In other words, schools are not external levers with which reformers can lift people up. Schools are all intensely bound up within the unequal mechanisms of society itself. If society is biased against poor children, or non-white children, or any sort of children, then schools will be too.

Teachers Are Smarter than Elon Musk

Here’s a Sunday-morning challenge for you: How is it possible that the smartest people in the world aren’t able to figure out something that has been public knowledge for hundreds of years and that every good teacher figures out quick? As Professor Zeynep Tufekci brilliantly argued last week, the Elon Musks, Bill Gateses, and Mark Zuckerbergs of the world can’t fix schools. And though Prof. Tufekci makes a great case, it’s not new.

elon musk submarine

Elon Musk power-tube to the rescue!

Tufekci builds her case on Elon Musk’s petulant performance in Thailand. Like many of us, Musk was fascinated by the story of the trapped soccer team in Thailand. Unlike many of us, Musk has billions of dollars and twenty-two million Twitter followers. So Musk directed some lackeys to build a fancy new submarine-machine to rescue the soccer players. When local rescuers rejected Musk’s help, Musk complained on Twitter. Musk seemed unable to recognize that there was a better way to approach this problem.

As Prof. Tufekci wrote,

The Silicon Valley model for doing things is a mix of can-do optimism, a faith that expertise in one domain can be transferred seamlessly to another and a preference for rapid, flashy, high-profile action. But what got the kids and their coach out of the cave was a different model: a slower, more methodical, more narrowly specialized approach to problems, one that has turned many risky enterprises into safe endeavors — commercial airline travel, for example, or rock climbing, both of which have extensive protocols and safety procedures that have taken years to develop.

This “safety culture” model is neither stilted nor uncreative. On the contrary, deep expertise, lengthy training and the ability to learn from experience (and to incorporate the lessons of those experiences into future practices) is a valuable form of ingenuity.

Musk and his ilk do not limit their can-do arrogance to Thai cave rescues. As Tufekci argues, in public schooling as well, Silicon Valley richies tend to think they can plunk down their money, dig out incompetence, and fix schools in one fell swoop.

The Musks and Zuckerbergs of the world might be forgiven if we were in brand-new territory. But we’re not. As the late David Tyack and Larry Cuban argued so brilliantly over twenty years ago, school reformers have always tried to fix complicated educational problems with poorly prepared prescriptions.

Telegraph with numerals sketch

The technological solution to bad schools, c. 1805.

Time and time again, as Tyack and Cuban relate in Tinkering Toward Utopia, outside “experts” swoop in to fix schools with The Big New Thing. Closed-circuit television, market-based evaluation models, computerized personalized learning systems…all have been vaunted as the new solution. In every case, veteran teachers look for the good and reject the useless. In every case, teachers use the parts of the new system that help them do the real work of education, while quietly packing away the useless bits in a hallway closet.

And as I’m arguing in my new book about the historic roots of urban school reform, the Musk/Zuckerberg fallacy goes back to the very beginning. Back in the early 1800s, a young educational entrepreneur in London thought he had the solution to urban poverty. Joseph Lancaster promised that his elaborate new system—replete with cutting edge technology—would allow one school master to educate hundreds of low-income urban kids.

It didn’t work. But perhaps Lancaster can be forgiven, since his assumptions were fairly new and untested. The Musks of today have no such excuse. As Professor Tufekci concludes,

Education is a complex topic, and making a lot of money in tech is not a qualification for solving educational problems.

It’s something we have known for centuries. It is something that every teacher figures out right away. Why can’t our tech gurus see it?

Hello, Worcester!

Things might get a little quiet around the ILYBYGTH International offices for a few weeks. I’m off in scenic Worcester, Massachusetts, studying at the American Antiquarian Society. Thanks to the AAS, I’ve got a generous Alstott Morgan fellowship to support me here for a full month.

AAS reading room

My nerdy new home away from home…

I’m excited. The AAS has seventeen boxes of papers from Joseph Lancaster. [For more about this research, see here.] I can’t wait to dive in. Why, oh why, did Lancaster believe his “system” could solve urban poverty in one generation? And why did so many otherwise intelligent people believe him?

I’ll see if his papers hold the clue.

What’s Wrong with Safer Schools?

For anyone who thinks Dan Patrick has a solution to school shootings, I have a two-hundred-year-old solution to urban poverty to sell you. As-is.

NYC manual 2 diagrams alphabet wheel

The solution to urban poverty, 1820 style…

You may have seen it by now: In the aftermath to the latest horrific school shooting, Texas’s Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has suggested tightening up school architecture. As Patrick put it,

We may have to look at the design of our schools looking forward, and retrofitting schools that are already built and what I mean by that is there are too many entrances and too many exits. . . . There aren’t enough people to put a guard at every entrance and exit.

Let’s be clear: There’s nothing wrong with thinking about school architecture and changing doors. What IS wrong is diverting attention from a real problem by directing conversations toward secondary considerations. In this case, we need to talk about school cultures that coerce and alienate students. We need to talk about gun laws that put deadly weapons in the hands of angry boys.

Along the way, we might ALSO talk about entrances, but it can’t be our main focus. In this case, IMHO, Dan Patrick is trying to wiggle out of a difficult political position by diverting attention from the real problems.

And, as I’m finding in my current research, this sort of diversionary tactic is the oldest trick in the school-reform book. Two hundred years ago, city planners in places such as Philadelphia, Boston, and New York faced a difficult dilemma. They had crowds of children in their streets from low-income families. The families couldn’t afford to send them to school so the children were growing up without being able to read or write.

What could be done? From London, Joseph Lancaster promised a solution. He described his system for educating poor children in meticulous detail. With the right school architecture and equipment, he promised, cities could eliminate the problem of poverty in just a few short years.

It didn’t work.

Just like Lt. Gov. Patrick’s plans to block doors and windows, Lancaster’s supposed solution treated minor symptoms in order to ignore the underlying cause. The right reading strategy is a good thing, but it is not a cure for urban poverty.

From the Archives II: A Dream Deferred

Sad but true: American public schools are segregated places. Kids’ chances of going to school with someone from a very different economic background are slim and getting slimmer. As I continue my work in the Philadelphia archives, I’ve come across another bit of evidence that this was not what Americans wanted.

mt vernon school philly

School for all (boys)…at least in theory

In 1828, the education committee of the state senate of Pennsylvania issued a report. There was no disagreement, they said, about the immense value of public education. As they put it,

The diffusion of education among the great body of the people, is an object very near the hearts of the benevolent and humane. It is conceded to be the most powerful means of furthering the cause of morality and religion; and its importance to a country possessing a republican form of government, is universally admitted.

Moreover, schools funded by the public should serve to unite the public. At Pennsylvania’s public schools, the committee promised (with emphasis added):

All the rising generation of a great community are instructed in the rudiments of learning. The doors of the common school houses are open to all without distinction, and the children of the rich and the poor meet there in the participation of a common benefit, upon terms of the most perfect equality. Such a system is above all praise, and deserves imitation every where.

At least, that was the dream. So far, it hasn’t happened. The children of the rich tend to go to schools with other children of the rich. Likewise for the children of the poor. But then again, it has only been 190 years. Maybe we’ll get there soon.

From the Archives: Bad News for Striking Teachers

History might not be destiny, but it can be depressing. As I’ve worked in the Philadelphia archives for my new book, I’ve found some reminders that teachers have always had to shell out their own money just to do their jobs.

Friend of Man 1 cover

Working without pay has always been considered part of the job…

These days, teacher protests have focused on both low pay and low school funding. As in Oklahoma, teachers have generated sympathy and political power by pointing out how shoddy their classrooms are, and how often they dip into their own wallets to pay for basic classroom materials.

oklahoma textbooks 1

Teachers shouldn’t have to pay for everything, but they’ve always had to…

As I read Joseph Lancaster’s 1821 newsletter I couldn’t help but notice a disturbing parallel. When Lancaster started his career as an educator, he wrote, he visited the nearby town of Stockport, near Manchester. The schools had been terrible until teachers stepped up. They needed better supplies. They needed an expensive new school building. As Lancaster described, the teachers

as a body, offered to work extra hours at their trades, and from their own earnings, to save and devote the sum of five hundred pounds sterling to the proposed building—within twelve months.

Joseph Lancaster told this as a happy tale, showing the possibilities of education if we all pulled together. Almost two hundred years later, though, I can’t help but be a little bummed out that teachers are still expected to donate their scanty mite in order to keep the school lights on.

 

This Can’t Be For Real…

I get it, I really do. I think arming teachers is a terrible idea, but I understand that lots of people disagree with me. When it comes to ideas like the ones we’re seeing this morning, though, we can’t possibly disagree. Does anyone really think this is a good idea? More important, the kerfuffle might tell us something about how schools work in the real world.

mini bats pa school district

The superintendent explains his plan…

Here’s what we know: Some school districts in Pennsylvania have approved plans to arm their teachers…with miniature baseball bats. You know, the kind you got as a kid when you went to a Brewers game, then left on your desk in your bedroom until finally someone threw it out or something.

The head of the local teachers’ union defended the move. As he put it,

This is a tool to have in the event we have nothing else. . . . Part of the formula now is to fight back. . . . The theory behind the attack option is to create noise, distract, or defend against an active shooter. For a classroom or office setting, this translates to books, staplers, chairs, fire extinguishers, etc. being used as defensible tools.

It gets even weirder. Another district in my area doesn’t give teachers sports memorabilia, but it does provide each classroom with…wait for it…buckets of rocks. When an alert SAGLRROILYBYGTH informed me of this plan, I thought it was a joke. But it seems real. Superintendent David Helsel told Reuters he planned to put buckets of rocks in every classroom. As he explained,

We didn’t want our students to be helpless victims. . . . River stones were my idea. I thought they would be more effective than throwing books or book bags or staplers.

Can they be serious? Is there any support out there for these sorts of preposterous plans?

It seems merely wacky, but this story tells us something about the way public schools often work in practice. There will be a controversial idea—evolution, sex ed, or, as in this case, arming teachers. District leaders will want to be seen taking action, but they also want to avoid controversy at all costs. The result? Half measures that veer sharply into the ridiculous.