Blind Football Faith in Comparative Testing

To all the parents and policymakers out there who are anxious about the USA’s performance on recent PISA tests, I’ll quote Wisconsin’s St. Aaron Rogers: R-E-L-A-X. As progressive-ed guru Alfie Kohn, Curmudgucrat Peter Greene and  Yong Zhao of the University of Kansas all pointed out recently, there are plenty of reasons for calm. History tells us, though, that Americans won’t listen. Why not? The answer comes back to St. Aaron and Americans’ shared vision of what proper schooling should look like.

You probably heard the kerfuffle about the most recent international PISA scores. American kids as a whole did only okay. Most worrisome, rich kids improved while poor kids did worse. About 20% of American high-schoolers can read only at a fourth-grade level.

Time to panic? Not really.

As Alfie Kohn put it,

for whatever these comparisons (and the exams that drive them) are worth, U.S. students actually do reasonably well, contrary to popular belief. But it makes no more sense to talk about the “quality of American schools” than it does to talk about the quality of American air. An aggregate statistic is meaningless because test scores are largely a function of socioeconomic status. Our wealthier students perform very well when compared to other countries; our poorer students do not. And we have a lot more poor children than other industrialized nations do.

Peter Greene agreed. As he asked in Forbes Magazine,

PISA coverage tends to overlook one major question—why should anyone care about these scores? Where is the research showing a connection between PISA scores and a nation’s economic, political, or global success?

In the Washington Post, Yong Zhao offered three big reasons why these PISA scores should not be used as evidence of anything other than PISA performance itself:

First, there is no evidence to justify, let alone prove, the claim that PISA indeed measures skills that are essential for life in modern economies. Second, the claim is an imposition of a monolithic and West-centric view of societies on the rest of the world. Third, the claim distorts the purpose of education.

All solid reasons for calm. Yet it doesn’t take much savoir-faire to know that pundits won’t be calm. Anyone with a complaint about our current system of schooling will use these scores to warn that the sky is indeed falling and we need to invest in ______ [insert flavor-of-the-day reform/tech here].

We have to ask: Why won’t Americans heed the advice of these ed experts? Why won’t we simply ignore the results of a fairly meaningless test?

As I found in the research for my book about educational conservatism, there is plenty of culture-war disagreement about what and how schools should be teaching. But there is widespread agreement about one thing. Throughout the twentieth century and into our twenty-first, everyone has largely agreed that one of the primary purposes of schooling is to fill kids with facts.

Although I agree with Yong Zhao that this is a “distorted and narrow definition of the purpose of schooling,” it is one that has persisted largely unquestioned throughout the history of education. Consider just a few pieces of historical evidence from our leading ed historians. (And one from me.)

testing wars in the public schoolsExhibit A: As William J. Reese demonstrated in his 2013 book The Testing Wars, back in the mid-1800s Boston reformers effected a sweeping revolution in schooling. How did they do it? By appealing to the public’s intuition that a standardized test would be a useful way—maybe the ONLY useful way—to evaluate teaching and learning.

Exhibit B: Twenty-plus years ago, Stanford’s David Tyack and Larry Cuban argued that high-stakes standardized tests often formed an unshakeable pillar of the “grammar of schooling.” As they put it, there is a tension between “Americans’ intense faith in education—almost a secular religion—and the gradualness of changes in educational practices.” One reason for that tension is that reformers have never been able to convince Americans that tests don’t matter, that learning could go on without ever-increasing SAT scores.

tyack cuban tinkering

Exhibit C: As I argued in The Other School Reformers, conservatives have had a lot of success in their arguments for more traditional classrooms. They have relied, historically, on both explicitly conservative arguments and on assumptions shared by people who are not particularly conservative. For example, they have often won political contests by insisting that only their preferred reforms could keep kids safe in school. That’s not a particularly conservative idea, but rather an assumption shared by most people. Similarly, conservatives have won by painting progressive reforms as an abandonment of traditional ideas of testing. Real schools, conservatives have insisted, are places that young people go to acquire knowledge they did not have before. And tests are the proper way to measure that process. This vision of the proper purpose of schooling may be “narrow and distorted,” but it is also extremely common, so common that most Americans don’t question it.

And that brings us back to St. Aaron. One way to understand Americans’ reluctance to relax about PISA scores might be familiar to lots of parents. We might want our kids to play sports just to have fun, get some exercise, and make friends. In most cases, however, those youth sports are also fiercely competitive.

If you wonder why it is so difficult for Americans to relax about PISA scores, just go to any youth soccer, football, or basketball tournament. Ask any parent in attendance if they know what the score is. Of any game. I’ll bet dollars to donuts no one will give you the answer that Alfie Kohn, or Peter Greene, or Yong Zhao, or I prefer. They won’t say, “Who knows? It’s only a game.” They won’t say, “We’re only here to promote social bonding among youth.” They won’t say, “We don’t keep score, because that would be a meaningless way to put unnecessary competitive pressure on our kids.”

No. Go to any game anywhere. Try to explain to the person sitting next to you why you don’t care about the score. Even if you’re Aaron Rodgers, you will get nothing but mean looks and sullen silence. And that’s why PISA scores will continue to matter. Despite experts’ best efforts, most Americans still view test scores as a fair measure of educational quality. And most Americans will want to win.

Badger Bound!

When conservative activists have won their battles about public education, how have they won? I’m excited to make my case next Monday at my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

bucky badger

Thanks, Bucky. It’s great to be back!

Thanks to an invitation from my grad-school mentor William J. Reese, I’ll be traveling to sunny Madison, Wisconsin this week to talk about the history of conservatism and American education. SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware that I explored this history in my second book, The Other School Reformers (Harvard University Press, 2015).

In that book, I wondered what it has meant to be conservative about education in these United States. It’s not as simple a question as it seems. Some conservatives want one thing, others want another. Most people–whether they consider themselves conservative or not–don’t have crystal-clear ideas about what they want out of schools.

In my talk next week, I’ll share some of that research, but I’ll also expand it to include my more recent findings. In short, I think that conservatives have won NOT by proving their case for conservative values and ideas, but rather by doing something else.

What’s the “something else?” Well, you’ll just have to come to Wisconsin on Monday to find out. Good seats still available: Monday, October 14, 12:00, Education Building room 245.

madison talk flyer

The Man Who Will Make Elizabeth Warren President

I haven’t heard her say it and I can’t figure out why not. Senator Warren’s campaign promise of free college for all has a long and successful history in these United States and you’d think she’d be crowing about that. As historians are well aware, “free college” is far older than the Charleston and filtered cigarettes.

Here’s the scoop: You’ve heard Senator Warren’s plan for free college tuition and diminished student-loan debt. You may have heard that this kind of plan is nothing new. As William J. Reese pointed out in The Origins of the American High School (Yale UP, 1995), in the 1800s Americans faced a dilemma that feels familiar to us today. Reformers weren’t sure what to do about high schools, the “people’s” college. Back then, very few young people attended high schools, but those who did could use their diplomas to give their careers a boost.

At the time, high schools were generally paid for with a mix of public and private funding. Students often paid tuition but the schools usually also received some money from local and state governments.

Baltimore High School Reese

People were willing to pay for it back then.

Sound familiar?

Reformers back then successfully lobbied for greater public funding and greater government oversight and control. Senator Warren would be wise to depict her plan as an heir to this storied American tradition. She could deflect a lot of criticism using tried-and-true political strategy.

For example, according to Business Insider, some folks oppose Warren’s plan as elitist and expensive. As BI reports,

Critics of Warren’s plans argue that free college and debt forgiveness would force taxpayers, most of whom don’t have college degrees, to fund the education of students from wealthy families.

We’ve been down this road before. As Prof. Reese noted, these same criticisms came up in the 1800s. The problems back then were all negotiable. For example, in 1866, the high school in New Haven, Connecticut dropped its Greek curriculum because lower-income voters saw it as an unnecessary frill, a sop to Yale-bound richies.

Overall, though, free (people’s) college became an accepted part of America’s public-school system. There’s no reason why Senator Warren can’t learn from the long history. She should give Prof. Reese a call.

The Death of College: We’ve Been Here Before

Ask anyone with a PhD in history, English, or philosophy. They’ll tell you: It’s not just a tough career path, there IS NO career path. Most universities rely on non-tenure-track teachers these days. In the new Atlantic Adam Harris reviews the bleak future of higher education. As my current research is showing me, we’ve been here before.

As Harris writes, Bryan Alexander’s predictions seem to be coming true. There just aren’t as many college students as there used to be. Enrollments are down and they will continue to slide. As Harris explains,

Why is the dip in enrollment such a big deal? Well, quite plainly, the business model for a lot of colleges is dependent on enrollment. If enrollments decline, revenues decline, and colleges have less money for facilities, faculty, and programs. That creates a sort of death spiral in which colleges are getting rid of programs, which in turn makes it harder to attract students, and so on.

No one ever asks the historians, but in this case we do have a strong precedent. Two hundred years ago, the systems we think of as K-12 education began to evolve into something close to their current form. It was a jagged and slow process, spread out over thirty or more years.

composition class John C Mee Oct 5 1835 Phila

Someone always has to read all the essays…

Our current system of mostly public education didn’t simply grow in an empty field. It pushed out several existing educational systems. The biggest losers in this evolution were the so-called “school masters” of the old system. As public schools took on their current form (more or less), the masters slowly lost their positions as the snobbish titans of education. Their experiences in the antebellum years could serve as a preview to the current state of tenure-track university faculty.

It’s not that the masters didn’t know what was happening. Their anxiety is palpable in every page of the letters and reports I’m reading these days in Joseph Lancaster’s papers.

For example, as one of Lancaster’s former pupils advised Lancaster in 1822, it would be better to get some students in the door immediately at Lancaster’s new school in Philadelphia. Enrollment was key to paying all the bills. As this pupil told Lancaster,

I think it would be well to admit a number of pupils at an easier rate than you have done, for you will be able to manage a greater number well organized in your own excellent mode, than a few on the imperfect plan hitherto pursued in the Institute. I think further, on this ground, could you fill your classes but respectably and get early and frequent exhibitions a short time would raise you in great and exalted honor high very high above your present inconvenient situation and engagement.

In the old system, school “Masters” experienced the dizzying shifts that today’s tenure-track faculty are experiencing. When their schools filled their enrollments, they were happy. When their schools faltered, masters suffered. Always, always, they lived in a state of continual uncertainty about the future. Would enough students come to full the school? Would they need to move to a different school, or maybe strike out on their own?

Sound familiar?

By the 1840s, the masters’ schools were tottering. As Bill Reese has described so compellingly, common-school reformers like Horace Mann toppled the Master system in Massachusetts with a set of new standardized tests.

What does this history tell us about today’s higher-ed situation? We don’t want to be too glib in our predictions, but the obvious guess would be this: We are facing a generation-long transition to a different sort of higher education. Instead of relying on effete experts for instructors, colleges will increasingly rely on a professionalized teaching force with little or no expectation of research and publication. Students will be expected more and more to prove their success with adequate performance on new sets of standardized tests.

The death of college is a death long foretold.

What Joe Biden Didn’t Mean to Say

Unlike the GOP, the Democratic presidential hopefuls seem united about education policy, to the point of boringness.  In his promise not to join the race, however, VP Joe Biden made some odd historical claims about schooling.  Surely he didn’t mean to imply what my nerdy ears heard.

Say, it ain't so, Joe...

Say, it ain’t so, Joe…

The Democratic leaders seem to have rallied around the promise of free or reduced college tuition for all.  That was the point Vice President Biden made.  “We need to commit,” Biden intoned,

To 16 years of free public education for all our children.  We know that 12 years of public education is not enough.  As a nation, let’s make the same commitment to a college education today that we made to a high school education 100 years ago.

With apologies to the SAGLRROILYBYGTH, let me clarify at the outset: I am no Biden-basher.  I will be voting Democrat in the upcoming presidential election.  Guaranteed.

But that doesn’t mean that Democrats get a free pass to Stupid.  Let’s politely ignore for the moment Biden’s implication that students in the USA now receive 12 years of public education.  For most kids, the real number is thirteen years, including kindergarten.  In many states, it is fourteen years or more, including pre-k and preschool.  But let’s not focus on such details.

The real stumper in VP Biden’s claim is that the United States committed to free high school for all in or around 1915.  That just doesn’t fit, for two reasons.  First, the history of high school attendance and tuition is much more depressing and complicated than Biden implies.  Second, there is a much more obvious parallel that he and other leading Democrats could draw.  Why don’t they?

To take them one at a time: Every nerd knows that a majority of 14-17-year-olds did not begin attending high school until the 1930s, not the 1910s.  Moreover, most so-called “public” high schools—the line between “public” and “private” schools as we know them was vague—stopped charging tuition by the 1870s, not the 1910s.  As historian extraordinaire William J. Reese has demonstrated in his book The Origins of the American High School, the high school has had a long and jagged path from elite finishing school to mass institution.  There was no obvious transformation 100 years ago.

Here’s the worst part for Biden: The reason more kids began attending high school in the 1930s was depressingly obvious.  The Great Depression crushed the economy and squeezed the most vulnerable workers out of scarce jobs.  For young people, there was often no viable option outside of school.  I know Biden didn’t mean it, but his promise to revisit America’s commitment to high-schooling for all implies a desire to return America’s economy to the dumpster.

Nerds have another question for Democrats: Why don’t they make the more obvious parallel?  This great nation has a long history of free college tuition.  Some of the best of our public institutions began with free (ish) tuition for locals.  If we want to go back that far, The University of Pennsylvania was opened as a radical new vision of higher education, one that would be attainable to all.  Cornell University, too, promised that students could work their way through without worrying about tuition costs.

In more recent and relevant history, the University of California system—still home to our country’s most prestigious public universities—long promised a tuition-free education for residents.  The City College of New York, too, was built on the idea of free elite college educations.

Of course, students still paid in one way or another.  School was not absolutely free but rather a mish-mash of fees and living costs.

When they talk about free college, why don’t Democratic leaders talk about this history?  Maybe they do and I just haven’t paid close enough attention.  But in recent debates and speeches, Secretary Clinton, Senator Sanders, Governor O’Malley and now VP Biden all repeated this dream of free college as a new thing, an innovation, a shiny promise.

Why don’t they sell it instead for what it is: One of America’s most cherished traditions of higher education?

I have a hunch.  Democratic leaders don’t want to be seen as old-school leftists, rewarming the failed policies of the 1780s, 1860s, 1930s, or 1960s.  Instead, they want to appear to offer the public something new, something bold, something untried and remarkable.

I’m all for it.  My beloved university is not tuition-free for all, but it fulfills the promise of affordable public higher education for many of our students.  I believe in the American tradition of affordable and attainable higher education for those who want it.

But I also believe in learning from the past.

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.

The Ink Is Dry!

I’m tickled pink to announce I’ve signed a deal with Harvard University Press to publish my next book.  The subject?  No surprise to ILYBYGTH readers: the book takes a historical look at educational conservatism in America’s twentieth century.  What did conservatives want out of schools?  How did they work to make that happen?

I’m extremely pleased to have the book join HUP’s top roster of educational histories.  All my favorite books are on that list: David Tyack & Larry Cuban’s Tinkering Toward Utopia, Jon Zimmerman’s Whose America?, Jeffrey Moran’s Teaching Sex, and now Bill Reese’s Testing Wars.

I’m honored to join this all-star lineup.  My book—which at this point I’m calling The Other School Reformers: The Conservative Tradition in American Education—takes a look at the four most explosive school controversies of the twentieth century.  My approach has been to examine these four culture-war fights to see what sorts of educational reform conservatives wanted in each case.  At first, I thought I’d pile up histories of leading conservative organizations and individuals: the American Legion, Max Rafferty, the Gablers, etc.  But I couldn’t find a way to decide whom to include and whom to leave out.  Did the White Citizens’ Councils count as educational conservatives?  Did the Institute for Creation Research?  Did Arthur Bestor?

Instead of imposing my own definitions on the outlines of educational conservatism, I took more of a naturalist’s approach.  I set up my blind, so to speak, at the four most tumultuous fights over the content of American schools and watched to see what kinds of conservative activists showed up.

The school controversies were all very different.  First I examine the Scopes Trial of 1925.  Then the Rugg textbook controversy of 1939-1940.  After that, the firing of Pasadena’s progressive superintendent in 1950.  Finally, the literally explosive fight over schools and textbooks in Kanawha County, West Virginia, in 1974 and 1975.

What did I dig up?  In short, I argue that there is a coherent tradition linking conservative school reform across the twentieth century.  Not that these different activists had any sort of conscious organization or program.  Conservatives differed—often differed widely—about key issues such as public religion, race, and the role of government and experts.  More than that, the consensus among conservatives changed over time, as American culture and society changed.  For example, racial attitudes among white conservatives changed enormously between 1925 and 1975.  But in spite of all this change and difference, a recognizable tradition of educational conservatism linked these disparate school reformers.  Conservatives usually agreed with progressive school reformers that good schools were the key to a good society.  But unlike progressives, conservatives wanted schools to emphasize traditional knowledge and beliefs: patriotism, religion, and the benefits of capitalism, for example.

In addition, my book makes the case for the importance of understanding these conservative activists as school reformers in their own right.  Too often, the history of American education is told as the heroic tale of progressive activists fighting bravely against a powerful but vague traditionalism.  My book argues instead that educational conservatism is more than just a vague cultural impulse; conservatism has always been a raft of specific policy ideas for specific historical contexts, fought for by specific individuals and organizations.

So be sure to save some space in your holiday gift list for next year.  The book is slated to appear just in time for Christmas/Hannukah/Kwanzaa/Festivus 2014.

 

Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3…

Some conservative commentators these days swing school tests around like bludgeons.  Testing and more testing is often the conservative answer to school woes.

William J. Reese reminds us that school testing has a much longer history than most of today’s school culture warriors tend to recognize. (Full disclosure: Bill was my PhD director and is still a good friend.  But I’d still want everyone to buy his book even if I didn’t know the guy.)

testing wars in the public schools

Get your copy today!

In an op-ed in this morning’s New York Times, Reese offers a reminder from his new book that testing wars have a history as old as public education itself.

In the 1840s, it was the conservative side that opposed standardized, written tests, according to Reese.  Progressive reformers such as Horace Mann hoped to undermine the power and authority of stuffy school masters.  Traditionally, those masters administered oral exams to each student.  Reformers claimed written tests could abolish prejudice and subjectivity.  Written tests, progressives promised, would shake the cobwebs out of conservatives’ school power.

To be fair, there are plenty of thoughtful conservatives around today who echo this nineteenth-century anti-testing conservatism.  But we still often think of testing as a typically conservative notion.  Those tests, after all, are often sold as a way to hold left-leaning teachers’ unions’ feet to the fire.  Bill’s essay and book remind us that testing itself has long been used as a club to beat up conservative education curmudgeons.