In no other country are the professional students of education so influential. In no other country is school practice so quickly responsive to the suggestions emanating from this group. We may stigmatize our schools as “static,” “reactionary,” “slow to change,”—reluctant to adopt what we, in our wisdom, prescribe. But compared to other countries, ours is the educational expert’s paradise.
[W.C. Bagley in H.O. Rugg’s National Society for the Study of Education, Committee on Curriculum-Making; pub. Taylor & Francis (New York, 1926).]
Note please the date on that quotation. The U.S.A. was already “the educational expert’s paradise” back in the Coolidge administration, and had been so for long enough that Prof. Bagley, then in the tenth year of his career at Columbia University Teachers’ College, could exult over the fact. Yes, we have been busily reforming our schools for a hundred years and more.
A naïve inquirer might ask why, after a century of effort, we still haven’t got schools right. A cynical responder might reply that there are many careers, much prestige, and boxcar-loads of public and private money in education reform, along with endless opportunities for politicians to pose as champions of some completely new approach!—for the sake of our children, you know.
Ray Wolters [Email him] is not that cynical responder. He is a historian by trade—Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Delaware—and writes as a historian should, proceeding through these decades with a straightforward account built around profiles of the main reformers and their critics.
He writes in the introduction to his The Long Crusade: Profiles in Education Reform, 1967-2014:
I have tried to be objective and even-handed, not polemical … I am an historian, not a reformer, and I have written a narrative rather than a lawyer’s brief. My intent is to provide readers with enough information—including information that some education writers consider taboo—to draw their own conclusions as well as to understand my views.
As Wolters’ title tells us, his book covers most of the past fifty years of education reform. It begins with Jonathan Kozol’s 1967 bestseller Death at an Early Age: The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools.
Kozol was, and still is, an old-style left progressive. Death at an Early Age purports to describe his year spent teaching in a mostly-black public elementary school. (I haven’t read it myself, although I did read Kozol’s 2005 book Shame of the Nation, and included a page of commentary about it in the education chapter of my We Are Doomed).
On Wolters’ account, Death at an Early Age belongs firmly in the genre of White Guilt Porn, populated with bullying racist badwhites tormenting and humiliating angelic black children. Wolters tells us that even a friendly reviewer noticed how Kozol offered “no unsympathetic sketch of a Negro adult or child.”
Kozol’s book came out at just the right moment, though, as white race guilt was cresting after the Civil Rights movement. It sold over two million copies and became a standard text at teacher training colleges.
The book’s prescriptions were both social and pedagogical. Kozol wanted more money spent on inner-city schools, and forced racial integration of all schools. He thought teachers should spend less time on instruction and discipline, more on empathizing with students and boosting their self-esteem. The curriculum, he believed, should be reformed to teach “social justice.”
These ideas were all tested in the following decades. The social prescriptions were actually tested to destruction: spending in the Kansas City fiasco of 1985-1997, forced integration in the busing programs of the late 1970s.
Kozol seems not to have noticed any of that. Thirty-eight years later, in Shame of the Nation, he was still banging the same drum, arguing for laws that would compel municipalities to open more Section Eight housing in the suburbs.
Kozol seems to have paid no attention to data at all. Wolters quotes him scoffing at scholarly research and boasting that, “I simply don’t read boring think tank reports.”
Kozol’s pedagogic prescriptions had a longer shelf life than his social ones, and to some degree have settled in as educational orthodoxy. That is why today’s high school graduates know more about Sojourner Truth than about Thomas Jefferson, and are more likely to be able to quote Maya Angelou than Longfellow.
Whether this represents educational improvement is, I suppose, a matter of opinion.
There follow two further chapters on neo-progressive reformers. (That “neo-” prefix is essential. Education reformers have been calling themselves “progressive” for a hundred years at least.)
Wolters’ second neo-progressive is Howard Gardner, whose theory of multiple intelligences is I think quite widely known outside ed-biz circles. The theory is an attempt to bring some rigor to the popular—and in my opinion, false—notion that everyone is good at something.
Gardner’s theory got a good field test in Celebration, the model town built by the Walt Disney Company in Florida during the 1990s. The town school was structured on Gardner’s principles, with personalized learning plans, an emphasis on co-operation rather than competition, a preference for discussion and “guidance” over instruction, and student assessment based on projects and portfolios rather than academic testing.
The problem: the white, middle-class parents who had paid premium prices for houses in Celebration did not want this for their kids. They favored traditional instruction “to provide their children with basic skills, information, and work habits.”
As Wolters tells us, trying (I imagine) to keep a straight face while doing so:
It did not help when school administrators acknowledged that Celebration’s curriculum was “not for everyone.”
So much for multiple intelligences!
There you have one of the problems with progressive education: the dogs don’t like it.
Wolters’ third neo-progressive, Theodore Sizer, joins with Jonathan Kozol in illustrating the other main problem: progressive reformers’ indifference to data.
Sizer went along with his colleagues in accepting Coleman’s conclusions. Yet he found much of the scholarship “bewildering.” Since Sizer’s education had been in English and History, and his previous employment had been in the military and school teaching, he was “befogged and frequently cowed by the ferocious arguments … about what struck me as dazzling but sometimes picayune statistical acrobatics …”
“Let no-one ignorant of geometry enter” said the sign over the door of Plato’s Academy. Institutes of educational research might be improved by restricting entrance to persons with a good credential in statistical analysis.
Wolters follows these three neo-progressive reformers with three proponents of the “back to basics” movement of the 1990s.
Chris Whittle’s Edison Schools tried to put public education under a private-sector business model. After 16 years and hundreds of billions of dollars invested, profitability was still not attained. Edison pulled back to private tutoring and the marketing of educational technology. Wolters credits Edison with some lasting influence in these areas, but their original project has to be counted a failure.
Robert Slavin’s [Email him]Success for All (SFA) program was mainly a pedagogical reform, implemented in traditional public schools, and usually restricted to reading and language arts. It eschewed feelgood progressive nostrums for structure:
Success for All specified exactly what a teacher should do between, say, 8 and 8:43 a.m. and then, after a break of only two minutes (!), between 8:45 and 9:28 …
Whether SFA improved learning outcomes for students is not clear. The pros and cons were, and still are, bitterly argued. In one respect, though, the SFA program did very well:
From its founding onward Success for All outpaced its rivals in the contest for grants from private philanthropies and government agencies.
The main function of education, Hirsch believed, was acculturation: “the transmission to children of the specific information shared by the adults.” In 1987 he published a book titled Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. The “critical thinking” that progressives sought to instill was, said Hirsch, useless without a core of learned facts to think about. “To teach higher skills explicitly is to pursue a phantom.”
Hirsch’s ideas found no favor with the education establishment. Actual teachers and parents were more approving, and the evidence is that Hirsch-style curricular reforms improved student attainment where they were applied.
By this time, however, the winds of Ed-theory fashion had shifted. A new explanation for the supposed failures of American schools had taken hold: It was the fault of the teachers!
Wolters’ third section covers Teach for America (TFA), the offshoot KIPP schools, and the careers of Joel Klein in New York and Michelle Rhee in Washington, D.C.
TFA placed highly-motivated college graduates in inner-city schools for two years: “the post-college do-good program with buzz,” the New York Times called it. These bright-eyed idealists were of course much resented by career teachers, bad and good alike.
KIPP academies had long school days, more school days in the year, teachers on cell-phone call out of hours, and innovative disciplinary techniques. They also, it turned out when researchers looked closely, had teachers much younger than average, parents more committed than average, higher proportions of female students, and high dropout rates.
Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee, in charge of ordinary big-city public-school systems, took bad-teacher theory to mean that teachers needed to be evaluated and the ones with low evaluations let go. Klein made some progress in evaluation, but his attempts to fire teachers were thwarted by the teacher unions. Rhee, in a different contractual environment, had more leeway: she actually fired one D.C. principal on live TV.
Bad-teacher theory got somewhat out of hand: A report presented at a conference in 2010 by two Ivy League researchers, Doug Staiger and Jonah Rockoff, argued for firing 80 percent of the nation’s 3.5 million teachers.
The upside of the theory was that to evaluate teachers, you needed some good measures of how well students were doing:
[New York City Mayor Michael] Bloomberg and Klein … developed a new system of testing and data collection that rated teachers according to the performance of their students—so that “top performing teachers can be identified and acknowledged (and underperformers can be improved or removed).”
The results at first, under the city’s own numbers, looked good, and the press hailed the “Bloomberg miracle.” When results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) were released in 2007, however, they showed almost no progress for New York students. The “Bloomberg miracle” was an illusion produced by juggling of standards and (probably) some cooking of the books.
Other aspects of blame-the-teacher reform likewise had an illusory quality.
Teach for America and the KIPP schools proved that intensive educational interventions by teachers willing to forgo normal lives for the sake of their students, got good results.
In the nature of things, though, such an approach cannot be scaled up. The problem with any mass enterprise like public education is not how to get great results from superlative personnel, but how to get them from ordinary conscientious-but-not-stellar worker bees.
Bad-teacher theory also, in common with every other reform ever tried, did nothing to close the racial achievement gaps in academic achievement. Some of these gaps had closed slightly in the early 1980s, but since then have stayed constant or actually widened. Even where, as in Washington D.C. from 2003 to 2011, NAEP scores overall had improved, the gaps showed no change.
As these truths sank in during recent years, there has been something of a turn towards blaming the parents. Hence the pre-K movement, whose premise is that NAM (Non-Asian Minority) children are already behind when they begin school because their parents don’t talk and read to them enough.
The only hope, wrote New York Times journalist James Traub, [Email him]was “a kind of … paternalism in which mothers are expected to yield up their children to wise professionals.” [What no school can do, NY Times, January 16, 2000.]
The pre-K reformers, like the bad-teacher theorists before them, got somewhat carried away with their idea. Chester Finn, in Reroute the Preschool Juggernaut (2009) suggested that preschool programs should start “early in a child’s life, perhaps even before birth.” Why not before conception?
In his final section. Wolters covers “Contrarian views of school reform.” He gives a chapter to Diane Ravitch, who argues an interesting combination of Kozol-style social reform with Hirsch’s Core Knowledge instruction.
He then ventures into taboo territory with a chapter on race realists. The intractability of the race gaps, and the fact that they remain constant even when overall achievement rises, strongly suggests that they have a biological origin.
Wolters describes my address to the Black Law Students Association at the University of Pennsylvania in 2010, in a panel discussion of the question: “Should the government play a role in eliminating racial disparities in education and employment?”
Derbyshire began his remarks by stating that he thought the question before the panel was based on a false premise. He did not think racial disparities in education could be eliminated … According to Derbyshire, these disparities were “facts in the natural world, like the orbits of the planets.”
He also gives a fair, even-handed account of my roughing-up by the Thought Police in 2012, and the discussion that followed.
The last contrarian Wolters presents, in the final chapter of The Long Crusade, is our own Happy Warrior Bob Weissberg.
Weissberg thought most research and writing on education in modern America resembled astronomical research in 17th-century Italy. After Galileo’s conviction it became de rigeur to proclaim that the sun went around the earth. And in modern America, political correctness had made it socially obligatory for schools to ignore IQ and demography and to focus on eliminating racial and ethnic gaps.
Derbyshire and Weissberg are not the only VDARE.com contributors to make appearances in The Long Crusade. There are twelve index references to Steve Sailer, the best quantitative journalist covering the social sciences today. Steve writes regularly on education topics.
Edwin S. Rubinstein also shows up, in reference to his 2005 column at VDARE.com reporting that the school achievement scores of white and Asian American students were the second-highest in a set of high-income nations tested.
This was a pioneering work in the study of academic test scores disaggregated by race. After decades of American Ed theorists and politicians grumbling about our low ranking on international tests, we now know that, as Steve Sailer summarized in 2010, reviewing the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) results from the previous year:
- Asian Americans outscored every Asian country, and lost out only to the city of Shanghai, China’s financial capital.
- White Americans students outperformed the national average in every one of the 37 historically white countries tested, except Finland (which is, perhaps not coincidentally, an immigration restrictionist nation where whites make up about 99 percent of the population).
- Hispanic Americans beat all eight Latin American countries.
- African Americans would likely have outscored any sub-Saharan country, if any had bothered to compete. The closest thing to a black country out of PISA’s 65 participants is the fairly prosperous oil-refining Caribbean country of Trinidad and Tobago, which is roughly evenly divided between blacks and South Asians. African Americans outscored Trinidadians by 25 points.
Which raises the very interesting question: This being the case, why do we need education reform? If our students do better than those of the same race almost anywhere else, what grounds are there for thinking that there is anything wrong with our schools?
Ray Wolters has written an excellent and fascinating book about education, casting his net wider than most theorists of the subject would dare. I am flattered to be included among his dramatis personae, and congratulate him on a fine work of modern social history.
John Derbyshire [email him] writes an incredible amount on all sorts of subjects for all kinds of outlets. (This no longer includes National Review, whose editors had some kind of tantrum and fired him. ) He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism and several other books. His most recent book, published by VDARE.com com is FROM THE DISSIDENT RIGHT (also available in Kindle).His writings are archived at JohnDerbyshire.com.