Here Is Where The Heart Is

In a time of profound polarization, one issue that has elicited bipartisan agreement is that the recently released results of the Nation’s Report Card are grim.  Pundits, lawmakers, wonks, and activists disagree sharply on the causes – depending on who you ask, it’s lack of funding, or the loosening of accountability standards, or too much testing, or school choice, or not enough school choice.

Arriving on the scene just in time to complicate everyone’s narratives is Robert Pondiscio’s new book, How The Other Half Learns.  He seeks answer a deceptively simple question:  what do the kids actually do in school all day?

Education policy people, as Mr. Pondiscio accurately notes, are often curiously incurious about this fundamental question.  Exceptions to this rule tend to be former teachers, as Mr. Pondiscio himself is. 

Teachers know there is not a single answer to this question – it’s just about as messy as the human condition itself.  Understandably, then, it’s hard to imagine many schools being as willing as Success Academy’s Bronx 1 was to fling open its doors to a reporter for an entire school year. 

Success Academy was founded in 2006 by Eva Moskowitz, and has grown to 47 campuses, serving 17,000 students across The Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens.  Prior to reading this book, your perspective on whether these charters are shining paragons of academic achievement in urban public schools or they are paternalist institutions of factory model education would likely depend on your underlying moral foundations, a framework described by Jonathan Haidt and others.  Like authority over subversion? You’re gonna love the classroom management that Bronx 1’s teachers execute (mostly) consistently. Value care over harm?  You’re gonna hate what happens to Adama. 

And guess what – this book won’t change your mind about Success Academies, or about “no-excuses” charters, or about “teaching to the test.”  It might cause you to do something even more essential, which is to question why your preference for fairness and equity trumps a working-class family’s preference for authority and safety.

What kids do in school all day — what they do at Success Academy, or at elite preparatory schools, or homeschool co-ops – they live in community, learn norms, forge identity, create, blow off steam, and yes (as Mr. Pondiscio vividly reminds us), vomit.

These are things that humans do in community, and they are the essence of what it means to be in a political order, with all its tensions and limitations.  Take these lucid observations from the closing chapters of the book:

1) “…We expect too much of schools.”  2) “If a government takes its legitimacy from the consent of the governed, so does a school.”  3) “But schools are not values-neutral.”

What would it mean if school reformers contemplated the implications?  On the one hand, we’d understand immediately that no community can achieve perfect equity of outcomes without systemic violence and deprivation.  On the other hand, we’d quickly see that no political order endures without the generally shared agreement that “this is how we do things here.”

These are, in fact, fundamental lessons most engaged citizens would hope that civics courses would impart to students (that civics education is in crisis is yet another point of consensus between the factions).  But Mr. Pondiscio’s sights are set higher: he wants us to note that schools themselves serve to teach these lessons implicitly and indelibly.  In a setting where their individual gifts are as a matter of policy neglected, as Tiffany, one of Mr. Pondiscio’s early students at a district school experienced, what lesson do they learn about whether their contributions matter?  On the flip side, for students who have behavioral challenges, what lesson do they learn if their teachers are afraid of them because they lack the specialized skills to address their needs? 

Success Academy is unapologetically focused on academic achievement as measured by state standardized exams.  Mr. Pondiscio concedes his own ambivalence about this, an ambivalence which I share.  But the parents who are there want that thing.  They don’t have to worry that their child will be marginalized for caring about learning.

Schools that are formed around a distinctive set of values or mission “vastly increase the odds of students acquiring academic and civic knowledge, skills, and sensibilities,” according to Ashley Berner. Spoiler alert: school culture turns out to be the secret sauce at Success Academy. Mr. Pondiscio goes one step farther than this anodyne assertion and reveals the ingredients that make up that sauce – family self-identification, sweating the small stuff, making hard decisions, and the full buy-in of all the grown-ups.

What are the kids doing all day?  They are learning how we do things here

Education is Curation

What we select, what we leave out, what we do, what we don’t do.  These are the essential ingredients of education.

We are swimming in an ocean of information.  But there has always been more to know than any one person can possibly know.  We are just more aware of that now.  We have better tools to access the far-flung, abstruse, and recherché.

Which calls into question our notion of what “knowing” anything means. The classic argument against teaching that focuses on particular content (“knowledge rich”) is that it’s pointless to spend time in second grade learning about, say, the War of 1812 when a) who cares and b) if you need/want to learn about it, just ask Siri.

Book: Paul M. Rapin de Thoyras – This illustration is from the 1816 book, The History of England, from the Earliest Periods, Volume 1 by Paul M. Rapin de Thoyras. The source holder of this book is the U.S. Library of Congress., Public Domain, Link

This argument doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny, and mostly because background knowledge is just another way of saying “literacy.”

Allow me to make a stronger case for the “knowledge acquisition is a waste of time” crowd than the one above.  This one is based on the idea that we don’t know what we think we know, and that if you think you know everything about the War of 1812 because you had a unit on it in second grade, you will be less curious/more falsely confident.

Now that is a good point.  Which is why I think (and I think most people on either side of this issue do) that education has to be about more than just the facts.  But here’s the thing – the facts are a pretty darn good starting point to discuss the big ideas and questions that have been part of our human experience for millenia.

There is a lot of belly-aching about fake news these days.  And it mostly comes from people who are worried that we no longer have any consensus on the facts.  These are sometimes the same people who (under different political regimes) argue in favor of constructivist models of education – i.e., students learn best through discovery and through constructing meaning with their peers in groups.  The same crowd that gets worked into a lather about the “industrial model” of education.  The same crowd that hopes the government will regulate speech because we’re all just too stupid now to distinguish truth from lies.

Hmm. I wonder if there is a correlation between schools de-emphasizing knowledge (as opposed to “strategies” or “skills” or “critical thinking” or “practical” subjects) and our sense that there is a crisis of both civic life and civics education.

I don’t believe that all schools have to teach the same curriculum for schools to do a better job of teaching citizens that facts matter.  It’s not the explicit but the implicit curriculum of schools that has taught Americans to care less about facts, knowledge, or what a person says that matters, and to put a far higher premium on subjective interpretations or constructions of reality.

Learning that there was a war that happened in 1812 may seem pointless.  But if a school’s curriculum is otherwise healthy, it will use this fact to help students understand, as they grow more mature, that our republic is fragile.  It has been from basically the beginning.  Sometimes the threats have been external, sometimes internal.  And this realization should point us towards the virtue of moderation.  And a shared sense of moderation is a pretty good basis for a civil society.

What we select, what we leave out, what we do, what we don’t do.  These are the essential ingredients of education.

On Seneca & Sasse

This is a re-post from a blog I wrote at Ricochet.com.

As I watched the livestream of Senator Ben Sasse’s keynote address kicking off this year’s ExcelInEd Conference, I was reminded of a fairly famous Latin phrase: non scholae sed vitae discimus – we learn not for school but for life.

Senator Sasse is a smart guy, a former college president, and well-read.  I’m a fan of his frequent appearances on Jonah Goldberg’s podcast.  His thesis this morning was “Education and schooling are not the same thing.”  It’s a pretty bold thing to say that to a group of people whose livings depend on … schools.  So kudos to him for speaking the truth.

It’s because I’m a fan and supporter that I thought it was worthwhile to point out a couple of issues that tend to undermine rather than bolster his thesis.  He leads with a talking point that has been used ad naseum by the fans of John Dewey — whom Sasse rightly goes on to critique.

He characterizes the current form of education that we have as based on a “Prussian” model, in which students sit in age-segregated rows and learn primarily through lecture.  He describes it as an “industrial model” of education, designed to maximize social control and prepare students for jobs in factories.  This banality is trotted out by those advocating progressive (i.e. Dewey-an) reforms, such as more group work (“cooperative learning”) and constructivist approaches to learning.

Yet Dewey was Senator Sasse’s target as the popularizer of the “industrial model.”  Something isn’t adding up here.

And, I have to add, this idea that lecture is the primary mode for most student instruction in public schools and that they all sit in rows is a strawman.  Teachers, especially in elementary grades, are taught in schools of education (and therefore heavily influenced by Dewey) that young children should work in groups, precisely in order to achieve the “socializing” effect that Dewey wanted to achieve.  Students would “construct” meaning not based on truth or on facts that the teacher might have been in position to share, but based on interactions and input from their peers.

The old-timey pictures of kids sitting in rows and learning by lecture, well, they exemplified Catholic education in the 19th and part of the 20th centuries.  And guess what?  Up to mid-century, these schools may have been the best poverty intervention program ever introduced into American cities.  It was a school like this (St. Pius X in Savannah, GA) that shaped and set Justice Clarence Thomas on his path in life, for instance.

Anyway, back to Dewey.  He had a strong distrust/dislike of Catholic education, a point which Sasse correctly invokes.  Dewey did not like the idea of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, an older and (yes) classical notion of education.

When people who favor educational freedom, revolutionizing funding structures, and generally shaking up the way we think about what school (i.e., my tribe) trot out the “industrial model” argument, it sets my teeth on edge.  Lots and lots of schools used (and still use) a lecture mode, with a teacher doing teacher things, and students doing student things, like paying attention, taking notes, and asking/answering questions.  A lot of these were Catholic schools.  I truly don’t think you can blame this convenient set-up (which we know dates back millenia, v.i.) for all the problems with education in this country.

Relief found in Neumagen near Trier, a teacher with three students (180-185 AD) Photo: Wikipedia / Shakko

The bigger issue is that we ask schools to do too much.  This goes back to Dewey’s articulation of the idea that the school should be the vehicle through which the child is “socialized.”  And these social ends tend to be measurable outcomes like employment.

This is the verse in the hymn where conservatives and libertarians join the choir — obviously, employment/economic productivity is an outcome that we want, and since taxpayers are footing the bill whether someone learns to read or ends up incarcerated, let’s make sure schools are focused on skills-acquisition.

You hear a lot these days about career and technical education (CTE) and I’m very much in favor of there being lots more available.  But I’ve also heard industry leaders basically make the Bismarkian case that public school systems should be responsive to their workforce needs (based on 5 and 10 year projections).  They tend to be the same folks who talk about 21st Century Skills and Critical Thinking.  Because these seem to support the idea that students will be employable/economically productive after graduation, lots of education reformers (especially on the right, broadly understood) get on board.

Other flavors prefer schools to be in the business of making good citizens or creating entrepreneurs.  These too, are both a little too narrow and too broad.

Which brings me back to that Latin phrase.  Guess what?  While that phrase is attributed to Seneca the Younger, it was actually an inversion of what he wrote.  He was anticipating an argument against a literary (classical) education from his correspondent, Lucilius.  These letters, by the way, have gotten additional attention lately given an English edition that Tim Ferriss recently published, based on Gummere’s translation.

So who inverted the phrase?  That’s right.  Germans.

It is exceedingly easy to say that we should learn things for life and not for school.  But by placing “life” or “practical considerations” as the end of education, those in power are predetermining the course that families, absent a context of full choice, can make.  There are choices that schools and school systems make about what is out and what is in – the selection of some texts, the absence of others.  And if the system decides that its job is to fit students for “life” (whatever the trendy or cronyistic definition of skills happens to be at the moment), the results will be poor.

My Stoic point of view may be showing here, but the point of education ought to be self-governance.  Socialization, in the Deweyan sense, is the exact opposite of this goal.  I urge my fellow travelers to avoid adopting the progressive the “industrial model” line of argumentation (complete with invocation of paper tigers like drill/kill, sage on the stage, etc.), and realize that when they make arguments in favor of schools that will adapt students better to a new age of disruption, they are simply following in the footsteps of Dewey, and replacing one measurable, socially acceptable goal with another.

Senator Sasse rounds out his talk by reminding his audience that students “aren’t widgets, they are souls.”  And I think this is a far more compelling line of argumentation to pursue.  Since it is folks like him who shape the narrative of policy discussions, I’d urge him to resist the use hackneyed progressive tropes about “industrial education” and instead make the case from first principles.

The moral high ground in this debate is that parents and families should be in charge of defining both the end towards which and the means by which they educate their children.  Some may just choose to put their kids in desks that are in (heaven forbid) rows.

School Choice, Civics, and Schumpeter

This is a repost from a blog I wrote at Ricochet.com.

I had the opportunity to watch a livestream of an event hosted by the Fordham Institute, Education 20/20. Jonah Goldberg was one of the two featured speakers. It was great, and I appreciated that Michael Petrelli, who was the moderator, highlighted that the best approach to addressing the issue was persuasion.

Mr. Goldberg mentioned that the private schools in his area (the DMV) are highly progressive in their approach, relying on the Howard Zinn narrative of American history. He noted that “school choice” may not solve the issue of kids not learning civics, tying this issue to the larger Schumpeterian phenomenon of the elites failing to pass along the values that made their position and wealth (capitalism itself) possible.

I wanted to bring up a couple of points that I think may be of interest in the context of what seems to be a contradiction – on the one hand, we want to expand the choices that families have in educating their students, and on the other hand, that we are concerned that too many kids are not learning civics.

First, here’s an excerpt from Corey DeAngelis’s recent work on the outcomes for students in private schools, specifically related to positive civics outcomes:

It’s time we set the record straight. The preponderance of the evidence suggests that private school choice improves test scores, high school graduation rates, tolerance, civic engagement, criminality, racial integration, and public school performance. And, of course, all of these benefits come at a lower cost to the taxpayer.

It supports Mr. Goldberg’s hunch that stronger local ties and local control would actually increase the sense of belonging and sense of gratitude, not to mention the “thickness” of social networks.

Second, I wanted to highlight the work of an organization that is doing EXACTLY what Mr. Goldberg identified as a need in schools, and doing it through voluntary, rather than compulsory, means. The Bill of Rights Institute, led by Dr. David Bobb. Their mission, “Educating Individuals about a Free Society,” is focused on reaching middle and high school students, largely in public schools, to read and interpret primary texts, understand both sides of the debate, and have civil and informed conversations. They also do amazing work to educate teachers in founding ideas and documents.

If you are inclined to support and organization that has been dedicated to the importance of civics before it was the latest “sexy” trend in education, you really couldn’t do better than BRI. Also, if you happen to live in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and would like to see one of BRI’s events in action, Dr. Bobb will be speaking at the Bill of Rights Day at Founders Classical Academy in Lewisville, TX.