June 8, 2021

June 7, 2021

Those Who Cannot Remember The Past Are Condemned To Debate It

This Michael Powell look at the tensions inside the ACLU in The Times is must reading. It’s an echo of many orgs in the ed sector, but more importantly it’s an actual case look at the divergence between liberalism and progressivism we’re seeing today.

That split seems relevant to this argument from FIRE’s Greg Lukianoff, of Coddling of the American Mind fame. In Persuasion he takes a look at K-12 schools and viewpoint diversity (and other issues like mental health) and offers up a ten point list of principles.

Lukianoff notes,

If you believe that K-12 schools should inculcate specific political beliefs, you must consider how differently you would feel if those beliefs were, for example, the imposition of the belief that America is—and has always been—a utopia, that all must express unrelenting patriotism, and that to question American exceptionalism is a punishable offense. I oppose any of these attempts to enforce specific political beliefs, and I hope that parents and educators will agree.

The problem, as I see it, is that is how many Americans do feel! And they’re not all wrong. Sentiments here don’t always cut cleanly along racial or other lines (for example, as we’ve noted around here a lot over the last four years, the median white progressive is to the left politically, substantially, of the median African-American on some key issues). But Lukianoff’s counterexample is not a thought exercise, it’s one pole in the debate about what to teach in schools. As with all our debates the loudest extremes drive the debate and polarize the discussion.

Still, you don’t have to be a Zinn or 1619 adherent to think that there is a problem here. We don’t do a great job teaching history – at all and in all ways. Depending on political context we toggle between the America as a hell hole and America as a mostly unblemished hero’s journey and don’t do justice to the complexity. This, even as most sensible people know the reality is more complicated – either intuitively given what they see around them and experience or because they’ve cracked a few books. Or ideally both.

Solving this in schools is as much a capacity as an ideological problem. And it seems like we can’t outrun it, now or historically, and whether we’re talking history standards, an ethnic studies curriculum in California, or the 1619 project, history is what we’re ultimately debating here and it’s a long running debate. So what we need are more constructive ways to talk about these issues and develop high quality curriculum. We may also need some degree of choice although living in a society means you can’t entirely outrun these questions that way, either. And realistically, we’ll continue to muddle through. Although liberalism seem to provide a better framework for that muddling no one has found a way around these questions in diverse society.*

*Yes, the Dutch, I know. I’ve spent enough time there to appreciate the benefits and limits of that model in a U.S. context. That said, I wouldn’t say no to a junket to investigate further!

June 4, 2021


One of the things I like most about Bellwether is that learning is a byproduct of what we do here, so you’re always learning (by the way, we’re hiring). For a client project I just revisited Theda Skocpol’s Diminished Democracy. It’s about cross class civic organizations in America. Or, more precisely, how they have evolved from that. For our part of the world the PTA plays a role in Skocpol’s account. If you are concerned about some of the issues Michael Lind raised in The New Class War, then recommend. The tensions both books point up seem inescapable in our sector.

Once upon a time we looked to standardized tests as one way to address some of these issues of class and class mobility. The SAT was supposed to help create a genuine meritocracy and in K-12 tests were intended, since the 1990s, to create accountably for educating all students, especially those historically underserved. I’d recommend Nicholas Lemman’s Big Test and Malcom Gladwell’s article about Stanley Kaplan for some of the higher ed history. But, the reality is no one has ever been satisfied. In K-12 testing has been both complicated from a psychometric standpoint and tortured from a political one.

Checker Finn wrote recently about our need for a Space X kind of moment on K-12 testing and highlighted other calls for the same. I’m going to click on any education article with Space X in the headline (and perhaps it’s a sign we’ve moved on from “Sputnik moments,”) But this, too, seems awfully complicated.

I’ve long thought that part of the lack of testing innovation is a capital markets problem. It’s not a great market, contrary to popular belief and a lot of wild rhetoric. States, meanwhile, are at once easy marks, they’re required by federal law to do testing but also tough customers because meeting their varied specs is close to impossible. Depending how you read it the collapse of Imbellus is either an indication capital is not a problem, they raised a good bit, or an indication how difficult the market is from an innovation standpoint.

The federal effort in this area sort of makes the case for the latter. If we’re being honest no investor would have gone anywhere near either PARCC or Smarter Balanced, the two testing consortia that came of the Obama-era Race to the Top initiatives. For starters, it was impossible to tell who was in charge and any investor would have balked at the governance approach. One result, the test widely considered higher quality, PARCC*, was politically problematic. Yet some of the smaller federally funded testing initiatives have borne more fruit. Bonnie O’Keefe and I looked at that a few years ago.

The holy grail, it seems to me, remains K-12 tests that can yield good information for parents, teachers, and in aggregate for policymakers, about what students know and are able to do but is embedded in the day-to-day of schools in ways that make it less visible and intrusive.** In other words, teachers and students aren’t even aware assessment is happening because it’s not intrusive or very regular and rather is just part of the cadence. At any scale that’s obviously a tech enabled solution and there are some efforts to move that way now. But Elon Musk didn’t get rich tilting at just any windmill. Cars and space are lucrative.

So, we’re going to have to figure out how to get the incentives right in K-12 to move past where we are now or just making tests a little less awful by moving them online. And at some level the political problem remains the K-12 sector’s allergy to accountability, no test is going to address that. Some of the problem is politics not craft. Those though do seem like big worthy challenges in a field looking for directions to go.

*Past BW client. But don’t take my word for it, people associated with SBAC say the same thing privately.

**Everyone wants an end to “testing season.” I remember talking to a building leader while students were literally packed in a gym doing a stupid pep rally around the upcoming state test, and this person remarked about how the kids seemed really concerned about the upcoming test. No shit, really? Why is that do you think?

Music: In My Room covered. 

June 2, 2021

June 1, 2021

Ban CRT?

This podcast moderated by Bari Weiss is a pretty good discussion of the legal issues around these critical race theory or “CRT” bans some state legislatures are considering and passing. David French argues against them, anti-CRT activist Christopher Rufo argues in favor.

I’m against for a few reasons (including, regardless of your take on CRT, do you really want legislatures mucking around like this?) but that seems irrelevant because it seems like most of this legislation won’t survive the federal courts anyway. Meanwhile, some of what the CRT ban folks claim to be most concerned about wouldn’t survive judicial review either. But that’s not the point, it’s about politics and signaling, which is why people (on all sides) are suddenly completely spun up about an academic legal theory they hadn’t heard of ten minutes ago but now see as either revelatory or an existential threat to American institutions.*

One reason some of these bans are legally questionable is because they conflate K-12 and higher education (and the French-Rufo discussion does at times as well), where academic freedom or free speech rights are different for instructors. There is more latitude in higher ed. It’s a parallel to the transgender students and sports debate where state legislatures are approaching high school and college sports together in ways that are a poor fit.**

Speaking of conflation, a concern I have is that the generally poor job we do teaching history is getting lumped in with this “CRT” debate in a way that obscures a lot of common ground and could turn efforts to improve history instruction into a casualty of this culture war. Seems like there is a constituency out there that thinks it’s pedagogically suspect to have young kids doing “privilege walks” and similarly age inappropriate things, finds the absolutism of 1619 and 1776 lacking nuance, and thinks it’s also a scandal that many people are just learning about the Greenwood Massacre today, on its centennial.

Given the evolving contours of this debate, however, I’m not sure where those people go.

*It should go without saying that few academic theories survive the jump into popular discourse intact. A lot of what we’re talking about here isn’t really critical theory, at least in the various iterations of it amongst its actual academic adherents. It’s more a mash up of poorly done DEI workshops, cultural “wokeism”, and more recently Kendiism than it is any specific ideology. That’s why as a practical matter these bans seem basically unenforceable except at the margins anyway.

**Too long for a blog post, or at least this blog post, but in brief the NCAA has policy on this, most high school sports leagues do not even though it’s most acutely an issue for adolescent competitive sports where there are complicated issues. The bans would, in some cases, override the NCAA policy, which seems an odd “conservative” position to take.

May 27, 2021

May 26, 2021

Aspen’s Project Play On Rural HS Sports, Why Putting A Lid On Remote Schooling Could Be A Political Gift To Reformers, Loan Forgiveness…More…

I discussed pandemic schooling with some fantastic Texas principals in this webinar hosted by the Bush Center.

This push, in many places but perhaps most high profile in NYC, to put a lid on remote learning for the fall seems ill-conceived. The fall will be unpredictable, there could be disruptions, there will be hesitancy and trust issues, and parents want more options anyway. This latter point seems big? If the goal is broadening and deepening public support for public education then offering more options, especially now after the pandemic experience, seems like a good strategy?

For reformers, this seems like a good political fight to pick. Picking smart targets is a key part of any movement and the totalizing let’s stamp out derivation approach seems like an unforced error and a place to have a debate about responding to the pandemic specifically and a more inclusive approach to public education more generally. It’s a good place to force a choice because it’s not theater, it matters to how people live their lives.

From the Aspen Institute’s Project Play – some cause for concern around gender and sports, and as always personal finance and access to sports.

And also from Project Play’s Reimagining School Sports Initiative* a new deep dive look at large rural high schools and sports. Earlier report on charter schools and more to come this year.

Carnevale and Wenzinger:

Just as free college isn’t really free, forgiving student loan debt wouldn’t be free, either. It would benefit many college graduates whose degrees already enable them to pursue higher-earning careers and pay off their loans. And it would come at a cost to taxpayers, including those who haven’t earned a college credential.

The irony of the debate over student loan debt cancellation is that the degree itself puts most college graduates in a pretty good position to pay off their loans. For most adults with a bachelor’s degree, the student debt burden is relatively low…

…Canceling some amount of student loan debt across the board would promote racial, gender, and economic equity among college graduates and aid adults who were unable to finish their degrees or earn enough to make loan payments. It would disproportionately help the groups that are likely to hold student debt and to hold it in greater amounts. However, under a broad student loan cancellation program, more of the funds would go to higher-income college graduates who are already in a good financial situation to pay off their loans.

Targeted student loan cancellation would be more complex, but it would have the potential to focus relief on the students who need it most…

*I’m on the advisory board.

May 24, 2021