“In a word, I was too cowardly to do what I knew to be right, as I had been too cowardly to avoid doing what I knew to be wrong.”
The education world is a lot like the NFL. The off-season that time when some of the most interesting storylines emerge. The ones that set the tone for the upcoming season. It’s a trope that is certainly holding true this year. Let’s take a look at some of what’s currently happening.
CRITICAL RACE THEORY DEBATE
When I was growing up, I was fascinated by the tales around Greek philosophers. I longed to be able to emulate them by debating philosophy and policy in the public sphere. To counter assumptions and arguments with my own well-thought-out and researched opinions. Alas, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum. We stopped actually engaging in public discourse and instead replaced it with heightened partisanship.
Maybe it was always like that, and I’m just reminiscing through rose-colored glasses, but I do remember a time when elected officials like Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neil could fight for their opposing views without ever making it personal. These days, those kinds of friendships have gone the way of the duckbill platypus.
But more tragic than the loss of across-the-aisle friendships is the inability to actually focus and debate policy. Ideally, when debating policy person A would state their view, and then person B would counter that with evidence of why that isn’t true and evidence that supports their view. Like they say in AA, principles before personalities. As of late the equation has been flipped. These days policy debates tend to go more like this,
Person A, “I believe that the wall is blue.”
Person B, “Earlier in the week, person A was at a rally promoting the stealing of women’s purses. That’s what kind of person he is. Would you believe that kind of person?”
Or, the other favored tactic brought forth is the one whereas it’s offered that the wall is actually red, and person A can’t see that because they don’t understand what red is.
Both strategies are sure to win supporters among those already predisposed to our position, and if you are not one of those…well, you are one of them. And nobody has time for one of them.
What both strategies ignore is that the wall is likely not pure blue or pure red, but rather a variance of color in between, one that can only be identified through careful dialog and examination.
The other fallacy we fall into is looking closer at who’s making the argument, than what the actual argument is. Whatever the key players on our team is saying, tends to be the default position adopted. Few remember when Tip O’neil actually argued for President Reagan’s policies and that both came together in order to find a means to keep Social Security sustainable. Try that today, and a politician would quickly find themselves persona non grata.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the current lack of conversation over Critical Race Theory. Raise a question about its tenets and one is instantly painted as either racist or ignorant. Voice your support, and you are instantly portrayed as favoring the indoctrination of kids and looking to push one race over another. Hiding in all of this is the reality that both descriptors can be true, or they can both be false, that the truth, per usual, is a lot more complex than supporters or detractors would have us believe.
Both sides repeatedly paint the other as being ignorant and having a hidden agenda. The hyperbole continues to rise at an alarming rate. Proponents claim that it is impossible to teach American History without painting the nation as inherently racist while portraying all whites as being culpable for the sins of the past. Critics by the same token argue that a false history is being written in order to benefit one race over another in order to receive special consideration.
Amidst all of it, nobody is being 100% honest. And in the end, it’s all about power. Yes, white as the majority race in colonial America, and as a result of the practice of slavery, white Americans have enjoyed privileges not afforded to non-white Americans. That absolutely has to be acknowledged and corrected.
But in downplaying the tenets of Critical Race Theory being employed in schools, I’ve repeatedly heard opponents described as ignorant, but I’ve yet to hear any acknowledgment of the end game. If you raise an entire generation to believe that the founding of the country, and its governing policies, are rooted in white supremacy then ultimately there is no other option than to change both the Constitution and governing practices. We are already seeing a touch of this unfold in regard to law enforcement policies.
Now I’m not arguing one side or the other here, though I am a firm believer in our Constitution, but, we need to at least acknowledge what’s actually transpiring. I have a dear friend who readily admits that she has argued for a re-writing of the Constitution for decades. While I don’t necessarily agree with her, I admire her honesty.
A conversation of this magnitude also needs to center on ideas and facts, not focus on who’s wearing what colored ball cap or who has the right colored sticker in the window of their Prius. I chuckle because we have long argued that a major goal of education should be that of producing critical thinkers. Those skills are now more in need than ever.
I chuckle because both sides think that this is a conversation that can be forced through policies that govern from the top-down. In reality, neither the banning of the discussion nor the implementation of policies that demand, are capable of successfully shaping the conversation. Because politicos and bureaucrats don’t control it.
John McWhorter teaches linguistics and music history at Columbia University, hosts Slate’s Lexicon Valley podcast, and is a Contributing Editor at the Atlantic. He’s been keeping a close tab on the conversation around CRT and has expressed some reservations. In a post this week he pokes holes in the argument that critics are not really familiar with CRT,
The early writings by people like Regina Austin, Richard Delgado, Kimberlé Crenshaw are simply hard-leftist legal analysis, proposing a revised conception of justice that takes oppression into account, including a collective sense of subordinate group identity. These are hardly calls to turn schools into Maoist re-education camps fostering star chambers and struggle sessions.
However, this, indeed, is what is happening to educational institutions across the country. Moreover, it is no tort to call it “CRT” in shorthand when:
1) these developments are descended from its teachings and
2) their architects openly bill themselves as following the tenets of CRT.
In language, terms evolve, and quickly — witness, of late, how this has happened with cancel culture and even woke. To insist that “CRT” must properly refer only to the contents of obscure law review articles from decades ago is a debate team stunt, not serious engagement with a dynamic and distressing reality.
It’s a stunt that prevents deeper conversation. A conversation that should involve how we teach history, how much time should be allotted to that teaching, and the end intent. Let’s be honest, no matter how much lip service is given to teaching history in a robust manner, modern school days allow nowhere near the capacity needed to fully present all the facts that allow for in-depth analysis of the motivations of the forefathers in establishing a more perfect union.
As a result, facts are left out, and events are reduced. The question then becomes, who gets to make that decision? In the past, America and other countries tended to teach history in a manner that brought greater national fealty. A narrative that instills pride of accomplishment in its citizens. Every nation is guilty of embellishing its past, downplaying its shortcomings, in an effort to paint itself as being bigger, faster, stronger than others. Hence the saying, history belongs to the victors.
Is that something that is still desired? To what point do you allow this “embellishing” before it crosses the line into being classified as lying?
History is complex, people are complex. For the most part, we are only privy to the actions of past actors, how do we gleam motivations without a full understanding of the time in which they lived? And does living in a different era not warrant the granting of some grace? Lastly, is it even possible in this age, with so much diversity, to create a national narrative that includes and can be embraced by all? And sans a widely embraced national narrative can a nation truly succeed?
These are big questions. Ones that should not be left out of the equation. I would argue that the stories a nation tells itself, are essential to the character of that country and the values represented by its citizens. What are the unintended consequences of the public vetting of a country’s narrative?
The Washington Post recently printed a piece about Germany and how they’ve handled their recent shameful past. Author Michael Norris writes,
This collective culture of atonement is captured in the eight syllables and 26 letters that comprise the German word Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung. It’s a mouthful that translates loosely to “working off the past.” But its full meaning goes deeper than even that awkward phrase suggests.
Having lived in Germany growing up, I think his portrait is a little idyllic, but he raises several points that are worth considering. And that’s what critical thinking is supposed to be about. Extracting relevant points in order to create a more perfect argument. Not embracing every argument whole and unchallenged because it is cached in like-minded general ideas.
Earlier I mentioned that despite all of the public fireworks, any policy, from either side, forced on schools was likely destined to fail. We all like to pretend we have control over what transpires in a classroom, but do we really?
Robert Pondiscio points out in a recent piece, takes a closer look at how social conversations in schools have grown. As he points out, the purpose of schools has shifted from being one of a primary public good to one rooted in benefits to the individual. He notes that “as a profession, education has a long history of seeing schools as agencies to promote whatever was on the mind of “progressive” reformers of the era—from abolition, temperance, and turning immigrants into assimilated English-speaking citizens over a century ago, to promoting bilingualism and raising awareness of climate change more recently.”
Which, which is probably the impetus that led to Education Reformer Chester E. Finn Jr’s observation, “schools have long seemed like a swell place for adult causes to try to enlist kids.” No fan of Mr. Finn, but he’s spot on here.
As I previously mentioned, currently there is a battle being waged over the future of our country. One being fought by entities with very different visions of what inclusion, equity, and freedom look like. Both sides are attempting to use the country’s classrooms as a battle filed. Whether we choose to acknowledge this fight or not, all of us will be affected by its outcome.
While both sides are desperately trying to control the curriculum used to teach children, there is a caveat. Pondiscio exposes what few want to admit when it comes to schools and how children are taught,
But these battles, however earnestly fought, betray a fundamental misunderstanding about what gets taught, and how difficult it is to keep inaccurate and even pernicious ideas out of American classrooms. Curricula are not handed down to teachers on stone tablets. Indeed, they are seldom, perhaps never, taught as written. What gets in front of students in most American classrooms is largely up to teacher discretion, making it nearly impossible to control—or even monitor—the content of children’s education or the ideals and values being valorized by their teachers. If the many factions battling over California’s model curriculum did so believing the fight would determine the shape that ethnic studies will take in classrooms, they were almost certainly mistaken.
Nearly every teacher in America—99 percent of elementary teachers, 96 percent of secondary-school teachers—draws upon “materials I developed and/or selected myself” in teaching English language arts, according to a RAND Corporation study. Google and Pinterest are the two most common sources of curricular materials cited by teachers. Nearly three out of four social-studies teachers in a separate RAND report agreed with the statement “Textbooks are becoming less and less important in my classroom.” Materials that teachers “found, modified, or created from scratch” make up the majority of what gets taught. Only one in four secondary-school social-studies teachers cited resources “provided by my school or district” as composing the majority of what they use in class on a given day.
Moreover, all this curriculum curation, creation, customization, and tinkering is not regarded as a flaw, but a feature of classroom practice. Teachers are trained to “differentiate instruction,” adapting or supplementing the curriculum to make it more engaging, accessible, or challenging based on the needs of individual students. Academic standards like Common Core mostly dictate the “skills” students are expected to demonstrate; they are largely silent on the specific content kids should learn. These practices and habits weigh heavily on the use of controversial curricula, whether officially “adopted” or not. Outsiders assume far more top-down control over classroom content than actually exists.
In this description lies the recipe for why any attempts at banning certain discussions will surely be met with failure. But that shouldn’t be interpreted as granting free reign to promote an ideology, nor should a purported commitment to the “Truth” be seen as justification in ignoring unintended consequences. That goes for both sides of the much-needed conversation.
If either side proves that the wall is pue “blue” or pure “red”, there are consequences for all of us. Pondiscio’s closing paragraph should give us all plenty to mull over,
Ultimately, something has to give. The cost of public education is socialized in America; you pay school taxes regardless of whether or not you have children in public school or have children at all. If our schools encourage a belief that the United States is a fundamentally racist country, and that every institution is designed to maintain white supremacy and cannot be reformed, then it inevitably sets schools on a collision course with the society that supports them. Whether it’s a conscious institutional attempt to be “anti-racist” or merely that an intellectual monoculture has taken root among educators, the effect will be akin to an organism devouring its host. No sane nation will long tolerate an institution whose purpose is to set its children against itself at public expense.
My ultimate concerns lie less with who is victorious, and more with what the ultimate cost will be. A cost that will be borne by all of us. It sounds cliched, but ultimately we are all Americans, and as such, have to find a way to coexist. That’s not a call to excuse and dismiss racism, but rather one for a deeper conversation that considers a multitude of perspectives.
PUBLIC EDUCATION BLUES
When I was in the restaurant business, we often used to joke, “This would be a great place to work, if it wasn’t for the customers.” More and more I come away with the feeling that some supporters of public education share a similar sentiment, “Public education is great except for the public.”
The pandemic has revealed just how narrow our perception of what constitutes public education has become. Instead of using last year’s events as a tool for expanding practices in order to serve more kids, we’ve done the opposite.
Virtual instruction? That’s not public education.
Questions about curriculum? That’s another attempt to destroy public education.
And the list goes on.
I’m constantly amazed at how hard proponents fight to preserve public education while at the same time turning themselves into walking billboards for alternative schooling options.
Charter schools grew out of parents feeling that schools were being unresponsive to their kids’ needs. Instead of acknowledging any shortcomings, and working to address them, charter schools have been vilified and parents who choose them cast as either dupes or villains themselves. As if parents were just supposed to accept the shortcomings in order to support the greater good.
Sorry kid, gotta hold up the system for those other 100 kids, you get it right?
They didn’t and as a result charter school growth continues.
Here we go again. What do you think parents will do for their children who thrived through remote instruction – yes Virginia, they exist – and suddenly find themselves without a public system option?
What do you think parents who question the curriculum being taught will do when they are dismissed and painted as ignorant?
Here’s a hint. They’ll emulate parents of the past and they’ll leave. No amount of attacking the supply will change that. If you don’t address the demand, families will continue to leave. It’s a simple concept that district leaders. and some public school advocates seem intent on not grasping.
WIT AND WISDOM’S TERRIBLY BAD WEEKEND
On Tuesday of last week, Robin Steenman and her group, Moms For Liberty-Williamson County, held a meeting to discuss Commissioner Schwinn’s favored curriculum, Wit and Wisdom. Like more and more families across the state, Steenman and cohort, have found cause for pause with the materials.
These affairs usually bring in about 20 people and go nowhere. Not this one. 350 people, including state representatives, showed up at the Cool Springs Harley Davidson store at 10 in the morning to hear what Steemanhad to say.
What they heard was a concerned parent, who has done their homework. Steenman outlined issues with the curriculum, the adoption process, and those who facilitated that adoption process. She pretty much nailed it. Do I share all of her concerns? Maybe not, but I tell you, she deserves to be heard and it would behoove officials and politicians to listen.
Circle July 8th on your calendar. That’s the date that the Tennessee State Board of Education is slated to take up discussion on the screeners that schools will be using next year in compliance with newly passed legislation. You know the screener that will influence whether or not your 3rd grader passes on to 4th grade.
It was intended that the department would use an RFP process in order to secure a vendor to create the required test, which districts are required to administer 3 times a year. Furthermore, the results are not required to be provided to the department in a timely fashion. The state’s version would be made available to districts at no cost. Now it seems that the process will not be utilizing an RFP, and to date, none has been produced.
Reportedly, in the Spring the department sent select vendors a rubric on what the assessment should look like. Vendors replied, and a new guideline was sent out. If rumors are to be believed, it is the department’s intent to utilize AIMSWeb as the state’s official screener.
Furthermore, rumors indicate that the screener will also have an SEL component attached to it. if true, let’s see how that flies.
That’s it. Don’t forget the poll questions.
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