December 7, 2007

Whose values would be valued in a neoliberal education world: Michelle Rhee's or Marc Dean Millot's?

Marc Dean Millot explains why he's a critic of DC Chancellor Michelle Rhee (hat tip), and here's the key paragraph:

What I see in Chancellor Rhee's approach, abetted, permitted or endorsed by Mayor Fenty, is 1) insensitivity and arrogance towards others, combined with 2) a reliance on fear to control staff, and 3) a considerable willingness not to apply analogous performance criteria and public criticism to themselves. Managers cannot be harder and harsher with others than they are on themselves and expect support from their staff, respect from their board, or trust from the public. And managers without all three cannot succeed in a turn-around.

There are three points here. One is the immediate and obvious one: Humiliation and denigration are not great motivators, nor is "making an example of" a significant proportion of the people you work with. I don't know Rhee, but this is not the first time I've seen reports of her approach to people being problematic. And Millot is right on the general principle.

The second point is that mayoral control of schools is no panacea and often a fig-leaf reform. As Monday's Washington Post story on the matter indicates, politics don't disappear with mayoral control. And that's why I was disappointed to see the brief mention of David Tyack's One Best System in Wong, Shen, Anagnostopolous, and Rutledge's new book, The Education Mayor. Tyack showed how governance reformers in the early 20th century claimed to be "taking politics out of school" in changing ward-based urban school boards to nonpartisan boards often appointed by courts or mayors. Wong et al. seriously misread Tyack in claiming that the historical lesson is that we need to keep politics out of school. Tyack documented how the new boards may have been nonpartisan but were certainly political, elitist, highly connected, and contributors to instead of brakes on bureaucracy. We have seen plenty of the last (continuing bureaucracy) in Chicago and New York City, where mayoral control appears to have changed the address of the bureaucracy instead of the basic facts. Beyond the obscuring of bureaucratic continuation, the arguments in favor of mayoral control contain a romantic view that is all too familiar to historians: change the structure and you can reduce if not eliminate the presumably nasty consequences of education politics. There are at least two fallacies in this romantic view: An unrealistic view of structural change as a panacea, and the blithe assumption that we'd want public education without politics. As long as education is tied to citizenship, politics will inevitably be involved, and that's not a bad thing. (You think Brown v. Board of Education and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 weren't political??)

The third point is obvious in the today but subtler when looking at the long term (or long duree if you're a devotee of the French Annalist school): there is a distinction between policy and approaches to handling people, and you don't know what will win out in the end. You can agree with the policy orientations of people whom you'd never trust (Millot's response to Rhee), and you can see and admire the human qualities of people with whom you have fundamental policy disagreements (me and Mike Huckabee, to take one example; I mean my view of him, not the converse). Often, the historical perspective focuses on the policy issues instead of the person, in part because extant records that focus on personality are often sensationalist instead of subtle. One exception is the record of a few common-school reformers from the early 19th century, whose views on "school management" were an intimate and conscious part of their ouvre. While one or two of the crankier education historians from the 1970s portrayed Horace Mann and his ilk as 19th century Darth Vaders, top-down class-oriented stealers of democracy, the truth that good historians of various stripes recognize is that a number of class-conscious reformers had a serious argument about the need to be kinder to students. One of the arguments for women as teachers was that they'd be more nurturing. (Sexist? Yes. Motivated by some understanding that beating kids isn't great? Absolutely. Ignores the fact that in the 19th century, women as well as men beat students? You bet.) And Mann is famous for pointing out that Massachusetts teachers regularly beat and humiliated students... and his argument that such mistreatment was unnecessary and wrong.

That fact notwithstanding, Mann, Henry Barnard, and others still fit into a broad movement of 19th century social reformers who held a set of overlapping traits, which in retrospect we associate with northern Whig parties, the growth of merchant capitalism, concerns about poverty and social disorder, a belief in the ability of the state to address such concerns, and an environmentalist analysis of social problems. When most educational historiography mentions Michael Katz's The Irony of Early School Reform, it is usually in reference to the vote abolishing the high school in Beverly, Massachusetts, but the Beverly story is only the first of three parts. The other two sections emphasize the rise and fall of environmental thinking in the mid-19th century. By the 1870s and 1880s, the optimistic environmentalism from a few decades before had become overshadowed by Social Darwinism and "scientific charity." Katz argued that the early promises of reformatories and other social reforms overpromised and ignored the corrupting influences of institutions and the expenses of running truly beneficial programs. (Disclosure: I'm a Katz student, or I was in grad school.)

Mann's twelve reports are the most interesting body of common-school reform writing to me, in part because there is so much complexity to them. He wanted teachers to be kinder to kids and to use more effective teaching methods. He certainly fit comfortably into the world of early- and mid-19th century Whig reformers, belonging to a temperance society and key in the creation of a state asylum while in the Massachusetts legislature. That reformist attitude was perfectly consistent with the background fear of social disorder. In a letter to a friend, Mann explained his acceptance of the Board of Education secretary position by saying, "Having found the present generation composed of materials almost unmalleable, I am about transferring my efforts to the next. Men are cast-iron; children are wax." Maybe he was influenced by religious riots in Massachusetts in the prior few years, but in any case that fear lasted until his very last report in 1848, which resonated with the news of revolution Europe and the publication of the Communist Manifesto. We had to have common schooling, Mann said, or else we would have classes bent on mutual conflict:

Now, surely, nothing but Universal Education can counter-work this tendency to the domination of capital and the servility of labor. If one class possesses all the wealth and the education, while the residue of society is ignorant and poor, it matters not by what name the relation between them may be called; the latter, in fact and in truth, will be the servile dependents and subjects of the former.

For students of 19th century history, this should be familiar; it is an echo of the developing free-labor ideology in the North. And as Maris Vinovskis has pointed out, Mann had an approach to education that approximated human capital arguments:

But if education be equably diffused, it will draw property after it, by the strongest of all attractions; for such a thing never did happen, and never can happen, as that an intelligent and practical body of men should be permanently poor. Property and labor, in different classes, are essentially antagonistic; but property and labor, in the same class, are essentially fraternal.

Educate the tykes, and they'll all have some prosperity and a stake in society. But Mann's fear is less about the South than events across the Atlantic:

The people of Massachusetts have, in some degree, appreciated the truth, that the unexampled prosperity of the State,-its comfort, its competence, its general intelligence and virtue,-is attributable to the education, more or less perfect, which all its people have received; but are they sensible of a fact equally important?-namely, that it is to this same education that two thirds of the people are indebted for not being, to-day, the vassals of as severe a tyranny, in the form of capital, as the lower classes of Europe are bound to in the form of brute force.

To Mann, poverty and conflict lurk under the surface of an industrial economy, something that only education can forestall. This was not the naked instrumentalism that Bowles, Gintis, and others claimed in the 1970s, but neither were common-school reformers unconnected to early 19th century industrialization: there were intimately vested in it and saw education's connections to it in multiple ways, including ameliorating social tensions.

In the long run, the more child-friendly views of Mann did not become a part of bureaucratic school culture. As hundreds of my students have pointed out to me over the years, common school reforms were far more successful in changing the structure of schools than in directly affecting the cultural practices inside a classroom. Some things changed, certainly: as other historians (e.g., David Tyack and Larry Cuban) note, chalkboards slowly became institutionalized in school construction, and in the early 1960s, Mann's view of an 'unvarnished' Bible reading instead of sectarian instruction had become the norm. But those were compartmentalized practices, the type of add-on that Larry Cuban has frequently noted is easier for schools to accommodate. (Note: I am dramatically underestimating the issues involved in shifting away from sectarian instruction. Nonetheless, )

One operative question that 1970s and 1980s historians wrestled with is the extent to which the growth of bureaucracy and the decline of early 19th century environmentalism were the consequence of early industrial capitalism. We have a much richer and more complex picture of 19th century school history today, and yet that question remains (or should remain) interesting. The truly large-factory model of education tried in early 19th century cities died as many schools shifted from monitorial schools to smaller, self-contained classes and choral recitation. On the one hand, one could argue that the organization of graded elementary school in many ways mirrored the less-mechanized and smaller factories in the U.S. better than they did some of the much larger factories in England, where monitorial instruction was invented. But that argument that emphasizes the parallel between graded elementary schools and factories overemphasizes the importance of larger cities, when much of early industrialization happened in towns rather than the largest cities.

And that city-town distortion ignores rural places. As Nancy Beadie's recent research uncovers, the building of schools in small towns and rural places may have been as important a part of local economic development in indirect terms as in any human capital effects. The marshaling of local resources for something as simple as church or school buildings required a complex web of economic and social relationships, quasi-private loan networks and reciprocal property relationships that helped incorporate small towns and rural places into a regional economic watershed. ("Watershed" is an unfortunately naturalized metaphor, but I'm not sure there are better alternatives: web and ecology are as inapt.) There's far more to industrialization than building schools, but Beadie's work shows the potential subtlety of schooling's effects and the relationship between economic life and formal education.

And even the subtler views skip some important topics, including the role of mid-19th century higher education, a fuzzily-bordered sector that included institutions called academies, high schools, normal schools, and colleges. And then there's the growth of Sunday schools, and the links between Northern missionary groups and Reconstruction education. So I'm feeling still a bit at sea, wanting a more synthetic interpretive history of 19th century education that wrestles with the bigger economic questions.

What is unquestionable is that Mann's kinder, gentler school didn't survive in the nascent bureaucracy that he helped build. School bureaucracies were easily corrupted into hierarchies that held low expectations for the poorest students. We have the historical example of a structurally-oriented school reformer who still held complex views about what should happen inside the classroom, views that did respect the potential and humanity of children in ways that we should not ignore. Yet his humane vision of schools lost out, at least for most of a century. The structure he imagined did not require humane treatment of its inhabitants.

So today, as we witness another experimental phase in the structure of American education, I read Marc Dean Millot's blogging with both a smile and heartache. Millot writes with passion about treating people with respect. Yet he is in favor of building the same type of structure that Michelle Rhee favors. Whose ways of treating humans would win out in that structure?

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein on December 7, 2007 9:45 PM |