December 31, 2007

An open-access academic's shot across the bow of publishers

Nick Montfort, MIT Assistant Professor of Digital Media, has publicly announced that he is refusing to participate in peer-review processes for non-open-access journals (hat tip):

With regard to your request, I cannot agree to review for your journal right now. If [it] becomes an open access journal, I will be very glad to review articles for the journal.

Wow. Montfort is wrong elsewhere in the entry when he describes subscription journals as anti-publication (an easy way to turn John Willinsky's spectrum of access into a hostile dichotomy), and I think this is a poor strategic choice to move more academic publications into the open-access world. But this may be an indication of a cultural divide among academics around access issues, and if so, Montfort is definitely on the radical side of the divide.

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Posted in Higher education at 12:47 PM (Permalink) |

Education stories of 2007

The following is my personal list of top U.S. education stories from 2007.

  1. No Child Left Behind continues to show little evidence of improving schools. The release of the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress scores may have been spun faster than an Elvis single, but they provide no evidence that NCLB is dramatically improving education in the U.S. (Yes, I promise to retire that phrase.)
  2. No Child Left Behind reauthorization becomes donnybrook. Right before Labor Day, George Miller released draft reauthorization language for the testing part of NCLB. By the end of the year, it had sunk underneath the weight of its complexity and NCLB politics.
  3. Utah's conservative voters reject vouchers. Utah is the reddest of the red states, and its 2-1 rejection of a statewide voucher program should be the nail in the coffin of similar sweeping proposals. And if you really think it will, I have a few George Romero films to show you.
  4. Katrina's aftermath continues. When peripatetic urban education chief Paul Vallas left Philadelphia for the New Orleans Recovery School District, you know that the problems of New Orleans schools continue... and are a magnet for ambitious reformer wannabes. I'll give Vallas full credit for jumping from a difficult district to one in its third year of post-Katrina crisis.
  5. Education disappears as presidential campaign issue. Despite the multimillion-dollar spending promises of the Ed in '08 crowd, candidates want to talk more about Iraq, subprime mortgages, health-care, and immigration. Is getting us out of Iraq easier than reforming No Child Left Behind?
  6. Public pre-kindergarten programs continue to expand. According to Pre-K Now, in 2005-06, at least half of the states had at least 10% of 4-year-olds in public pre-k programs, and four of the five largest states (except California) had at least 20% in public pre-k programs. I suspect those percentages are higher now.
  7. Harvard gains and becomes a leader. For all the Sturm und Drang surrounding Larry Summers's exit from Harvard, nothing showed the contrast with successor Drew Faust than her backing away from Summers's rapid-expansion plans in Allston, an attempted fait accompli that had upset faculty and Allston community leaders. Oh, you thought I was thinking of the announcement that Harvard was eliminating loans for all families with annual incomes under $180,000? Yeah, there's that, too. Sure, the tuition announcement may have been motivated by threats to make colleges spend 5 percent of their endowment every year, but Harvard's move is changing expectations.
  8. Teach for America alum hired as DC superintendent. Whether you approve of her style and decisions or not, Michelle Rhee has confirmed that the real story of Teach for America is not the (largely discredited) argument that the young liberal-arts college graduates show you don't need pre-service programs. Instead, the larger social significance beyond the program is that Teach for America is the training ground for a generation of public-service entrepreneurs. (Want historical precursors? See James Trent's Inventing the Feeble Mind for the story of how WW2 conscientious objectors helped start the postwar deinstitutionalization movement. Or John D'Emilio's Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities for how opportunities to form an intellectual and cultural community can shape the future.)
  9. Nicholas Negroponte's $100 $188 machine begins shipping. The One Laptop per Child initiative gets its first miracle, shipping the green-and-white XO machines in December. I got stuck in the hype and participated in the Give-One-Get-One deal (today's the last day!). No, it wasn't just for the year of T-Mobile hotspot service (which effectively makes the cost $70 or $180, depending on whether you have T-Mobile cell service), or the fact that my spouse can now write in the outside Florida summer heat. But having taught a course called "Schools and the Future," I'm aware that a piece of technology is not an education reform. The second and bigger miracle is if the combination of inexpensive machines and greater internet access will change the lives of children in poor countries. If it does, there will be interesting rebound effects in the U.S. (thus my inclusion of this as a U.S. story, in addition to its origins at MIT).
  10. Joel Klein's henchmen attack Diane Ravitch. On October 31, New York Sun reporter Elizabeth Green revealed how taxpayer funds had been used to compile a dossier on Klein critic Diane Ravitch, a dossier that a corporate-funded advocacy group head used to smear Ravitch. In the Ed Week blog she shares with Deborah Meier, Ravitch called the partnership between Education Department PR flacks and outside advocates a set of scare tactics intended to intimidate other Klein critics who did not have the standing of Ravitch. Maybe my new line should be "spinning faster than the New York City Partnership"?

As the old car ads say, your mileage may vary. Tomorrow I'll list stories to watch for 2008. Until then, have a safe New Year's.

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Posted in Education policy at 12:31 PM (Permalink) |

License glasses

Ju Honisch responded to the idea of Egypt's copyrighting antiquities with a wonderful comment that reminds me of Andre Codrescu:

I think soon somebody will invent license glasses. They will be a little like blinkers and will only allow you to see those things you have paid your share of license fees for. There will of course be providers that give you grand right or budget perception glasses.

Alun Salt's original description exaggerated the intent, which would apply royalty/license fees to those who create physical reproductions (a la Las Vegas's Luxor Hotel), though the Alun Salt description suggests a far more general application a la RIAA's expansive definition of copyright.

In case you couldn't tell, I like Ju's bon mot.

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Posted in History at 8:37 AM (Permalink) |

December 28, 2007

Students and Youtube

A Palm Beach County middle-school student has been expelled from a magnet school after recording her teacher in class with a digital camera and posting a satirized form of it on Youtube. In Palm Beach as in many other districts, students are not generally allowed to have electronic devices on during the school day, but according to the article she had been allowed to use it for the yearbook. So in almost all other cases, the issue would be cleaner-cut: the student violated the prohibition on electronic devices without clear cause for it (such as catching a crime in process).

Florida's laws on electronic privacy provide another wrinkle: under Florida Statutes (934.03 to be precise), it is illegal for private individuals to record someone else who has an expectation of privacy. (There are exceptions for law enforcement recordings and for public meetings, obviously.) I don't know whether a classroom provides that expectation of privacy for teachers (one Panhandle prosecutor dropped a case in 2001 against a student who had recorded her chemistry teacher's lecture), but I worry about the recording of other students.

The question of what is public behavior is also behind the question that Morse v. Frederick (aka the Bong Hits 4 Jesus case) left open: how much can schools respond to behavior that is off school grounds, especially when it concerns speech? Most analysis hinges on the question of disruption, arguing that schools can respond to student behavior off campus that disrupts the educational environment. Disruption is so vague, however, that it could cover all sorts of ground, and there is no bright-line standard for it. Like disrespect, the term is a conclusion rather than a description of concrete behavior.

We could begin to draw bright lines by defining disruption as behavior that either constitutes a "true threat" (see Virginia v. Black, 2003, for a definition: hat tip), encourages the breaking of bona fide school rules, or targets individuals as individuals in a context where they could expect some privacy. Spreading rumors about other students as individuals clearly falls in that definition, as does spreading rumors about teachers' or other school officials' private lives.

But in the public sphere, such protections start to fall away. If a student has the right to disagree with school policy or public conduct (something I think most courts would support), she or he also has the right to parody school officials' public conduct under the umbrella of such criticism, even if the parody is harsh. While I am not a lawyer, I suspect many cases of online behavior will hinge on whether the student is addressing such public behavior.

But what counts as public conduct? Behavior in a class of 25 or 30 isn't that private, and certainly not if you look at sites such as Teachers in elementary, secondary, and college classes are at a structural disadvantage because we cannot ethically discuss the behavior of individual students, and the inevitable response to public comments about classroom events has to be, "I cannot respond, because doing so would violate the confidentiality of individual students."

Here is the reasonable tradeoff: we know students will have the freedom to criticize what educators do, as long as it does not meet a fairly strict definition of disruptiveness, if teachers are insulated from outside pressures that could endanger academic freedom. My students are going to talk about my teaching, but as long as my institution avoids ad-hoc investigations and I have academic due process, I can live with the apparent paradox. Or, to put it in another way, if students can suddenly turn my work into a fishbowl environment, the right response is not to cover the fishbowl but to make the glass unbreakable.

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Posted in Academic freedom at 5:20 PM (Permalink) |

Pacing oneself

I've been spending several hours each day since the 25th on some EPAA editing duties. The end of the semester put me behind on a number of tasks on the journal, and if there is a professional New Year's resolution for 2008, it is to devote enough time regularly to the journal to scramble back from the hole I'm in without spending so much time in a single day that it becomes a chore.

In many ways, the trick of being a middle-aged professional is judicious pacing. I have two adolescent children, a marriage, some interests in the community I live in, and a work environment where I have a wonderful situation in many ways, being overcommitted with free choices I have made. I have had some stretches where I put in serious overtime (60+ hour weeks), and in many ways I have some skills in short-term detail work that are a professional advantage. But you don't really survive an academic career with constant stretches of two-week-turnaround massive projects, or at least I couldn't with my sanity and family intact.

I've done far better in the long term when I poke persistently away at projects, with periodic panic weeks when everything else is tossed aside. (The periods of concentrated effort require a long gestation/fermentation period to be effective.) There are some psychological side-effects of such a habit: I don't feel happy if I go a number of days without working on something. A touch of workaholism, perhaps, but it's a tradeoff for complete nuttiness punctuated with occasional lassitude. Some people can do the utter lassitude for long stretches. Not me, or at least not right now.

So if you're spending this week relaxing, please enjoy. I'll work for you if you'll drink a cocktail for me at noon. Somehow it'll all balance out.

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Posted in The academic life at 5:12 PM (Permalink) |

December 26, 2007

Basex: addressing management problems in deep ways?

Basex, Inc. has successfully promoted its 2008 problem of the year in a variety of news outlets, and I'm sure you'll hear about it by tomorrow morning. The problem: too much information overload through e-mail. Never mind that we're not in 2008 yet, and this is more a matter of promoting the (who ever heard of them before?) company's consulting business than serious analysis.

And if you want more information on tech trends from Basex: Subscribe to their e-mail newsletter, which will... give you more e-mail information overload.  Now, if you will excuse me, I need to return to editing a journal article, after this minor distraction.

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Posted in Random comments at 12:25 PM (Permalink) |

Comic book demerits

Today's New York Times story by Elissa Gootman on comic books as curriculum has a fairly typical narrative structure in education reporting: creative person invents Method X to engage kids, which relies on popular culture; it's spreading like wildfire, and attracting critics.

In the case of Gootman's story, the creative person is Michael Bitz, the method is the Comic Book Project, the evidence of diffusion is an unsourced claim that almost 900 schools are using it, and the critic quoted in the article is Diane Ravitch.

Hrrmmmn... because this article fits the narrative structure too neatly, let's read between the lines a bit. First, my guess is that Gootman quoted Ravitch because she is eminently quotable and treats reporters well (i.e., calls them back quickly, before deadline). There is no evidence that Ravitch has been a public critic of the project, but she is a Quotable Source that could be relied on by the reporter. Two demerits to the reporter for working backwards from a source to craft the narrative she evidently wanted to write in the first place.

The rest of the material on criticism is quoting advocates of using comic books, when they refer to vague critics (i.e., parents who are a touch skeptical). No evidence of a search for anyone who knew of the project before Gootman contacted them and was willing to be quoted. One demerit for laziness in scrounging for sources.

I would also have expected a New York Times reporter would also have written about the long-term change in attitudes towards comic books, from the Kefauver hearings on crime comics in the 1940s to huge conventions of comic-book fans and collectors, the development of "graphic novels" as art form (e.g., Maus), and the use of comic books to reach youth (including all sorts of efforts to change teen behavior through comics). I don't know if Gootman goofed on that, or if the editor excised any context. Two demerits to the Times for ahistorical writing.

Finally, there is absolutely nothing in the story about the existing evaluations of such efforts, at least one of which is available in a single click from the project's website. Haven't we had enough fads without looking at what the consequences are? Two demerits for a romantic portrayal of instructional methods without looking for evidence.

None of this says anything about using comic books as either instructional material or as projects for elementary students. (Use a different format, and we'd be talking about student-as-author projects with picture books.) But this is weak education reporting on the first page of the Times metro section (B).

Update: Kevin Carey says more and even mentions Fredric Wertham. Two points to Carey for historical alertness.

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Posted in Education policy at 11:11 AM (Permalink) |

December 21, 2007

Guesting on Edwize!

I've gone and committed guest blogging over at the UFT blog Edwize. The gist of the argument is that Joel Klein's pulling a Microsoft-like maneuver with accountability.

And he's the guy who prosecuted Microsoft for antitrust violations.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 1:02 PM (Permalink) |

December 20, 2007

All I Want for Christmas is a Good Science Education

The science advocacy group Florida Citizens for Science has a creative way to get a pro-science message across to state policymakers (especially the Board of Education) during the run-up to a vote on the proposed new science standards—which mention evolution for the first time in the state's curriculum standards. It's to send holiday greeting cards urging Board of Education members to vote for standards that put evolution firmly in the state's standards. Oh, and don't worry if the cards get there after the 25th.

Since I'm not Christian, I have to pick a different route to make the same point. But that's okay.

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Posted in Education policy at 1:27 PM (Permalink) |

December 19, 2007

7 random things you probably don't want to know about me

Thanks, Eduwonkette. I'll skip tagging 7 others (if you're reading this, consider yourself tagged, with response optional).

  1. I have a cold right now.
  2. When he was in office, I once asked former California Senator Alan Cranston what he was doing for wild horses.
  3. I have solved a Rubik's Cube, but I've forgotten the solution.
  4. My high school debate partner and I are now both academic historians.
  5. When I was in high school, my state senator was thrown off the John Birch Society National Council because he embarrassed them.
  6. My oldest sister sits on the Orange County (Ca.) Board of Education
  7. I saw Prick up your Ears because I was told it was a hilarious comedy.

As I expected yesterday, I needed some down time after grading: I fell asleep at 7 pm. This morning's task: organize my time during the semester break.

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Posted in Random comments at 8:29 AM (Permalink) |

December 18, 2007

Wondering when the ton of bricks falls inside my head, and other occupational hazards of teaching

Because of my grading obligations, I haven't had too much chance to think about Oliver Bernsdorff, a Pinellas County teacher and former USF student who killed his family and then himself Friday morning. That night, I talked with a friend and colleague who also knew him and we went over the obvious questions you'd ask if you were in our position right now. When you're well past your 2000th student, you know that some of them are going to die while you're still working, and a few are going to be public deaths. One of my former students was murdered in the past few years (his killers were found). But good grief, if you didn't think any human around you could produce evil, this family murder-suicide is rather a blunt reminder. Thanks to those who have sent me kind messages in the past few days. It still hasn't hit me fully, so in part I'm waiting for it to. I think I'll be fine, fundamentally, but when something like this happens, there's some sense in spending some time a week later to do an internal reality-check.

Back to thinking about other things: The true cost of being a union activist this semester is that meetings ate up too much of my time last week, so I've spent several late nights and early mornings grading over the weekend and in the last few days. (With a break: my spouse's birthday was Friday, and we went to a local simulcast of the Met Opera's Romeo et Juliette Saturday afternoon. I much prefer my family tragedies fictional, thank you.) I've just submitted grades for the third class. There are some other things I need to do this week, but I'm going to take a brief break this afternoon.

Beyond that? I have some interim projects for the break, but the spring is stretching out in front of me, and as Profgrrrrl says about herself, I have some long-term ambitions for projects. A paper for AERA and another conference, some decisions to make about the summer, some planning for union work. But those are short- and medium-term. Because of some unique circumstances in the spring, there are a variety of opportunities and thus an almost infinite number of things that can absorb my time.

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Posted in The academic life at 12:46 PM (Permalink) |

December 14, 2007


Pardon my French, but I knew him when he was a student at USF. I have to finish grading, so there probably won't be any more entries for a few days.

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Posted in The academic life at 3:12 PM (Permalink) |

December 12, 2007

What would Nation X do?

Today, my morning paper had a column by Susan Taylor Martin, Finns set teachers free, with enviable results, discussing the secular, largely-standardized-testing-free Finnish schools that have enviable student outcomes by almost any measure.

On the one hand, this argument is extraordinarily tempting: See what the Finns do? We need to do that: provide substantial social welfare, provide higher status for teachers, then leave them to do their jobs without the corrosive testing regime we have in the United States.

But the historian in me says something different: Wait. This argument has been made before: no, not the one about Finland but the one about needing to follow Nation X, whatever that country happened to be in a particular decade. At the end of the 18th century, a strong push inside the new country said, "We're different from Europe ["Old Europe," as Donald Rumsfeld might put it]. This new nation is a fresh start. We need to be as different from Europe as possible." As David W. Noble argued years ago in Historians against History, that was a dominant theme among 19th century amateur history writers.

But there has also been a counter-argument: other countries have model systems of education, and we need to learn from them. (If you want the academic jargon, you can call it mimetic isomorphism when the rhetoric is all about national anxiety and panic and normative isomorphism when the rhetoric is "this is professionally best.") The most famous 19th century argument along those lines was that of Horace Mann, who traveled to Prussia before writing his seventh school report. While he noted the flaws of Prussian schools, he also thought they treated students much better than schools in Massachusetts. You don't have to beat your students to teach them, he argued, and Prussia is the proof. Why Mann went to Prussia to make that case is an interesting question. He should have known that one of the responses would be the reference to American exceptionalism, and he could have found reasonably kind teachers somewhere in North America if maybe not in Boston.

You can find the "we should do what Nation X is doing" argument sprinkled through the rest of the 19th and 20th centuries. In the post-WW2 era, the comparison nation was whoever our military or economic adversary was at the time, from the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s to Japan and Germany in the 1980s. In the last half-century, many of these comparative arguments were projections of adult anxieties onto children. As many have pointed out over the years, most notably David Berliner and Bruce Biddle, schools are carrying the rhetorical water for adult failings. In almost all cases, the comparison is superficial, omitting information about context and structure. So the blithe suggestions for us to copy Japan in the 1980s often failed to mention the juku market (of private cram schools) or the common Japanese parenting repertoire of letting preschools socialize children through group pressures. Even academics fall into this trap: James Rosenbaum et al. wrote in Market and network theories of the transition from high school to work that professional networking between schools and work was great, and they pointed to Japan as a model... right before the Japanese economy dove into a 10-year downturn. Oops.

There are plenty of wonderful comparative education analyses one can make, but the standard rhetoric you see in American political discourse is usually shallow. Caveat lector.

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Posted in Education policy at 8:19 AM (Permalink) |

December 11, 2007

Facebook and ethics

Ed Felton has an interesting commentary on Facebook's Beacon scandal, when Facebook alienated their members by allowing members' non-Facebook activities to be shown on facebook (think browser cookies). Facebook backed away, but Felton's observations about organizational behavior are relevant to more than privacy. Let me reword his section on five inappropriate behaviors/tendencesi...

  1. Overlawyerization: Organizations see privacy ethics as a legal compliance problem. They're happy as long as what they're doing doesn't break the law; so they do something that is lawful but foolish.
  2. Institutional structure: Privacy is Ethics are spun off to a special office or officer so the rest of the organization doesn't have to worry about it; and the privacy ethics office doesn't have the power to head off mistakes.
  3. Treating privacy ethics as only a PR problem: Rather than asking whether its practices are really acceptable to clients the public, the organization does what it wants and then tries to sell its actions to clients the public. The strategy works, until angry clients citizens seize control of the conversation.
  4. Undervaluing emotional factors: The organization sees a potential privacy ethics backlash as "only" an emotional response, which must take a backseat to more important business factors. But clients the public might be angry for a reason; and in any case they will act on their anger.
  5. Irrational desire for control: Decisionmakers like to feel that they're in control of client interactions with the public. Sometimes they insist on control even when it would be rational to follow the client's lead of citizens. Where privacy is ethics are concerned, they want to decide what clients the public should want, rather than listening to what clients citizens actually do want.

Do you know any organizations with these tendencies?

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Posted in Education policy at 1:46 PM (Permalink) |

December 8, 2007

Waiting for the criticism of Winerip

Michael Winerip reports tomorrow on a new ETS report by Paul Barton and Richard Coley, The Family: America's Smallest School. Shades of Moynihan's response to Coleman, anyone? (And does anyone else know the reference for that?)

I expect the blogs next week will be full of criticisms, at least of Winerip's reporting if not the report. It'll be interesting to see if there's some substantive discussion along with the criticism.

Update: Charles Barone was first off the blocks on this. I wish he weren't so consistently sarcastic; it distracts from the analytical points he's making about Winerip and ETS, and those points are important, if not as much of a trump as he implies.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein at 7:21 PM (Permalink) |

December 7, 2007

If "it's not easy being green..." so then what? Zero-emission garbage trucks

Wired report today: Investors Find Green Technology Is Not an Easy Win. No big surprise: venture capitalists discover that new technologies are dicey. Isn't that true of all venture-capital operations, and isn't that the purpose of venture capital networks? Ah, well. Some day Wired reporters will understand financial markets.

But there's an important issue that Wired has covered elsewhere: not all "green" technology is either green or feasible. Corn-based ethanol certainly isn't good for the environment on net (neither is Brazil's sugar-ethanol production), and cellulosic fiber technology is in its infancy at best. Hybrid cars are expensive, and one can argue that zero-emissions cars merely shift emissions to central points instead of distributed points. So what to do, then, and how the heck is this related to any other blog entry I've written?

Here's the point: some "green" automobile technologies are best thought of not as panaceas but as solutions to more limited but still serious problems. Take low-emissions vehicle technology: at the moment, it's hard to argue that it saves resources, but it does eliminate massive pollution that is distributed by vehicles. There are some places where that would have dramatic effects on local communities if not on the world, specifically the parts of poor neighborhoods where diesel garbage trucks currently spend hours spewing particulate pollution while getting to landfills, with consequences for children's pulmonary development that is well documented.

Low- or zero-emission garbage trucks would not save the planet, but they could improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of poor children, and they could be a test-bed for technology development. The far better solution is to attack class-biased environmental damage more directly (rerouting trucks). But there are also opportunities for amelioration, and that's needed in plenty of places. Lead mitigation is needed in hundreds of neighborhoods in this country, and reducing emissions of garbage trucks would help with respiratory problems.

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Posted in Education policy at 10:34 PM (Permalink) |

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 at 9:45 PM (Permalink) |

December 1, 2007

Brandeis faculty defend academic freedom and common sense

Kudos to the Brandeis University Committee on Faculty Rights and Responsibilities, whose report on allegations of discrimination by Donald Hindley essentially ripped the administration from head to toe on procedural and substantive violations of academic freedom (hat tip). To wit:

  • Brandeis's investigation failed to engage in a bona fide investigation of how more than the complaining student responded to the alleged comments of Professor Hindley.
  • Brandeis's investigation failed the sniff test when it came to giving Professor Hindley a chance to respond to alelgations: Hindley was the last person interviewed in month-long process, he was not provided an opportunity to have a colleague present, and the report was submitted one day after his interview.
  • Brandeis's investigation failed to respect the 2003 guiding letter of the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, a document that stipulates that discriminatory environment "must include something beyond the mere expression of views, words, symbols or thoughts that some person finds offensive."

I think I'm going to repeat this until I retire and afterwards: Ad hoc investigations of teaching are inevitably flawed. Congratulations to the Brandeis faculty on standing up to the provost on this.

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Posted in Academic freedom at 9:48 PM (Permalink) |