July 3, 2010

Happy George day!

Today is the Day Between for those of us who live in the U.S., though I suspect for many it's more of a Carsickness holiday, or a How in the Heck Do I Light the Charcoal Again? day (though sometimes people delay that joy until the next day). July 3 is the Day Between, the day between July 2, the day the Continental Congress formally approved a resolution of independence, and July 4, its approval of the Declaration of Independence. Yeah, I know: Lexington and Concord were in April 1775, and the formalities came a year later, with the articulated argument last of all. What can I say? Maybe we're just a nation of shoot first, answer questions later.

This year, July 3 falls on a weekend here in North America. Before you let the day go by with preparations for tomorrow, give a thought to two important Georges in history and their actions associated with July 3. On July 3, 1775, George Washington took command of the Continental Army. And on July 3, 1863, Union forces under George Mead's command destroyed Pickett's Charge and ended the battle of Gettysburg.

In the case of Washington's command, he had been appointed by the Continental Congress several weeks before, in the middle of June, and it took that time for him to travel to the main rebels' army in New England. Planning a war in the 18th century was a plodding affair. The battles of Lexington and Concord had been in April, and the Continental Congress started meeting in May. The first British reinforcements arrived in late May, and the next clash was June 17, at Breed's Hill (now called the battle of Bunker Hill, I think because that was the frist target of orders to help with the siege of Boston). So the first major battle of the war (and with surprisingly high British casualties) happened just the day after Washington accepted the commission of the Congress.

Meade's command of troops in July 1863 was almost accidental, since he was a replacement for Joseph Hooker and notified of his new appointment in late June, just a few days before Gettysburg. I'm not a military historian, so I'll let others judge Meade's command at Gettysburg in the context of his earlier commands of smaller groups and his post-Gettysburg career. But at least in the first week of his command of the Army of the Potomac, Mead helped save a nation.

June 16, 2010

Unholy alliance proposal #573: FinReg and journalism

Inspired by a blog entry today by Ezra Klein's research intern and today's Dilbert cartoon, I had a crazy thought for addressing both the decline of commercial journalism and Wall Street lapses: is there a way to give solid journalism a revenue source that also forces more transparency/responsibility on Wall Street? One idea for better responsibility on Wall Street is the transactions tax proposal, which was the focus of the blog entry by Klein's research aide. But I'm afraid that's probably too sensible, since it penalizes financial churning, and thus it's not politically viable.

But there's a way to replace the revenue stream of classified ads, the one that CraigsList stole, and we can use current practice and history as a guide: require that certain forms of financial transactions by institutional parties have public notice in electronic form in venues with substantial readership. Public-notice requirements are common for all sorts of legal purposes, and there is a very long history of printers' reliance on such revenue streams. Okay, in Ben Franklin's case it was because he became the printer for the colonial government of Pennsylvania (e.g., Franklin's printing of this text of a speech). But we continue to require both public agencies and private parties to pay for a public notice of some transactions and other items of public interest. Sometimes these are in daily newspapers, sometimes in local legal periodicals designed almost entirely to capture the revenues.

The key here is to require the non-password-requiring electronic publication of an appropriate set of transaction records in places with substantial traffic. There is absolutely no guarantee that today's professional journalist sites will capture revenue by gathering substantial traffic, and I suspect if such a requirement were in place today and if it weren't a walled garden, Facebook would suddenly capture a large chunk of the potential revenue. But it's a way to use an existing model of public notice requirements to replace some of the revenue stream that's disappeared in the past 10 years.

May 25, 2010

"...and thereby to secure a more arbitrary and unlimited authority"

Yesterday afternoon (at least afternoon in California, where the radio station operates), Sara Goldrick-Rab and Richard Vedder debated who should attend college on KPCC's Patt Morrison Show. I am disappointed but not too surprised that Vedder skipped over who he generally thinks are the types of people who don't benefit from college: other people's children. (Amy Slaton made a similar point in this morning's IHE column: "These two assertions [of the not-everyone-should-aspire-to-college crowd], the first based on very selective logic and the second baldly elitist, become particularly nasty in tandem, making the college aspirations of minority or poorer Americans seem positively uppity.") Let me step away for a day from the question of who should attend college today and see how that logic would have been applied in the past--discouraging formal schooling for those who would not necessarily finish a certain level and for whom there wasn't an economic payoff.

To put it bluntly, that logic would have prevented the coeducation of primary schooling in the nineteenth-century North. As David Tyack and Elisabeth Hansot explain in Learning Together, the first half of the nineteenth century witnessed a quiet revolution in formal education, from schooling being the domain of boys and men to coeducation in the first few years of schooling (which was generally what was available for most children in the North). There had been some colonial examples historians can identify of coeducation and women teachers outside dame schools, but they're the clear minority of experiences. When Benjamin Rush helped John Poor obtain a state charter for the Ladies' Academy of Philadelphia in the early 1790s, he was using his influence to break down existing barriers. Five years before, he had spoken at the new school, and the written report of his remarks starts with a justification for the school that (at least to me) looks to men as the audience, and only at the end does he start to speak to the students in the audience:

To you, therefore, YOUNG LADIES, an important problem is committed for solution; and that is, whether our present plan of education be a wise one and whether it be calculated to prepare you for the duties of social and domestic life.... I have sometimes been led to ascribe the invention of ridiculous and expensive fashions in female dress entirely to the gentlemen in order to divert the ladies from improving their mindsa nd thereby to secure a more arbitrary and unlimited authority over them. It will be in your power, LADIES, to correct the mistakes and practice of our sex upon these subjects by demonstrating that the female temper can only be governed by reason and that the cultivation of reason in women is alike friendly to the order of nature and to private as well as public happiness. (pp. 91-92)

To us more than 220 years later, this quaint and charming language obviously lacks the fire of Tom Paine and the righteousness of Mary Wollstonecraft, but for all its gentility it is an affirmation of common humanity and educability that Rush and his audience knew could not be taken for granted, even in Quaker-influenced Philadelphia. Tyack and Hansot struggle somewhat with the question of how coeducation could happen without significant public debate, and I struggle with it as well: how much to ascribe to the coeducational experience of dame schools, to early-national ideologies of Republican motherhood, to a practical "I want the girls out of my hair, too" attitude of rural Americans (who often sent children as young as two and three to tag along with older siblings), to the Second Great Awakening, or to the fact that rural apprenticeship was a system of sharing childrearing that included girls as well as boys (if the girls were often distributed to neighbors' houses to help with domestic responsibilities).

Whatever the causes, there are two undeniable facts about the coeducation of primary education in northern states: the expense was not easily justified by the legal or economic role of women at the time, and it had enormous benefits for the entire society for generations to come. I am sure Vedder and others would contest the first claim, but there are plenty of agrarian societies where the majority of work is or has been done by women who have little or no formal schooling. Why do you need to read and write if you're in the fields all day? Just go to a taro-harvester certificate program for a few weeks and get a job! Oh, wait: no community college currently offers a taro-harvester certificate.

More seriously, one could imagine a different history, closer to the history of the South, where coeducation happened much later, incompletely, or not at all. Primary education was an expense for communities, and coeducation was an added expense either for the community or for the parents who paid extra tuition (or private payments to schoolmasters on the side). We know that formal education was a considerable expense in part because even in Massachusetts, communities resisted the creation of high schools until late in the 19th century. The 1860 town vote of Beverly, Massachusetts, to abolish the high school was notable because it was a clear violation of state law (Beverly was one of the towns sued by the legislature earlier because they didn't have a high school) as well as because its public recording of individual votes has bee the subject of two books. Only a relative handful of students could continue to high school, and the majority of voters at that town meeting clearly thought the benefits of high school did not justify the expense. Yet by 1860, most towns in the north had coeducational primary schools, and thousands of parents had been willing to pay extra money (and had been willing to pay it for decades) to get their daughters some education, though the daughters would never be able to repay them in any concrete sense.

Yet despite the lack of immediate calculable returns, the coeducation of primary schooling in the North was one of the smartest social policies for the long term. The education of girls doubled the pool of potential teachers one generation later. Combined with lower fertility over the 19th century, the increased pool of potential teachers dramatically shifted the ratio of children to potential teachers in favor of children and education. Apart from arguments I could make about lower fertility's being a consequence of coeducation, the combination effectively provided a bootstrap for American mass education, making it easier for states to expand formal schooling generation by generation. Some parts of that bootstrap were not what we'd choose today, since it partly depended on restricted employment opportunities for educated women generally and educated men who were not white. But it would not have existed without primary education for girls and without the willingness of parents and communities to spend money that they could have easily not spent.

Part of the case against expanded educational opportunities is a show me what it'll do today argument. That's a narrow reading of the potential of people who don't currently attend college, a narrow reading of the purpose of education, and a narrow reading of the consequences of education. Yes, I think a lot more children from poor families can succeed in college than do currently. Yes, I want the people who pick up my garbage to read Shakespeare and pick out the lying statistician on a witness stand. And, yes, I am confident that there will be positive consequences for expanding college opportunities far into the future, consequences we cannot imagine today and that will dwarf the real costs of expanding those opportunities in the institutions where they will exist.

May 20, 2010

Texas and reality

Despite what I promised a few hours ago, this entry is not about coeducation, but current events in Texas are pushing my thoughts away from the value of college, at least for now. The rolling disaster that is the lame-duck-infested Texas Board of Education is both agonizing and fascinating, or one step above the formerly-creationist Kansas Board of Education (when the majority was in favor of teaching creation myth as part of science). Reading and listening to the more conservative board members leads me to conclude tentatively that while they will not say so explicitly, they really would like a curriculum that is based on a providential understanding of historical cause: America (and Texas) is blessed, and history shows how God has favored us, especially when we have been Godly.

That desire for providential history in public schools is wrong for two reasons. First, public schools in the United States should not be teaching religion as truth. (Teaching about religious beliefs and organizations as an important part of history is different. Teaching about religious beliefs as part of the cultural background for literature, myth, etc. is likewise different and perfectly acceptable.) The majority of the Texas board obviously disagrees with my interpretation of the First Amendment, but there's a second reason to avoid providential explanations of history: it is incompatible with the type of historical argumentation that is professionally acceptable to historians.

There are all sorts of historical explanations, metanarrative structures, and assumptions about human nature that professional historians would find plausible or at least acceptable to discuss as part of historical writings. But history as practiced today is about human nature and observable events, not providential explanations. That's as true of historians who have deeply-held religious views as it is for nonbelievers who write history. We just don't write deus ex machina history.

I know: we've been down this road before with debates over creationism and its close cousins: evolutionary biology is not a religion, and neither is standard history. But there's something that we can learn by thinking about history rather than science: the type of incommensurable perspectives that exist in the evolution/creationism divide is not there just because we're talking about fossils rather than human beings. That's close to the type of distinction that some refer to as mind-independent vs. mind-dependent phenomena. And I understand the appeal of that distinction.

But I have a different way of looking at the detritus of poststructuralism, and perhaps it's because I knew in writing Creating the Dropout that the bit about the construction of dropping out was sloppy in terms of handling the idea of social construction. I was focused on writing the story as detailed as was appropriate in an historical sense: when did "dropout" become the dominant term for adults who didn't have a high school diploma, what was the description that became associated with that, what did the choices at the time foreclose, etc. But as an historian who is generally more focused on the details than the meta-meta-level assumptions, I didn't do much more in talking about the construction of social problems than wave at Hilgartner and Bosk and go about my work. Did I mean that the stereotype associated with the term dropout was one of those paralinguistic structures that foreclosed alternatives, or that would spread and become an overturned irony over time? Was it part of a growing hegemony about the value of education? I apologize to anyone who was disappointed, but I was not up to the meta-para-hypertheoretical work that might have been involved. And no one really called me on that gap: reviewers generally acknowledged the story in the first few chapters and poked holes (some real and some virtual) in other pieces.

That doesn't mean that I am unread in relevant literature. I took my first-year proseminar with Lynn Hunt, and she walked us through Foucault, White, and a number of others who fall in the poststructuralist/deconstructionist canon (irony intended). But the question of whether language in the abstract performs the type of cultural work that some attribute to it paled in comparison with what people actually said about high school attrition in the 1950s, 1960s, and since. Given what Lynn's written since that year in criticizing the extreme forms of historiographical deconstruction, I think I may have made the right choice in how to spend my time, at least when it came to my first major research project.

But there is a larger question here of how to handle the fuzzy and malleable categorizations of (what we think of as) reality. Do we make choices about how to frame reality? Yes, of course, but in a relatively mundane sense of having to make some choice in how we investigate or describe the world. We can't avoid that choice, and for the moment I'll be agnostic on whether investigation is with scientific instruments or textual analysis (or something else), or whether communication is with language, mathematical symbols, or whatnot. Once the choice is made, that creates some structure about how we view reality, and it imposes at least a minimal cost on looking at things in a different way.

At this mundane forced-choice level, I'm essentially arguing that intellectual work is like the policy options for a country choosing whether you drive on the right or left side of the road. If you want most people to get anywhere on the road quickly and safely, you have to make a choice. We can debate whether the choice is political, economic, rational, irrational, etc., but a choice has to be made to get both quickly and safely, and there are consequences that flow from the choice, including signage, standard car equipment, and so forth. Note that this analogy doesn't touch issues such as correspondence with any underlying reality: It would be silly to claim that the choice of left or right has correspondence to Reality or Truth.

Instead, let me focus on the question of whether the choice at one time for the convention of driving on the left forecloses changing the convention, and what's required for such a change. At one level, the choice is mutually exclusive: a country cannot pick both rules and expect anything other than carnage when people drive faster than 5 mph. But at another level, the choice is resource-dependent: it's possible for England to change its rule so everyone drives on the right. It just would be a royal pain in the tuches.

So you can measure the rigidity of a convention in one sense by asking how expensive it would be to change it. Changing the side of a road for driving is expensive but possible. But you could imagine setting a rule that is impossible to change in the defined context. Unless you are driving on the Autobahn, most jurisdictions limit your speed to under the escape velocity of the planet. I don't think we could reverse that and require people to drive on the surface of this planet at greater than 7 miles per second.

Let's move away from driving conventions and back to how we talk about the universe. In both physical sciences and humanities, there are ways of classifying our fields that are nonexclusive and can be mixed; there are categories and ways of describing objects of interest that are exclusive but that can be switched from one to the other with some cost (i.e., exclusive but resource-dependent intellectual choices); and there are some choices that cannot be changed within that context (i.e., exclusive choices that you can't undo in the context you've created). Race, class, gender, disability, national origin, politics, language, etc., are all classification systems that can be mixed in the same context. No big deal there: we may choose to define categories of interest in different ways, but even if you call your categorization by the term class, and I call my different categorization class, we can just say they're different notions of class (or, as Ira Katznelson says in City Trenches, different layers of class). For the mathematically or notationally inclined, we could even index them as Class1, Class2, Class3, etc.

As I wrote at the top of this entry, I think there are exclusive choices that you can't undo in a specific context. If you're an academic historian, your arguments are going to eschew providential explanations of events. You can't undo that and still be in the field of history as I understand it. Regardless of whether the surface disagreements between me and some Texas education board members appear to be political or pedagogical or something else, I think the deep difference is that a number of them truly think public schooling should be teaching providential history or the "intelligent history design" equivalent (i.e., papered over). Again, that does not mean that historians or history teachers have to be agnostic or atheist, just that what they write or teach as historians isn't providential. (My high school history teacher Mr. Knowlton was one such person, a conservative evangelical who taught American history using primary sources and definitely non-providential arguments, though I know from conversations with him outside class that he clearly had providential beliefs outside his professional role.)

What I haven't talked about are examples in history (or other disciplines) of the exclusive but resource-dependent ways of categorizing reality. I'd be tempted to draw from physics (designing experiments to observe electrons as either particles or waves, but not both at the same time), but that's cheap. I will admit that it is late, I am tired, this entry is long as is, and maybe leaving this open-ended will draw interesting comments or enough suspense to keep you reading my blog. But please chime in on comments: am I all wet, on track, and can I be both at the same time without the universe exploding?

Update: The prayer at the start of today's meeting confirms my tentative conclusions about at least the member saying the prayer.

The value of college I

Over the past week, I had been collecting a number of references to recent online discussions of the value of education when the New York Times column by Jacques Steinberg highlighting the views of Richard Vedder and Charles Murray appeared. Claus von Zastrow (among others) has already pointed out that given the fact that the advocates of the "you don't need college" position are highly educated, this reads as an argument that other people's children shouldn't go to college. I sometimes have a bit of fun when Bill Gates talks about the importance of college--"do as I say, not as I do"--but Gates errs on the sides of generosity in terms of what he'd like others to accomplish. Not so Vedder or Murray.

I'm going back over Goldin and Katz's The Race between Education and Technology with a finer-toothed comb than when it first came out in 2008, and I'll probably write a number of posts on this topic. Generally, the literature on the value of higher education (or formal schooling more broadly) is not particularly nuanced. It's human capital and a boost to income! No, it's a queueing process! No, it's a confirmation of inherited intelligence! It's a floor wax! It's a dessert topping!

I'll start with an historical perspective, a warning about loose generalizations: let's stop talking about "higher education" in the abstract, as if it's the output of a utility. Colleges and universities are specific institutions, and the value that students receive from them are dependent on context. In the nineteenth century, a number of states and some cities created normal schools, or schools designed to train teachers. But as Chris Ogren and others have pointed out, in addition to the teacher-training function, public normal schools were often the nearest place where anyone could get something beyond rudimentary schooling, so they inevitably became general schools. When normal schools became teachers colleges, you saw the same phenomenon; Lyndon Johnson attended a teachers college because that was where he could go to college, period. To see the history of normal schools and teachers colleges entirely through the lens of teacher education would be historically inaccurate and narrow.

Or, to take another example, the history of vocational education is not just about narrow trade schooling and the denial of educational opportunity through tracking. That's a large part of it (e.g., ), but again, context is everything. Ira Katznelson and Margaret Weir point out the disputes between labor and business in the structure of vocational education in Chicago. And both Kathryn Neckerman and Bill Graebner have pointed out that in many northern cities, vocational-technical high schools were one cut above comprehensive high schools, sufficiently so that working-class whites fought to keep African American students out of them. In my archival research for my dissertation and first book, I saw something similar in the Atlanta-area vo-tech school in the early 1960s, where administrators fought to prevent it from being what they perceived might be the dumping ground for area schools. Again, institutional context is important.

The reality is that higher education serves several "functions." Some of that could be considered human capital, but the only way to call all of the value human capital is to make the term meaningless. And plenty of higher (and other) education also helps advantaged families hoard those advantages, but it's far from a hermetic process and far less tilted towards the wealthy than plenty of other areas of life (housing, the labor market, tax codes, health-care access, etc.). And all of this type of analysis is predicated on the ability to identify predictable consequences of education. But that's not true, and the prime example is the coeducation of primary education in 19th century America. That's the topic for the next entry on the value of education.

April 22, 2010

Dorn reviews Ravitch

My review of Diane Ravitch's new book is now up at the Education Review website. I should have finished it a few weeks ago, but the fragmentation of my time this spring has interrupted all sorts of usually-short-term projects, such as book reviews.

If there is one benefit to the delay, it was my ability to watch the sales keep racking up while the book climbed several bestseller lists. At one level, I think, "I wish my book on the topic had sold a tenth as many copies!" But that's silly; I'm glad someone was able to meet the clear need for this book in a way that's been rewarded.

Bottom line of the review: read the book. In writing the review, I made the choice to skip much of the contemporary discussions around the book and focus on Ravitch's historical arguments. As usual (with Ravitch), she writes a highly appealing argument, and it's important to look at the claims dispassionately. I should say that I dearly wish she were correct in her claim that Lynne Cheney's attack on the voluntary national history standards in the 1990s was a primary cause of mediocre curriculum standards and our current policy obsession with high stakes testing. At the time (as a new scholar in the field) I was very upset with Cheney's distortions of the record, and at one level it is attractive to see her in the villain's role. But I think it's more complicated.

April 2, 2010

Florida House budget wants public employees to delay retirement

This one's an odd cut-your-nose-to-spite-your-face maneuver: the budget that the Florida House passed yesterday cuts health subsidies to retirees because legislative leaders are desperate to balance the budget without raising taxes, but the House budget maintains complete state support of premiums for about 27,000 state employees, including state legislators. (Disclosure: I'm not among those who get premiums completely paid.)  

Let's think this through a bit: suppose you're 65 and are thinking about retiring. Before this year, if you retired you'd be eligible to have a health-care subsidy. If the House budget provision on those items remain, you'd probably think twice about retiring, because by staying at work you're covered for what Medicare doesn't help with, and your salary pays the premium, but if you retire you don't have a health-care subsidy.

Now let's suppose you're also one of the 27,000 employees whose premiums come out of your employer. If you stay at work you don't pay for health care premiums. If you quit, you don't get any health-care subsidy.

This reverse the usual incentives that pensions set up to encourage retirement: you lose some income, but you gain some security. The health-care subsidy is not a significant amount of money over one's entire lifetime, but it's something that older public employees had been counting on, and the loss of the anticipated benefit might tip the balance for some to staying in their for a few extra years. Is this what Florida legislative leaders want? Have they asked anyone to estimate the long-term costs of delaying retirement for those who might change their mind based on the health-care subsidy?

March 7, 2010

Historians' automaticity, part 1

Concerns with science and math education are nothing new, and although the rhetoric today focuses on saving the planet and the economy, the argument for urgent intensification of STEM education is remarkably similar in structure to the Cold War era debates in the 1940s through the early 1960s: our country is in crisis, we need science and technology to solve the crisis, and so we must reform education. A 1959 forum about science and math education at Woods Hole was summarized by Jerome Bruner in The Process of Education (1960), which essentially was an argument about education in the disciplines. (Bruner later was instrumental in creating Man: A Course of Study [MACOS], and fellow Woods Hole conference participant Jerrold Zacharias was a key mover in MIT's Physical Science Study Committee, whose materials were used by my high school physics teacher.)

For a number of reasons, MACOS flopped as a curriculum project, but the central question raised at the 1959 Woods Hole conference remains: what's necessary for students to be successful at learning disciplinary thinking? Several of my colleagues at USF (Will Tyson, Kathy Borman, and others) have been involved in NSF-funded work studying recruitment to and success in undergraduate STEM education, including preparatory math and science work in high school. In lower grades, the National Math Advisory Panel made some suggestions about curriculum in primary and intermediate elementary grades that would be prerequisite for success in algebra, including work with fractions. (Speaking of which, check out this very cool Java Spirograph simulation. Yes, it's connected to fractions... or rather the nature of reciprocal relationships between frequency and wavelength.)

And somewhere along here, along with debates about the purposes of various proposed curricula, we generally get debates about which is more important, procedural fluidity or conceptual understanding. My answer: yes. They are. You need both "content" and "process" (and we'll get to the problem with those terms shortly), and I am generally sympathetic to arguments that getting to the point of automaticity with core skills is a part of getting ahead in conceptual understanding and also needs to be matched by teaching of concepts. (See my entry a few years ago on how to explain the more recent and reasonable NCTM curriculum framework materials.)

But there is something about the term automaticity that itches inside my head, because it sort of gets the idea right but is not entirely persuasive... and the places where it is not persuasive are troubling in a subtle but very important way. Let me explain why I can fluidly pull out material from my memory that looks remarkably like the standard definition of automaticity and yet really isn't like that at all. 

First, a digression: with apologies to Douglas Adams, the process of doing history is almost but not quite entirely unlike what Sam Wineburg describes in his research. Wineburg's writing is appealing to historians because it focuses on precisely the discipline-based processes that Bruner discussed 50 years ago in his book, and Wineburg's message is flattering: "academic historians, you have interesting ways of thinking, and here is what I see as a cognitive researcher and why high school history teachers need to pay much closer attention to what you do." And to be honest, there is some part of his work that has all sorts of interesting detail on the level of nuance and sophistication with which people try to commit history (such as the research on how people from different fields read primary sources about Abraham Lincoln and slavery). But Wineburg is enormously popular because his intended audience has a confirmation bias that leads them (us) to agree with someone who comes along and tells us we're special and intellectual. Wineburg weaves a story of historical thinking's exceptionalism... and there's the rub. As an historian, I'm supposed to be wary of anyone talking about American exceptionalism, and here comes this cognitive psychologist trying to seduce me with glorious tales of my discipline's exceptionalism, how difficult it is to be an historian, and so forth.

Pardon me, but I'll take the interesting cognitive questions without the side dish of (probably unintentional) pandering. A good bit of Wineburg's efforts have been to parse out how people read primary sources, and they generally focus on the level of ambiguity people read into primary sources: ambiguity about intent, background, effect, and so forth. And that's all fine and good except for two problems: Wineburg's work in this vein has generally been with adults, and they generally ignore the process participants use to put the primary source in context. The second is the part that troubles me most as a teacher, because the place where students in my undergrad history of education class first fall down is typically in putting a primary source in a broader context. It's not the most difficult task I put before students: usually the most difficult task in the semester is asking students to provide historical perspectives on a contemporary issue. But the difficulty of putting material in a broader context is a fundamental barrier to success in my class.

That sounds remarkably like students who are not yet at the level of history automaticity, whatever that might mean, and one would be tempted to refer to Checker Finn and Diane Ravitch's argument from the late 1980s, that American teenagers don't know enough history. But focusing on factual recall is begging the question: what does it mean to have sufficiently fluid mastery of history to put a primary document in context? Something about factual recall is helpful, but is that enough, and is that what successful students do? 

It might be helpful to explain the type of task that is not hard for students: confronting people whose glib brutality stands out of the page. That characterizes the very first primary source I use in my undergrad history class (printed in Jim Fraser's education history primary-source collection), instructions from the London Virginia Council to the colony's governor in 1636. It reads in part,

And if you find it convenient, we think it reasonable you first remove... [Native American children] from their ... priests by a surprise of them all and detain their prisoners... [and] we pronounce it not cruelty nor breach of charity to deal more sharply with [the priests] and to proceed even to dash with these murderers of souls and sacrificers of gods' images to the devil...

With 17th century texts, the first challenge is simply to understand what the source says, and that's a bit of skill in language, but the students usually figure out this passage soon enough, and their eyes open a bit wider: the official supervisors of the colony sitting in England were telling the colonial governor to kidnap Native American children and beat (or kill) the elders. That type of detail sticks with students, because it engages their emotions and sense of what a society is supposed to be doing (as well as what colonists did). It's not that any student is exactly surprised that English colonists in Virginia were patronizing and occasionally brutal, but there is something that takes them aback in the casual way which which colonists and English elite discussed their goals. 

I wish that all of history was that engaging, but that's just not true, and there is a good bit of background context that students need to pull out to put any primary source in context, and when you get to material whose explicit text is boring but is still important, students cannot rely on the immediately-engaging story to "get it." Instead, most primary sources require a student to identify at least one salient context that is not immediately apparent, and they need to be able to identify a relevant context (or more than one) without a huge amount of effort. If there is an "automaticity" to a professional historian's thinking, it is that: where does this primary source or other detail fit in a large scheme?

That larger scheme can start with "issues of the day," whatever the time and place. To be successful, you need to know what was happening at about the time of the primary source/event. You start with the year, go back and forth a few years, and think about possible connections. So when you look at the last of Horace Mann's annual reports on the state of education in Massachusetts (in 1848) and read the following passage, what pops out as contemporary and possibly relevant?

Now surely nothing but universal education can counterwork 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. But, if education be equally 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.

That's from the middle of the 19th century in the U.S. So when I ask a class about the relevant context, some students look at servility and suggest slavery as an issue, point out that Mann was writing for an audience in the North, or ask whether Mann was anti-slavery. (No one in my classes has mentioned the compromise of 1850, but that would fit with this tentative reach for context.) Few of them would have heard of Eric Foner's book on free-labor ideology, but I can probe a bit: slavery's part of the picture, at least in rhetoric, but there's something else there. What were some of the concepts used in the North to discuss slavery? I wish that probe worked more frequently than it does, so I usually point out the "different classes" phrase and ask what else was happening in the U.S. in the 19th century. At least one student usually mentions industrialization. So what's Mann arguing, I follow up? More faces light up at that point.

Part of the problem here is that Mann's argument is too familiar, a little too close to a human-capital argument for students to realize how new this was. (Maris Vinovkis credits Mann with that early human-capital argument.) Part of it is also that students don't have a visceral sense of the simmering conflicts in Northern cities, even after hearing about the religious conflicts in Boston in 1836 or Philadelphia in 1844 (the latter so-called "Bible riot"). Because all of that was also related to social class, industrialization, and immigration, I can almost feel Mann's sense of urgency here in promoting mass education ("common schools") as a cure-all for social conflict. But most students usually can't. The prose is too prosaic and the context insufficiently emotional to engage students in the same way that happens in response to the "kidnap the kids and eliminate the elders" instructions from the 17th century.

There's an additional layer to this context, because 1848 is a signal year in European history: revolutions galore and the publication of the Communist Manifesto. To a literate, well-connected American, Europe was dissolving in chaos in 1847 and 1848. What could prevent the U.S. from doing the same? There is no evidence I am aware of that Mann was explicitly referring to European events, but it would have been in the air in the same way that natural disasters are "in the air" around the globe today after the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile. Even if he was not consciously constructing the passage above to respond to European events, it would have resonated more for someone concerned about social stability in 1848. 

There is nothing special about what I do in class: I take a simple question of context to push students about the importance of something Horace Mann wrote. And there is nothing particularly hard about asking what else was happening at the time. But while it's an easy task for me, this task flummoxes a lot of students. That task of pulling relevant context out of one's memory is the closest thing I can think of for the historian's automaticity, and looking for contemporary events and issues is the most obvious (but not the only) way to cut the issue. One might want to call this type of context affinity in time. I can think of other affinities which I might explore in other entries, but the key thing here is that this task is extraordinarily difficult for students. 

Why this is difficult is an interesting, substantive question beyond the usual "fact-process" dualism. You need a mastery of chronology to pull context out of your head, but to build that mastery you need a way to put the details into your head in a way that's not "one damned thing after another"--i.e., a mental scheme. And while I wish I could look inside my head to see what my internal schemes are, I suspect any attempt at reflection is going to fall far short. I suppose one metaphor might be a "thick" timeline of issues and events and trends inside my head, so that when someone says, "1848," I can think of a bunch of things (as described above). Or if someone tells you that the Little Rock crisis was in fall of 1957, you just might think of Sputnik and ask whether there might be a Cold War context to Eisenhower's decision to nationalize the Arkansas National Guard and send in the 101st Airborne.

In addition, you need to be able to filter out nonsalient issues. What else was going on in 1957? Let's see: the Ford Thunderbird that year was a particularly popular "muscle" car. And the Dodgers were planning to move away from Brooklyn. The Communist party won elections in the Indian state of Kerala. ABC started national broadcast distribution of American Bandstand. On the Road was published. You can find more details at the 1957 Wikipedia page, but going to an almanac-style "here's what happened" listing is an incredibly inefficient way to put something in context. But to be honest, I wish I had the problem of students who found too many potential contexts where I had to suggest filtering. Usually the problem is a lack of candidate hypotheses about context.

December 31, 2009

Education stories of 2009 (U.S.)

The end of the year is the traditional time for journalists and laypeople to look back and identify major issues in a year. As Phil Graham (or maybe Ben Bradlee) said, journalism is a first rough draft of history, and you know what a first rough draft looks like. Nonetheless, as an historian I'll take a stab at what I think will be seen in retrospect as key developments in education in the U.S. They may even have been key issues this year!

  1. The Great Recession and students' lives. More children are homeless, hungry, or displaced in some way because the adults in their family have lost jobs or their homes. We won't know the exact extent of the effects on children's lives for a few years, but the news stories of the recession's effects on children are first indicators of a quantum leap in child poverty. And there is also an effect on the lives of college students, though the effects are more complicated. People are returning to school at a rapid clip, but because financial resources are lower, there is also a greater demand for financial aid at college.
  2. The Great Recession and the education stimulus packages (plural). In late 2008 it became obvious that for several years Florida had been leading the country again... in declining state and local revenues. Around the country in early 2009, school-system budgets for 2009-10 looked like they were going to collapse, resulting in catastrophic layoffs that would affect not only schools but the whole economy. Federal spending kept hundreds of school systems afloat and is a good part of what saved the economy from a much worse decline in aggregate demand. The early-2009 stimulus package (aka ARRA) is the major part of the story but not all of it. If you didn't hear about the mid-December shifting of $23 billion from TARP into an account school systems could use to save jobs, you missed a substantial increase in the stimulus that should be considered part of December's second stimulus, along with an extension of unemployment benefits and federal subsidies for COBRA payments.
  3. College financial aid reform. The Obama administration is combining administrative changes to simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) with a push to eliminate the federally-subsidized private lending program and shift resources into direct lending. While it is not politically possible (and probably not legally possible) in many states to require that all students complete the FAFSA, it is possible to make it much easier to complete, encouraging more students with real financial need to take advantage of financial aid.
  4. The growing role of community colleges... and erstwhile or soon-to-be-erstwhile community colleges.The July plan to give $12 billion to community colleges is a relatively small part of the overall policy emphasis of the administration on community colleges, from the appointment of a community-college president as the chief administrator of higher education policies to the greater scrutiny of proprietary training institutions (where do you think students who would otherwise go to proprietary job-training programs will be headed instead?). Ironically, two of the largest states are headed in a different direction, with Florida's community-college system disintegrating or morphing into a "state college" sort-of-system, and some voices in California voicing a similar idea with new caps on Cal State enrollments. (DC is headed in the other direction, with UDC splitting into two- and four-year institutions.)
  5. Race to the Top. Some of you may wonder why this isn't #1, but I'll defend my judgment that it's important but whether you like RTTT or not, it's not nearly as important a change as the issues I've put above this. But don't fret if you disagree: see #8.
  6. Common core standards effort. The halting, awkward, adolescent-like steps towards creating at least some vague national-level standards developed, and while Alaska and Texas may not be involved, and other states may opt out later, this is the curriculum equivalent of the 1989 Charlottesville summit, in that it is a national rather than a federal effort.  (See Maris Vinovskis's recent book for that story.)
  7. City school control battles. From the renewal of mayoral control in NYC (and Bloomberg's relection) to an emergency manager in Detroit and the apparent devolution of Los Angeles Unified, governance is once again front and center in urban school politics. Well, maybe it never left as an issue, which is a cynical historian's perspective. But if you think I'm cynical, wait until Diane Ravitch's new book comes out in a few months. No, I haven't read the manuscript. But you don't have to before you can take a good guess at what Ravitch will say about New York City. (Recent developments in Detroit and Los Angeles came after she must have submitted her manuscript.)
  8. Teacher evaluation in local bargaining. Collective bargaining agreements put the AFT in the center of teacher evaluation debates through its support of new arrangements in New Haven, St. Louis, and even Detroit. And both teacher evaluations and collective bargaining more generally are at the heart of disagreements between the Minnesota and Florida teachers union state affiliates, on the one hand, and state departments that would like teacher union signoffs on RTTT applications, on the other. Disclosure: I am a member of the Florida Education Association and was on the governance board for a two-year term that ended this past summer. I haven't had time to learn much more than what's available publicly on the Florida disagreement, but I'll give you one idea in the back of my mind that's also in yesterday's Ed Week story (requires subscription) by Stephen Sawchuk: both affiliates are merged (i.e., in both the NEA and AFT).
  9. Sexting as a news topic. This is the latest object of our perennial concern about youth behavior, made  highly visible with the suicides this year by Jesse Logan and Hope Witsell. The main difference between teens' sending racy photos of themselves by cell and other foolish teenage behavior is that cell-phone technology enables a social chain-reaction from an MMSed photo that other (and more fundamentally stupid/dangerous) behavior does not. Not that any of these is a good choice, but if you knew that your teenager was either going to get addicted to a drug, become pregnant/impregnate someone, or send or receive a sext message, which would be the least inherently dangerous behavior?  Fortunately, Mike Petrilli is correct about the state of American teenagers: the trends on seriously dangerous adolescent behavior is headed in the right direction... not that any reporters covering the sexting issue noted that fact.
  10. Textbook affordability. Arnold Schwartznegger's midyear ramblings about ebooks aside, there has been movement in several areas to address the rent-seeking behavior of both textbook publishers and college bookstores. This includes public and private ventures to create online textbooks with inexpensive print-on-demand options and textbook rentals, and Florida is probably not going to be the last state where public colleges and universities need to list textbooks for all courses at least a few weeks before a term starts, to allow competition. There are some logistical problems with the last, such as with brand-new courses or new sections opened up to serve demand, but some tweaking will probably result in an institutionalized arrangement allowing students to search for books they can find anywhere.

So what have I missed? Any errors in judgment on the ordering? What do you think the issues for 2010 will be? Time to kibitz!

November 6, 2009

Issues in electronic grade reports

This morning's article in USA Today on electronic grade reports is a reminder of a few important facts in evaluating technology use in schools:

  • Ease of use (in jargon, "usability") is critical to adoption. The systems that existed a few years ago were (and many still are) clunky and hard to use for both teachers and parents. New systems are becoming easier for parents to use, creating different accounts for students and parents (so students are aware of what parents can access but not interfere with that access), e-mailing notices of new grade uploads, and so forth. Larry Cuban's dicta about hybridization still hold true for anything living on a server.
  • The digital divide is especially important to pay attention to when private records are involved. Many poor parents and children use public libraries for internet access. With libraries' reducing hours, and with the public nature of computer-use rooms in libraries, parents without at-home internet access face significant barriers to accessing information that is online. That doesn't mean that districts should not build on-line systems, but there needs to be careful thought about how parents might access the information when they do not have private internet access, in the same way that there is a need to plan for parents with disabilities, parents who do not speak English, etc. 
  • Districts should begin to figure out how to bring data together for parents. I'm not talking about a giant data warehouse--that becomes cumbersome (as well as security-fraught) if anyone can have access to databases--but a slim addition to the type of stuff that is showing up in the online grade report systems. I've proposed that for high school students there could be something akin to a look-at-everything-your-student-is-doing "dashboard" (if you'll forgive that term). Grades, extracurricular activities, jobs, etc. That will take some careful thought, but maybe an economic crunch is the right time to do it, when districts will think about the tradeoff in use v. design/maintenance costs.

My children's high schools are both using Edline this year, which is a dramatic improvement from attempts at online assignment and grade access a few years ago. There are still significant issues: some teachers find the interface hard, the school district took several weeks before realizing that maybe it might want to send the private authorization codes to parents in the mail rather than entrust them to students, and the school district still has not yet addressed the divorced-parents issue with regard to access (at least from the report of one co-custodial parent frustrated that the other parent has the authorization code and sole access but isn't using it). This is still significant improvement from my perspective. 

Now, if only the school district will get new online systems for high school counselors to schedule classes, for special educators to work on IEPs, and teachers to sign up for professional development. At least in Hillsborough, those are legacies from when the district incompetently tried the low-bid strategy with vendors who didn't demonstrate capacity to fulfill the contracts, and so everyone is stuck with systems that still (expletive verb) (colorful adverbial expression). 

October 18, 2009

The curious case of Larry Summers

Okay, maybe I can't let well enough alone on economics. About a decade from now, someone will have both the material and distance to write a fabulous biography of Larry Summers. On one level, he is a brilliant economist. At another level, he has been a total MF, and at Harvard the financial games and the Schleifer scandal are worse than his noncollegial style and tendency to say tremendously stupid things in public. I think he clearly has matched Bill Clinton on the "fast thinker with a deep mental problem" scale. The extent of all this is unknown at the moment. We have some interesting pieces by Ryan Lizza on his role on the White House economic team, Vanity Fair on the collapse of Harvard's endowment, and evolving coverage of what was clearly a bone-headed move in interest swaps* that the Boston Globe reported Friday but bloggers had uncovered in the summer (as Margaret Soltan explains). I know that Mark Ames tried to put things together last fall on Summers, but events move faster than journalists and sometimes you need a real historian and real time to put things in perspective.

When that time comes, you'll need someone with financial acumen and knowledge of higher education, as well as politics. That will be an interesting challenge, but I look forward to reading the Summers biography when it eventually comes out. If you're 13 years old and looking for a great dissertation topic, here's the one to keep in mind!

* In response to a colleague's concern many months ago about swaps, I looked at the interest-swap agreements of my own university. Mind-numbingly dull and mundane, they were the ordinary kind where the university bonded out debt at variable-rate interest and then turned around and agreed with a bank to pay the bank a fixed rate in return for the bank covering the variable-rate interest on the bond. It's a hedge against inflation, and because interest rates can't go below zero, the ordinary interest-rate swap looks like it has a limited liability. What Summers did at Harvard was different: Apparently Harvard agreed to interest-rate swaps on debts that Harvard would not incur for years and years. 

** The swap-swashbuckling was compounded by the other bone-headed move of investing operating funds in less-liquid, more-risky investments.

October 17, 2009

An historian reads the business section (with apologies to John Allen Paulos)

I do not generally comment on economic matters, but I think historians of education can say something productive about the current myths plodding around the internet about the stimulus and the non-bank sector of the banking industry. First, some of the current discourse:

  • Sean Snaith, an economist at the University of Central Florida, is unimpressed with stimulus dollars being spent in Florida, arguing that to do much good, the money should have come in and been spent much faster.
  • John Quiggen is upset over at Crooked Timber over Goldman Sachs's profiting from risky ventures, or maybe upset that they're getting significant leverage over financial firms that have taken federal recapitalization and sat on the money, or repaid it to avoid additional regulation. I am not exactly sure how close Quiggen is to Krugman's being upset that we're not moving fast enough to regulate the unregulated (non-bank) part of banking.

These appear to be fairly standard concerns with economists. And I sort of understand that, except for a few perspectives from the history of stodgy institutions (schools):

  • Sometimes moving slowly is what's needed for longer-term needs. As other economists have pointed out, White House economist-in-chief Christine Romer's broader concern has consistently been with the general output gap over several years. In contrast with a mild recession where the output gap really is short-term, we're going to have problems with output for more than 8-12 months. So spending over more than 8-12 months is not a bad idea. This is about saving the entire country's economy, not just Florida or any single state.
  • Lots of institutionalized changes are hidden, and that's as true for the stimulus as it often is with education. For political purposes, the White House is now starting to highlight the jobs created and to a lesser extent the jobs saved by the stimulus. To my mind, it's the thousands of public-service jobs saved that are evidence of effective policy, but that's hidden because people have kept jobs (and it's hard to see non-change as a success). Similarly, part of the stimulus is the reduction in federal income-tax withholding. If I understand things correctly, that's more effective than a tax rebate precisely because it's not that visible, and people of low and moderate means are likely to take that extra money every paycheck and spend it on things they desperately need to pay for... and that keeps demand up. (Giving people a tax rebate may be perfectly justifiable public policy for other purposes, but I'm not convinced that it's effective for stimulus.)
  • Instead of hoping that we can fix those buggers so they can't game the system anymore (a common dream in accountability policy), maybe we should assume that the attempt to game the system is as much of a permanent feature of financial institutions as it is in schools. And maybe we should take a long-term perspective that we always assume there will be attempts to game the system and a need to adjust public policy on a cyclical basis to respond to such gaming. As many have pointed out, even if the bank-in-name side of banking has recovered and started to lend again (and I think it has), there is a huge hole where the non-banking side used to leverage itself out the wazoo to give out subprime loans, liars' loans, and the like. Yes, there needs to be better regulation of the finance industry, but we should assume it is always incomplete and never done. An example of where the evolution of financial regulation worked is in so-called peer-to-peer lending, where propser.com and lendingclub.com popped up in the wake of Kiva's charity microlending on a social platform. The difference between charity social-networked lending and social-network lending with interest is disclosure and risk. In Kiva, you're not expecting interest, and you know that your money loses value every day it's out there in a loan. But that's not a problem since your goal isn't making money. In 2008, the Securities and Exchange Commission ruled (properly, I think) that the Prosper and LendingClub operations were essentially securities and needed to be run as such. And both sites have now been approved and reopened as SEC-approved securities operations. This is where regulation works well to keep things transparent. This doesn't mean that P2P lending serves the functional role of putting money to its most productive uses, but I don't think subprime lending did, either, and at least the risks exist and are stated up front, while individuals have the power to make both wise and foolish investment decisions. 

And now, I'll crawl back into my HistoryCave, waiting for the next Little Red Schoolhouse silhouette to show up on the underside of my metropolis's clouds to signal another emergency requiring an Historian of Education.

October 9, 2009

And now, a break from the normal type of entry on this blog

Wow (backup for citation, since the Nobel's servers are slammed right now). In the perennial struggle to decide whether the Nobel Peace Prize should be a Courage Award or a Behavioral Reinforcement for Moving in the Right Direction, the Nobel Peace Prize Committee used the 2009 award for the latter. I think the prize committee gave the award prematurely, though, even given its tendency to want to reward positive motion. Don't you think they should have waited at least for the third miracle?

I apologize for the attempt to channel Peter Sagal, but since Wait wait! Don't tell me! is recorded on Thursdays for the Saturday broadcast, I either have to wait 8 more days for the Inevitable Best Quip on Obama, hope he puts something interesting into his Twitter feed, or make it up on my own. And I do think that the Nobel choice seems obviously political; the other two presidents who have received one in office (Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson) had at least done some concrete stuff internationally. Never mind that Wilson's grand idea flopped on several levels, but at least he had done something concrete internationally. Obama's primary achievements thus far have been in domestic policy. I gave money to his campaign and worked and voted for him, but this seems, I don't know... a little too early to recognize what is thus far essentially a policy of "We're not John Bolton."

The political fallout from this is entirely unknown, but I can hardly wait for the talk-radio reaction as well as the reaction from those who feel as if they should have gotten it instead. On my drive to work, I heard a big bang that sounded like it was coming from very far away. I'm not sure if I was hearing Glenn Beck's or Bill Clinton's head explode, but someone is surely going apoplectic this morning.

And there is no truth to the rumor that the following was part of the internal correspondence for the Nobel Peace Prize Committee:

Dear Thorby,

I think we need a more honest citation than the second draft you circulated yesterday, something like the following: After giving due consideration to all the nominees who had given their freedom or health for the improvement of their fellows, or who had accomplished amazing acts of diplomacy, we have decided to award the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize to someone who is just too cool to ignore, an American President who mesmerizes us with complete sentences and proper grammar in his own language, who remembers books he has read, who understands that international diplomacy requires as much seduction as force, who probably knows that a real ranch has to have cattle and not just a bunch of dead bushes to clear, and whom we really, really hope will play hoops with us when he comes to Oslo in December. We even promise to clear the snow off the court.

Oh, and can we have the Ceremony this year with everyone in Speedos?

I stand corrected on one important item: Obama did have this small achievement in July. But that's not mentioned explicitly in the Nobel citation, probably because they didn't want to let the Guy Who Is Not Putin share the award. And reducing nuclear warheads is not nearly as important as being able to hit net at 25 feet. Er, 8 meters.

September 30, 2009

The Child has arrived!

This week I received my contributor's copy of The Child: An Encyclopedic Companion. I have a single entry (on dropouts), and it's clear there's lots of good stuff in it on a range of topics, including a substantial section with historical and social-science perspectives on families. I think the cost is about on par for academic encyclopedias ($75), and there's a 20% discount right now (or an after-discount price of $60). Disclosure: No royalties for me if you buy it, or don't. But you can definitely ask your library to buy it.

September 15, 2009

Reality-check request

I have what should be a more long-lasting podcast that I'm starting for both of my classes this semester. It'll be a set of historical perspectives on education news, and it should be public-access, though it's hosted on a walled-garden CMS. Right now there are three podcasts, and I'd appreciate if someone could try to add it to your podcast aggregator (whether iTunes or something else) and let me know if you can grab the episodes.

August 2, 2009

The liberal arts and narratives of declension

There is a teacher's voice in my head, asking the logical question of New York Times reporter Patricia Cohen who speculated whether the humanities are in decline (perhaps because of the Great Recession) and whether older history subdisciplines are also in decline: "where did she go to school, and who were her teachers?" Evidently, the Times is hiring reporters who either never had good history teachers, never paid attention to them, or forgot one of the basic lessons in a good college history class: beware narratives of climbing societies, falling societies, or any society-wide "rise and fall." The February article brought the expected number of letters to the editor to a newspaper that might just depend on readers who want to read (you know, that humanities-ish activity), Timothy Burke had some words, and Michael Berube had solid things to say in early June and late June. About the second article, again see Burke as well as Mary Dudziak, Mark Grimsley, Claire Potter, and David Silbey. I am months late on this, so I will do what I can.

First, before panicking it probably makes sense to divide what parts of the proportionate decline of humanities majors in the past few decades are attributable to different factors: the growth of undergraduate professional degrees, the growth of higher-education enrollments more generally, the decline of GI Bill-related enrollment as a proportion of undergraduates, and any leftover changes that just might be related to the nature of the disciplines themselves. In part because the expansion of higher education came side-by-side with the belief that a college degree's main utility was getting a job and growing credential requirements for jobs, enrollment grew faster in professional majors than in the humanities.

Maybe I should cry over the fact that a lower proportion of students are history majors than there used to be (though the percentages bounce up and down), or maybe I should celebrate the dramatic expansion of college attendance in the past 70 years and the fact that even if the proportion of history majors has dropped, there are still more graduates with history majors living in the country today than were living in 1950. Remember new "old saw" about the total population of China and India; apply as balm to humanities woes. Not only does the general expansion of college attendance make me less concerned than others are, but my guess is that they're more likely to be exposed to teaching that asks important historiographical questions and that uses primary sources. I didn't say immersed in: exposed. 

Those perspectives do not completely eliminate concern about the future of humanities teaching and humanities departments in colleges and universities. Though regionally accredited colleges and universities have some version of a distribution/breadth requirement or general-education program (depending on your regional accreditor), that fact does not mean that a department has to be anything more than a "service outlet," the higher-ed equivalent of the quick-lube shop tucked in between the strip malls of Finance and Psychology. "Shakespeare while u wait! Fulfill writing requirement in 30 mins or ur money back." 

On the other hand, while the standard choices of academe has been for greater adjunct use in all high-student areas (and that is true whether they're called adjuncts or graduate students), the reality is that humanities classes are cheap in comparison with science and math if one looks at course credit earned. High failures rates in algebra and the costs of maintaining labs add up in a pragmatic sense, and that's only looking at credit courses. What about community college remedial classes? As DeanDad has noted, developmental courses in math are a death march in comparison with other noncredit classes. Teaching-heavy institutions may short the humanities in individual places, but the combination of gen-ed/distribution requirements makes it virtually impossible for college students to graduate without some liberal-arts classes and thus virtually impossible for colleges to eliminate liberal-arts programs entirely.

And then, if you look at the costs of maintaining the research capacity of faculty, the humanities look even better: no lab animals to house, fewer research assistants to hire, and the primary need for many scholars is a computer, some travel funds for conferences or research trips, and time. The big difference is in universities with doctoral programs, where the expectation of support for doctoral students has both direct costs (tuition waivers, which are on top of the pitiful stipends for TAs and RAs) and also indirect costs (in terms of the classes that graduate faculty are not teaching while they are running seminars and advising students). What I'm seeing in Florida universities is a combination of closing small doctoral programs as well as some atrocious decisions about closing departments. 

The probable consequence of the first type of decisions--closing down small doctoral programs in the liberal arts and in other areas--is a change in the doctoral-education opportunities in those fields, somewhat different workloads for those faculty, and perhaps a bit of status shift back to traditionally-elite programs. It's not as though small-program closures is going to bump the publication trends in any significant manner, and Cohen's articles presume that the rolling crisis in academic publishing is in an entirely different universe from the mythical status decline she posits. In her February article, the world of publishing is entirely ignored, and the June article only discusses a presumed shift in journal publishing. In the real world where I live, as opposed to the make-believe world of the New York Times reporter, the long-term crisis in the liberal arts is in academic publishing and questions about the economics of monographs and the long-form argument.

(Among the atrocious departmental closure decisions, the University of Central Florida almost shut down its statistics department the same year it's opening up a new medical school, and Florida Atlantic University reorganized its engineering college into the Department of Tenured Faculty We Like, Department of Tenured Faculty We Hate, Department of Tenure-Track Faculty, and Department of Non-Tenurable Faculty Who Teach Boatloads of Undergraduates. Those weren't the official names of the reorganized units, but that's the central function of the reorganization. Guess which "department" was closed, with the tenured faculty told to leave by August 7?)

July 15, 2009

The clinching argument for national curriculum standards

"Let's do it now, before total nuts from Texas take over!" To be truthful, there have also been nuts in New York, Florida, California, and other places (and of various flavors) where a state's size gives enormous temptations to warp the textbook approval process as leverage for controlling the entire country's text market. That's not a 100% clinching argument for some national standards, but it's very tempting to strike while the people holding the irons are definitely not hot.

June 26, 2009

The right kind of infection

The Powell et al. article on cultural complexity 90,00 years ago, published in the June 5 issue of Science, has some interesting consequences for education policy, though it's an archaeology article. The argument the authors make is that one needs a certain population density before one can find surviving signs of cultural complexity (archaeological evidence of more sophisticated used of symbolism and technology). Sub-Saharan Africa had both those population densities and archaeological evidence from 90,000 years ago, as did Eurasia 45,000 years ago.

Powell et al. are arguing that the development of the earliest human cultural skills may have depended on nothing other than density. This is an appealing story: get enough humans living in proximity, and whatever culture is developed will be maintained while the various subpopulations (clans, etc.) interact and teach each other, keeping the ideas floating around the population in a way that would not happen in a sparse population with little interaction between subgroups.

I suppose that as someone without an archaeology background, I have no insider knowledge of the contribution this paper makes to studies of human evolution. The authors are portraying the issue as an explanation of how human culture could appear suddenly (on the eon-scale) without resorting to changes in biology (esp. cognitive capacity). We'll see what other researchers of human evolution say about that, but there's something important there for education.

The article suggests that one can categorize various cultural characteristics by the extent of continuity across time. Isolated behaviors and skills may not survive unless they spread beyond the individuals who may exhibit/learn them for a time. With enough contact among people, knowledge, skills, and behaviors can become continuous; that continuity is the subject of the article. But one can look at knowledge, skills, and behaviors that are more than continuously existing. Are they common (maybe the experience of a minority but where everyone knows several people who have that experience)? Are they the normative expectation? Are they ubiqitous (universal or nearly so)? That's a five-category, ordinal variable for the extent of cultural behavior in a population: isolated, continuous, common, normative, ubiquitous.Okay, there's a sixth category, absent. 

Many of the debates over education policy are about shoving the national population from a common experience of X to a normative expectation of X, or from a normative expectation to the ubiquity of X. In the space of 70 years, high school graduation moved from a continuous population behavior to a normative experience; that's the story in my first book. But the rhetoric surrounding a national population's experiences often obscures variations. As Claudia Goldin has pointed out, high school graduation became normative in the midwest and northeast by 1940, while it moved much more slowly in the South (for Southerners of all races/ethnic backgrounds). And today, while approximately a quarter of teenagers leave high school without a standard academic diploma, there are many high schools where graduation is common but not the majority experience, and probably a few high schools where graduation exists every year but is not common.While the latter should be alarming to anyone, in reality the majority of high schools in deep crisis fall in the former category, schools where graduation is common but not the majority experience. 

There is an argument that the Powell et al. article suggests: if culture "spreads" once there is a sufficient number of "carriers," maybe we should look at education as akin to a disease process that we want to propagate. This is close to the contamination theory Geoffrey Canada has (or had when Paul Tough followed him around while writing his book about the Harlem Children's Zone). There are both ways in which that argument is interesting (esp. in communities where half or more teenagers drop out without a high school diploma) and others in which it is disturbing (assuming that students can be "carriers" of culture in way that adults can manipulate, though they can't shape adolescent experiences directly.. uh, no).

How do you move a behavior from a common-but-minority experience to a normative expectation? That's essentially the question we have in a large number of high schools in the country and with regard to baccalaureate degrees for the entire country. At least in my understanding, there are two requirements, involving both the spread of an idea and set of habits (habitus, in Bourdieau's language of cultural capital) and also institutional infrastructure. Attending high school became the normative experience for teenagers when they could no longer enter the full-time labor market with ease, when people began to think of high school as an experience that could be useful, and when there were enough high schools for majority attendance to be physically possible.

I do not think that there are exact parallels for all circumstances, just a combination of population behavior and institutional behavior. They go together. And, yes, there are cases where the extent of cultural experiences can reverse: working-class attendance at Shakespeare in the late 19th century, if you believe Lawrence Levine, or girls' primary education in Afghanistan from 1995 to 2001.

May 20, 2009

Worst-governed state?

A few thoughts on the budget catastrophe that California is facing:

  • Before voters imposed a supermajority requirement for crafting a budget several years ago, California's political system was broken. Voters approved Prop. 98 to guarantee a slice of general revenues going to K-12 and community colleges for a reason, even if the rigidity was not well thought through.
  • The "fix" of a supermajority and the elimination of nominal deficits several years ago didn't work.
  • The "fix" proposed on yesterday's ballot was an awful mess, because it refused to face the central problems. Nonetheless, the ballot measures would have been better than what California now faces.
  • Don't expect the problems to be solved anytime in the near future.

The fallout--an additional gap that has to be filled with taxes (not going to happen with the supermajority requirement) or cuts--is going to devastate a number of schools and colleges, and while I thought I was in the least governable state in the union, I have now seen the Florida legislature act at least a little more rationally than other major political actors in various states. South Carolina's governor, both political branches in California, Nevada's governor, and Arizona's legislature are among the actors who have outdone Florida for destruction in the name of political expediency, and that's hard to do (and comes after I exclude the notable folks who were shooed out of office because of scandal rather than mismanagement). But I have a single person's perspective, so maybe there's a contest we can have about the worst-governed state in the country. I wish I could suggest criteria, but there's a wealth to choose from, and maybe we should have different parts of the contest, sort of like there's the talent competition, etc., for beauty pageants:

  • Duct-tape governance competition--the state with the worst constitution, that is impossible to change, too easy to change, warped, inviting conflicts of interest, etc. Alabama and California are probably going to vie for this one.
  • Ostrich-impersonation competition--states where politicians are the best at sticking their heads in the sand to avoid uncomfortable choices. Florida's going to place highly in this one.
  • Lotus-growing competition--similar to ostriches, except that everyone points to the obvious problems and somehow argue that lotuses grow out of them, interpreting a dungheap as a site for beauty instead. Florida's hydra-like higher-education system, where every community-college president dreams of running a four-year college with a "leadership institute," is my nominee, but I'm sure you can figure out others. 
  • Mushroom-feeding competition--the state with the worst "keep everyone in the dark and feed them ****" decision-making.
  • Mushroom-eating competition--the state where politicians are the best at delusions about the future.
  • Dollar-grab competition--politicians that (would) do their best at shamelessly grabbing someone else's money in a transparent box even if they knew they'd be watched the whole time. I'll put my bets on Illinois or New Jersey, but Florida's got a shot at this one, too, with its former Speaker of the House.

Put nominations for each competition in comments!

May 11, 2009

"Governance reform" is not reform

While New York rages over mayoral control, which is all the rage, schools in Pinellas County are headed towards The New Site Based Management, which was the rage in the late 1980s and early 1990s and which Bill Ouchi hopes will be the rage again.

While there are plenty of ways that governance can affect the classroom, I am consistently underwhelmed by the argument that governance reform improves what happens in the classroom. I've seen it all before.

April 9, 2009

When historians comment on draft regulations...

Kelly Woestman, H-Net's current president, just wrote a wonderful comment on NARA's proposal to reorganize the management of (and possibly centralize) presidential libraries.

April 6, 2009

An advertisement for history

My thanks to the indefatigable Paul Krugman, who writes soberly about how close we came and may still be to a repeat of the 1930s:

[K]nowledge is the only thing standing between us and Great Depression 2.0. It's only to the extent that we understand these things a bit better than our grandfathers--and that we act on that knowledge--that we have any real reason to think this time will be better.

I am not an economic historian, but it strikes me that if we get out of the current mess with a minimum of pain, it will be due to government stimulus, fast action by the Fed (and other central banks, though Bernanke is clearly going far beyond other central bankers) to increase the money supply, and plain luck. I'll take the luck right now, but the other stuff is policy and is informed by serious understanding of the Great Depression. Bernanke comes from the monetarist side of the economic house, while Krugman, DeLong, and others come from the firmly Keynesian side, but there can be no doubt that Bernanke's aggressiveness is informed by his own thinking about economic history, as Krugman's and others is informed by their own.

Let's just hope that their understanding of economic history from the late 1920s and early 1930s is a little less urgently needed in a year or so.

March 20, 2009

Brutal rites of passage

The stories about the Dallas school "cage matches" between students is a sign that unprofessional and brutal treatment of children is possible whenever the adults lack a moral compass. This is something that could have happened 50 or 100 years ago, and it happened because some twisted people in charge thought that the best way to handle students is to encourage unbridled violence. Great. Just great.

March 18, 2009

By request: on teaching quality

I am not going to write today about the new report, An Evaluation of Teachers Trained through Different Routes to Certification, because I haven't read it. (Other things take higher priority for me right now; the report is heading to my to-read pile. But after reading the praise and also Aaron Pallas's criticism, let alone Sean Corcoran and Jennifer Jennings's review, my curiosity is piqued.) But I have an outstanding request from a reader to discuss teaching quality, and I'm going to pull the exam-writer's trick and reformulate the question: what should policymakers know about the history of "teacher quality" in the U.S.?

Short answers: the long shadow of character, the education bootstrap, the short history of the single salary schedule, and the porous nature of certification/licensure. 

The long shadow of character

First, teaching as a career is less than 150 years old. In North America teaching was largely a short-term and part-year occupation until sometime in the 19th century (depending on where you're looking). In part because of the mix of private and taxpayer funding, and the short sessions in many places in the country, few people in the early 19th century could make a living teaching full-time. So many of the mostly-male teachers were in schools only part of the year, filling in when they didn't have opportunities to preach, attend college, or engage in something else.

Because of the multiple missions of schooling, academic qualifications were low on the priority list for those hiring teachers. The key qualification was high character, and the most common practical qualification was the ability to control a classroom. The source in many history of ed texts illustrating the second is Edward Eggleston's The Hoosier Schoolmaster (1871), a novel whose subtitle tells the tale: "A Story of Backwoods Life in Indiana." At the beginning of the story, the new schoolmaster is asked by trustee Jack Means,

"Want to be a school-master, do you? You? Well, what would you do in Flat Crick deestrick, I'd like to know? Why, the boys have driv off the last two, and licked the one afore them like blazes. You might teach a summer school, when nothin' but children come. But I 'low it takes a right smart man to be school-master in Flat Crick in the winter. They'd pitch you out of doors, sonny, neck and heels, afore Christmas."

In the nineteenth century, a smart teacher had the ability to control older boys, presumably by making them smart when necessary. 

That wasn't universally true; one of the common arguments for hiring women as teachers rather than men was their presumably nurturing nature. The gender stereotype of who was the right teacher inevitably involved questions about who could properly motivate students, especially boys. Never mind that women could use a switch on a student as easily as a man could. Or the rather clever way that hiring women allowed urban school districts to have a workforce that was cheaper and less likely to hop to other jobs -- because women had fewer higher-paying opportunities. (The same dynamic was true with African American teachers in the 20th century, at least until the 1964 Civil Rights Act; teaching was one of the best opportunities for upward mobility.) The rationale was all about sweetness and light, nurturing and character.

The legacy of all that history is that academic qualifications became an issue decades after the spread of mass primary schooling in the North. Part of the resistance was a fear of centralization; as New York state politician Orestes Brownson said, once the first normal schools were established, then states would try to work it so that no one but a normal-school graduate could teach. (He was partly right; see the "porous nature" section below.) Concerns about morality led schools to bar women from teaching after marrying, then forcing maternity leave when pregnancies began showing. Even now, morality will trump academics in the news. When was the last time your local television news show ran a story about teacher qualifications (either academic background or effectiveness)? When was the last time it ran a story about a teacher having sex with a student?

As I have argued elsewhere, this focus on virtue has caused serious long-term harm in how we look at teaching. And in the long run, those who argue about whether it's most important to intervene in teachers' disciplinary background, pedagogical training, or effectiveness in raising test scores are having a debate that could not have existed 100 years ago. So to the partisans in that argument, you are all light-years ahead of Jack Means and his real-world counterparts.

The education bootstrap (as in lifting up onself by one's, not engaging in violence with a)

Teaching was not a career in the early 19th century, but women could be teachers by the middle and end of the century, because the start of mass schooling generated an adult population with at least a minimum of formal education. A few weeks ago when I heard Joseph Kisanji of the Tanzania Education Network talk about the state of special education in Tanzania, what struck me was the low proportion of primary students who continued to secondary grades. That plus the high fertility rate in Tanzania puts the country behind the eight-ball, having a very high ratio of children in need of a teacher to adults with enough education to teach. Add sex discrimination in the form of requiring girls to work and thus discouraging them from secondary school, plus the legacy of "villagization" in the 1970s (the Tanzanian equivalent of Soviet collectivization) and you've got a serious dilemma for the country. While the average student-teacher ratio is something like 50:1, according to Kisanji in some areas of Tanzania, that ratio is 70:1, 80:1, or even 100:1.

At some point, that dilemma exists with every population, at least in the abstract if not with 100:1 ratios) because you start out with less knowledge in the adult population than you'd like, and to get there, you first need a critical mass of adults who are both educated and also willing to teach. Let's call that the educational starting hole.

The United States essentially lifted itself out of the starting hole through coeducation and mass primary education (even if it was inconsistent). The pool of available teachers grew in the 19th century with the willingness (and eventual preference) to hire women and also by declining fertility and mortality, so that the proportion of the population in elementary and secondary school ages shrank. That demographic transition gave the next few generations a chance to keep expanding the critical mass of educated adults.

One stumbling block since WW2 has not been the number of adults with bachelor's degrees but the consequences of reduced discrimination for fields such as teaching that have historically relied on discrimination elsewhere as a recruiting device. In terms of generating an educated adult population, we're doing fairly well as a country. (That's an historian's hindsight, not a statement of satisfaction.) What is remarkable to my historian's eye is that so few college graduates today need to enter teaching to satisfy the bulk of school needs. The struggle to attract great college graduates to teaching is less the total number of graduates than the question of who goes into teaching and the alternatives that pull potential teachers into other fields.

That doesn't mean that teachers know everything they should. The accessible availability of "content knowledge" (an awful phrase, to be honest) is far more widespread than access to great repertoires of teaching techniques and the opportunities to practice them. There's a long story and debate there, and I'll just suggest that while you can learn a great deal about physics online from Walter Lewin, there's little parallel for how to teach high-school physics. (Fans of sciencegeekgirl, please understand I'm talking about videos... I know there's plenty of text-based material online.)

This also suggests that what Tanzania desperately needs is to boost its secondary schooling. The country is one of the world's poorest, and while it is not in the same awful shape as Zimbabwe or Darfur, that's saying very, very little. Get a critical mass of young adult Tanzanians reasonably educated, and the following generation will be much better off in part because there will be a greater mass of potential teachers.

In terms of the U.S., we should understand both where our strengths lie (a much more broadly educated adult population than many countries) as well as weaknesses. Maybe one example will illustrate: the teaching of math in elementary and middle schools. In the past two decades, there has been a generational change in the amount of math that high school graduates have taken, especially among girls. (This change comes from the mid-80s increase in graduation course requirements in many states.) At the same time, there has been a deliberate effort to improve the teaching of math. I'm not going to get into the debates over the 1989 National Council for the Teaching of Mathematics standards statement or its more recent revisions, but the discussion is out there in the ether and should not be ignored.

The first trend is something that is a strength as far as the academic skills of potential teachers is concerned: more high school graduates (and thus college graduates) have exposure to math through any level than before 1982 or 1983. It is certainly not universal or complete; there are still too many elementary teachers who fear math and pass that fear on. (As far as I'm concerned, a single teacher who does so is too many.) The second trend? I'm not sure, and I'll hedge my bets by referring to Larry Cuban's hybridization thesis: I'd bet more elementary and middle-school teachers are using manipulatives and activities that try to "make sense" of math, but probably few are engaging in what its critics might refer to as unstructured teaching in the name of constructivism. Some part of that, but probably not much, is related to a deeper understanding of how children do or could learn math. Both issues (knowledge of math and knowledge of teaching math) have changed over the past generation or so. One of them, possibly both, is likely to be responsible for Florida's steadily increasing math scores on NAEP for eighth-graders since 1990.

The history of the single salary schedule

Advocates of differential and performance pay for teachers sometimes portray the single salary schedule as a long-term legacy of an inefficient bureaucracy, and that's partly true. You can find some sort of salary schedule in the growing school bureaucracies of 19th century cities. But there are some substantial features of salary schedules before World War 2 that suggest how short the single salary schedule's life has been.

First is the difference between elementary and secondary teacher pay. In Philadelphia, the teachers at Central High School were treated like royalty in comparison with all other teachers in the system, at least at the beginning of Central's life when it was the only high school in the city. Teachers were called "professors," were paid much better than elementary teachers, and were largely autonomous. And they were men. As Philadelphia added more high schools, Central High and its teachers lost prestige and authority, but the gap between elementary and high school teachers was persistent and reflected in the structure of teacher organizations (including nascent unions) and pay.

Second is the treatment of teacher pensions and gender. In many cities in the mid-20th century, pensions had conditions that disadvantaged women who had children. In Nashville, for example, I've come across age guidelines that eliminated all teachers who began a job over age 40 from being eligible for the pension plan. What that did was eliminate from pension plans the women who taught for a few years before having children, left teaching as their children were growing up, and then wanted to return to teaching later.

Third is the persistent racial inequalities in teacher pay, even after the 1940 Melvin Alston equalization case. Scott Baker has argued that in the fight for teacher equal pay, many Southern school districts began to use the National Teacher Examination as a basis for pay differentiation after they were told that African American teachers scored lower on the NTE than white teachers.

In the history of teachers in the U.S., the development of bureaucratic pay schemes fit comfortably with discriminatory practices, and one of the victories of unions, civil rights activists, and women's civic groups has been the elimination of explicit discrimination in pay schemes. Need one require a single salary schedule to maintain that accomplishment? I don't think so, but to ignore the history is foolish, and there needs to be a watchdog so that there isn't a resurgence of pay discrimination among teachers.

The porous nature of certification/licensure

Nineteenth-century New York politician Orestes Brownson was partly right when he thought that the creation of normal schools would centralize the qualification of teachers. The normal schools of the 1800s became recognized and eventually grew to teachers colleges and regional state universities, and "teacher training" has become a common feature of what people do before they become teachers.

At the same time (and in a related way), if slowly, inconsistently, and unevenly, school administrators began to give preferences or require teachers to have some formal training, whether provided at county training schools or in state university schools or colleges of education. As the curriculum expanded in the early 20th century, administrators pushed the  generally minimal state bureaucracies to expand specialized credentials (or endorsements); one mark of the expansion of special education in postwar Tennessee, for example, is the creation of a licensure specifically for special educators. 

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, the vast majority of states had a licensure structure for teaching that at least nominally required licensure for teaching, recognized divisions between elementary and secondary education, and recognized specializations at all levels (whether subject specialization in secondary education or specializations in services provided at multiple levels).

The alert reader may note that I did not claim that teacher education has a lock on teacher training or other professional-role entry in schools. Far from it! Even when states have established laws mandating that permanently-appointed teachers have licensure, the loopholes have been plentiful and large. Substitutes and temporary or emergency licenses have been common ways around certification/licensure requirements, and the proliferation of alternative certification programs has eroded the minimal barriers that certification/licensure poses. I suspect it would be a feasible dissertation project to document that as we have gone through two waves of babies in the past 70 years, there has been a consistent pattern in licensure practices: certification/licensure is loose when there is a shortage of teachers and tightens when there is a surplus of regularly-licensed teachers. (Who says that history can't meet the Popper definition of science: there's a disconfirmable prediction! Okay, so the claim is probably trivial to document...)

The nature of the loosening depends on geography and period, but my guess is that poor rural and urban school districts have been the most likely to have a "fog the mirror" standard for teachers, even when there has been a shortage. (Another prediction that can be checked...) That is less a cause of unequal provision of teachers to disadvantaged children and communities than a consequence. But the historical fact is that licensure has developed but not enclosed teaching.

An article by Donald Boyd et al. in the December Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, "Surveying the Landscape of Teacher Education in New York City," is particularly interesting in that historical perspective. What Boyd and his coauthors convincingly demonstrate is that the NYC Teaching Fellows program has not really competed with college-credentialed new teachers. Instead, Fellows replaced the emergency/temporary licensure population of prior years. Consistently over this decade, college-credentialed programs have been unable to supply enough teachers for New York City schools. This pattern is not an anomaly. Instead, it demonstrates the historically porous nature of teacher licensure. 


I hate sections that are titled Implications. Yeah, right, as if I know all the implications of this: I don't. I can spot when a policymaker has a theory of action that ignores the history, but it's not clear how to draw lines from this history to current policy dilemmas. Not that I don't have some ideas about "teacher quality" policy issues, but this entry took about 6 weeks to take shape in the evenings and on weekends, while lots of other things took precedence, and this is the type of question that could justify a book. (Someone else take this on, please; I have enough to write about for the rest of my life!) The reader request was interesting enough to make me think about this in at least some depth, and for that, I am grateful. If you find this of some value, that's great, and please let me know in the comments if you can draw a straight line from this stuff to policy.

March 7, 2009


Per Brad DeLong and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U-6 is now at 14.8%. U-6 is the "alternative measure of unemployment" that includes underemployment: "Total unemployed, plus all marginally attached workers, plus total employed part time for economic reasons, as a percent of the civilian labor force plus all marginally attached workers." Those who truly believe in the colonic theory of school reform need to be ready for the consequences...

February 27, 2009

Just call it like it is, after you've paid your dues

It looks like a bunch of interested parties are starting to judge the Obama administration based on its appointments and early policy direction. And that's just fine. But when there's Fordham's Reform-a-meter, and Diane Ravitch proclaims Duncan's USDOE to be Bush's third term, I'll chime in with Fred Klonsky: judge people for what they do, but remember the context.

Thus far into the Obama administration, I'm fairly sure on the majority of key issues where I'm going to agree with the administration on education policy, where I'm going to disagree, and where I'm not going to be sure or not going to care. That leaves some issues where it's not clear where the Obama administration is going. I'm willing to call out administration officials when they make mistakes, as well as give them credit when they shove things in the right direction.

There's a totality to be considered: even if the Obama administration goes way too far in the direction of paying teachers for student test scores, they still get credit in my book for pushing a recovery package that will save thousands of teachers' jobs (even if the package was too small). And for proposing to index Pell grants, shift all subsidized loans to the direct program, etc. If you really expect to agree with everything a president does, you need to run for the office yourself. Other than that, expect to disagree with a few hundred decisions of the person you voted for, because presidents make thousands of decisions every year.

Case in point: FDR, who did a bunch of great things, but here's an incomplete list of the completely sucky actions of his administration during 12+ years in office ("completely sucky" is a technical term in policy evaluation):

  • Forcing Japanese Americans into internment camps during WW2
  • Allowing the Federal Home Loan Bank Board to create redlining
  • Not pushing Congress on anti-lynching legislation
  • Not putting more teeth into the Fair Employment Practices Commission
  • The practices of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, which gave landowners in the South an incentive to push tenant farmers and sharecroppers off the land
  • The court-packing scheme
  • Deciding to cut back on stimulus spending early in his second term, which created the 1937 recession within the depression.

The stupid or immoral decisions did not eliminate the great ones, nor the converse. In the same way that book reviewers have an obligation to recognize what authors are trying to accomplish, there's a similar obligation when evaluating a segment of an administration's policies: pay your dues to the context and then call it like it is. The Bush administration was a disaster in many, many ways, so the fact that it pushed assistance with AIDS responses in Africa was a tiny good thing in a morass of incompetence. I suspect that my long-term evaluation of the Obama administration will be the converse in many ways.

And right now, like Paul Krugman, I'm more worried about the economy than performance-pay policies.

February 14, 2009

Stimulating thoughts

Now that the stimulus package has passed, a few thoughts:

  1. The speed of the conference-committee work was breathtaking. Years from now, apart from what happens with the economy and the rest of his presidency,  political historians will remember the fact that President Obama achieved an unprecedented legislative victory less than 25 days after becoming president. FDR's First Hundred Days, ha! Obama's just set a new standard. Well, not quite: FDR's start was more astounding in terms of the change in federal power. But this week was still remarkable, and my jaw was on the floor when I read of the conference-committee agreement at the end of Wednesday.
  2. This bill will save thousands of teachers' jobs. Thousands of teachers will still lose their jobs, but it would have been much, much worse without this bill. That fact will change the conversation in Washington. 
  3. We still do not know the consequences of the millions in the Secretary of Education's discretionary spending authority, what Mike Petrilli is calling a slush fund, or the larger incentive fund, what Charles Barone hopes is the authority of Arne Duncan to mandate that states move on existing mandates. Let's keep things in perspective: $600 million is a lot of money, and $5 billion is more, but the first is about 0.1% of the discretionary authority handed to the Treasury Secretary in the bailout funds, and the second is also a small amount of money compared with all education spending each year. Big?  Yes. Consequences? Not quite known yet.

Is it the fulcrum Andy Rotherham wants? No. As the Bush education officials found out (and what Petrilli explained on the last Gadfly podcast), regulations still circumscribe what would otherwise appear to be discretionary. And as I've implied above, it's the saving of teachers' jobs that is more likely to change policy conversations. It's better to ask, "what can you do with $600 million/$5 billion?"

But I'm going to ask something different: what are the standards that we should expect for any "innovative" project? Here are some down-to-earth ideas that could easily be the standard:

  • Development of software for formative assessment should prioritize the fast, frequent, flexible, and simple: see my February 6 entry on periodic assessment for why.
  • Local infrastructure standards that minimize the time wasted by teachers and others waiting for software and servers to respond. Right now in one Florida school district, the software/hardware for scheduling students is so horrible that counselors are waiting 30 minutes for the server to process all the tasks for a single student for one semester. The IEP-drafting software for a Florida school district is likewise a good time-waster for special-education teachers, being so modular that almost every operation requires a click and then waiting for the next page. If it wastes teacher time, it should be cut out.
  • Evaluation does not mean a single organization collecting and analyzing data. Evaluation with federal dollars should mean collecting data with some quality and then letting a variety of people have access to it.
  • Development of longitudinal databases need to be accompanied by auditing mechanisms, not just consistency and sense editing. Hire a data-entry clerk for each school, as Florida does, and you still have a massive editing task by school districts. And even after that, researchers occasionally find data quirks such as 26-year-old first-graders (i.e., birthdate entered wrong). And that doesn't address issues such as marking dropouts as transfers.

February 7, 2009

Upcoming documentary on secret human computers

Documentary filmmaker LeAnn Ericksen is in the middle of finishing "Top Secret Rosie," about human computers in WW2 and the small group who then became among the earliest programmers. But you can view an 8-minute trailer now. Update: More (and better) from Doctor Pion.

January 27, 2009

Don't panic about teen sex trends. Do panic about pundits and pols who cannot read newspapers

Despite thumbnail histories of cultural declension, it just isn't the case that teenagers are uncontrollable cauldrons of hormones: teens are less likely to have sex than teens of the mid-90s. The alarming trend is a reversal of declining teen birth rates. Before the middle of the Bush era, teen birth rates had generally tracked adult rates (i.e., declining since the Baby Boom peak of the late 1950s).

And it's too soon to know if this one- or two-year trend is a minor bump or a serious trend. Just like test scores...

January 25, 2009

Ron Matus drinks the kool-aid

Aaaiiiieeee! One of the local, well-trusted education beat reporters for the St. Petersburg Times has bought into the bright students still bored criticism of NCLB. I've explained before why that's an ugly argument against No Child Left Behind, as well as why it's bad for what's good about enrichment/advancement programs but I'll repeat the gist:

  • Selective focus fallacy: If students in your advanced classes are bored, check to see if all students are bored. Chances are that the answer is "yes."
  • Historical amnesia: While I have concerns about Advanced Placement courses as an equivalent of "hard and rigorous," there is no doubt that Florida provides far more opportunities for students of all kinds to take AP courses than the state did 10 or 15 years ago.
  • The "they're special" rut of gifted-ed arguments: For almost a century, we've distributed educational resources and opportunities based on assumptions that there is a fixed student capacity (or fragments of capacity). If gifted-education advocates cannot run away from that assumption, they are not nearly as smart as they need to be, either politically or intellectually.
  • Insults to the rest of humanity: Surely we can talk about the need for more and better investment in education without denigrating those absent from the room. If you're a parent and don't think your children are gifted and deserve individual attention, you need your heart checked. And if you don't think parents of the kids you're not talking about will be upset when you claim that your kids (and not theirs) are special, you need your head examined.

What is especially surprising is that a good reporter such as Matus did not look for anyone with a different take on the issue.

A few minutes ago, one of my daughter's best friends rang the doorbell to say hello while she's in the middle of her daily training run. In elementary school, she would never have been considered for the type of gifted-education program that Ron Matus discussed in this morning's article. Today, she's 17 years old, a good friend to many peers, a joy to be around,... and in as many AP classes as her friends who were in elementary and middle-school gifted programs. She would not have been where she is today without an incredible drive to achieve and without also some assistance in elementary schools from an astute second-grade teacher and an effective teacher of pullout services. To all advocates of gifted education who have a static definition of what giftedness is, and are willing to push it in a policy context, you would do well to remember that there are more talented students "than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Update: Ron Matus responds.

January 20, 2009

"Cheese and applause"

For trivia buffs in the future, as Barack Obama came out of the Capitol building, greeted by wild applause, the closed captioning for the official streaming read "[CHEESE AND APPLAUSE]." Well, that's nutritious...

Caffeine plus inauguration = work??

About 30 minutes ago, I realized why I had a headache each of the last few mornings: caffeine withdrawal. Our 15-year-old supercaffeine machine solved that problem (and my appreciation to the nice folks at FakeSugarCompany for sending us that fake-sugar-plus-mocha flavor packet), and I now have the official inauguration streaming site up in another window. (For the record, fake-sugar-plus-mocha packets work, but you can get the same effect with plain cocoa powder plus sweeter of choice. And I forgot the chipotle.)

The challenge will be to maintain some concentration before 11:30 or so, when I'm going to give up all pretense at focusing on other tasks, at least for an hour or so.

January 13, 2009

Where is the bureaucracy reenactor crowd?

In the past few months, I have been struggling with how to teach a difficult topic: bureaucracy. It's not hard to enter the topic with a class; everyone experiences bureaucracy in ways that they can talk about at one level. Generally, I find that students absorb notions of street-level bureaucrats, scripts about "real school," and loosely-coupled systems. And one of the most popular books I assign is about bureaucracy: Tyack and Cuban's Tinkering toward Utopia. Especially for current school administrators, bureaucracy can be a very attractive topic.

But at another level, a bureaucracy is hard to learn. Though we experience the status games that Weber discusses, and though most adults spend months and years learning the tacit knowledge that Polanyi has described, I know relatively few friends and colleagues who can reliably describe the weird ways that bureaucracies work.

It's not that people don't theorize, but that their theories are often two-dimensional: bureaucracies always behave a certain way, at least in many of the explanations I hear. But that's not a legitimate generalization. Large organizations have repertoires of behavior, and the choices of individuals matter. The truth is somewhere between guessing the psychology of individual administrators and making cookie-cutter pictures of school bureaucracies.

There are two common errors I have observed in the lay perspective on bureaucracy, even from people who work within them. First is an inattention to the interplay of explicit and tacit knowledge, an inattention to the relationship between formal rules and the inevitable discretion in applying them. At universities, this is often played out in arguments about what an accrediting body will or will not call a university on the carpet about. Some things are no-brainers: if news reports show that an institution is the victim of massive financial fraud and mismanagement, an accrediting body will almost inevitably place the institution on probation. But the rules are often more flexible than what a reader may assume. So while my regional accrediting body requires that college teachers have a masters degree with 18 hours in the instructional area, institutions (usually department heads) can certify an individual as qualified without meeting that requirement. Too many such exceptions will raise red flags, but not the occasional one.

At other times, people confuse the discretionary authority of administrators with what is politically or financially possible. In many universities, for example, there is a political balancing act between a provost's office and departments. While in theory many a provost can overrule every department recommendation on tenure and promotion, in few cases will university administrators ignore recommendations that come from both the tenured faculty and a department chair. If the recommendation is to deny tenure, few provosts want to discourage what they perceive as higher standards. And if a provost consistently denies tenure to faculty that are recommended for approval at the department level, there will also be a political price to pay. 

A related error is inattention to institutional routines. I recently read the novel manuscript of a friend, and while I loved the plot, I winced whenever the author confused jails with prisons, swapped police and sheriffs' deputies, ignored the existence of continuances, and so forth. I do not read many mysteries these days, and when I have, I have usually enjoyed the Agatha Christie more than police procedurals. But there is something about the details of institutional behavior that matters to me.

I suppose I am the bureaucratic equivalent of a Civil War reenactor: I have an acquired instinct for institutional behavior and can spot inaccuracies faster than you can say thin slice. I have no idea where I acquired it, and I am not sure how to teach it or if one can teach it at all. But that knowledge should be teachable, because many of the problems that frustrate parents on a day-to-day basis is bureaucratic behavior. "They're just unfair" is an understandable reaction to events, but neither despair nor screaming at principals (or threatening lawsuits) will get your child the best opportunities, or at least not without considerable cost.

January 7, 2009

Off the deep end on Griggs v. Duke Power

Before I get to the main topic this morning, my thanks to everyone who has participated in the reader survey, which will stay available through the weekend. It takes just a few minutes (or more if you want to give me lots of ideas for topics). Tell me what to do by taking the survey!

On Sunday, George Will decided to use a think-tank paper last year by Bryan O'Keefe and Richard Vedder to argue that policies have unintended consequences. Thanks, George: we never knew that without your help. But because Will accepts O'Keefe and Vedder's argument at face value, I have to correct the record.

O'Keefe and Vedder make an argument that Vedder has made repeatedly over the years: the Griggs v. Duke Power (1971) decision discouraged employers from using intelligence tests and therefore falsely magnified the credential value of college degrees as the easier way for businesses to make distinctions among applicants. In the case, 13 African American employees of Duke Power complained that after the Civil Rights Act, Duke Power changed its promotion criteria to eliminate references to race and to add a high-school credential requirement as well as specific scores on two tests. Because the combination of these disproportionately affected African American workers, the plaintiffs argued, Duke Power was using race-neutral means to maintain discriminatory outcomes. The Supreme Court accepted the reasoning of the plaintiffs, and Griggs was a landmark in disparate-impact litigation. O'Keefe and Vedder argue that because the Court said that credentials and tests had to be tied to business necessity, businesses began to turn from general IQ tests to college diplomas as the main screening device used in personnel decisions. 

There are several reasons why this argument holds little water, and let's start with the case itself. O'Keefe and Vedder are correct only if the Court discouraged IQ tests and let educational credentials alone. Without that distinction, there's no argument that businesses used college diplomas as a substitute for IQ tests. So let's peek into the crucial passage:

On the record before us, neither the high school completion requirement nor the general intelligence test is shown to bear a demonstrable relationship to successful performance of the jobs for which it was used. Both were adopted, as the Court of Appeals noted, without meaningful study of their relationship to job performance ability.

Maybe I'm misreading the case, but it looks as if the Supreme Court said both credentials and IQ tests were indefensible unless tied to job performance. I don't understand why Vedder has made this argument over the years without addressing the obvious problem with his line of reasoning.

But even if the Supreme Court had written differently, or even if HR professionals developed the same misreading that Vedder did (in which case the fault lies with them, not with the Court), it's a stretch to tie credentialism to a specific case. To believe that, we would have to believe that in the entire history of industrialization no one thought about using educational credentials as a screening tool until the 1970s and then--pow!--employers discovered that some applicants and employees had college degrees and others didn't.

In the paper, O'Keefe and Vedder do not even attempt to collect or display evidence that any industry started using college degrees after 1971 when they had used IQ tests before. And the reference they use to imply a broad historical sweep?--

In fact, according to Staffing Industry Report, a human resources newsletter, 65 percent of companies reported using some type of pre-employment screen, up from 34 percent in prior years. (p. 12)

--is from a 2008 New York Times story titled Dilbert the Inquisitor. I have no clue what "up from... in prior years" means, but it's not pre-1971. I know what business history is. I've read business history. Bryan and Richard, you are not business historians.

Keep in mind the broader uses of this argument that Vedder's shown: because college expanded in significant measure due to businesses' inability to use IQ tests, we have credential inflation and a greater use of college that is warranted strictly by human-capital needs. Ergo, we should invest a lot less in college.

Well, Richard, we already have: starting almost with the time of Griggs, states have dramatically shrunk their subsidies of undergraduate education at public colleges and universities. Students and their families have continued to see college as a good thing, even though they are having to acquire more debt as a private investment instead of a substantially public investment. Part of that is credentialism, but if so, I don't think you can blame Griggs. There are arguments to make about the problems of student debt and college waste, but O'Keefe and Vedder's argument is bad history.

December 29, 2008

Matt Miller's choice of a model politician on education policy is weird

Matt Miller is back with a fundamentally outlandish idea:

At a moment when we've basically nationalized the banking, mortgage and insurance industries, a little nationalization of school operating costs is in tune with the times.

There's nothing inherently wrong with a little outlandishness, and he uses funding inequalities as the basic rationale to push a combination of anticyclical stimulus, purse-strings incentives, and maybe the destruction of school boards. But like Mike Petrilli, I am a little skeptical, though for a different reason. Apart from the merits of revenue-sharing, there's something odd in his appeal to the authority of Richard Nixon:

In the end, of course, Nixon found he had bigger problems to deal with. But he left a blueprint for Mr. Obama to follow.

I don't know if Miller meant to be funny and refer to Watergate, but it's hard to figure out why Miller reached out to Nixon for an example, when Nixon's primary de facto education initiative was the relationship between his Southern strategy and civil-rights enforcement, and Nixon used local-control rhetoric frequently in his arguments against busing. There's a reason why Nixon's revenue-sharing plan was first floated and then killed: a federal funding-equalization case was rising through the courts, and any sane domestic policy adviser would have figured out tentative plans for responding to a potential blockbuster decision requiring equalized funding.

I suspect that archival documents would identify San Antonio v. Rodriguez as the primary motivation behind the plan Miller thinks was a technocratic bit of genius. But when the Supreme Court ruled in 1973 that the federal constitution did not forbid funding inequalities, there was no political reason to push the plan any further, and Nixon would have had no inclination to do so. If Miller wanted to pick a politician who was able to push funding reform without court orders, he'd be much better off writing about former Florida Governor Rubin Askew, who convinced the state's legislature to pass an equalization law in 1973 after it became clear that no court would require the state to do so.

But back to Nixon and the big picture on federal education policy. Yes, the 1972 Education Amendments had Title IX and the 1973 Rehabilitation Act had Section 504, but those clauses were inserted by Congress, and Title IX regulations did not appear until several years later. The most prominent institutional contributions to federal education policy that began inside the Nixon Administration were the creation of the National Institute of Education, which I have seen and heard generally attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan's inside advocacy, and NAEP, at least partially credited to Nixon's first education commissioner, James Allen, who resigned early in the Nixon administration (and died in a plane crash). Petrilli has it nailed: the idea of a huge bailout/stimulus/revenue-sharing plan is much closer to Lyndon Johnson than it is to Richard Nixon.

I've been disoriented in the past by Miller's rhetorical gambits, and so my reaction this morning fits with my response to his earlier book The Two-Percent Solution and the introduction to his forthcoming The Tyranny of Dead Ideals. The rhetoric in the intro to Tyranny is filled with a mix of technocratic rhetoric and management-guru "we must change to fit the times" nostrums, as if Miller were a genetic recombination of Marc Tucker and Spencer Johnson. 

There's nothing wrong with being technically superb, which is why I heartily approve Obama's designation of Peter Orszag as head of the Office of Management and Budget. But even if I agreed with all of Miller's policy ideas, there's something odd about his choices of arguments. Essentially, it's hard to build a case for major policy change around technocratic arguments, and I don't think you will find Obama following that path. Consistently in the campaign, he talked about his values and what he argued were shared American values; his stance was not "I'm competent, so trust me" but "Here are my values, and I'm a pretty smart dude." 

The Tyranny of Dead Ideas may be better than its introduction. It's likely to be read widely, and I just hope Miller makes better rhetorical choices in the bulk of the book than he made in the book's introduction or today's op-ed.

December 25, 2008

Marbury v. Madison and the Toussie pardon?

The attempted revocation of Isaac Toussie's pardon may not be within the scope of presidential powers, and former White House pardon attorney Margaret Love has been quoted in several places expressing skepticism. The White House statement yesterday said in part,

Yesterday the President forwarded to the Pardon Attorney a Master Warrant of Clemency including 19 requests for pardons with direction that he execute and deliver grants of clemency to the named individuals.

The power to grant pardons and clemency is in Article II, Section 2, just a little before the power to make appointments. So I think we may hear about the following language soon from Marbury v. Madison (1803):

The appointment, being the sole act of the President, must be completely evidenced when it is shown that he has done everything to be performed by him. (5 U.S. 157)

But in all cases of letters patent, certain solemnities are required by law, which solemnities are the evidences of the validity of the instrument. A formal delivery to the person is not among them. (at 159-160)

Michael Froomkin has helpfully explained that Chief Justice Marshall wrote about pardons 30 years later, in a way that suggests Bush may get out of this jam with only massive embarrassment rather than a sticky legal issue.

Thanks go to my daughter who pointed out the Marbury connection this morning.

November 4, 2008

Being an historian is a dirty job, but someone's got to do it

I voted by absentee this year, so I was able to canvass for a little this afternoon before turning into Chauffeur Dad. I'm waiting at a large warehouse-turned-kid-exercise-palace, with a gymnastics place on one side and my son's taekwondo place on the other. I was sitting on the floor when I heard a fellow parent, or maybe a gymnastics coach, pontificating to several poor desk personnel about how we should reinstitute some sort of literacy test for voting. I heard him misstate the positions of one of the candidates for a few minutes, and then I couldn't stand it any longer. I stood up and walked over.

So I heard you wanted to reinstitute literacy tests for voting?

Uh, maybe not anything like a college degree but I think people need to ...

Okay, so I have to ask: what's your favorite Federalist Paper?


What's your favorite Federalist Paper?

Um, well, I'm not sure I mean that, but I think people need to know something--

Okay, fine enough. What's your favorite section of the Florida Constitution?

Look, I'm more of a statutory guy. There's a difference between knowing about platforms and knowing about the constitution.

Right. So then I asked him about some relevant legislative positions of the candidate he was fulminating against. Not that accurately, either. Fair? No. But I wanted him to think that maybe, just maybe, disfranchisement mechanisms affect more than just the targets of your hatred. Occasionally, maybe once every few years on average, I have to use my knowledge in public. I consider it an occupational hazard.

And to answer the obvious question, at the moment my favorites are Federalist No. 10 and Florida's Article I, Section 1.

October 31, 2008

Federal influence

Mike Petrilli asks one right question: where can the federal government influence behavior, and what are the tradeoffs? I'm especially delighted that the research in question is about desegregation. As I've written before, the argument against top-down reform by David Tyack and Larry Cuban is smart, sensible, detailed, and fits with an enormous amount of historiography... but it doesn't address desegregation. I'm not headed entirely towards Nudge territory, though I much enjoyed the book, and part of the reason is that there is a role for top-down policy imposition. We just have to be very careful about how that power is used.

September 29, 2008

On Wendy Kopp, TFA, and Linda Darling-Hammond

Back in June, I wrote a long entry on Teach for America and Linda-Darling Hammond's critique of the Kopp organization and model. I had been puzzled at the claim by Kevin Carey and others that Darling-Hammond simply hated TFA with the type of bile that is usually attributed to Karl Rove, Bill Belichek, and others with a take-no-prisoners approach to civic life and sports.

I don't recall who e-mailed me and pointed me to the 1994 Kappan article on TFA by Darling-Hammond, and the description of its aftermath in Kopp's book. But I went back and read the article carefully, then the relevant passage by Kopp. And I will freely and openly admit that I was wrong: I now know why some describe LDH as having a visceral opposition to TFA. I think the description is wrong, but it's understandable enough, since a vivid conflict often is frozen in people's memory as an enduring symbol of a relationship. I'm sure Frank Zappa and Tipper Gore quickly got tired of being asked what they thought of the other's latest initiative, life events, whatever. But because they clashed over the labeling of popular music, that became etched in people's memories. (Well, the memories of some of us.)

This summer we've had another Kappan issue focusing on Teach for America, with both Darling-Hammond and Kopp contributing. TFA has been around long-enough, with enough scars and criticisms of it, that I can make some long-term observations. I suppose that it is the unique prerogative of an historian to live long enough that he or she can proclaim that, no, I wasn't ignoring things; I was just waiting for the dust to settle.

So let me start with some general observations about worldviews: in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Darling-Hammond and Kopp worked from two very different views of teaching and teachers. (I'll do my best to present their perspectives from the best vantage point.) For Darling-Hammond, teaching is inherently a complex occupation, with the best teaching full of nuanced judgments that require deep and complex knowledge. The consequence of this perspective would be requirements for teachers to have a good deal of content knowledge, a good deal of pedagogical knowledge, and a great deal of what has come to be known as pedagogical content knowledge (or a repertoire of how to teach specific subjects).

In contrast, Kopp worked from the assumption that the greatest gap in poor districts is an insufficient supply of young, enthusiastic teachers with a minimum threshold of intellectual authority. The consequence of this perspective would be her initial recruiting model for Teach for America: the "best and brightest" new graduates from the liberal arts. Later, she acknowledged that teachers do need some basic pedagogical skills, and TFA's greatest public challenge over the past two decades has been getting its recruits up to speed fast enough to survive their classrooms (and let their students survive, too). 

One irony of these perspectives is that each operates in her professional life with the way the other views teachers. Darling-Hammond's professional life at Teachers College and then Columbia is full of the type of intellectual authority (refereed publications, confirmed recognition of her colleagues, a connection to a top-notch facility) that Kopp asserts is necessary for teachers. For Kopp, her work as a social entrepreneur is absolutely full of the type of occupational complexity that Darling-Hammond claims is the life of a great teacher. Of course, being a professor and the leader of a non-profit is not the same thing at all as being a teacher. But I am a bit surprised that neither of them has said, "Well, in some ways I have the qualities that my opponent thinks is necessary for teachers. Let me explain why that is the wrong perspective on teaching, from my role that is removed from the K-12 world."

Darling-Hammond has been consistently skeptical of TFA's activities, but she has moved from her early 1990s writings that portrayed TFA simply as an almost fraudulent organization (as in the 1994 article) to a more careful focus on the new-teacher issues (in her research on student outcomes). The 1994 article relies on a considerable amount of anecdotal evidence to portray TFA as sloppy and possibly quite dangerous to schoolchildren. Darling-Hammond has continued to be skeptical, but since I have started reading this stuff (from about 9 years ago or so), I don't recall anything in print where Darling-Hammond has veered away from a fairly strict focus on, "Okay, let's look at what's happened from the data..." You may or may not agree with her conclusions, but is there anyone who likes TFA's work who thinks that's a bad focus? (As I've noted elsewhere, I am not sure that is the only potential value in TFA, but it's a legitimate question.)

As far as I can tell, Kopp's focus for the last 15 years has been on organizational growth, shifting much of her efforts to shoring up organizational operations, especially fundraising, recruitment, and connections with districts. Several times, TFA has reworked their programs for supporting recruits after placement, but my sense is that's still in flux, while the other pieces are more stable.  

To be fair to Darling-Hammond, I think she had some evidence to support the claim that TFA was an organizational mess in the early years, and Kopp has pretty much admitted as much. Looking at what was available in print in 1993 and 1994, TFA's reputation for shoddy work really was fair game. The recent audit of TFA's use of federal funds may raise those questions again, but the point is that it wasn't an obviously wrong concern. The occasional problems with TFA's organizational reputation is inconsistent with Kopp's enterpreneural reputation as a go-getter and someone who cares about poor children. I'm not surprised it's that image clash that raises the hackles of TFA supporters; Kopp's brand is as a social entrepreneur, not someone who runs alternative certification programs. 

I think Kopp may have fed a bit of Schadenfreude here, because she helped propagate the myth that TFA tells us anything about teaching in general, that TFA is a model for the New Teaching. Instead, if she had focused on less millennial and more defensible claims, that stopgaps are ethically defensible and bolster the public system, she probably would have found a more ready audience among those who should recognize the value in finding new ways of bolstering public support for the public sector.  That's a missed opportunity, I think.

The organizational woes of TFA should tell us something, but it hasn't been discussed much among the social entrepreneurial crowd or the critics of TFA.  Let's suppose for the moment that TFA's fans are absolutely correct, that TFA really is a new model both for recruiting new teachers and also for generating social entrepreneurs. Given what we know about TFA's organizational history, that means that one of the most successful social entrepreneur organizations required almost a decade for this Great Hope to become a competent organization. We should be skeptical that any similar Great Hope could become competent in a shorter period of time.

August 19, 2008

The Project Method zombie

The NCTAF blog calls it "a 21st century education system." Steve Lohr admires it as "the drive for technology-enabled reform of education." The New Technology Foundation calls it "a fully proven model." While I have some hopes for how technology might be used to change instruction, calling project-based learning new is something that raises alarms in my internal History Warning System(tm). I suppose I could point back a few years to Ted Hasselbring et al.'s Jasper Project, but let's nail this puppy to the wall. If you just read a bit of William Heard Kilpatrick's The Project Method (published in Teachers College Record in 1918), I think you'll discover that project-based learning isn't new.

Kilpatrick's version of project-based learning was torn apart in the Progressive Era by John Dewey and Boyd Bode, among others, as vapid, content-free pablum. That's not necessarily the case with well-designed anchored instruction, but the devil's in the details. From my own experience, there is an enormous amount of work that goes into designing anchored instruction that works. Neither technology nor the existence of an interesting case guarantees valuable instruction, and I hope we stop believing in education panaceas, whether you call them project-based learning, vouchers, or anything else.

Again: the existence of anchored instruction isn't bad. It's the idea of any panacea that we need to watch for, else the zombies of long-dead promised panaceas will rise and eat your brains. Or they'll eat our children's brains.

July 23, 2008

Crisis rhetoric, attention seeking, and capacity building

Berliner and Biddle's The Manufactured Crisis was the independent reading choice of several students in my summer doctoral course, and as they have been writing comments on the book in the last week, I have been thinking about the split retrospective view of the 1983 A Nation at Risk report, produced by the National Commission on Excellence in Education. The report has been on the receiving end of a tremendous amount of criticism by Berliner, Biddle, Jerry Bracey, and many others.

Of the various criticisms of the report, two stick fairly well: the report was thin on legitimate evidence of a decline in school performance, and the declension story is ahistorical. First, the report relied on a poor evidentiary record, using problematic statistics such as the average annual decline in SAT scale scores from 1964 to 1975, statistics the report's authors claimed were proof of declining standards in schools. (Why this was flawed is left as an exercise for the reader.) Using this evidence, the report claimed that

... the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur--others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments.

If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. We have even squandered the gains in student achievement made in the wake of the Sputnik challenge. Moreover, we have dismantled essential support systems which helped make those gains possible. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.

Where do I start with the problems here: the war-like rhetoric, the implication that we don't want the rest of the world's education to improve, the bald assertion that there is any solid evidence of student achievement gains post-1958 that can be attributed to Sputnik, or the assumption that if there were low expectations observable in the early 1980s it must have been a decline from previous times instead of a generally anti-intellectual culture?

But 25 years after the report's release, it is easy to poke holes in and fun at the hyperbolic rhetoric. What the last few weeks have brought home for me is the very different perceptions of the report. Berliner, Biddle, Bracey, and other critics are absolutely right that the report is factually and conceptually flawed. And yet there are many people involved with the commission who not only thought they were factually correct, they thought that the report's purpose was to help public schooling. If you read various accounts of the commission's work, it is clear that they thought the report was necessary to build political support for school reforms.

Part of the report's creation lies in the campaign promise of President Ronald Reagan to abolish the federal Department of Education. In this regard, his first Secretary of Education Terence Bell brilliantly outmaneuvered Reagan, and within a few months of the report's release, it was clear that the report had resonated with newspaper editorial boards and state policymakers. Even without it, given the Democratic majority in the House and the presence of several moderate Republicans in the Senate, it was unlikely that Congress would abolish the department. After it, the idea was largely unthinkable.

But the motives of Bell and the commission members were clearly not about saving an administrative apparatus. They were true believers in reform, and if all of the recommendations had been followed, today we would have a much more expansive school system. (The recommendations included 200- or 220-day school calendars and 11-month teacher contracts.) Some of the recommendations were followed, primarily expanding high school course-taking requirements and standardized testing, as well as the experiments in teacher career ladders in several states. But the guts of the implemented recommendations were already in the works or in the air: I remember that California state Senator Gary Hart had been pushing an increase in graduation requirements, a bill that passed in 1983. (This is not the same Gary Hart as the famous one from Colorado.) While I could have graduated from high school in 1983 with one or two semesters of math (I forget which), students in my former high school now must take several years of math. (As others have pointed out, one of the unintended beneficial consequences of raising course-taking requirements was dramatically reducing the gender differences in math and science course taking. Richard Whitmire, take note: Terence Bell is the villain!)

Lest some people not know or have forgotten, A Nation at Risk was not the only major mid-80s report on public schooling. Others were written from a variety of perspectives: Ernest Boyer's High School, Ted Sizer's Horace's Compromise, Arthur Powell et al.'s The Shopping-Mall High School, and John Goodlad's A Place Called School. All were published in 1983 or 1984. All were earnest. All were more thoughtful than A Nation at Risk. I suspect that if Two Million Minutes had been made and released at the same time (if with different non-U.S. countries and different students), it would have fit into that cache of reform reports very well.

Those other reports did not gain the same attention as A Nation at Risk, and I am not certain that any of the reports dramatically changed the policy options discussed at the state level. Changed course requirements and testing were prominent parts of the discussion before the reports, and they were the primary consequences of state-level reforms in the 1970s and 1980s. What the body of reports did instead was push the idea that schools needed reforming. On that score, I think they succeeded, even if several of the report writers (Sizer and Goodlad) became horrified at the direction of reform policies.

Today, we have a new set of actors making similar claims about the need to reform schools: did you receive the e-mail from Strong American Schools/Ed in '08 that I did yesterday? If you didn't, here's the text:

We are only as strong as our schools, and our schools are failing our children.

  • Almost 70% of America's eighth-graders do not read at grade level.
  • Our 15-year-olds rank 25th in math and 21st in science.
  • America showed no improvement in its post-secondary graduation rate between 2000 and 2005.
We know that the nations with the best schools attract the best jobs. If those jobs move to other countries, our economy, our lives and our children will suffer.

For that reason, Strong American Schools launched a new campaign this week to combat the crisis in our public schools.

Click on the image below to view our television advertisement:

Please join us. Tell your governors, your state and national representatives and senators that you want a change for stronger schools.

Make your voice heard.

The ad's rhetoric is definitely in line with A Nation at Risk, down to the tagline: "As our schools go, so goes our country." It's tired rhetoric at this point, and I think it's important to understand why the folks behind Strong American Schools are keeping at it, though they've made no traction in making education a highly visible part of the presidential campaign thus far: as with the major figures in A Nation at Risk, they are true believers in reform to increase the capacity of regulators.

But Strong American Schools has now become a shadow of A Nation at Risk, itself the least substantive of the mid-1980s reports on American schooling. Instead of making specific claims or recommendations, they're pushing "a change for stronger schools," or rather attention. To do so, they claim a crisis, though this is probably the worst time to claim that weak education is the cause of what Phil Gramm calls our "mental recession": to anyone who looks at the current state of the world, our economic woes are the consequences of the subprime mortgage crisis and energy prices (which themselves are driven by the growing Chinese and Indian economies). In 1983, the economy was out of recession. I just don't think the world will realign itself in the same way as in the 1980s. That doesn't mean that there isn't a tie between education and the
economy in the long term, but it's diffuse rather than mechanical.

And there's another question here: is it ethical or even helpful to claim that a long-term problem is an acute crisis, just to gain public attention for an issue? We've gone down this road many times before, and I just don't see where it helps in the long term.

July 4, 2008

Hair-ripping time in standards review

It's a legal holiday, so no paid work is on the agenda. On the other hand, I feel that it's my duty as someone trained in history to review the draft social studies standards for Florida, so this falls under citizenship, not work. I'm looking at the third-grade benchmarks in world history, and this appears to follow the Core Knowledge Foundation approach to teaching ancient civilizations. "Identify the cultural characteristics of" ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, ancient Rome, and the Kingdom of Mali seems ambitious on the surface, but as an historian, my skin is crawling.

The fundamental problem is not with wanting to study ancient civilizations in third grade. I know that this is a fetish of E.D. Hirsch and his acolytes, but it's not an inherently bad thing for elementary school. The problem is that the benchmarks in the draft standards are all about cultural tourism and ignore historical thinking. The benchmarks imply that these societies were static and monolithic. (Among other things, they assume that there was such a thing as a single classical Greek culture... and polis.) Nothing in these benchmarks will help children develop skills in explaining change, weighing different explanations for history, or understanding that our views of history change as additional research occurs.

If the benchmarks for either world or U.S. history are consistently about factoids, I'm going to have a very long day (or several days, depending on how long this takes me). The deadline for public comments is the middle of the month (I think July 14).

June 24, 2008

Department of Unfathomable Nostalgia

From the young (or at least ahistorically minded) Fordham Foundation staffer Liam Julian comes this too-credulous reporting:

[A] Douglass High School alumnus called in [to a radio show] to say that when he was enrolled, in the early 1970s, bad behavior and teen pregnancy were actively stigmatized.

Hmmn... maybe this alumnus was thinking just of Baltimore's Frederick Douglass High School, but weren't the early 1970s a time when everyone was complaining about the misbehavior and immorality of youth? This was in the middle of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, at the peak of clamor about school disruptions let alone the 1960s counterculture (which lasted a few years into the 1970s), and the time when George Carlin was getting in trouble for speaking seven words.

Update (6/25): Julian responds: the caller in question referred only to Douglass High School, and his claim that Douglass was a far better school in the early 70s than it is today seems to be corroborated by the HBO documentary. I'll accept that at face value in the "almost anything was better than what happened in this recent year, in this school" sense. (Since I don't have a television, I can't see documentaries when they air.) I'll stay skeptical about memory and nostalgia for the early 1970s; for more on nostalgia and oral history, see my colleague Barbara Shircliffe's "We Got the Best of That World": A Case for the Study of Nostalgia in the Oral History of School Segregation, Oral History Review 28 (2001) ($JSTOR).

June 22, 2008

History games

While my fall teaching schedule may change, I am currently slated to teach the undergraduate history of ed course I last taught in spring 2007. That semester's class worked well enough, but I want to raise the level of engagement with key issues, and I've been thinking about constructing games around key tasks in a history class. This thinking has also been inspired by Ivanhoe and by the discussion of casual games in liberal-arts education.

In a state university, the challenge for the course I teach is reaching students with a much more diverse background than in a small liberal-arts college. I don't mean demographic diversity but educational diversity: Far fewer will have had experiences with analyzing primary sources or constructing/struggling with historical arguments. Many are in there to knock out a gen-ed requirement, and so I have to "sell" the course. (I have to sell the social foundations course to students as well, but I figured that one out more than a decade ago.) Carole Srole's argument about scaffolding historical skills even for majors is an important contribution, and I've been mulling how to combine conceptual tasks and a game- or puzzle-like environment. The idea is to put some of the skill-building into team exercises that don't contribute to grades but do have a reason for students to stay engaged an work collaboratively.

I quickly figured out one game to build skills in paying attention to voice and other primary-source details. This is a "bluff the classmate" activity patterned after the "Bluff the Listener" challenge on NPR's Wait Wait! Don't tell me!, and with one caveat, it looks pretty good: give teams primary documents and a week to construct two fake documents. They get points for every other team that incorrectly identifies the real document, and other teams get points for correctly identifying the real document. The caveat is the ethical question: how do I explain/debrief on why it's okay to play around with fake primary sources in class but not in papers or published works? And how seriously should I be concerned about this?

There are a whole host of other skills and tasks that I'm keeping in the back of my head, hoping for games/puzzles to match up againt them: causal arguments, counterfactual reasoning, the difference between biases and perspectives (or maybe a spectrum of how one's perspective influences memory and portrayal), identifying underlying social models, identifying underlying assumptions about change/stasis/trends, and others. Suggestions are welcome!

June 16, 2008

Florida's draft social studies standards

Florida Department of Education staff have kindly sent me a text version of the draft social studies standards for Florida (XLS), which I have reworked into an Excel spreadsheet with two versions, one sorted by discipline and standard and another sorted by grade level. (Note: to do the sorting, I had to create standard codes. These are NOT codes created by the state education department.)

The draft standards are... long, with 931 "benchmarks." Some of the new stuff is good (primary-source documents), but a bunch of the details as well as the general organization worry me a great deal. (For example, the third-grade benchmarks in world history treat history as cultural tourism. I know a French historian who thought that as a grad student, but it trivializes history.) If you are a Florida resident, the drafting committee wants your feedback by mid-July.

June 5, 2008

Confederate flag flap in Tampa

The local Sons of Confederate Veterans has acquired a permit to raise a huge Confederate battle flag near a major highway intersection in Hillsborough County. Tampa hasn't had such an embarrassing outbreak of nationally-visible racism for almost two decades. The last time you could sense a countywide wince was when the all-white, all-male sponsor of Gasparilla (Ye Mystic Krewe) embarrassed the city before the 1991 Super Bowl.

From the news reports, it looks like the flag-raising group has acquired the proper permits, and I suspect there is nothing that the county can do to bar them from doing something this stupid. Yes, they probably have the right to fly the flag, but it will not help the image of the city one whit.

There's a lot of myth surrounding the use of the flag, starting with the false claim that there was a consistent and uniform use of the flag between the end of the Civil War and the end of WW2. Let's take one mistaken gentleman from 2000, speaking of the controversy that year in South Carolina:

The Confederate flag that flies over the capitol of this state was flown for over a century in defense of slavery and segregation.

Thank you for playing U.S. history trivia, former Senator Bradley, but you're wrong. According to John Coski, the battle flag was not generally used in any political sense, nor was it incorporated into Southern state symbols, until the renascence of Southern racist intransigence. The battle flag popped up in the political life of the Dixiecrats in 1948, apparently the Dixiecrat use of the battle flag was not uniformly welcomed by the various Confederate heritage groups. The battle flag was then incorporated into state flags in the 1950s with the resistance to school desegregation and civil rights in general. The use of the flag between 1948 and at least 1970 was clearly tied closely to resistance to civil rights, so that federal judges allowed schools to restrict students' free-speech rights if convinced that wearing the battle flag during desegregation would provide bona fide disruptions.

At this point, the battle flag has multiple meanings, and anyone commenting on the current controversy in Tampa would be wise to acknowledge those multiple meanings. Regardless of the uses of the battle flag before 1948, its modern history is intimately tied up in postwar resistance to civil rights. I suspect few are aware of that history, including most of the late adolescents who go around with the battle flag on vehicle bumpers and plenty of those who are going to rail against the huge flag in my county. I forget who had probably the best comment on displays of the Confederate battle flag, and I've searched for the comment, but in vain. So if you know who said this, please speak up in comments: "If they want to celebrate their defeat, let them."

May 4, 2008

Desegregation history

Eduwonkette made me wince a few weeks ago with her entry, Did School Integration Really Do Much Good? She quoted a relatively new economic study using Louisiana, but there's a fairly sizable literature on this already, including classic works by Roz Mickelson and Jennifer Hochschild, among many many others. Yes, there is evidence of cognitive (achievement) effects of desegregation that are not attributable to better funding. Not everyone agrees with those evidentiary claims, but one of the consequences of NCLB on research is that accountability has sucked the air out of all sorts of questions, including the consequences of ending effective desegregation in dozens of our large metropolitan areas.

April 3, 2008

Is Bush the worst?

I agree with K.C. Johnson: James Buchanan was a worse president than George W. Bush. I don't agree with him on why historians are inclined to judge Bush worse than anyone else, but it is a bit disappointing to see a clear majority picking Bush. I mean, there are so many bad presidents from whom to pick,...

Disclosure: I never voted for Bush. Then again, I never voted for Buchanan, either.

Jim Anderson retrospective, part 2

A few days ago I described the 20th-anniversary Jim Anderson retrospective at AERA. Now it's my turn to address some of the topics raised in that session, in a personal historiography, or my reading of The Education of Blacks in the South, originally published in 1988.

For me, the thesis of the book was not particularly a surprise, for several reasons. First, my undergraduate advisor Paul Jefferson had exposed me to a broad variety of historical arguments from the very first course I took with him, which used Herbert Aptheker's documentary collection, to a seminar course where I wrote an historiographical essay on W.E.B. DuBois's Black Reconstruction. Bryn Mawr College sociologist David Karen had exposed me to both structural-functionalists and radical education critics in a course I took with him when I was a junior (or at least I vaguely recall its being spring 1986). Then in grad school I had Michael Katz as an advisor.

But probably the teacher who lay the groundwork the most for Anderson was Bob Engs, for whom I read C. Vann Woodward's Origins of the New South. Because Engs and Anderson use the same material to arrive at very different interpretations of the role of foundations in Southern education, it says a great deal about Engs as a teacher that he made Anderson make sense for me even while he was telling me that Anderson's book was polemical. I like both men a great deal, so perhaps a broader explanation is in order.

Engs and Anderson were both pioneers as African American historians in elite majority-white universities in the same time (the early 1970s), Engs at Penn and Anderson at Illinois. I wish I could say they were part of a continuous record going back decades, but in an case they've become part of diverse faculties for the past several.

Engs turned his first research project into a book ten years before Anderson's, with Freedom's First Generation about the Hampton, Virginia, community. Anderson took a decade and a half to write his first book (something Vanessa Siddle Walked called "lingering with an idea," but I thought of as "a darned good example of a leader in my field who didn't write 7 articles a year before tenure"). And they are different books: While Anderson writes only of education, Engs writes a local history, focusing on the contingent conditions that allowed Hampton's African American community to thrive after the Civil War and hang on to wealth in the very late 19th century even while the curtain of segregation and disfranchising was closing in from all sides.

Engs saw the Hampton Institute as one of those contingencies, and Samuel Chapman Armstrong (Hampton's first leader) as a friend of the Hampton African American community. Where Anderson saw a conspiracy to undermine equality, Engs saw irony with Armstrong's showing one face to the white community and another to Hampton's African Americans. Where Engs saw opportunity that some grabbed in the midst of oppression, Anderson saw structural limitations that were covered up by a tamed education system. Let me make clear that their views of the Southern political economy and educational structure are similar; the great interpretive differences lie in the role of the foundations.

Despite those deep differences in the interpretation of late 19th century Southern education, Engs laid the groundwork for my "oh, yes, of course" reading of Anderson in several ways. First, he made me and other graduate students read Willie Lee Rose's Rehearsal for Reconstrution and C. Vann Woodward and Jacqueline Jones and Exodusters and several others in a way that raised important questions about the South's history after the Civil War. I was also his teaching assistant one semester for his Southern postwar history class (that's postwar as in post-Civil War), and apart from his tolerance for the awkward naive grad student I was then, I figured out how he could say the most outlandish things in a lecture and get the southern white male students to recommend that all of their friends take his classes. With a light baritone, he stood at the front of class, uttering outrageous interpretations in a quiet, patient manner, as if they wouldn't ruffle anyone's feathers. The students loved him (and I presume students still love him at Penn).

So in many ways, I bought much of Anderson's argument because of Engs. If it's any comfort, Bob, it's because of Anderson's discussion of communities that I bought your argument, too. Ultimately, the best scholarship in each book is about different levels of action. Anderson effectively demonstrates that white philanthropists did conspire to impose a certain type of education on the South. Yet in his work on community efforts, Anderson bolsters Engs's argument that at the local level, there was a lot more going on. I'm not sure we have to establish the moral worth of Samuel Chapman Armstrong to evaluate either book. (Some years ago, Engs wrote a biography of Armstrong, and it's much more sympathetic than I expect Anderson's version would be.)

I have both learned from Anderson's work and also failed to give it credit in one case. It was because of his book that my own dissertation research on graduation in the 20th century involved looking at the extent of high school availability in the 1950s and 1960s. And like John Rury, I am returning to the scope of high school education in the 20th century South. In Schools as Imagined Communities, Deirdre Cobb-Roberts, Barbara Shircliffe, and I could have enriched the introduction by discussing Anderson's work. Mea culpa.

As those at the AERA panel said, Anderson's book helped open up the history of Southern education after the Civil War, giving the subject the gravitas that it deserves and momentum that has served many other historians well. The rest of us in the field can only hope to leave an intellectual legacy as significant as Jim Anderson's.

March 31, 2008

Jim Anderson retrospective, part 1

Last Tuesday in New York, a roundtable panel presented a 20-year retrospective on Jim Anderson's The Education of Blacks in the South, 1865-1935, chaired by Joy Williamson (U. Washington). In this entry, I'll summarize some of the perspectives of the panelists. In the next entry (tomorrow, I hope), I'll present my personal engagement with the book.

Rubén Donato (University of Colorado) noted that students who read the book for the first time generally have bimodal responses. Many of them react to Anderson's argument as if they've never heard such a radical idea. Donato called these the "Oh, wow" reactions. But he also said a slice of students react with a little more cynicism: "Of course," because of their experiences or their friends' and families' experiences with schooling.

Donato also noted that most readers of Anderson's book come to it as graduate students, and he is worried that its arguments rarely filter into undergraduate history courses. While I think he's wrong in terms of Anderson's broader arguments (I'll explain this in my more personal post), he is correct about the readership for the book.

John Rury (Kansas) noted first that Anderson's book represents the maturation of revisionist education historiography. The book is sophisticated, nuanced, and detailed, and it carries an argument more successfully than almost any other challenging/radical history of education published in the prior 20 years. (This last weekend, Anderson and a whole bunch of new scholars were at Penn for the 40th-year anniversary of Michael Katz's Irony of Early School Reform/non-Festschrift conference.)

Rury also noted that for much of the book, Anderson was writing an elite history, a "reform by imposition" story that focused on the network of foundations active in the late 19th and early 20th century. While he shifted later in the book to discuss community efforts (see below on Vanessa Siddle Walker's comments), Anderson's book was remarkable in its focus.

Finally (at least in my notes), Rury noted that Anderson's book left a huge agenda in its wake, and scholars have been either riding that wake or trying to catch up to it since.

Eileen Tamura (Hawaii) focused on the part of the book Rury avoided, where Anderson discusses human agency. Tamura pointed out that while the elites involved in foundation work discussed how education could tame the political and economic aspirations of African Americans, Black communities were willing to tax themselves a second time through voluntary contributions to raise buildings and pay for operating expenses of schools. In this way, Tamura argues, Anderson pointed out how there were multiple discourses, with the local discourse undercutting the foundations' efforts to impose a tame sort of education. Tamura suggested that one of the chunks on the agenda left by the book was the way that cultural capital works in networks (my awkwardness not hers).

Vanessa Siddle Walker (Emory) also focused on the actions of Black communities and community members, and Siddle Walker focused on several historiographical points: First, Anderson identified the undercurrents in a way that would not have been possible with a single storyline. Her language was that Anderson identified a "story within a story" rather than just recycling old ideas. Second, Siddle Walker pointed out how Anderson was patient with his work ("lingered with an idea"), something you can identify if you look at the 42 newspaper series, 63 government publication series, and 30+ pages of bibliographic references in the book, as well as the acknowledgments that note the broad professional network Anderson used in working on the book.

Third, Siddle Walker argued that Anderson's work showed the importance of believing in the value of community perspective. She argued that this is the ethic of good oral historians, and couched a warning as well: often enough, historians are confronted with relatively little response, which does not mean that there isn't a story so much as the fact that the historian may not have gained entree to the community's trust.

Finally, Siddle Walker argued that Anderson's book made the story (stories?) accessible, readable and free of jargon that some others indulge in. (Was she referring here to Aronowitz or Giroux?)

Anderson then responded, gave credit to David Tyack for raising questions he had not considered when looking at Southern education after the Civil War, and then made four general points. First, he said that he should have paid more attention to the members of those communities who were still living in the 1970s and 1980s. He said that his own mother read the book and then told him, "You should have talked to me before you wrote it." If he had the chance to do it over, he said, he'd include oral history (which he did not).

Second, Anderson explained the background behind his book's not receiving the History of Education Society Outstanding Book Award for that year: he was on the award committee, and when his book was mentioned, he said that it wasn't that worthy a book and he'd have to recuse himself anyway. So the committee chose another book (I forget which...). The larger point here is that Anderson had no idea how positive the reception would be over time.

Third, Anderson was skeptical that his book was as definitive as some have implied. It was a broad overview, he said, and there is so much more to be done and so much that has been since, from Sieglinde Lim's work on Chinese immigrants in the Mississippi Delta to Siddle Walker's work, Adam Fairclough, David Cecelski, and so forth.

Finally, Anderson pointed out that Rury was essentially correct in terms of the origins of the book as a top-down perspective, and only in the middle of the work did he discover community culture, and then had to revise his views.

The discussion afterwards was mostly warm and fuzzy recollections, but there was one sharp question by Tyrone Freeman, asking Anderson's views on today's education foundations, from Gates to Broad, and whether they, too, were trying to impose a specific view that might be as pernicious as what he described. Anderson demurred, saying that the key to his work was discovering that the public representation of white philanthropists' work was dramatically different from the private work that was detailed in their papers. Since we don't know that private conversation going on today, he said, he couldn't comment.

For the most part, I sat back, took sketchy notes, and just enjoyed the conversation. Now, don't you wish someone was taking better notes, or that you were there yourself?

March 19, 2008

When you make speeches the issue...

I don't generally talk about electoral politics in this blog, but yesterday's speech by Barack Obama strikes me as historic, whether or not Obama wins the Democratic party's nomination or the general election. Historians are often wrong in their predictions (we earn a rear-view mirror with that degree, not a crystal ball), but this is about a judgment involving historical perspective, and I'm reasonably comfortable in that.

Moreover, I think that anyone who thought that the Jeremiah Wright controversy would inevitably and permanently damage the Obama campaign missed the way it created an opportunity for the best orator on the American political stage. Put bluntly, here's how the conversation went, in meta-narrative style:

Look at what your pastor said!

He was wrong.

You haven't denounced him enough.

He's no longer connected with my campaign.

Explain why you haven't left your congregation!

Okay, if you really want me to talk some more...

If there's one thing that his rivals don't want to demand of Barack Obama, it's that he give a speech.

January 20, 2008

Turn anything into a lesson, but will it stick?

A friend of mine has done something unusual with the celebrations of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday this year. She teaches young adolescents with moderate cognitive disabilities and behavior problems, and this year, she chose King's 1964 Nobel Prize acceptance speech as the basis for a series of lessons in reading, language arts, civics, etc. in the last week or two. She says she wasn't sure how basing a spelling test on a Nobel Prize speech would go over, but she did it anyway.

There's a test of what the students learned beyond the question of whether the speech taught the students some new words. She reported that when she asked the students if they agreed with King's arguments (in favor of "unarmed truth and unconditional love" over militarism), they all said yes... in a week where she had at least a handful of minor conflicts to break up. So perhaps we should say that their understanding of King's message, or maybe their own behavior, is a work in progress.

On the other hand, I'm not sure we're doing much better as a society than my friend's students. We're happy to give King his day, as long as we can ignore his ideas about justice and peace.

Maybe it's time we adults change.

December 31, 2007

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.

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?

November 27, 2007

E-book versions of "Schools as Imagined Communities"

You can buy Schools as Imagined Communities as a Kindle e-book or through eBooks.com, with royalties going to non-profit organizations.

November 24, 2007

Zotero - love at first byte

This tells you something about my semester: it's taken until this weekend for me to try out Zotero, essentially an open-source citation database system. (I do wait until others on the bleeding edge show a new tool is useful, but I try to be in the second wave of adopters of useful tools.) It's free, thanks to the Center for History and New Media, and while I have been frustrated with the expensive software that my university purchased a site license to some years ago, at first blush Zotero is elegant and workable, including things such as snagging citations from Worldcat and JSTOR and my own university's library catalog.

But it took me about 5 minutes to set up, 5 minutes to play with it, and four minutes to use it to send a citation to students this afternoon. There is nothing in Zotero that you couldn't do manually with about 10 times the effort. But in the same way that learning a word processor's style system eventually pays off in hours, days, and weeks of time saved, so will Zotero. Goodbye, EndNote and ProCite. I have forsaken you for Zotero.

(Extra credit: how many pop-culture references exist for that phrase in the title, love at first byte?)

November 23, 2007

Technology as culture, part 1

When the Honors College asked me to teach one of their lower-division arts/humanities classes this fall, I had two thoughts:

  • If I do run for the leadership of the faculty union chapter, it'll be an interesting semester. (For most faculty, an Honors College class is an overload, not part of the regular load.)
  • I'm in the social-science end of history. What the heck do I teach?

Because the Honors College classes have less structure than courses I normally teach (to wit, the start of this course's description is "An introduction to western arts and letters..."), I had both greater freedom to design my class and somewhat different (and greater) expectations. An introduction to western arts and letters! I'm an Americanist, and my strength really is in social science history. In the end, I decided to design an introduction to culture studies using technology as a centerpiece, using Thomas Misa's From Leonardo to the Internet and David Nye's America as Second Creation as nonfiction books and a few novels to round it out. My students would disagree with my judgment at this point: if/when I teach this again, I'll have Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and William Gibson's Neuromancer as the fiction.

Having undergraduates write entries in a group blog about class sessions is working well in the last few semesters, giving me a good sense of what students are responding to. It hasn't worked as well in graduate classes, and perhaps that's a difference in the age of students or the frequency of classes.  But this semester, students' blogging has revealed where students are making connections I was hoping they'd make, where they are making additional connections that delight me, and where I've fallen through in setting up themes of the course.

I set up the first half of the course to undercut the technology-as-progress narrative most students brought into the course. Misa's conceit is that the uses of technology has varied among wealth-producing and wealth-consuming eras and places. But since Misa's first chapter focuses on Leonardo da Vinci, that gave me an avenue to ask questions about Renaissance art. As my friend and colleague Greg McColm reminds me, the cathedral in Florence is an opening to all sorts of topics, from winch technology to blueprints to ... well, the use of perspective in art, given the history of the cathedral dome (with Filippo Brunelleschi, who helped propagate ideas about perspective drawing).

In addition to readings and a few other matters, I made students try their hand at technical drawings of ordinary objects (one student had a mousetrap; I couldn't resist!) and then at perspective drawing, and they had to find a description of how European art acquired perspective. The majority of students found descriptions with a progress narrative. I noted the fact, and over the next month we talked about Misa's central question each chapter (was the technology in question wealth-producing or -consuming?). No connections made back to perspective drawings and the overarching narrative.

So we began reading some cyberpunk as a break between nonfiction books, and we had the completely expected discussion about the genre's being dystopian. Then several students complained that it was disorienting. Okay, I said, time to bring European art back into it (after making a few connections with some of the Misa chapters), and I brought out Paul Cezanne's Still Life with Apples and a Pot of Primroses, a painting with multiple perspectives. The students were largely silent while I showed how Cezanne had different vanishing points for different parts of the painting, let alone the non-perspective way of showing depth in the apples themselves. Disorienting, I asked? Er, a little bit, came the general response, but we're familiar with it... though we're sure that it was considered odd at the time!  (That response was expected, though I should have pushed the parallel to the complaints about cyberpunk; are we disoriented whenever we're unfamiliar with a genre's conventions?)

After showing the class how subsequent artists took Cezanne as a springboard for breaking away from perspective, I asked the question I'd been waiting to spring on the class since the first day:

So if early 20th century painters broke away from perspective, why is the Renaissance use of perspective drawings considered progress?

There was a little bit of discussion on that, but not much. So I left class, wondering if I'd see any blogs mentioning it.

It's been several weeks, and not a peep. That part of the course design has now officially flopped. Other things have gone well, fortunately, and the blog entries show that disparate threads in the course are coming together for a number of students. I think I've convinced students that narratives of progress are limited, including with technology (that's a main argument in Nye's book), and while I wish I had nailed the perspective-drawing-progress item, you don't get everything.

November 21, 2007

Being thankful for the Supreme Court's protection of free speech

As FIRE's William Creeley notes, not only can we be grateful for Supreme Court decisions protecting speech, such as the 64-year-old West Virginia v. Barnett case on the pledge of allegiance, but we also have an interesting retrospective on the case, including the two children (now much older, of course).

I need to finish editing and uploading an MP3 for an online class presentation, and then it's time for me to head home. If you're in the U.S., have a great holiday tomorrow!

November 17, 2007

The gender of early social-science clientele(s)

Some of the discussion on the "Social Reform and Social Science in Chicago and Beyond" panel focused on the relationship between social sciences and social reform movements. Neither Jane Addams nor Myles Horton did their work as disinterested social scientists—far from it. Addams may have been a sort-of-elitist social progressive, but she used city residents in gathering data on garbage collection in Chicago (as another audience member at the panel pointed out). Horton was more self-consciously deliberate about countering myths of social-scientific expertise. In the Addams case and Chicago, what is clear is that she relied primarily on women, in a way that was growing less common as social science faculty began looking towards powerful organizations as the clients for expertise. As Kurt Danziger has noted, U.S. psychologists switched from parents and teachers as clients to school administrators as clients. But what also happened is that the shift was between women as clients to men as clients.

Given Mary Ann Dzuback's work on women and social science in the early 20th century, I am cautious about this impression, but I'll put this out as a hypothesis, and perhaps a suggestion for an interesting dissertation.

(Other dissertation ideas to come out of my listening to panels: the need for an international history of curriculum and curriculum policies, and the need for a serious history of cosmetology as a curriculum subject.... And now someone will accuse me of taking listening- or thinking-depressing drugs this morning.)

Needed: a model of peer-reviewing interactive projects

One of the sessions at the Social Science History Association was organized by several members of the H-Net Council about Web 2.0 and the teaching of history. I was the chair and had a marvelous time listening to others and serving as traffic cop an identifier of speakers. (I also got my two cents' worth in, too.)

One general point of agreement was the need to figure out how to make work in this way recognized in a professional sense. It's not too hard to add an open-access model of publication to older models of publication—get a grant or other set of resources and do work in return for that work's being available to the world, and one program officer for the National Endowment for the Humanities confirmed that NEH is moving more towards giving preferences to projects with open-access outcomes.

The problem is how faculty who work on such projects can gain professional respect and reward for such work. As one colleague in the room noted, administrators will often support externally-funded projects, but if peers will not value a project, faculty will not have a great incentive to engage in such work, especially tenure-track faculty, even in primarily teaching institutions.

The key lever is how to provide peer judgment on such work. Faculty are reasonably comfortable with the work of peers in new realms if there is some method of peer review, ... But how is an interactive activity reviewable? I can imagine how technology can be used to engage in all sorts of reviews (that's how a growing proportion of journal manuscript reviews happen, electronically), but what if you don't control all of the material? That's a problem even with reviews of primary document collections: selecting, editing, and annotating primary documents is hard work, but the recognition and evaluation of that work is different from the review of original writing.

Maybe librarians and archivists can help think about reviewing work that is interactive. They have to become engaged in that collaboration with existing documents and imagining what other people will do (users!) all the time, and they have to evaluate such projects.

Chicago and social movements: blogging a conference

This weekend I am at the Social Science History Association, and the current session on Chicago and social-science research is one of the sessions that combine a national academic conference with a local context. After all, we're meeting in Chicago this weekend.

The first paper by Victoria Brown was about Jane Addams and is part of a biographical project beyond this paper. I came late, so I won't summarize it. Laura Westhoff's paper is about Myles Horton's education in Chicago. The idea of Horton being educated in part in the Park School of Sociology is ... fascinating. I am not sure what I think of it, except that we need to rethink both Horton and Park as a result. Is this democratic social knowledge? How much was Horton using his education or mapping it onto preexisting ideas... And how much did Park promote a particular view of a functioning society or educate students who then could go do what they wanted, later? Hmmn...

Disclosure: I've had two cups of coffee, something I don't usually have in the morning. So I've had listening-enhancing drugs.

November 12, 2007

Veterans Day

My father was a veteran, the base pediatrician for George AFB in the late 1950s. My maternal grandfather was a veteran, cooking for troops in Europe after the WW1 armistice. 

I'm not a veteran, and neither are any of my siblings or my cousins. We came of age in Vietnam and then held our breath through much of the 1980s. Like many of our same-age peers, our distrust of government was coupled with a sense that there were no good wars. We never thought about the consequences of the all-voluntary force except that we would not be cannon fodder as a result.

Except that there are some social consequences of the all-volunteer force in a long war. I know plenty of those in one of the military services or reserves, or a veteran, but my family is not at risk of being sent overseas, at least not without a draft. I don't remember where I heard the following notable fact this week (probably listening to the podcast of the political roundup on the PBS NewsHour), but the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq are the longest wars since the 18th century when there hasn't been a draft. As a result, there is no sense of shared burden. Tax cuts are our burden, and we are urged to go spend money this and next month, else the terrorists win.

To our nation's shame, we are in our first credit-card war.

October 13, 2007

Roy Rosenzweig

T. Mills Kelly has the best remembrance of Roy Rosenzweig today. Rosenzweig was a pioneer in digital history who began the Center for History and New Media (see the original page). (Hat tip.)

September 12, 2007

Call for papers: Politics, Activism, and the History of America's Public Schools

Forwarded from an e-mail, an opportunity for graduate students and new scholars in the history of education.

"Politics, Activism, and the History of America’s Public Schools"
A Conference Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of The Irony of Early School Reform, April 12, 2008
University of Pennsylvania

Upon its publication, Professor Michael B. Katz’s The Irony of Early School Reform (1968) underscored the possibility of using historical study to shed light on the contemporary state of schooling in the United States. This one-day conference aims to bring together emerging and veteran scholars whose work, like Irony, excavates the past to expose the present.

Conference organizers are soliciting papers from younger scholars—graduate students and assistant professors in the early stages of their career—whose work engages the history of America's public schools with an eye toward contemporary challenges and debates. The conference program committee will organize panels from submitted papers. During these panels, young scholars will have 15 minutes to present their papers, after which they will be discussed in a rigorous yet supportive workshop setting facilitated by a leading expert in the field.

With generous support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York City, the Spencer Foundation, and various departments and programs at the University of Pennsylvania, we have been able to secure the participation of some of the most eminent researchers in the history of American Education. We also will be able to offer a select group of younger scholars funding to offset travel costs. By bringing together junior and senior scholars for a day of critique, encouragement, and shared questioning, we hope to strengthen the community of scholars committed to studying the history of American education.

Submission deadline: December 8, 2007

Submission Procedures: Please send the following information as attachments to penn_edconf08@hotmail.com

  • A paper proposal of 350 words that identifies the topic, its significance, and preliminary findings.
  • A c.v. containing email and mailing addresses

August 26, 2007

Don't get mad; get historiographical

The New York Times preview of Gregory Clark's A Farewell to Alms has prompted a flurry of responses by people who haven't yet read the book. Hrrmrmrmrm... Obviously, it's touched a nerve among historians, perhaps moreso than the flurry responding to Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel. Both books are orthogonal looks at the "rise of Europe" in ways that are couched as "new explanations."

For historians who know the extensive literature on early modern Europe and industrialization, these books are provocative and somewhat discomfiting, in part because they appear at first glance to be ignoring the existing literature. I've already read  one criticism of Clark saying he was just reworking Fernand Braudel's annaliste approach. I understand this (I had similar questions when reading the NYT article), but I haven't read the book and feel it's better to hold that as a question until specialists have a chance to read the thing.

But even without reading it, I can suggest an approach that can accommodate criticism and provocation, which is to treat it as an extension of a long line of provocative arguments about the rise of Europe, from Lynn White to Jared Diamond and beyond. As an undergraduate, I had a wonderful experience taking a course in early-modern Europe, where Susan Stuard used every week to explore a different explanation for the "rise of Europe," thereby turning historiography into a puzzle. It was fabulous, and it also provided a way to think about Clark's book, regardless of the merits: "Yes, dear, you're quite clever. While I'm cooking, could you please go join that bookshelf over there? I think you'll find lots of friends with similar interests."

August 6, 2007

Raul Hilberg, 81

Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg died over the weekend. I never met him, but he deeply affected my understanding of history and human cruelty. As a child raised in a American Jewish household in the 1960s and 1970s, I was exposed to the first generation of Holocaust education. (I didn't know until a few years ago that American Jews took a few decades after WW2 to start that project seriously, and the NY Times article linked above notes that Hilberg's advisor tried to discourage him from the subject as unvalued in history.) That first wave of Holocaust education hadn't yet absorbed Hilberg's ideas, and so the dominant arguments were that Hitler was evil and that we must never forget. Fortunately, I also met several survivors, including Mel Mermelstein, people whose specificity was a useful antidote to the oversimplification of early Holocaust education. (I met Mermelstein before his legal battles with the Holocaust-denying Institute for Historical Review.) For my bar mitzvah, I looked closely at the trial of Adolf Eichmann.

When I was in college, I took several classes from Jane Caplan, including a German history course. I don't remember whether I found the Hilberg volumes in my history intro class or in one of Caplan's classes; I suspect the latter. I read large chunks of his opus, though I'll readily admit I skimmed significant portions. (Someone who claims to have read every word of all three volumes as a sideline to undergraduate course requirements with a full liberal-arts college load... well, I'd be skeptical.)

Hilberg's account was meticulous, detailed, horrific, and mesmerizing. His description of the bureaucracy of genocide answered questions that had lain unformed in my mind for years. I had little understanding of historiographical dynamics, but I knew this was important. I cannot imagine that anyone who has read Hilberg could simplify the Holocaust or other genocides with any shred of historical conscience.

(p. 73/104; see prior entry for context)

June 25, 2007

Hiram Hover's gone

Hiram Hover's pseudonymous blog is now gone, not only on hiatus but now unavailable from the domain and only available in snippets from archive.org. D***.

May 26, 2007

Americas secondary enrollment trace, late 20th c.

Thanks to a a great Excel chart tip, I can now provide one way of summarizing synthetic-cohort educational attainment data from the following countries using census data from the second half of the 20th century:

  • Brazil
  • Chile
  • Colombia
  • Costa Rica
  • Ecuador
  • Those born in Mexico and enumerated in either Mexico or the U.S. in 1960, 1970, 1990, or 2000
  • United States
  • Venezuela

All of this is courtesy of the International Public Use Microdata Sample library, a wonderful resource available without use charge to any researcher in the world. You can download this Excel file with the relevant chart and use the scroll bar on the right to highlight the key data from any country, period, and sex combination. More in the full entry...

Very roughly, each line indicates the proportion at each age that would have completed secondary education but only secondary education (no university degree), if a hypothetical cohort went through ages 15-35 with the same educational experiences implied for the intercensal period by the census microdata at each end of the period in question.

There are the usual number of quirks and quibbles—quirkles?—embodied in this chart, from some key model issues to the algorithmic details:

  • The census estimates at the base of this chart start with only those born in the country, with the exception of Mexico (explained below)
  • I assume that there is no substantial differential mortality by educational attainment for the years in question
  • I assume similarly that out-migration does not substantially affect attainment (again with the exception of Mexico)
  • I estimate the cross-sectional proportion with a credential at an exact age as the average of the proportions in surrounding single-year age intervals, smoothed in the case of the Latin American countries at many ages as three-year averages (in the age intervals). Many of the increments are again smoothed with moving three-year averages and then fixed at 0 if slightly negative.
  • The model I'm using (from Carl Schmertmann's 2002 article [$]) is an estimate of intercensal increments without weighting by person-years, unlike most intercensal estimate techniques.

Of all these issues, the migration assumptions are the ones that will raise the most eyebrows, and I hope that if you've read this far, you're wondering why I combined the U.S. and Mexico census data. The basic answer to the latter question is because I could. Both Mexico and the U.S. conducted censuses in 1960, 1970, 1990, and 2000, and I was curious if the results would be affected by including U.S. residents born in Mexico. I discovered that for some ages (older teens and those in their 20s), more than 10% of those born in Mexico were residing in the U.S. for some of the censuses. That's a fascinating statistic in itself, and the existence of the same-year censuses suggests a potential for cross-national social histories using the censuses in question. I'm still puzzling over questions of "effects," since we don't know who spent which years where from the census stats, just the end result for the population as a whole.

I used the secondary-and-only-secondary-attainment line because it shows both secondary and college attainment. The up-slope shows secondary attainment, and the downslope shows college attainment (absent some late secondary graduation).

Bon appetit!

Oh, yes: For those following these things, my son's team won their first tournament game today, 14-2 (ten-run rule after four innings). By doing so, they've saved their #2 and #3 pitchers for tomorrow's game. Then everything gets harried, regardless of the results, and all teams go through their experienced pitchers. Spahn and Sain, then pray for rain?

April 29, 2007

Corporate donors and universities

From the cutting-room floor: Adam Emerson and I talked for about half an hour last weekend while he was preparing today's article, Corporate U, and I think he did a nice job of putting the corporate sponsorship of one university program into a broader national contemporary perspective. I shouldn't be surprised that the historical perspective was left out (he quotes me far down in the story), but I thought I gave him the best statement on the history: "If you look just at the names of major universities like Leland Stanford University or Carnegie Mellon University, you'll understand that wealthy philanthropic influence on universities have a long history." I don't know if I said exactly those words, but it was close.

The other gripe is also minor: he quoted me on a general concern about the influence on the curriculum but not on the two questions I have in general:

  • Did a donor have substantive influence on the shape of the curriculum, or did the faculty sponsors determine the shape?
  • Did a program go through a university approval process controlled by faculty?

In talking with him, I said that there was no problem with professional programs having close relationships with the field, and many faculty have an obligation to keep close ties to practitioners, but that there was a difference between consulting with practitioners and turning your curriculum over to them. In this particular program, faculty seemed genuinely enthusiastic when they came to USF's undergraduate council, and I suspect they would have told Emerson that while they value Jordan Zimmerman's enthusiasm and support, they determine the curriculum. From what I understand, the program had existed for a number of years; this was a revision, not the creation of an entirely new entity.

Given that in the USF case, the program in question is advertising, I'm not surprised that the donor wants to claim far more influence than I suspect faculty would say he had.  After all, he wants to make a case for his own influence.

April 28, 2007

Education history and school renewal

Today's brief N.Y. Times story, Massachusetts Acts To Save the Country's First Public High School, is about efforts to revive academics in the first public high school, which opened in the 1820s. The school is troubled, far from its origins as part of the 19th century expansion of the public sphere into tertiary education

English High was neither the first secondary school nor the first "public school" (a concept that only became clearly distinguished from private schooling later in the 19th century). There were plenty of schools called academies, seminaries, colleges, and so forth, and their curriculum, academic intensity, and potential student pool all overlapped. As Nancy Beadie and Kim Tolley have documented, New York state provided partial support of academies for part of the 19th century.

But English High represented an idea that was controversial for much of the 19th century: using public funds to provide more advanced education for a small group of students. Today, we think of high school as a universal adolescent experience, but it wasn't until the middle third of the 20th century. In Massachusetts, the legislature repeatedly required towns of a certain size to have high schools, a requirement that was generally ignored until the 1850s. In one case famous among education historians, the town of Beverly, Massachusetts, first started a high school when the state sued.  Then a few years later, the town voted to abolish the school. (The reasons why have been argued over for the last 40 years: see Michael B. Katz's The Irony of Early School Reform and Maris Vinovskis's The Origins of Public High Schools.)

Part of the reason for the controversy in Beverly and elsewhere was the limited enrollment in high schools; few could afford to keep their kids out of work long enough to attend, but taxes still supported the schools. Part also came from competition for legitimacy (and students) from academies. High schools didn't really acquire political legitimacy until after an 1873 lawsuit filed to block public tax support of the Kalamazoo Union High School. The suit failed, and while the state supreme court only had precedential power over Michigan, it essentially knocked the legs out of the anti-high-school movement.

Many interpret the growth of high schools in the late 19th and early 20th century as a direct outgrowth of the Kalamazoo case, and the webpage linked above includes a similar argument:

Although this issue had been heard by other courts, Justice Cooley's prestige helped to make the Kalamazoo School Case a leading decision that was cited in many courts in surrounding states. In Michigan the effect was profound. The number of high schools in the state increased from 107 in the early 1870's to 278 by 1890.

But that's not quite true. As David Labaree notes in The Making of an American High School, the growing credential value of high schools gave people in cities a powerful incentive to push for more access to high schools. That growth in high schools eliminated the institutional prestige of the earlier high schools, such as English High in Boston or Central High in Philadelphia.  Central High reacquired higher status in the 1940s when the city differentiated its high schools, creating an elite tier.

The history of English High would make a wonderful dissertation project, from its origins through various phases: A quick search of Worldcat reveals enough secondary materials to make a go of it.

The Loeb Rule

A few days ago, I asked if any readers knew the history of early teacher unionization and the Loeb Rule. In comments, CCPhysicist asked for an explanation, so here it is, briefly: Until 1917, there was a forceful teachers union in Chicago, the Chicago Teachers Federation, led for a number of years by Margaret Haley. In a coalition with local progressives such as Jane Addams, the CTF was successful in a number of efforts, most notably a fight against corporate tax exemptions that were impovershing the city and its schools.

The CTF was part of the Chicago Federation of Labor and Local 1 of the American Federation of Teachers. But in 1917, the Board of Education forbid teachers from affiliating with labor unions, and the CTF crumbled.  It wasn't until the postwar era that teachers unions would rise again to prominence.

(See Kate Rousmaniere's entry on the Chicago Teachers Federation in the Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago.)

March 22, 2007

State High School Exit Examination database

University of Minnesota sociologist Rob Warren has created a database listing the historical development of State High School Exit Examinations. This is the type of baseline work that makes other research possible. 

Thanks, Rob!

March 4, 2007

Sweden ho! (in June)

In late June, I'm headed outside North America for the first time since 1973. It's for the 2007 meeting of the Society for the History of Children and Youth, and appropriately enough I committed myself to looking at educational attainment internationally.

Even though I'm late with the registration, it's a virtual steal, only 1000 kronors, and I can get a hotel room for 540 kronors/night (apart from VAT, of course). Cool! So I have my plane reservations, registration, hotel accommodations in Linkoping, and I think I have everything I need (visas apparently don't need to be acquired before travel), with two exceptions...

I can't make train reservations to get between Copenhagen airport and Linkoping University yet, and I need to find a hotel in Copenhagen the last night before I fly back. I just need to wait a few weeks for the train reservations, but if someone has suggestions for a hotel that's a little different from the Danish version of corporate hotels (e.g., Scandic Sydhavnen), please let me know!

March 3, 2007

Why I am a history-education half-breed

The last of my Michael-Katz-student bloggish discussions, on my being a history-education half-breed and other matters of scholarly parochialism, is over at Education Policy Blog.

February 27, 2007

Of Diane Ravitch and presentism

In an amended entry earlier today, I noted my being a Michael Katz student and somehow still not having fits at the sight of Diane Ravitch's name. (As far as I'm aware, Michael doesn't, either.) That doesn't mean that I agree with her substantive scholarship, and I'll repeat here a 2004 contribution I made to the H-Education e-mail list on H-Net. While its intended topic is the historiographical concept of presentism and not Ravitch's Left Back, I do make my views of the book clear:

I've just read Derrick Aldridge's commentary in the December 2003 Educational Research, and in it he describes how he's wrestled with the issue of presentism after being warned about it at a conference. What he describes afterward (on pp. 27-29) is a plausible professional approach, but I'm becoming more and more dissatisfied with the term itself. Ravitch used the label many years ago to criticize what she called revisionist historians [Katz among them], and John Rury then pasted the same label on Ravitch's book Left Back.

I think we should ban the term presentist from our vocabulary as a red herring, full of sound and professional jargon and signifying nothing of substance. Good history has the same characteristics, whether it's making an argument about the development of educational policy in the late 20th century or witchcraft trials of the late 17th, and I challenge anyone to show me differently. Yet presentism is one of the chief bogeymen of historiography. This is especially true with educational history, where we're often caught between educationists who want everything to be immediately relevant and our colleagues in regular history departments who can be skeptical of our subfield.

So what does the term presentist refer to? Most historians would define presentism to include taking events and materials out of context, stretching the interpretation with an eye to the modern implications of the argument. It is a close cousin to teleology, and its red flag sits at our disk right next to the warning flags ready to be waved at the first sign of Whiggish history or the myth of the Golden Age. Maybe an example will illustrate my discomfort. Take John Rury's lambaste of Left Back:

[I]t is largely a history without context, and one that telescopes past ideas about education into a single-minded concern about educational standards, one of Ravitch's pet peeves in current debates about educational policy. In this work we find a classic example of history turned to the purpose of supporting a political agenda.

But that larger description hides more substantive concerns of Rury's: Ravitch's oversimplification of Progressive advocates, the limiting scope of her mini-biographies, the focus on just a few locations, the inconsistency between her critique of Teachers College as an institution and her hagiography of William Bagley (a Teachers College faculty member), the misleading use of a statistic about Kilpatrick's teaching, the exaggeration of evidence about classroom instructional practices in the 20th century, and the inconsistency between her championing disciplinary approaches early in the 20th century and then ignoring the professional judgment of historians in the war over the history standards.

Now, I could add some additional criticisms after wading through the book last year. She acknowledges in the prefatory matter that there was no Golden Age of education (p. 13), and then proceeds to describe the justifiable pride of earlier ages on pp. 19, 21, 25, 30, and 89 (and probably elsewhere). She describes the Committee of Ten report as the first to make curriculum recommendations on secondary education to the country (p. 42), ignoring the legacy of the Yale Report earlier in the 19th century. She claims that the book focuses on the curriculum, but she has a large chunk of material on the reading methods wars in the last few decades. She complete[ly] ignores David Labaree's work on high schools, and while she notes Tyack and Kliebard's work, they appeared to have no influence on the book (either shaping it actively or as serious arguments to counter). The margins of my copy is filled with specific comments, and I found it as frustrating a read as I expect John Rury did, from his review.

And yet I am reluctant to slap a label on it. It is frustrating in part because of the sloppiness of the historical argument and the handling of evidence. But it is also frustrating because I can see the construction of a popularly-appealing book. She mixes detail inside each chapter and the patina of careful history with overblown rhetoric at the beginning and end of most chapters. But that's my fear that many readers will pay more attention to the rhetoric than to the rest of the book.

The problem with Left Back is not that it is "history turned to the purpose of supporting a political agenda," as Rury claims. There is plenty of wonderful, provocative history motivated by political or social beliefs; my favorite is C. Vann Woodward's Origins of the New South. Those good works are just as presentist as Left Back. They're just better at handling evidence and the nuances of writing an historical argument. I've decided that presentism is a label, not a useful analytical concept in historiography.

Someday soon, I'll tackle another perennial bogeyman of history, the number of history doctoral programs in the U.S.

February 16, 2007

Arizona legislators want historians to stop talking about Brown v. Board of Education

John Wilson points out the obvious flaws in Arizona SB 1612, the latest attempt to channel David Horowitz's idiocy. To wit, the proposed 15-511(D)(3) Arizona Statutes would be created, prohibiting Arizona faculty from being able to ...

Endorse, support or oppose any pending or proposed litigation in a local, state or federal court or endorse, support or oppose any judicial action taken by a local, state or federal court.

That means that if an history teacher in any Arizona public school or an historian employed at an Arizona university says that Brown v. Board of Education was the right decision in 1954 (i.e., endorsing "a judicial action taken by a ... federal court"), they'd be breaking the law.

Incidentally, that would also be true for anyone commenting on Marbury v. Madison.


February 11, 2007

Delighted at Drew's destiny

I'm one of the many people who has crossed paths with Drew Gilpin Faust over the years, and while Harvard is only one university, I'm very happy that Faust got picked as president. I never had a class with her when I was in grad school at Penn, but she was well-known for being serious and supportive, I found her the same, and there is nothing in the last 15 years to contradict the reputation she had among grad students.

She will do just fine as Harvard's president.

There is one apocryphal story I have of her role in saving House of Our Own, an independent bookstore on the 3900 block of Spruce Street in Philadelphia. For many years, it's operated out of the same brownstone building owned by Penn.  While I was a grad student (and several times since), Penn threatened to end its lease for various alleged purposes, including supposed redevelopment or repurposing of the building, though grad students generally supposed that the university thought that House of Our Own competed with the campus bookstore (which it did, or would have if the campus bookstore ever had a significant intellectual focus).

In any case, during one of those occasional crises, Faust and her husband Charles Rosenberg were offered jobs at Harvard. They either asked to talk to or were invited to talk to Penn's then-president, Sheldon Hackney (a Southern historian, like Faust). Hackney asked why they would ever consider Harvard.

"Harvard wouldn't shut down a small bookstore operating in Harvard Square!" is the comment I've heard attributed to Drew Faust. She and Rosenberg stayed at Penn a few more years, and the bookstore stayed open, though I don't know if there's a connection.

December 21, 2006

Theodore Porter, Trust in Numbers, and picking the right fights

On the way to and from my mother-in-law's house today, I finished Theodore Porter's Trust in Numbers (1995). (I should say that I finished it while my spouse was driving!) While I was distraught this morning at Porter's style, I slogged through, a matter which I knew was important. And the book has plenty of food for thought. But the (dis)organization remained problematic, and not surprisingly, the book reviews varied fairly dramatically in terms of how they read the main argument. In particular, the reviews in the Economic History Review and Technology and Culture read Porter's book as less deterministic than I thought he was in the end.

That determinism is a critical question. Is autonomy such a driving force that weak disciplines and administrative apparatuses under political threat will resort to statistics as a buffering mechanism to protect autonomy, even while higher-status disciplines or bureaucracies can still turn to networks of trust and rely on elite status? If so, then test-score accountability was inevitable, as Stephen Turner suggests. But I think the details in Porter's book belie that argument of virtual inevitability (which Porter makes clear, I think, in the second-to-last chapter). As Porter notes, weights and measures have historically been more negotiable than we assume today, and his description of the origins of the Chicago futures market is a fascinating tale of contingent events. There was nothing inevitable in it.

We don't have to look at NCLB and debates over NAEP to see how flexible truth is and the porous factual claims that permeate education. Evidence of how negotiable education "facts" are lies in the current debate over measuring graduation—or, as is more common, mismeasuring graduation. There is no agreement on how to measure graduation, the sides are frequently identified as biased in terms of other issues (support of public schools v. vouchers), and even the terms of the debate are vigorously argued, an argument that suggests that education facts are not completely behind the boundaries of expertise.

The debatability of education facts suggests another way of looking at accountability: given the fact that accountability systems will produce arguments, maybe one way of thinking about them is to structure the system so you get the argument that you want. If proponents of high-stakes accountability are sick of educators responding to accountability by blaming parents, maybe they should look in the mirror: didn't the system predictably set up that argument?  And if so, what's the argument that you want to have? 

Maybe it's because my father grew up on Flatbush Avenue, but I don't think there's anything wrong with a good argument, as long as it's about the right things. Do we really want to keep arguing about whether the scores mean something or who's responsible? I can predict continuing arguments precisely on these issues for as long as accountability is based entirely on test scores. I know of one commendable accountability mechanism—Rhode Island's site-visit system—that produces enormous discomfort in schools that are judged wanting and some arguments, but I think they're arguments worth having, about the nature of the school, what isn't happening, and what could be happening. Those arguments can only happen if you get beyond test scores.

December 20, 2006

Danziger, Contructing the Subject, and the dangers of following the trail

Thanks to a trail of other readings, I'm now delving into Theodore Potter's Trust in Numbers (1995) and Kurt Danziger's Constructing the Subject (1990), both relatively dense books discussing topics on the edges of my concerns with testing and professional expertise. While reading the page proofs of a book that will be coming out in just a few months, I've already had one basic assumption rattled (it's a minor point in the book, David, but it forces me to rethink the question of psychometrics as a profession and how we treat teachers). Then I picked up Stephen Turner's Liberal Democracy 3.0 (2003), about whose provocative arguments about expertise and democratic political theory I've written elsewhere (on Education Policy Blog).

So in this trail of expertise, professional history, and our social trust in test scores, I've come to two very different chunks of the literature. Theodore Potter has written two books on the social history of statistics, one on The Rise in Statistical Thinking (1988) in the 19th century and a second one (Trust in Numbers), which is a little more broad and ambitious in its argument. I've left that fairly early to tackle the Danziger book, which is a brilliant little book that rocks you with a gem of insight every chapter. Danziger argues that Wundt's laboratory circle in Leipzig both established the concept of subject and also became an alternative view of subject (where the experimenter and observer frequently exchanged roles) to the later, more common notion of subject as of a different social status and knowledge position than the experimenter (and report author).

One point that is both suggestive and devastating is Danziger's suggestion that schools may have influenced the path of psychology as much as the other way around, for three reasons: first, schools created a huge resource of subjects once those became defined as a separate social group from experimenters; second, schools became a target of marketing of applied research; and third, in their dramatic expansion in the late 19th century and the organization around bureaucratic forms (graded multi-classroom schools, for example), the new bureaucratic school systems both produced and consumed huge numbers of the type of population statistics that are akin to censuses, creating the idea that one could capture the sense of schools and children with a sort of social census. That statistical consumption may have shaped psychology's turn from reporting the introspective observations of individuals to the reporting of aggregate statistics, what Danziger calls a "psychological census."

In turn, this broad (and ironic) argument brings me to two other issues: John Dewey and Daniel Calhoun. Most people in education describe Dewey as a sort of demi-god, creating a humane vision of education. What my colleague Erwin Johanningmeier argues is that Dewey used schools as a way to inform his writings on pragmatism more than attempting to define what schools should do. I suspect this may be a matter of different perspectives on the same writings, but Johanningmeier's argument parallels Danziger's.

The second is that Danziger cites Calhoun's The Intelligence of a People (1973), of which Dorothy Ross aptly said, "Any reader who spends a few minutes with Calhoun's ... book will learn that it is infuriatingly difficult of access." She also noted, again accurately, "But it will repay the reader's persistence." So I need to delve back into that (which I haven't touched since grad school). There are two copies on the shelf in my library: BF431 .C256. Please don't grab both, as I need them. 

December 16, 2006

The "New" Commission and Jurgen Herbst

Achieve, Inc.-National Center on Education and the Economy smackdown program notes: Has anyone else noticed that the redesign recommendations of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce are just a wee bit inconsistent with Achieve Inc.'s American Diploma Project? End high school as we know it at the end of grade 10 versus boosting the academic demands of high school.  Maybe it's time for that Marc Tucker-Lou Gerstner WWF headliner. But let's get to the more substantive comments on the New Commission report...

The New Commission's structural recommendations are close to the shift that Jurgen Herbst recommended in The Once and Future School (1995), the high-school history that came out about the same time as Bill Reese's Origins of the American High School (1995). Herbst said the period of state-subsidized universal schooling should start and end earlier and, lo! and behold!, that's what the New Commission recommends, too (or maybe "recommends 2" since it's the Commission Mark II). I'm not going to expect to see any citation of Herbst in the full report (which I haven't seen since it's not online). But you shouldn't be surprised at the failure to know the historical literature, since this type of commission usually has a faux historical perspective, if any.

The best argument in favor of such a shift is not that globalization requires restructuring (these commissions never recommend economic policy changes) but rather that it conforms better to the needs of families: A much larger proportion of mothers are working at preschool ages than several decades ago, and so preschool and daycare are the experiences of the vast majority of children in the U.S. Given that, and the downward shift in academic expectations, having state-subsidized preschool experiences would piggyback on the expectations of families anyway (which is that children will be in institutionalized environments earlier than decades ago). On the upper end of the age range, a substantial proportion of 17- and 18-year-olds work part-time during the school year, and a substantial minority of juniors and seniors work long enough hours to interfere with serious schoolwork. You can fight that in a number of ways (reducing the hours that minors can work, for example), or you can "go with the flow" and eliminate the pseudo-universal claims of high school's last two years.

Herbst's proposal for a downward age shift was informed by his comparative perspective (he's also written a comparative book, School Choice and School Governance, which came out this year on, well, ... just reread the title, okay?), and I suspect that the New Commission Mark II also was, but from a more superficial angle.  (Hey, Marc: Put your full report online so I don't have to guess!) In Herbst's case, it's a case of "the current system isn't inevitable; get over yourself and structure the system to work better." In the case of most commissions, the comparative perspective is often phrased as a "let's see what our competitors do and then respond to them" argument; the 1980s was full of shallow "let's mimic Japanese education" arguments. (Note: does anyone on these commissions know what the social role of Japanese preschools has been? Those in the U.S. will probably be surprised, if you don't know already.) This set of recommendations isn't quite as crass, and the New Commission's staff-produced and -commissioned papers (a Commission's commission? hmmn...) are decent descriptive pieces, if a bit pedestrian, but I have the sense that they were used to flesh out a predetermined structure rather than to inform discussion. For example, Lynne Sacks and Betsy Brown Ruzzi's Overview of Education Ministries in Selected Countries contains the important note that not all countries have a national curriculum, but does that inform the recommendations, and will anyone pay attention?

There are a variety of concerns many will raise about recommendations of the New Commission Mark II, Junior. (For one of the first out of the chute, see AFT's response.)  One that was rehearsed in the 1980s—when other comparatively-derived proposals looked at European tracking practices as a model—is that tracking students' educational careers at age 16 will make the inequalities in the current system harder to root out. Right now, many systems have a semi-soft tracking system: a substantial minority of students are actively encouraged to take challenging courses, while others are either actively discouraged (or encouraged to take non-challenging or remedial courses) or just not told about opportunities. That's the underlying purpose of Jay Mathews and other advocates of AP classes, to push schools to actively encourage students to take challenging academic classes in high school. Some school systems have started to soften that implicit tracking, encouraging a broader range of students to take AP and other challenging classes. If we end high school at age 16 and then track students into different types of institutions, we will risk increasing the inequalities in educational opportunities. As Fairtest head Monty Neill wrote yesterday,

If 16 year olds will be separated based on test scores, barring not only changes in school and in preschool but also in a wide range of other societal aspects, low income kids, kids of color, those whose first language are not English, those with disabilities, will be sorted out into some pretense of voc training (like McDonalds as was previously posted).

I don't know if Education Trust has weighed in yet on the recommendations of the New and Improved Commission Mark II, Junior, but if I were a betting man, I'd predict that they'll oppose it on these grounds.

A second argument against the structural recommendation for adolescents is about adult supervision of minors. If 16-year-olds are not only not required to attend school but are signaled, "Here's where school ends," then you'll have a much larger proportion of teenagers who will end their schooling. In the last several decades, young adults have had higher unemployment rates than adults over 25, so one possible consequence is a larger number of teens (maybe a little larger, maybe much larger) having nothing to do. I suspect that school boards will argue that if the common curriculum ends at age 16, crime will increase.

The appeal of a third argument is superficial, but I suspect it will be more important than the others in sinking the recommendations of the New and Improved 5% More Free! Commission Mark II, Junior:  If you end the standard school program at 16, there go high school athletics and much of the extracurricular activities that millions of Americans remember as the best part of high school. That common experience helps create what David Tyack and Larry Cuban have called the grammar of schooling, or what Mary Metz called the "real school" script. To many adults, a "real school" has a football team, cheerleaders, a high school newspaper, senior prom, a yearbook, etc. Efforts to end the common academic program at 16 will have to fight the positive memories of millions of Americans and a century-plus discourse on the need to appeal to (and sometimes appease) the tastes of teens. 

This is not to say that we shouldn't rethink the structure of schooling: we certainly should, regularly. As I've written before, there are significant historiographical flaws in Tyack and Cuban's Tinkering toward Utopia (1995), an historical brief for incrementalism. But at a first glance (i.e., the executive summary and some of the attached papers), the New and Improved 5% More Free! Commission Mark II, Junior, has gone about the redesign effort in the all-too-common ahistorical and narrowly-framed way.

December 5, 2006

The final death of race-conscious desegregation

Given the news stories after yesterday's oral argument in the Seattle and Louisville cases, it seems clear that the Supreme Court is going to strike down desegregation plans that are

  • not court-ordered
  • cognizant of race in any formulaic sense

Affirmative action in the individualized way that Sandra Day O'Connor accepted in the Michigan law school case a few years ago may survive, but you can't do that in K-12 school systems except in districts so small that the practice won't affect more than a tiny proportion of students.

The court may change with a different president, reversing whatever opinions are written here, but I suspect some school districts will go the Raleigh route and try to rewrite desegregation plans to focus on social class. I don't think those will be any less divisive, but my guess is that they'll withstand court scrutiny: in the Rodriguez case many years ago, the court said that social class was not the suspect classification basis that race was.

However, I expect that most of the (few) remaining desegregation plans will simply be dismantled. That doesn't mean we're returning entirely to the days of separate-and-unequal: wealthy parents will be able to buy access to desegregated schooling. And parents who are willing to bus their kids across town will sometimes have access to desegegated schooling. (Both of my children attended a magnet middle school where the student population was more diverse than their zoned middle school.) And without desegregation plans, there will be some low-level exposure to children of other races in the majority of schools.

But our society has missed a tremendous opportunity that opened up for it, first in the late 1950s when massive resistance blocked the first efforts to desegregate schools and again in the 1970s when school districts could have responded to busing orders with efforts to change the housing market.* As many others have written, residential segregation limits the extent of school desegregation.

Where do we go from here? I wish I knew. I am not sanguine about the claims that accountability and choice will solve the multiple problems of schools that are entirely segregated and serve students in poor neighborhoods. Nor am I claiming that desegregation was any cure-all. But there is something immensely sad about knowing that a moment has passed and that the country has irrevocably lost an opportunity.

* In my fantasy, Southern school systems would have made two policy choices to reshape housing markets: Telling developers that they would reward new mixed-income housing with truly neighborhood, walkable schools; and asking judges to exempt from busing orders any neighborhood that became and remained stably desegregated.

December 3, 2006

George Tindall, 1921-2006

Southern historian George Tindall has died at 85.  Ralph Luker has a very nice tribute to him (and great teaching stuff!) at Cliopatria. I remember being introduced to a wonderful stylist in The Emergence of the New South, 1913-1945 (1967). When I initially read it, the first chapter ("In the House of their Fathers") was the most subtle and damning indictment of Woodrow Wilson I had ever seen. Just now, I reread Bennett Wall's review in the American Historical Review, and while it's a bit effervescent to me, Wall's right about Tindall's writing.

November 26, 2006

Ironic turns of phrase

From a friend who goes as kestrel's nest:

The phrase ["building a Red America"] caught me up short, remembering the jingos of my adolescence, one of which was "better dead than red" in reference to Communism. Back then, "Red" was synonymous with evil, anti-democratic, "anti-American" politics. Now it is used to mean "Republican, right-wing 'ultra-American' and ultra-Conservative." Does anyone else find that ironic?


November 16, 2006

Milton Friedman, 94

Noted economist Milton Friedman has died at age 94. (See a brief chronology at, what else, the Wall Street Journal.) It's important to note the twists and turns that his proposal for vouchers has taken, from his main argument to replace all public schooling with vouchers to the Alum Rock non-experiment in the 1970s to Milwaukee and Cleveland, then Florida in various guises, etc. His arguments about efficiency are far down in the public debate, but vouchers advocates will be singing his praises, and probably for good reason in terms of intellectual genealogy. I think he was largely wrong in his arguments about the direction of public policy, but you cannot deny his importance as an icon for modern conservatives.

I suspect there will be some provocative but not very historically-minded biographies of him in the next few years. There should be an intellectual history of vouchers as well (No, Andrew Coulson's Market Education doesn't count), but I'm not sure who'd do it. Nancy Beadie and Kim Tolley have done good work on the fuzzy line between public and private in the 19th century, and Jurgen Herbst's School Choice and School Governance (2006) is a comparative study (U.S. and Germany) that I've been looking forward to (and haven't yet read—don't nag me! I have too many urgent things at the moment). Anyone want to volunteer?

November 5, 2006

Trains! (conference liveblogging)

Back at the Social Science History Association for an early-morning Sunday session. Going to a session Sunday morning at 8:15 is one of those character tests, largely because a large chunk of a weekend conference has either left or is in the process of checking out of a hotel and getting to the airport. I'm staying in town to give a seminar tomorrow, so it's a matter of academic citizenship in some way to go to some session, any session, and stay awake through the whole thing.  There was no session at 8:15 in the education network, so I'm free to indulge.  And I chose a session on historical geographic analyses of railroads.  The attendance is about 15, darned good for an early Sunday morning session. And there was a reason for that... (details of the session in the full entry)

After the session chair opened up with a set of puns (I'll try to keep everyone on the rails), Richard Healey starts with a discussion of railroad and economic development in 19th-century Pennsylvania. The operative question is how closely railroad development is linked to mine developments. He compared three human-crafted transportation modes (plank roads [where the ruts were only two inches deep], canals, and railroads). The advantage of going to a GIS (geographic information systems) session is that there are plenty of maps, in this case historical maps and constructed analytical maps along with some photographs. Healey has a great photograph of a crash of several boats at a bridge from the pond freshet method of transportation, which was simply a bunch of folks on boats waiting for someone else to release a significant part of water from a pond and then try to go downriver on the gravity wave... until a bridge appeared ahead. With the raw bitum iron industry, Healey says that there were several waves of development (and one bust associated with the 1857 bank collapse). In the case of Pennsylvania oil fields, railroads had a hard time keeping pace, and there were multiple ways of trying to transport oil.  The coke coal region near Pittsburgh had awful coincidences before the Civil War because it was hard to make canals there and the Pennsylvania Railroad decided not to finance it because of low anticipated traffic.  And then a railroad line was finally laid... in 1857 (economic crash!). So the coalfield region in Connellsville didn't seriously develop until the 1870s (which Healey thinks is tied more closely to the industrial advantages of Connesville coke coal). 

William Thomas is discussing railroad development more broadly, the difference between regional networking and a national consequence.  He started with a picture of 1880s railroad development along the eastern shore of Virginia, which he thinks is the last place to get a railroad in the continental U.S. (It was the 19th century equivalent of being offline, for those of us addicted to the internet.) Thomas's project is multifaceted, stretching from the mundane to the the way that engineers/managers' visual representations of elevations and systems created new models for spacial representation. (That was a surprise; I thought he'd talk about paintings and sketches that included railroads in 19th century landscape imagery.) His phrase "national system" makes me think about Henry Clay's idea of a national system and the difference between the ideology of a nation (which was old) and the ways in which everyday life clues us into social networks beyond our daily life.  You need to have everyday things that give one awareness of a larger sense of humanity to get that sense of networks.  This morning, in the middle of a session, I could (but won't!) check my bank account, e-mail my spouse and friends, etc. I have my cell phone in my pocket (silenced!), with which I could call home or anywhere in the world. This morning, I ate breakfast in a chain breakfast place. Enough digression. The surprise of this presentation is that there is not yet an historical GIS database of national railroad development. He'll probably get a grant to develop it (or someone will). His website on Nebraska and Iowa is matched by Healey's Pennsylvania system GIS project.

Robert Schwartz has done an enormous amount of historical GIS stuff on railroads. His course website on the Industrial Revolution and the Railway System is a good example of leading-edge visual material use in teaching. (Just go explore.)  He starts by contrasting Schwartz's project for the U.S. with the French system in the 19th century, where "all roads lead to Paris." His main presentation is on railways and agricultural crises in England and France in the late 19th century. While the population shifted to urban areas and non-agricultural employment and the franchise expanded in both countries, the decreases in transportation costs created agricultural depressions, what Karl Kautsky called The Agrarian Question (1899). Kautsky explained the persistence of farms as self-exploitation. Schwartz points out that half of the world's population is tied to agriculture, so we should pay attention to the continuing dismantling of household economies. Economic historians, on the other hand, say that those depressions were more illusion than reality. Schwartz says that the extension of railroads into the British countryside had some interesting economic consequences beyond the agrarian economy in subregions. But there were variations in the crisis, with less of a crisis (in the region where Tess of the D'Urbervilles is set) in the valleys where dairying may have ameliorated the stress, in contrast with the arable parts of the chalklands. Schwartz then discusses France's agrarian crisis. The general story is of rail transportation creating economic expansion and intense competition, and it transformed the agrarian landscape.

Ian Gregory's comments are not that surprising.  He's also glad there were plenty of graphics early Sunday morning. He's struggling with the central question with historical GIS: how do we work with space in more than another way to do multiple regression. He applauded the presenters for using the spatial analysis to get at context and scale issues.

November 4, 2006

Race, ethnicity, and public audiences (conference liveblogging and random ruminations)

This afternoon, I'm at another paper session at the Social Science History Association (SSHA) meeting in Minneapolis.  This paper session is about the construction of race relations and various constructors' "publics." (Audiences and Publics is the theme for this year, and a core of panels has this theme as the organizing concept.)

(Session details in the full entry.)

Leah Gordon, a grad student at the University of Pennsylvania, has a paper on the individualistic construction of race relations research at the University of Chicago under the Park group of grad students and researchers studying urban relations (see the archival records of the Committee on Education, Training, and Research in Race Relations). Today, she was focusing on a measure of racial tensions (literally called a tension barometer), based on attitudinal surveys of whites (and whites only) and seeing structural factors as immutable and not deserving of focus. To Gordon, the Park School's individualistic focus and the inertia of once-started projects played a significant role in the paucity of structural models of race relations.

Hernan Sorgentini, a grad student at SUNY Stony Brook, is presenting his research on the Brazilian construction of racial democracy (as a concept). Sorgentini describes a complex set of symbolism involving race, gender, and power.  Images and metaphors of racialized sex (or sexualized race relations) are fairly prominent in the story he tells about Gilberto Freyre. I'm not familiar with Brazilian history (let alone Brazilian national ideologies), but this sounds fascinating (and weird, if no stranger than the parallel aspects of history of the U.S.).

Jennifer Hochschild, Traci Burch, and Vesla Weaver (the latter two are Hochschild's grad students) have a paper on "explaining the skin color paradox." They're interested in the social-class ties to skin tone within broad racial groupings (if you want a pop culture version, see Spike Lee's School Daze, though Hochschild doesn't say this is limited to African Americans; Hochschild et al. say that political scientists generally ignore this, apart from Cathy J. Cohen's The Boundaries of Blackness and her notion of "secondary marginalization") and the simultaneous political need for unity within race and ethnicity groupings. Very briefly, they think that there are environmental conditions that sometimes suppress the public recognition of within-race class-color relationships (what they call colorism). Hochschild et al. propose that eras of dramatic population change create conditions for all sorts of flux, including allowing colorism to become more visible and recognized. With a conference presentation, she can only give a smidgen of the evidence, but she's whetted things with the promise that they have evidence about political involvement. As usual, Hochschild and coauthors have gripped a subject with a clearly focused question or dilemma. This is the first time I've heard her present at a conference, and she is as interesting in a live presentation as her writing.

While listening to this panel, I've been thinking about the nature of SSHA and interdisciplinary conversations. In part, I've been thinking of such conversations because of my attendance at the conference (which is explicitly interdisciplinary) but because of the H-Education mailing list discussion on historians of education and "interdisciplines" and a question a USF grad student had some time ago about how I became interested in social stratification and education.

So a bit of a tangent here before I get back to the panel: last night, at a panel about the past and future of quantitative social history, I was talking with a geographer about how my advisor pushed me to take classes in Penn's Graduate School of Education and the sociology department.  That led me to a course in anthropology of education and another in social psychology, as well as the introductory demography course and a demography masters, eventually. Michael Katz (my advisor) was very firm in explaining that history-department jobs were rare and that I needed additional skills to be more flexible in looking for jobs. But it wasn't just his push. Lynn Hunt, who taught the first-year proseminar my entering year, had most of the readings in different social models (Marx, Toqueville, Weber, Foucault, etc.), and I had taken a very solid sociology of education course. So I suppose I had been primed to think about social history as more than idiosyncratic events and patterns. Very roughly speaking, I had no problem with believing that social history is more than description, and that we need some technical tools to investigate key questions.

So in grad school I was looking for different ideas to hang the notion of inequality on. Towards the end of coursework, I had conversations with my committee members (Katz, Michelle Fine, and Bob Engs) and some others about potential dissertation topics. All were about inequality and education. In the end, I chose the construction of dropping out combined with some statistics on graduation and local cases of dropout prevention/amelioration practices, but my particular research projects are less important for me in this sense than the hunger for both historical specificity and social modeling.

And we get to the SSHA, which is deliberately interdisciplinary and international (though we don't have nearly enough humanities scholars and scholars from Asia and Africa). At its best, we get great ideas and great attention to historical specificity. I think we have that in this panel.  In some cases, as with a book session this morning on Bob Brueggman's Sprawl: A Compact History, you get some participants not quite looking at the two sides clearly. But inconsistency is the nature of conferences, and you head to a conference hoping for high points. Since Judith Martin (aka Miss Manners) has written that her spectator sport of choice is opera, I suppose mine is an interdisciplinary conference.

Back to the session and the comments/discussion. Robert Wolff is tying the papers together by saying that all papers in some sense address or uncover issues of disciplinary creation and reshaping. Cohen explicitly raises it. Sorgentini uses one of the classics in Brazilian race relations. And Wolff asks Hochschild if she could explain how political science constructs race and race relations.

The responses by the presenters is fascinating, and I'm not going to try to follow it in any organized sense.  To some extent, the questions directed at Hochschild are challenging the specifics of the story she and her coauthors tell, either about invariance on colorism or the specifics of changes in the late 1920s and early 1930s (when Hochschild and others claim the visibility of colorism dissipates). Again comes the tension between powerful explanations and specifics.

November 3, 2006

Teachers and their publics (conference liveblogging!)

I'm in Minneapolis this weekend at the Social Science History Association annual meeting, currently at an early-morning session on teachers and crafting professional identities.

(Session details in the full entry.)

First up is Diana D'Amico (an NYU grad student), with Orchids or Activists: New York City Teachers Unions and the Gendering of a Profession, 1935-1941. In her presentation, she's started with AFT Local 5's growth and struggles in the 1930s (the focus on younger, unmarried, and more radical teachers), and the splitting of AFT Local 5 and the creation of the New York Teachers Guild. In contrast to what she describes as the standard historiography of this local picture as a political and ideological struggle or political and generational struggle, D'Amico says gender is important here. She says that gender creates a much more interesting picture of the NYC teachers split. She says gender plays an important role in the crafting of professional, union identities. It looks like the direction she'll go in is that this dynamic led to a split and gendered identity in the early years of the UFT several decades later (with different actors). I can't do justice to the whole paper, of course.

Jonna Perillo's paper, From Militant to Mainstream: Albert Shanker, Teacher Power, and the New York Times, is in a new direction for her.  (Her dissertation at NYU was on teacher journalism; she's now at University of Texas El Paso.) Shanker's weekly ad (it looked like an op-ed column) came out of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville controversy, and Perillo is interested in the uses of the press and the "battle over visibility and the media" after the various adversaries became aware of and responded to negative images in print and broadcast media.  Where We Stand was occupied with his rivals and local adversaries, promoting an alternative version of civil rights rhetoric. Apparently the Amsterdam News considered publishing Shanker's column until irate readers objected.  (That's new to me and fascinating!) I'll leave the rest of her analysis of Where We Stand (including the national controversies which are fairly well known) for when she publishes the paper formally.

It's now time for Karen Benjamin's Curriculum Experimentation at the Grassroots Level: Teacher Initiative in the Segregated Schools of Raleigh and Wheeling. This is one chunk of her dissertation project (Benjamin is a grad student in Wisconsin's Educational Policy Studies and History program), with Houston as the third case she didn't discuss today. Pointing out the patterns of the more humanistic progressive education in a segregated environment is an important tack, it strikes me. In this case, Benjamin sees teachers as critical agents here. She notes the parental opposition to local building programs but not to teachers' initiatives of child-centered education. Definitely an interesting set of case studies.

Chris Ogren's commentary focuses on the umbrella concept of teachers' voices and the identity of the public (intended audience, at least), in addition to comments on the individual papers. Towards the end of discussion, session chair Paul Mattingly points out that the interwar era for two of the papers was a time of increasing bureaucratization, including the bureaucratic context of many of the concepts the authors were working with. Fun conversation!

October 13, 2006

Why I'm not a member of the American Historical Association and speech codes

Since October 7th's Clipatria blog entry by Ralph Luker about the anti-speech-code resolution he and David Beito are sponsoring for January 2007 meeting of the American Historical Association, I've been wondering how to respond. It wasn't about the resolution itself (about which I'll talk later) but the fact that I haven't been an AHA member for years, and why I haven't.

It's the Job Registry, also known as the Professional Respect Abattoir. I don't mean that search committees kill professional respect.  Outside the Job Registry (and similar institutions at the American Philosophical Association and other professional organizations), they're as good as they can be (though I have heard my share of horror stories from colleagues about their job searches).  And inside the Job Registry, they do their best laboring in a structure that is guaranteed to treat applicants as scam victims.

Let me start with the AHA's own guidelines for the hiring process: "Interviewing and hiring should be based solely on professional criteria." But that's not what happens at the Job Registry, which weeds out starving grad students and other applicants who cannot afford to travel to the AHA.  To interview at a campus, an applicant needs to have sent in an application, prepare a job talk and several things if there is a teaching exercise, have appropriate professional attire, and go. To interview at the Job Registry, an applicant needs to do the above, pay the registration fees, housing costs, and then travel and eat in an expensive convention-hotel area.  Because search committees don't contact applicants until late in the fall, after the best airfares are often gone, those who are on a job search generally have to make plans (and pay for travel) before hearing whether they'll actually be interviewed.

And then there's the environment of the job registry itself.  From a 1972 report of the AHA:

Too often graduate students have been forced to think of the annual convention as, indeed, a slave block, and the arrangements provided have done nothing to diminish that impression. As employment opportunities have decreased, this sense has become even more acute.

I wrote about this in 1998 and 2001, but if you don't believe me that the registry is doomed to have a graveyard stench, take a more recent gander of the sense of Another Damned Medievalist (from 2004):

People were right. The meat market set-up tends to create a group of job-sekers who exude fear, paranoia, jealousy, and hatred.

What I wrote more than five years ago is still true: I am certain that AHA officials have gone to great efforts to make an essentially humiliating experience a tad less like a meat market. Maybe it's now a quieter abattoir. Departments continue to spend hundreds of dollars to send exhausted faculty to places where they get headaches listening to desperate graduate students or Ph.D.s who spent hundreds of dollars getting to the AHA for the sole purpose of the job registry. Why? Because that's how history departments "have always" conducted searches since the change from old-boy networks to advertised searches with bureaucratized procedures. Having interviews at the AHA has an opportunity cost, given fixed costs for searches: reducing the number of candidates invited to campus. I'm not saying that academic searches in fields without a similar forum are more ethical or less painful for the unsuccessful applicants. However, they are less expensive for both applicants and the searching campus. In today's environment, with the capacity to have teleconferencing at a relatively low cost to an institution (given the existing infrastructure), and where grad students and independent scholars can participate in such virtual interviews at low cost to them, it's inexcusable to use "the way we've done it in the past" to justify the continued existence of the Job Registry.

So, back to the AHA resolution on speech codes.  See more from Michael Berube, Hiram Hover, Luker's response, and Hover's rebuttal. I'm surprised that Hiram Hover refers to the AAUP statement on speech codes, since it uses the term in precisely the way that HH thinks is sloppy and is forceful in a way that HH doesn't find justified.  But no matter: if you are going to quibble about the terminology (which I think is essentially what's going on), then suggest alternative language.  Since the AHA passed the resolution on the misnamed Academic Bill of Rights last year, it's perfectly appropriate to push something on speech codes.

Also, the AHA is in Atlanta on a weekend where there's another event I frequent, so I could combine business with pleasure (I'm not sure which would be which).  But if this resolution passes, maybe I'll become active, if only to shut down the Job Registry once and for all.  Anyone want to help me with the logistics of getting a resolution to the floor removing the Job Registry?

October 11, 2006

Preview release of Social Explorer

Definitely head over to Social Explorer, a great historical interactive map site from Andy Beveridge and colleagues at Queens College (CUNY). Right now, it's in preview mode, but if you want to get census-tract-level maps on a whole host of social data, definitely look at it!

October 9, 2006

On teaching as a perpetual activity

New Kid on the Hallway's entry today on watching the (rebroadcast) Eyes on the Prize has me focusing on two thoughts:

  1. Wow. This really is evidence of how long the series has been unavailable to too many people.
  2. NK's comments show how much education really is a matter of making sure that information and perspectives don't disappear. I remember the Eyes series almost as if it were yesterday. I shouldn't be surprised that someone seeing it for the first time this month will be similarly affected.  And, moreover, there's nothing wrong with that repetition.

Narrators of academic and political life

To new scholars hired into academic jobs:  Remember that your colleagues are unreliable narrators. That doesn't mean that they are necessarily vicious, mean, backstabbing folks (and I hope you don't run into those types, because they unfortunately exist). I mean that people to whom you look for advice on institutional morays have their own sets of lenses that distort and color the world. They are unreliable in the classic literary sense:  Trust them as people. Just don't trust them as the definitive anthropologists of your institution. This includes me, by the way; I'd like to think of myself as an astute observer, but I'm going to have my own limitations.

As Iraq has continued to descend into chaos, with our involvement in it following apace, I've been wondering about the political version of this phenomenon: major politicians' self-delusions.  We all delude ourselves in some ways, whether minor or major, and I can't think of a president that hasn't had at least one historically significant self-delusion.  The current president's delusions about Iraq are now all too plain, but I wonder how a political history would look if written with an eye to identifying historically significant delusions operating in different eras, whether held by individuals or groups. Now that project would be an interesting version of psychohistory!

September 11, 2006

September 11, five years later

Personal recollections

Five years ago, I remember heading to class just before 10 on a Tuesday morning and stopping by the gathering of people looking at the monitor that someone had changed to CNN. Some time before, a colleague had knocked on my office door while I was screening the PBS documentary School. She was looking for someone with news on. I was caught up in a segment, she closed the door quietly, and only after the segment was done did I wander out and discover the attacks. Then, as I was headed to class, I watched the images of WTC 2 dissolving. I felt sick, thought about the other tower still standing, and stumbled to the classroom.

More is in the complete entry.

My students sitting in the room didn't know about the collapse of the tower, but most knew of the attacks, or some version of them given the confusion at the time. With a flat voice, I told them roughly what I knew, that this probably wasn't a good day to have a class, and that we'd get together again on Thursday. Then I walked out, back to the hallway where the television was on, looked for a few seconds, and went back to my office. I went by the monitor a few more times that day, but I spent more time online trying to catch news, among the sites that weren't flooded.

I was never so relieved to live without a television as in the following weeks. Several times a day, I saw students and staff transfixed in the hallway, watching the monitor tuned to CNN. The crawl on the bottom of the tube—that damned crawl!—suggested that the next disaster was just waiting to be announced, and you had to watch continually so as not to miss the news. I didn't have to wonder what it did to children. The daughter of one friend kept watching the news and the replays of the towers' collapse over and over again, until her mother finally turned the television off.

The day after the attacks, I tutored a child in my daughter's 4th-grade class as I usually did on Wednesdays, but her teacher asked me to stay afterwards, and she opened up the class to student questions. I think she wanted to do that but needed some support. My daughter's classmates had the usual sharp questions you'd expect from 9-year-olds: would my parent working at MacDill Air Force Base be in danger? do they know who caught it? I heard [whatever rumor was floating around him or her]; is that true? The previous academic year, most of the same class had been together for the excitement of the 2000 election recount controversy. This was an utterly different history in the making.

Over the week, I did the same checking-up on friends and family that I think many of us did. I didn't know anyone who died, but I know a few who had close calls one way or another. One of my cousins worked opposite WTC, and he was probably saved from having glass fall on him during his exit from the WTC subway station at his usual time by his stopping to vote that morning. I wonder how many people the primary saved. Someone from college I dated for a short time lived in the WTC neighborhood, and she and her family evacuated because of the pollutants.

Professional perspectives

Late on September 11, I became disgusted with the first attempts to guess at the body count. How morbid, I thought, and then kept running things back in my head about the scale of disasters in U.S. history. The Galveston hurricane of 1900 (about 6,000 dead). But that was a natural disaster. News broadcasters mentioned Pearl Harbor (2,403 dead). There was D-Day, with its unknown dead (somewhere between 2,500 and 5,000, I've seen). But I kept thinking of the highest one-day casualty figure in the Civil War: the battle of Antietam. While about 3,600 died that day, certainly hundreds more who were declared missing had actually died, and probably a few thousand of the battle's wounded died from infections. I thought about the offices in the WTC and the Pentagon and the thousands who worked in those places daily. I kept thinking, Please let it not be an Antietam or worse. And gave blood later that week.

For all the horror of that day, it wasn't Antietam. More than 2,000 died, and who knows how many survived by sheer luck. As with my cousin, we'll never really know what would have happened. It was bad enough, as it was.

And now, more American soldiers have died in the invasion and occupation of Iraq than died that day. More American soldiers have died in this war/occupation than died in the War of 1812 or died in the Spanish-American War. If he had not chosen to invade Iraq, I suspect President Bush would be seen as a largely successful president, however polarizing. But one must be careful in playing what-if.

I decided to do something constructive with my own feelings about the impending war against someone (we knew fairly quickly, probably Afghanistan's Taliban rulers as well as al-Qaida). Five years ago, minus 8 days, the History News Service distributed my op-ed column, War May Raise Serious Issues at Home. Written hurriedly after President Bush's address to the country, it shows obvious signs of oversimplification (factual goofs are left as an exercise for the reader), but it's interesting to look at my argument anticipating debates over the role of the federal government and think of what I did get right.

Maybe there's a crystal ball in my future, after all, if I only bring it out every once in a while. Richard Jensen's 1998 prediction that Clinton would resign was not that accurate, though he was bolder than I was. I could not have anticipated a war in Iraq being justified by an Al-Qaida attack. But there are always surprises.

One such surprise is the failure to link education with the war on terror. This has surprised me, because it's a common pattern of education politics to urge schools to help fight the national enemy, whether the enemy is the Soviet Union, poverty, racism, or our economic competitors. So why not terrorism? Who knows.

And then, of course, there was the explosion of conflict on my own campus, at the end of the fall semester. A few weeks after September 11, the Fox News O'Reilly Factor producers invited computer-science professor Sami Al-Arian onto the show, he thought to discuss civil rights and what he alleged were his interfaith efforts. The red label on the screen for the country was terrorism at usf?, and the phones were ringing off the hook in the president's office for weeks. Al-Arian was given paid leave, there was extraordinary pressure to fire him for pretextual reasons, the faculty became disillusioned with our administration's attacks on academic freedom, and the shadow of the controversy dogged the campus for months. But that's another story, about which I had a hand in explaining in an article co-written with colleague Greg McColm. Surprises indeed.

And one more: I didn't expect to go on for so long. We all have our recollections and perspectives now.

August 9, 2006

More on online encyclopedias

Prithvi Datta Chandra Shobhi has the same question I have about encyclopedias: why still deadtree?

August 8, 2006

Domesday and depressing news

The Domesday Book is online, a wonderful boon to European history teachers everywhere. And New York teen Kiri Davis has replicated Kenneth Clark's 1940s doll work in today's Manhattan, with depressing results. I hope it sparks additional discussion about the work of the Clarks and the controversy over the relationship between social science and the legal system. Hat tips to Tom Smith and Bruce Adelsohn, respectively.

August 4, 2006

Educational historiography on Youtube

I've taken a few pieces from the historiography of common-school reform, mashed it up a famous pop-culture icon, and ruined it, but for instructional purposes. Oh, yes, and I've uploaded it to YouTube. See Version 1 starring Orestes Brownson as well as Version 2 starring Horace Mann (each 73 seconds long). Now, if only someone would make the movies to go along with the introductory text.

Background: several years ago, when I was retooling my only online course, I wanted to establish more social presence (a word I learned from Brookfield and Preskill's Discussion as a Way of Teaching, even though I didn't know that term then). So I figured I needed to use a bit of creativity in creating online presentations, something with a bit of humor in ways that could still get points across. So, for a presentation discussing some aspects of common-school reform, I used Blender software to create movie introductions to capture very different perspectives on common-school reform. It certainly worked in terms of getting my students' attention, though I didn't have time or any ideas on background music (and borrowing from the John Williams score was right out, obviously), so I just talked over the images.

The presentation files were humongous and this upcoming semester, I'm trying to be a little lighter with them, using one of the commercial software packages for turning presentations into Flash packages—that way, the bulk of the file is the audio. But I wanted those text animations! And I wanted some background music. So today, after my daughter came home from school, I downloaded SuperJAM, set up a style within it to create background music that is entirely different from what any viewer would expect but still fits the genre, and melded it to the movies that already existed. A little bit more work, and now it's available for anyone who wants to be a victim of my "creativity." Bwahahaha!

August 2, 2006

The historians' full employment act

ACTA has sent a letter to Arizona Governor Napolitano urging that the state require that undergraduates take history, something that is discussed in an Arizona Republic article today as well as in an ACTA blog entry. As any history department website in Texas will tell you, Texas has a core curriculum, and if I remember correctly, the Texas undergrad history requirement goes back further than the 1997 core-curriculum law (though I couldn't find the specifics in a quick search).

As an historian and union member, I have absolutely no problem with this requirement. It's the historian's full-employment act, if it's replicated across the country, and we all know that given the oversupply of Ph.D.'s, we need something like that. Since we're most oversupplied with Americanists, who can argue? Too bad history occurs in other countries, too, so the requirement might distort what departments look like—less intellectual diversity might result (though I'm sure Timothy Burke and others can point out several ways in which a U.S. history requirement can be structured to give a variety of perspectives on our North American past).

On the other hand, the emphasis on a fairly rigid notion of a core curriculum is—er, eum—being ahistorical, as Lawrence Levine's The Opening of the American Mind points out. Anyone know if there's evidence that having a core curriculum, or a history requirement, means that graduating Texas students know more history than their peers in other states? Or what actually happens in Texas these days, undergraduate-wise, that's different with the core curriculum? Any creative interpretations? I'm sure we're going to hear the reductionist debate on this, but I'd like there to be something a bit more substantive on the ground.

July 13, 2006

The welfare state includes the military

I had a discussion with a doctoral student this afternoon about a directed-reading course for the fall, and I was explaining that the welfare state reached across different organizations and sectors. When financial advisors explained about the three-legged retirement support structure (Social Security, pensions, and private savings), they're talking about welfare. When we say that education is a way to address poverty, we're talking about a welfare state.

In many ways, the military has functioned as part of the welfare state. Patrick Kelly's Creating a National Home: Building the Veterans' Welfare State 1860-1900 (1997) lay the groundwork for that analysis after Theda Skocpol's work, Penn State historian Jennifer Mittelstadt is researching the All-Volunteer Force as a welfare-state component, and Barbara Ehrenreich has critiqued the military from a welfare-state standpoint, and there's Tristram Coffin's The Armed Society (1964, I think?), which discusses militarism as a welfare state.

But I don't know of anyone (other than Ehrenreich, and she only in a cursory way) has raised the question of how the attack on the various parts of the American welfare state has affected the military. As Joel Spring argued 30 years ago, military policy from WW2 through the late 1960s was a de facto national education policy, given the structure of deferments, G.I. benefits, and the changing training and education requirements. But G.I. benefits are no longer as generous as they once were, the activation of the reserves for the last few wars and the Iraqi occupation has drained the resources of thousands of families, and I wonder how many soldiers' families are eligible for food stamps. A great study for someone who wants to take it on: How have the last five years reshaped the military's role in the American welfare state? And for the rest of the citizenry, it's a fairly important question, too.

June 25, 2006

Online encyclopedias, but not wikis

Scott McLemee has joined Sage Storrs, Jeremy Boggs, Alun Salt, and Roy Rosenzweig in discussing both how to teach students how to read Wikipedia skeptically and also how to colonize Wikipedia and other open-source secondary materials. I will leave the teaching angle alone for the moment and head directly to the question of what we write and how.

As the editor of an online journal, I am biased in favor of open access, and one of the frustrating aspects of the Historical Statistics of the United States—Millennial Edition (HSUS-ME) is their hard-copy business model, which relied on an old assumption: you get an agreement with a publisher for an expensive project, maybe enough of an advance to pay contributors a pittance, and then sell hard copies to libraries at exhorbitant rates to justify the project. Cambridge University Press added on a pay-per-view model. For example, if you head towards the historical statistics on education, you get asked for $6 for 48-hour access.

For many, that's not a bad deal. Pay, zip in, suck up the tables while you have access, and go. But think of who this leaves out: schoolkids whose parents don't have acces to $6. You want to give students the sense that history is beyond their reach? Put things behind a subscription wall. Fortunately, the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress, along with dozens of other sites, show that there is a way to provide access to historical materials (and I consider statistics part of that—see the Integrated Public Use Microdata Sample website for an example—their business model is "get grants; do work; make it available to the world for free"). For goodness' sake: many of the source materials for HSUS-ME come from the Census Bureau and other agencies which throw terabytes of data online for public consumption. And HSUS-ME is behind a subscription wall? To quote from a Christine Lavin song, "What were they thinking?"

But that's blood under the bridge (to quote a German professor from many years ago at another institution). I hope that the HSUS-ME is the very last semi-definitive compilation of statistics that operates under this model.

So, from a philosophical and professional standpoint, I'm in favor of open access. And yet I know from my one attempt at contributing to Wikipedia how frustrating collective writing is. Fortunately, there are other options. Online refereed encyclopedias for narrow topics, the reference equivalent to online journals, could allow anyone to submit an article that would be vetted by an editorial board. The versions would be (like Wikipedia) open to comment and discussion, but there would be editorial control. But the wonderful thing about online encyclopedias is that there would be openness to multiple perspectives. If you don't like an article's stance, just write a competing version! And with an online encyclopedia, obsolete articles aren't a problem.

I have my hands full with current obligations, but I'd love for others to run with this one. Go collect enough of an editorial board to run the project, get someone to fund the copyediting if you can (such as scholarly societies), and then visit the Open Journal Systems website (free online-journal system) and see if that might work for you. (I can think of at least two ways to tweak that into an encyclopedia-friendly form.)

June 4, 2006

What I did on my summer vacation

Well, this last week I did something unusual on a vacation. I went to prison...

Sherman Dorn behind bars

More in the extended entry...

Yes, I went to prison—Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, to be exact.

Eastern State Penitentiary, external view, May 2006

When I was a graduate student, the prison was an abandoned site and has since been in the process of reconstruction. When originally opened in 1829, it was one of the models of the new penal-reform movement, with isolated cells...

reconstructed hallway in Eastern State Penitentiary

... and inside the one-person chambers ....

bed in reconstructed cell at Eastern State Penitentiary

... one could find the things that prisoners would do to focus their mind on repentance and rehabilitation:

table in reconstructed cell at Eastern State Penitentiary

As many social historians have documented, this rehabilitative ideal quickly deteriorated, and Eastern State eventually became a mass warehouse, with long hallways in the cell blocks...

hallway in Eastern State Penitentiary, May 2006

... and where the cells were no longer just for one person and where, if you were really lucky, you had two skylights instead of one.

cell ceiling in Eastern State Penitentiary, May 2006

And so one should not be too surprised that the great move for rehabilitative prisons (perhaps best known through Jeremy Bentham's work, or maybe Foucault's arguments about Bentham) ended up being far from rehabilitative. I only visited for an hour or two...

Sherman Dorn behind another set of bars at Eastern State Penitentiary

May 29, 2006

Memorial Day and contingency

The uncle I never met, Leo Dorn, was the second child of Philip and Gertrude Dorn, about seven years younger than Murray and seven years older than Al (my father). As an adolescent, he never really got along with my grandfather, and he enlisted in WW2 in part as a way to get away from home.

He died March 25, 1945, in Belgium. I don't think there was a well-known battle there (the allies had recently crossed the Rhine after capturing the Remagen bridge). He was buried in Henri-Chapelle, Belgium, at the American Cemetery. My father was 12, almost 13, and my uncle was in his 20s at the time. Leo's death dramatically changed my father's life.

Not only did my father lose a brother that day, but my grandfather (along with several other family members) became determined not to see my father enlist and put himself in the same type of danger. Being a good student, my father was pushed to enroll in college (the first in his family) and go to medical school. At the time, college attendance and my father's later enrollment in medical school deferred his military service. (He entered the Air Force in the late 1950s and served his tour as the base pediatrician in the incredibly dangerous hotspot of the world, George AFB in Victorville, California, where my oldest sister was born.) The spouse of one of his relatives, Bernie Annenberg, had recommended the University of Vermont, where my father met my mother (and later attended medical school).

Sometimes on Memorial Day (and Veterans Day), we forget the ambiguities and contingencies involved in military service, even in a war clearly thought of as necessary at the time. Not all motives in joining were pure, and the deaths of soldiers had complex effects on their families. I'm sure my uncle was patriotic and joined in part because he wanted to do something for the war, but it was also to get away from his father. It's quite possible that my father would have gone to college without Leo's death, but my grandfather became contrite about his childrearing and how he valued (or undervalued) his sons in part because of it. I knew nothing about it when I was a young child. I only knew my grandfather as a doting man who loved us and whose enduring trait was always having a bag of M&Ms when he came (something that irritated my mother no end at the time—until she became a doting grandmother). And I knew my Uncle Bernie (Annenberg) as a retired high school science teacher who took the Radio Shack toy method of teaching us about science (oh, and taking some moderately explosive chemicals into my fourth-grade class to make a "volcano"). (Bernie Annenberg also taught me how to ride a bike, in part by trying to convince me that a spinning bicycle wheel would make a bike hard to fall over on its side—ever the science teacher.) Not until after their deaths did I learn of what happened before and after Leo's death to make possible my father's college attendance at the University of Vermont, his meeting my mother, and ultimately my own existence.

February 14, 2006

Vicarous Johari/Nohari

The Johari window meme has been circulating among the blogs of personal friends and my academic blogroll, so I'm going to twist it a bit: Johari for historical figures! This is more a matter of comparing shallow impressions, but isn't this what the internets are for?

So let's start with Lincoln, since there's plenty of material for both a Johari and Nohari. (View the current results for the Johari and Nohari.)

December 21, 2005

Lincoln and Bush

Caleb McDaniel has a wonderful post this morning about executive power and history.

December 11, 2005

Social policy and history

And here's what you get with the failure to know a bit of social history:

"You didn't have a massive immigration of people who were retaining allegiance to another nation and maybe coming here temporarily and then going back," [Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence Director John] Eastman said. "In 1868, you didn't make that trip across the Atlantic twice."

This excerpt from an L.A. Times story on proposals to remove birthright citizenship just boggles the mind. Of course you had circular migration 100 years ago, even among Eastern European Jews. See for example Mark Wyman's survey of historical circular migration in the U.S., Round Trip to America: The Immigrants Return to Europe, 1880-1930 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993).

The proposal is silly on a number of other grounds, among which include the claim that one of the motivations for illegal immigration is to make sure your child is born in the U.S., has citizenship, and thus can sponsor you for citizenship when she or he reaches adulthood. As the conservative Manhattan Institute's fellow Tamar Jacoby told the reporter, "I have never met a poor person who has his wife walk across the desert at eight months pregnant so they can wait 21 years to be sponsored by their child."

But it may be attached to various legislation because of our everpresent society-wide ambivalence about immigration and the xenophobia that always bubbles underneath the surface.

December 9, 2005

Punished for speaking your home language

A 16-year-old who speaks English also speaks his parents' language and is suspended from school for speaking his home language in the hallway, not in class. A nightmare from the early 20th century? No. Today's Kansas City-area schools. Fortunately, the superintendent of the district rescinded the punishment, but civil-rights advocates are still fuming, and rightly so. This has nothing to do with the language of instruction and everything to do with the politics of language.

November 30, 2005

Joann Robinson and E.D. Nixon

Tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of Rosa Parks' staying seated on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus. Since her death, journalists should have had a chance to absorb some of the lesser-known details of her life and the boycott. In particular, I hope that the commemorations honor the contributions of Joann (JoAnn?) Gibson Robinson and Edgar Daniel Nixon. Robinson was a teacher at Alabama State College and head at the time of the Women's Political Council and had been a victim of city bus drivers before. Nixon was a labor leader and head of the state Voters League and NAACP. Nixon advised the Women's Political Council in their preplanning for a boycott, and it was the WPC who decided not to start the boycott when other women had been arrested on city buses earlier in 1955.

I'd love to have been a fly on the wall when the ministers were meeting that day when Nixon and Robinson convinced them to lead a long-term organization: All right, these women and E.D. say we need a leader. Martin, you're going to be our leader, because you've only been here a short time, and it'll cost the rest of us dearly if we have to escape town. I know that's not precisely what happened, but I also know the myth's not quite right, either.

Robinson did write a memoir in the 1980s. Does anyone know if and where she's living today? She was born in 1912 and would be in her 90s.

See the MLK Papers online entries for Robinson and the boycott

November 26, 2005

Family myths, redux

Judith Warner's column Kids Gone Wild in tomorrow's NY Times is another complaint about the decline of the American family, this time dressed up as concerns about declining parenting. She briefly acknowledges that children have always been seen as unruly and then blithely ignores what she wrote. If children were somehow unruly both before this current spate of malparenting and during, then does that mean that parenting doesn't matter?

I'm not going to excuse poor parenting, but where were the editors of the Times in publishing this anecdotal pablum?

June 1, 2005


So the news today is filled with the revelation that former FBI No. 2 Mark Felt was Woodward and Bernstein's Deep Throat, the anonymous source for much of their Watergate coverage. I expect that we'll first see the lionization of Felt for being a whistleblower. Regardless of the putative motivation (in one version, revenge at Nixon for having targeted the FBI), Felt helped unravel a conspiracy to suppress an investigation of a political crime. I wonder how soon will come discussion of the rest of Felt's record—his work as J. Edgar Hoover's right-hand man, the person in charge of internal inspections who raised no ethical questions about COINTELPRO, his conviction related to one COINTELPRO operation (against the Weathermen), and the pardon by Reagan. Does his service as Deep Throat mitigate his undermining of American democracy through COINTELPRO? But Felt's record isn't the only story of redemption in popular consciousness this month. There's Anakin Skywalker, after all, ...

Discovering that my children don't remember anything about the original Star Wars (you know, "Episode IV," originally released in 1977), I showed the DVD to them last week and discovered a few uncomfortable things, like Princess Leia's complete failure to mourn the deaths of millions on the planet where she grew up. But let's skip the fairy-tale elements here and get to the myth of the broader Star Wars story-arc (see Alex Soojung-Kim Pang's commentary for the best critique of Lucas's general movie-making): The six films together are far more about Anakin than about either Luke, Obi-Wan, or the political struggle in the SW universe. As many others have noted, Anakin is a tragic figure, falling into the depths of savagery before being redeemed at the last minute, quite literally, in Return of the Jedi.

But is it really the saving of his soul or whatever is akin to that? Anakin's redemption in SW VI: RotJ consists primarily of his heaving Palpatine to his death to save Luke. Given his role in millions of deaths in the prior twenty years or so, seeing Anakin as redeemed would be like the celebration of Lavrenti Beria if he had killed Stalin in the early 50s. (Please, don't tell me in comments that he really did! I'm not a Soviet historian and don't wish to be swamped with various conspiracy theories. The question would still remain.) Without having seen SWIII, I think I can safely say that Anakin/Vader was responsible for much of the harm of the Empire in Lucas's mythical long-ago, far-away galaxy. One good moment doesn't wipe out hundreds of crimes.

In history, though, there is a broader question: is redemption individual or collective? I recall more than twenty years ago a similar storyline about redemption when George Wallace was elected Alabama's governor one last time in 1982, after announcing he had become born-again and apologized to civil rights leaders for his recalcitrant segregationist stance in the 1960s. Yes, it is true that Wallace turned himself around in many ways. But the redemption story ignored in 1982 was that the American political system had been redeemed in significant ways with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Facing newly-enfranchised Black voters, a whole bunch of white segregationists suddenly discovered religion (or at least civil rights). Some of them were heartfelt. Some, like Strom Thurmond, you really couldn't quite believe. Some, like Jesse Helms, betrayed the lip service to civil rights with their actions (the "white hands" ads in Helms' first campaign against Harvey Gantt). But the true story of George Wallace's election in 1982 was the redemption of a region (and a country), not just of one individual.

Whether Mark Felt's whistleblowing as Deep Throat is a similarly broad redemption is much more questionable. But we're taken with stories of individual redemption—thus the appeal of the SW movies and what I expect will be an eventual journalistic judgment that Felt really was redeemed by his maybe-not-so-well-intentioned semi-whistleblowing.