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The Long Crusade:
Profiles in Education Reform, 1967–2014

Wolters [1]2,708 words

Raymond Wolters
The Long Crusade: Profiles in Education Reform, 1967–2014 [2]
Whitefish, Montana: Washington Summit Publishers, 2015

In 2009, historian Raymond Wolters published Race and Education, 1954–2007 [3], a book remarkable for eschewing moral sermonizing about desegregation in favor of recording its actual effects, both positive and (more often) negative. The Long Crusade, just published by Washington Summit Publishers, is a kind of companion volume to Race and Education, dealing with the thought of educational reformers in the decades since desegregation. It is divided into four main sections, covering 1) latter day progressives, 2) “back to basics” reformers, 3) Teach for America and its offshoots, and 4) skeptics (including racial realists).

The most emblematic, and probably the most influential, of Wolters’s progressives is Jonathan Kozol, whose books have been a fixture of American schools of education for decades: the author mentions one ed. student of the 1990s being made to read the same Kozol book for three separate classes.

Jonathan Kozol came to prominence in 1967 Death at an Early Age: The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools, a book that purported to describe his experiences during a year of teaching elementary school in the city. The book begins with a portrait of Stephen, “an indescribably mild and unmalicious” eight-year-old Black boy who suffered beatings not only at home but in school, where Kozol’s colleagues sadistically used rattan canes on the children. Stephen made “delightful drawings” in which “he elaborated, amended, fiddled with and frequently added to . . . pictures which he had copied out of comic books.” “Garbage!” cries the White art teacher, who approved only “the neatest and most accurate reproductions of the original drawings.” She lectured the Black students that “these are the kinds of pictures that the children who came to this school used to do here [i.e., when it was still majority-White]. You children couldn’t do it.” Another teacher pointed to children on the playground and said: “Those are the animals and this is the zoo.” One of Kozol’s colleagues expressed his belief that teaching disadvantaged Black children was a hopeless cause, and the chairman of the school committee declared, “We have no inferior education in our schools. What we have been getting is an inferior type of student.” In brief, the book’s message was that “a powerful anti-Negro prejudice permeates the entire Boston school system.”

A number of reviewers expressed skepticism of some of Kozol’s horror stories, and Boston’s public school superintendent angrily denied that rattan canes were ever used on pupils, but the public ate the book up: two million copies of Death at an Early Age were sold, and it won a National Book Award. Stephen, by the way, ended up doing 20 years for murdering a man confined to a wheelchair; Kozol attributed this to his growing awareness of social inequality in America.

Whatever the deeper causes involved, the publication of Kozol’s exposé coincided with a broad shift in American thinking about education. In Wolters’s words,

after Death at an Early Age, the next generation of teachers was steeped in the importance of caring for minority students and cultivating their self-esteem. . . . One survey indicated that in 1965 high school principals ranked “development of positive self-concept and good human relations” seventh of eight educational goals. Twelve years later, “the same objective was second of ten.”

In the early 1990s, Rita Kramer (Ed School Follies, 1991) found American colleges of education bristling with warm, fuzzy words like caring, supportive, sensitive, empathy, and feelings; while such old-fashioned terms as skills, training, and discipline were quite definitely out of fashion. Almost everywhere, as one Stanford professor wrote, ed. schools were committed to “cooperation over competition . . . democratic decision-making, social equality . . . multiculturalism, and internationalism.” It was as if Jonathan Kozol had been given carte blanche to redesign the nation’s ed. school curricula. As his ideas became mainstream, Kozol’s view of teachers softened considerably; by 2005 he was telling an interviewer that “Public school teachers are my favorite people.”

Kozol’s concerns later shifted to what he saw as funding inequities. In Savage Inequalities (1991), his most influential book, he

described how inner-city schools in five American cities differed from the best urban and suburban schools in funding, amenities provided, and educational standards by comparing some of the worst schools in Camden, Chicago, East St. Louis, New York, and Washington with the best schools in the wealthiest nearby suburbs.

Since public schools are funded largely from local property taxes, the amenities they offer depend largely on the value of real estate in their vicinity. This can mean that schools in poor neighborhoods receive less money, although Wolters notes that many urban areas contain enough valuable commercial property to make up for low housing prices. Kozol, however, favors replacing this system with funding based on a steeply graduate income tax and government redistribution from wealthy to poor areas.

Many experts were unconvinced. Sociologist James Coleman found substantial equality in the funding of majority White and majority Black schools as early as 1966, and even the poorest school Kozol described—in East St. Louis, Illinois—received more funding per pupil than the state average. But Kozol did not consider this enough: “Equality does not mean equal funds for unequal needs. . . . If funds were allocated according to the real needs of children, . . . New York City would get $15,000 [per pupil] a year,” and the wealthiest suburbs could “get by on $7,000.”

A number of studies have indicated that even massive spending does not necessarily improve the educational achievement of low-income students, but Kozol—in addition to not having read them—dismisses such studies as disingenuous rationalizations meant “to justify why the immense resources [of America] should go not to the child in the greatest need but to the child of the powerful and well born.”

Savage Inequalities was featured on the cover of Publishers Weekly, endorsed by Al Gore and Bill Clinton, and sold 300,000 copies within four years. The book even inspired lawsuits. Civil rights lawyers sought to persuade judges to move beyond equal funding and order the extra funding allegedly required to provide “adequate” public education for students who had suffered the disadvantages associated with living in poverty. Some of these lawsuits were successful, others not.

One effect of improved funding was to undermine Black support for integration. Many Black parents did not see the point of bussing for racial integration once their children’s neighborhood schools were being fairly funded. Kozol, however, saw no difference between de facto non-integration due to residential housing patterns and the state-mandated segregation which had prevailed in the South before Brown. His 2005 book, Shame of the Nation, aimed to inspire

an all-out struggle . . . an onslaught on apartheid schooling. If it takes new turmoil to bring that about . . . if it takes people marching in the streets and other forms of adamant disruption of the governing civilities . . . these are prices we should be prepared to pay.

Judging by the response, most Americans are happy to consider integration a cause from a bygone era.

The second section of The Long Crusade is devoted to reformers whose approach can be summed up by the slogan “back to basics.” The best known of these is E. D. Hirsch, whose book Cultural Literacy became a best seller in the late 1980s. Hirsch started out as a supporter of progressive education, but changed his mind following what he describes as “a ‘Eureka’ moment” in 1978 when he was involved in testing the reading comprehension of students at a community college in Virginia.

Hirsch discovered that as long as the students were asked to read passages about familiar topics like roommates or automobiles, the students from the community college did almost as well as those from the University of Virginia. But the community college students faltered when they encountered passages that required unfamiliar background information.

Especially revealing was the poor community college student comprehension of a passage describing Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House. Further investigation revealed that their problems with the text had nothing to do with any difficulty in decoding the words, but rather which their complete ignorance of who Lee was, who Grant was, and of the American Civil War in general. University of Virginia students had no difficulty with the passage because they had some idea of the historical context and were not seeing the name Appomattox for the first time.

The community college students’ “basic intelligence was sound,” said Hirsch, but “they hadn’t acquired important general knowledge in their homes and communities, and their schools hadn’t compensated for that.” Successful reading required more than a bare ability to decode; it also required background knowledge. This common background knowledge that authors presuppose in their readers is what Hirsch came to call cultural literacy.

In his 1987 book of that title, Hirsch observed that teaching

the ways of one’s own community has always been and still remains the essence of the education of our children. The weight of human tradition across many cultures supports the view that basic acculturation should be completed by age thirteen. At that age Catholics are confirmed, Jews bar or bat mitzvahed, and tribal boys and girls undergo the rites of passage into the tribe.

Like it or not, Hirsch said, most successful modern Americans as well shared a certain body of cultural information and allusions, and an essential job of elementary and junior high schools remained transmitting these to the rising generation. Unlike educational progressives, Hirsch believed abstract skills such as “critical thinking” cannot be effectively taught unless students are provided with some kind of content to think about.

With the royalties from the sale of Cultural Literacy, Hirsch established the CORE Knowledge Foundation, which published a series of textbooks and provided a consulting service for anyone wishing to set up a “core knowledge school.” The first such school opened in 1991; by 2010, more than a thousand were up-and-running. Students in these schools do well on standardized tests.

The most celebrated school reform movement of the last quarter century has certainly been Teach for America, the brainchild of Princeton University student Wendy Kopp, whose original proposal for creating the organization was contained in her senior thesis. In the fall of her senior year, Kopp had heard from a guest speaker at Princeton that there was “always a shortage of qualified teachers in very low income areas,” and that persons “who haven’t majored in education” were being hired “to meet the need in underprivileged areas.” Kopp envisioned a national corps of teachers modeled on the Peace Corps, using “lots of publicity, a selective application process, [and] active recruitment” to attract only the crème de la crème of American youth, give them a quick lick of training (eight weeks at first, later reduced to five), and unleash them on inner city and poor rural classrooms. The organizations stated goal was to abolish racial gaps in educational achievement. TFA owes much of its success to this ingenious combination of egalitarian goals with crass snobbery. As Kopp put it, “If I had one thing going for me, it was that I understood the mindset of the people we were trying to attract.”

Kopp’s thesis was accepted. She turned it into a formal proposal and mailed it off to the CEOs of America’s wealthiest companies. Within a year, she had reached her $2.5 million target figure and chose the first class of 500 TFA teachers from a pool of 2,500 applicants.

TFA has certainly had its success stories. One example is Aurora, who taught a 4th grade class in Houston. She discovered upon arrival that the pupils were nowhere near the 4th grade proficiency benchmarks. She got the keys to the school from the janitor and began coming in early and staying late every day. She asked the parents to let the students stay late, and even come in on Saturdays. At the end of the year, all her students passed the 4th grade test.

The problem with following up on such success stories, obviously, is that most teachers are not young, single women willing to forego personal lives for the sake of their pupils. As one critic put it, the TFA model is “predicated on a workload that virtually ensures that it cannot scale.” Moreover, not all TFA teachers have had the same experience as Aurora. One member of the first TFA class in 1990 ended up facing a 9th grade filled with “social promotions”: students with severe behavior problems, students who spoke little English, learning disabled students who read at a 3rd grade level, even “petty (and not-so-petty) criminals.” Fights are a daily occurrence at some schools, sometimes breaking out in the middle of lessons. TFA teachers found themselves dealing with children who could not read at all, would not remain at their desks, or (in one memorable case) “screamed like an air-raid siren.” It is hard to see how a Harvard education could prepare one to cope with this, and a number or TFA teachers complained about a lack of support once they had reached the classrooms.

It is impossible to say whether TFA teachers have made any contribution to narrowing the racial achievement gap. Frederick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute describes the research on this point as “entirely ambiguous.” Certainly there has been no change in aggregate scores at the national level.

Of course, there are those who find this state of affairs wholly unsurprising. But such people do not often involve themselves in educational reform; and educational reformers, in turn, do not pay much attention to them. Professor Wolters is to be commended, therefore, for including two chapters on race realism, focusing on the views of John Derbyshire and Robert Weissberg.

As Derbyshire pointed out in a talk to the Black Law School Association at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, any animal species that divides into separate breeding populations will begin to diverge genetically.

If you return after several hundred generations have passed, you will observe that the various traits that characterize individuals of the species are now distributed at different frequencies in the various populations. After a few ten thousands of generations, the divergence will be so great they can no longer cross-breed; and that is the origin of species. [Humans] separated into two parts 50, 60, or 70 thousand years ago. One part remained in Africa; the other crossed into Southwest Asia, then split and re-split until there were human populations living in near-total reproductive isolation from each other in all parts of the world. Different physical types, as well as differences in behavior, intelligence and personality, are exactly what one would expect to observe when scrutinizing these divergent populations.

As Derbyshire pointed out, there is a large academic literature on African American IQ, “practically all of it converging on the fact that African-American mean scores on cognitive tests fall below the white means by a tad more than one standard deviation,” or 15 IQ points. Heredity is almost certainly responsible for some of these disparities, so it is unlikely they could be remedied through social engineering.

One internet writer commented “I don’t see how anyone didn’t tackle this schmuck while he was giving this lecture.” The 140 law students in attendance “had never heard anything like that before,” as one of their professors stated, but Derbyshire recalls that “people were pretty friendly.”

Derbyshire eventually outlined his own proposals for school reform in a column. Up to the age of 12, all kids need to be in school, learning to read, write and calculate, and hearing about basic civics. Beyond that point, however, he thought education made sense only for “smart, studious kids.” But there was another subgroup of adolescence whom Derbyshire estimated “at about thirty percent overall though it cuts differently by race,” for whom schooling past the eighth grade is “a complete waste of time.” Forcing the smart kids to “share classrooms with uninterested, disruptive, ineducable peers is criminal.”

These are only the highlights of a 600 page book. Other chapters discuss Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, Chris Whittle’s for-profit Edison schools, the recent “blame the teachers” fad, America’s premier historian of education Diane Ravitch and Bob Weissberg’s Bad Students, Not Bad Schools. Ray Wolters is a soft-spoken historian who presents even the craziest school reformers’ views objectively and fairly, but his story is structured to lead the reader gently to a more realistic assessment of the possibilities for improving our schools.