February 21st, 2015


School Daze

In 1986, I was admitted to the doctoral program in Secondary Education: Curriculum and Instruction at ISU. My admission would have been unthinkable in previous years, since I didn't have the assumed academic and professional background (no Education degree, no classroom teaching experience). But this was the 1980s, and a wave of reform was breaking over the education establishment. Through publications like A Nation at Risk (1983), published by the US Department of Education under Bill Bennett, and Mortimer Adler's The Paideia Proposal (1982), critics of public schools were articulating both a need for changing the way we do school and a vision of what schools should be.

By the time I graduated with my Ph.D. in 1991, the School of Education at ISU had gone through a curriculum review as part of their accreditation process which virtually guaranteed that nobody like me (or the few other oddballs in our programs) could ever be admitted again. At the same time, the Usual Suspects in the area of Education -- the gurus who had once headlined every Edjumacation conference and written all the books that insiders read, and who had been discredited and sidelined by the school reform movement -- had now successfully captured the mantle of "reform" and were now peddling the same old nostrums under the reform banner! The flying wedge of reform had hit the center of the Education establishment's front line, penetrated it deeply, and then simply been absorbed and eliminated. The effect was almost as if the reform movement had never been.

My point is that those who set out to reform public schooling face a daunting task. Hit it as hard as you like, the Way Things Are will simply absorb your blow. Alternatively, seeking to rise to power within the establishment with a view to reforming it is like joining the Borg: you will be assimilated. And any efforts that actually impact the system will not simply be futile; you will be opposed, vigorously. Kicking a hornets' nest doesn't compare to the angry swarms you will stir up in the form of teachers and their allies, who will depict you as heartless child-haters, greedy corporatists, and Visigoths plundering the treasures of civilization. If the reformer is suprised at the vigor of the response one meets, one shouldn't be. As John Jay Chapman wrote in Practical Agitation (1900), "People who love soft methods and hate iniquity forget this, —that reform consists in taking a bone from a dog."

All of which brings us down to the present controversies over public schools in Indiana and the unseemly brawl between Gov. Mike Pence and State Supt. of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz. The origins of this brouhaha really lie in the previous administration of Gov. Mitch Daniels and State Supt. Tony Bennett. There, an attempt at serious change was made (whether it constituted a "reform" or not, I reserve judgment). It provoked a vigorous response, as it surely should have been expected to. But Supt. Bennett had fudged a number of things and was caught in some shady favor granting, and this meant that he couldn't retain sufficient support to fend off the flying monkeys of Glenda Ritz who upset him in the 2012 election. Ritz, flushed with victory, set out to roll back the barbarians. Which was only to be expected, except that Mitch Daniels had been succeeded by Mike Pence, who had the same general reform agenda and was moreover willing to play hardball. It's been one ugly episode after another ever since here in Hoosier-land.

My inbox is full of articles and impassioned screeds, often by-lined "Republicans for Ritz" or "Democrats for Pence" as each attempts to represent themselves as the adults in the room over against the petulant children on the other side. Who's right? Neither, in my opinion. But that's just me.

Let us grant that the way we do school is just plain awful. This is not a criticism of the many fine teachers I know, but the system as a whole is in drastic need of reform. But reforming it is almost impossible (see above). So, what do you do? Just scrap the whole thing and start over? Yeah, try getting that through the General Assembly. So the Governor and his minions are trying whatever they can think of to crack the system open and get it to respond appropriately. I think much of what they want to do is misguided, but I understand the impulse to do something. Meanwhile, Glenda the Good Witch defending her tower of the Way Things Have Always Been is not a sufficient response to their attempts at reform. But I predict that when the dust settles, things will be pretty much the way they always were, but with more paperwork. *sigh*

"They make a desert, and call it peace." -- Tacitus

"Mountains will labor, only to give birth to a silly mouse." -- Horace

"Of course we're lost! But we're making such good time, let's keep on going!" -- Brother Juniper

School Reform

Okay, Art, so you've made your point. The schools are a mess, and nobody up in Indy knows what to do about it. You're so smart, what would you do about it? Well, I'm glad you asked. Herewith is my cold-eyed analysis of the problem of school reform.

1. The basic problem is curricular. "What knowledge (skills, etc.) is of most worth?" This is a value problem, not a methodological one. Our society has dumped the old consensus on this, and has stumbled or been pushed into the present consensus. Now, if society were to change its values -- call it revival, call it renaissance, call it what you will -- then the schools would come to reflect those values, willy-nilly. In the meantime, we are living through an Age of Dumbth, in which mediocrity is okay.

2. Can the current public school system fix this? No. The system is designed for the results it is getting. As one school of thought in Education puts it, "the whole school IS the curriculum." That means that meeting the schoolyard bully, adapting to bus schedules, coping with cafeteria food, and the Senior Prom are equally valid as measures of what schools produce as language and math skills.

In fact, education is a mere byproduct of the schools as we have them. School is a totalizing experience run by an entrenched bureaucracy. It doesn't really care what it produces, so long as it exercises control over the daily life of the children in its care and has the resources it demands. The command mentality reigns. Ideology and petty rules are the order of the day. The many good teachers and caring administrators I know might well be offended by that characterization, but the fact that they humanize the experience of public school for many students does not change the fact that public schools are capable of monstrous abuse and stifling conformity. They complain about it, too -- until an outsider mentions it, whereupon they close ranks against the boy who remarks on the Emperor's clothing.

In the meantime, requiring more days of school, spending more money, and testing! TESTING! TESTING! are all a mammoth waste of time. None of these can change the system, and the system can only produce what it was designed to produce.

3. The obvious way to correct the flaccid performance of a bloated system is through competition. If the public schools had real competition, they would have to reform themselves and produce different results in order to keep their customers (the families who send their children to school). This would require the existence of valid alternatives to the public schools in a community. Currently, parochial schools and homeschooling are the main alternatives, and they are not available everywhere, nor do they provide all the social goods that public schools claim to provide. They are also designed to be "for our group only." They really aren't trying to attract anybody but those who identify with their particular subcultures.

Real competition would also require allowing public schools to fail, that is, face going out of business unless they do a better job. Allowing a school to fail would be seen as a dereliction of public duty on the part of the State government, however. Only if there were sufficient alternatives in a community which could absorb the lion's share of the public school students in the event of public school failure could one imagine the State letting a school go bust.

4. The State may indeed recognize the need for competition; nevertheless, it has a conflict of interest in creating competition. Public schools as we have them were designed to be a State monopoly. How, then, can the State create alternative systems without disowning the public system? The proffered solution -- "charter schools" -- aren't really a separate system. They're just a favored (and resented) branch of the existing public monopoly.

Probably the only way to create true competition without disowning responsibility for the public system would be a thorough-going Voucher system, in which the State would quantify the cost of education per pupil and grant that much per pupil to each family, to be spent on any schooling that meets minimal criteria. This would force public and private school systems to compete directly for education dollars. If the vast majority of private schools competing for the vouchered dollars were religious schools, there would of course be a lot of nasty things said and legal challenges made about separation of church and state, so the amounts granted in vouchers would have to be sufficient to attract those who would form secular private schools to compete for them. Meanwhile, doing away with school districts would allow families free choice among all the public schools within driving distance of their home.

5. And what sort of things might quality alternative schools model? Well, curricular excellence, for one thing, which is the whole point. But also, alternative schools could provide: smaller campuses, using more community resources rather than building fortresses with everything under one roof; a greater proportion of teachers on staff and a smaller proportion of administrators; a less stressful and better disciplined social environment.

And what would one give up in choosing a quality alternative school? The biggie is that smaller schools could not offer the big sports and extracurricular programs that so define our public schools. They would have less social clout, too. And there would be fewer prospects for promotion within the system, because there would be fewer administrative and specialist positions. Still, I think many of the social goods provided by community sports teams and extracurriculars could be detached from schools -- as they are in Europe -- and all schools would be the better for being spared the distractions of running so many non-educative programs.

6. Or we could just renew our entire society and change what it values. (Return to No. 1, repeat as necessary.)

I will go up to the altar of God

As many who know me are well aware, I hate to cancel things. I do, of course. Sometimes, things just fall apart. Sometimes, key elements aren't ready. And sometimes, weather intervenes. But I try really hard to meet expectations, keep promises, promote faithfulness -- and that means, I don't cancel things just because something else came up.

As far as worship goes, I tell people that if the weather constitutes a danger to you, you should stay home! We don't want you trying to do what is not safe to do. But if you would venture out to go shopping or see a movie or run errands or go to work on a day like today, then you might as well schlep down to church and give God your worship.

I've wondered why some folks are so quick to pull the plug on things, especially worship. Perhaps there's the feeling that it wouldn't be very rewarding if only a few people could make it. But that assumes something about the value of what we do that makes it dependent on how many people come. That seems kind of skewed to me. Perhaps there's the feeling that worship is like a club meeting, and the convenience of the club members (or the key members) is the dominant factor. Or that it's not worth it to heat the building unless we get a certain level of response (in attendance or giving or something).

I guess my thinking goes back to the old idea that the Church upholds the universe by offering our sacrifice of praise to God. The Church's performance of worship is not just a product we offer to the people who come, it's something the people who come do for God and their neighbor! And even if only a few manage to keep it going, then we all together kept it going! Your inability to come today is okay, because somebody else made it, who might not be able to come tomorrow. Together, we will serve God, both in difficult circumstances and easy ones.

In the ancient Kingdom of Northumbria, there was a monastery, in which all the inhabitants died of a terrible plague except two: the aged abbot and a 14-year-old boy. The abbot had lived his whole life as part of the community that offered the round of monastic prayer at stated hours of every day. It grieved him that he and one novice could not form a sufficient congregation to do all the monastic hours, but he bowed to necessity: they would do a limited form of prayer in their reduced circumstances. But so adept was the boy at performing the liturgy of the hours, that soon the abbot determined that they would not omit any of the services! The old man and the boy together kept up the entire round of prayers until the community grew again and the monastic choir was full once more. That 14-year-old boy who was so smart and so devoted was ordained a Deacon at the unheard-of age of 19, then later a Priest. His name was Bede, and he became the foremost scholar of his age in the whole of Europe.

I think, would I have just punted if there were only two of us, and a huge task to be done for an indefinite period? Who would have cared? Why not just slough it off and wait for reinforcements. But oh, the joy to be able to say, We didn't let you down, Lord. We kept it up. And even if it would have made no big difference in the world outside, it sure showed what that old man and that boy were made of. And I want to be like Bede, in so many ways.

See you in church, I hope!