The last two months of every year is what your editor calls silly season, when otherwise-sensible people end up writing less-than-sensible things. This is why your editor won’t devote many words to the latest defense of overusing out-of-school suspensions and other harsh traditional school discipline by Thomas B. Fordham Institute President Michael Petrilli. Doing so means giving the data-free claptrap more credence than the unserious piece deserves. Considering that I have torn apart Petrilli’s earlier arguments about the issue so many times before — and has cited decades of evidence to boot — another point-by-point response would just heap on more embarrassment for him.
Nor will I give any more attention than necessary to the shoddy scholarship coming from Fordham last month in the form of a piece by Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless arguing that American public education should return to the racialist practice of ability-tracking because it can supposedly help high-achieving kids from poor and minority backgrounds. The fact that the evidence Loveless cites contradicts his hypothesis (and shows that tracking doesn’t help children at all) should have been enough for the piece to be rejected out of hand. At some point, Loveless has to stop trying to revive a legacy of America’s condemning of poor and minority children with low expectations.
I’m not even going to bother with Rick Hess’ latest defense of preserving Zip Code Education policies (and ultimately, the traditional district model), this time during the Education for Upward Mobility conference held by Fordham last month, and his claim that efforts to expand school choice do little more than allow poor and minority families to evade personal responsibility for raising their children. This is a theme he began last year with a piece in National Review last year arguing that reformers were encouraging irresponsible parenting. Conor P. Williams of New America Foundation responded best to Hess’ sophistry by noting that he fails to admit that the very Zip Code Education laws he is effectively defending actually neuters the ability of all families to do the best for their children by taking away their God-given right to structure education for their kids, a point made on these pages ad nauseam. Given Hess’ penchant for look-at-me contrarianism, his argument deserves no serious consideration.
Yet Petrilli, Loveless, and Hess, through their respective polemics and advocacy for traditionalist thinking, raise an important question: Why do traditionalists and even more-sensible reformers advocate for replicating the failed polices and practices of American public Education’s past and present when we must do better for all of our children?
One of the enduring conflicts, both in the battle over reforming American public education as well as within the school reform movement itself, is that there are some outdated ideas that damage the futures of kids to which some hold on to with dear life. Considering the data on how woeful American public education remains — including 33 percent of all fourth-graders in 2013 were functionally illiterate (along with another 33 percent reading at basic levels of literacy) — and that one out of every two dropouts and high school grads without higher ed training aren’t in the workforce, you would think it would be hard to justify holding on to nearly every policy, practice, and institution within it.
Yet as Petrilli, Loveless, and Hess demonstrate in their rhetoric, there are some reformers who are as keen on preserving the worst traditionalist thinking as those opposed to systemic reform. Same is true for some charter school operators such as Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy who have been rightly called out for out-of-school suspension rates that are often as high (if not higher) than those of traditional districts. Same also goes for centrist and liberal reformers who still oppose expanding vouchers and other forms of school choice. And like most traditionalists, they fight vigorously to preserve institutions and practices ultimately because they believe such policies and practices are worth keeping.
This strain of thinking was given some credence this summer when Andy Smarick of Bellwether Education Partners wrote a series of essays asking why the school reform movement seems hostile to movement conservative thinking. One of Smarick’s complaints was that reformers, especially centrist and progressive Democrats within it, are far too disinterested in conserving institutions and policies within public education that may actually have some social and political value. From where Smarick sits, the technocratic approach embraced by many reformers, which can involve tremendous upheaval can lead to “valuable things [being] lost in the process”. From where Smarick sits, reformers should at least think about the reasons why earlier generations put practices and institutions in place before taking them down.
Your editor understands Smarick’s point, at least when it comes to such matters outside of education such as civil liberties. Certainly there are traditions, policies and practices worth preserving because those who came before us, through their hard-earned experience, figured out that some things work best when it comes to fostering liberty, freedom, and civil society. Freedom of speech, for example, protects minority views that may be unpopular in the times in which they are expressed, while freedom of the press allows for media to shed the much-needed antiseptic of sunlight on governments to protect our society and tax dollars. Then there are institutions such as churches and charities, which help foster a humane society from which we all benefit. Not every long-lived idea or institution should be tossed into the ashbin of history.
At the same time, as I noted last July in a critique of one of Smarick’s pieces, preserving traditional ideas and institutions can be as much a flaw as virtue, especially when they perpetuate injustice that is morally and intellectually indefensible. This is because ills, social, educational and otherwise, is often as much a result of bad structure s and approaches that perpetuate human failings. Just as importantly, there is the reality that tradition, like so much else wrought by man, is based on limited human reasoning; the same humility Smarick counsels in favor of preservation also favors change because few ideas and institutions are ever timeless. As famed conservative philanthropist John M. Olin would likely note, because earlier generations don’t have the benefit of data and knowledge that has come since they left this earth, the correct conclusions for their time may be incorrect today (and, with benefit of hindsight, may have been wrong even then).
The blind adherence to tradition, or the democracy of the dead, can often result in people being unwilling to address injustice by those institutions even when it is morally and intellectually justified to do so. More importantly, adhering blindly to traditionalism, especially in American public education, has damaging consequences to all of our children inside of schoolhouses and outside of them. Especially since these practices originate from the state-sanctioned bigotry, racial, ethnic, and religious, that is America’s Original Sin; if anything, these legacy practices can end up perpetuating decades of harm done to children and their communities by earlier laws.
Your editor was reminded of these realities over the past five months as the nation became riveted by matters not immediately connected to the nation’s education crisis: The murder of 43-year-old Eric Garner by New York City police officer Dan Panteleo. The execution of 22-year-old John Crawford, who was shopping in a Walmart, by cops in Beavercreek, Ohio. The slaying of 18-year-old Michael Brown by now-former Ferguson, Mo. cop Darren Wilson. And the execution of 12-year-old Tamir Rice (who was outside playing with a toy gun, as any child would do) by Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann.
Their state-sanctioned murders, along with the grand jury verdicts in the cases of Garner, Crawford, and Brown letting the officers off scot-free, and the mountains of data on how police officers are often allowed to get away with killing unarmed men (especially black men) with impunity, were reminders that reforming criminal justice systems is as important in addressing the nation’s shameful legacies as it is in preserving our civil liberties today. The use-of-force laws that allow police officers to get away with murder this century are no different in effect and substance than the fugitive slave and Jim Crow laws that effectively gave license to murder of black men in the previous two.
If it is important to abandon criminal justice practices that end up making courts and police departments more harmful than helpful to the communities they are supposed to serve, it is doubly important to ditch policies and practices within American public education that help not one child and end up damaging millions more. Especially since the dysfunction of education’s super-clusters, especially traditional big-city and suburban districts, help foster the very conditions of social and economic decay in the communities they serve. Especially since schools, through practices such as overusing suspensions and overlabeling kids as special ed cases, have become the gateways into criminal justice systems and dependence on the welfare state. [Even Smarick, in his arguments to abandon the traditional district model, admits that the preservation argument, is incredibly flawed when applied to the nation’s education crisis.]
What is clear, in short, is that American public education cannot continue to exist in its current form. This doesn’t mean abandoning the concept of public education, at least as the system of financing high-quality opportunities for children of all backgrounds so that their geniuses are nurtured in order for them to choose their own paths to success and happiness. What it does mean is that the failed policies, practices, and institutions within public education shouldn’t be preserved.
This includes ditching traditional school discipline practices that have been demonstrated to be ineffective in helping children behave themselves, let school operators off the hook for failing to provide intensive reading remediation at the heart of their behavioral struggles, and, in the case of use of restraints and . That the practices perpetuate thinking by those in law enforcement that black, Latino, and Native children are criminals, end up making schools gateways to prison (through referrals to juvenile justice systems and school arrests), and, in the case of seclusion and restraint practices used in special ed ghettos, physically endanger kids, should lead reformers to do all they can to push for abandoning them. There’s no reason why reformers such as Petrilli defend Success Academy and other charter school operators for overusing suspensions and expulsions when they can and should do better.
It also means abandoning efforts to revive ability-tracking, which along with the comprehensive high school model and special education ghettos, did little more than allow teachers and other adults to deny poor and minority children college-preparatory curricula they need and deserve. That ability-tracking is a legacy of early 20th-century eugenicist thinking that black children, along with those from immigrant households, we’re less-capable of academic learning than white Anglo-Saxon children should be enough to render it intellectually illegitimate. Folks such as Loveless, who know both the history and the evidence of the damage ability-tracking has done, should not advocate for its revival.
This especially means that we must put an end to school zones, school residency laws, and other Zip Code Education policies that keep families, especially those from poor and minority households, from choosing high-quality opportunities for their children. Not only do such laws keep parents from acting responsibly as they should, they are also another legacy of America’s racial, ethnic, and religious bigotries. By no means can Hess defend policies that originate with such racialist and religiously bigoted laws such as Connecticut’s Black Law (which banned black families from outside of the Nutmeg State to attend a private school operated by legendary teacher Prudence Crandall) and Blaine Amendments (passed by states to stifle the growth of Catholic and other parochial schools).
Reformers should not be in the business of defending policies and practices that should no longer continue. That Petrilli, Loveless, and Hess (along with their colleagues) do so is just plain unacceptable. They should stop, just stop, with this not-so-intellectual madness.