Without any question, education is the most thoroughly socialist aspect of American life, and has been for at least the half-century that Traditionalist Teacher has been involved – as student and teacher – in it. It is a virtual monopoly run by the state. Money disappears into it without any real sense of accountability. Its prevailing orthodoxy is collective, rather than individual.
Traditionalist teacher reads many online newsletters and blogs about education, many written by conservatives. This is an often disappointing process, because often analysts who are often correct (in TT’s opinion) on other issues are often so badly wrong on education.
Traditionalist teacher sees five basic errors coming out of right-wing commentators on American education.
- They believe that testing will inspire teachers to work harder, and students to learn more
- Compassionate conservatism requires conservatives to embrace big government principles to try to solve the problems of the schools.
- They see teachers and teachers’ unions as identical in outlook.
- They believe that the battle over schools is primarily about content.
- They believe that a school can be run like a business.
It is unlikely that any single person embraces all of these positions, and Traditionalist Teacher intends no offense toward those who do hold one or more of them. As a traditionalist, TT has a strong bond of sympathy with conservatives. They see a badly broken system and are struggling to find a way that it can be fixed.
Traditionalist Teacher intends to examine all of those positions, and point out the errors within them.
Testing will inspire teachers to work harder and students to learn more.
It is difficult to overestimate the extent to which standardized testing has taken over the classroom. Anya Kamenetz of NPR, certainly no traditionalist, says that her research indicates that students in large urban school districts will take an average of 113 standardized tests over their academic careers. If this number seems unreasonable, consider that many school districts have included standardized testing for many subjects, so that the data between schools can be examined. In the district in which Traditional Teacher works, students will take at least thirty district-wide standardized tests in the three required high school Social Studies classes alone.
Those tests drive instruction, and the jury is still out as to it is being driven in the correct direction. As any teacher knows, writing test questions is extremely difficult, especially if the format of the test is multiple choice. For those who have never done it, the difficulty is not in figuring out what questions are to be asked or what the correct answer is. The difficulty is in designing the three incorrect answers. It requires devising three answers that are not right, but conceivably could be right. That becomes even more difficult if the question requires some sort of thought process through which the student is to deduce the correct answer. That is the reason that so many of these tests ask about names and dates. It is much easier to ask a question about when and where the Pilgrims landed than it is to ask why they were there.
If the teacher writes the question, it is much more likely to reflect the way the material was presented in that classroom and the ability of that group of students. If the question is written by someone who has never seen the students taking the test, the issue is multiplied. To make sure that the student can possibly get the question right, the teacher is forced to alter the instruction to fit the test question.
If the question is about an important point and is phrased in such a way that the students understand it, that might be worth doing. If the question is poorly written and/or spotlights a trivial point, it forces the teacher to cover that material in a way that is less effective than what he/she would normally do – just so that the students will pass the test.
Even worse, a national or regional test might be poorly written, and the students, teachers, and local administrators would never know it. In the name of ‘test security’ students are not allowed to discuss the questions with anyone. The teachers who proctor the test are specifically prohibited from looking at the questions. The test might be well written or poorly written, and nobody but the company that wrote the test would ever know.
This situation does not inspire anyone to work hard. It creates frustration and a sense of resignation that neither student not teacher can do anything to effectively prepare.
Compassionate conservatism requires conservatives to embrace big government principles to try to solve the problems of the schools.
The younger President Bush wanted to be known as the education president. To accomplish this goal, he combined his efforts with those of Senator Ted Kennedy to produce ‘No Child Left Behind.’ I have no doubt that he had a genuine interest in making our schools better. However, I also believe that the education issue gave the Bush people an opportunity to counter the argument that conservatives just run around saying “NO” to everything.
The argument is a simple one. Conservatives spend much of their time pointing out the flaws in progressive utopias. While necessary, that puts conservatives in a position not unlike the teacher that gives a student a C on a paper that he/she “worked really hard on” because it contained a raft of grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors. All of the experts on education (good ‘progressives’ all) agree. Therefore, this issue gave President Bush somewhere that he believed he could safely reach across the aisle and not look like the Grinch who Stole Christmas.
The result was, at best, disappointing. When No Child Left Behind drew the fire of the teachers’ unions, Senator Kennedy took a giant step backward and left President Bush alone to face the bullets. No Child Left Behind became yet another liberal symbol of the way that conservatism did not work. Of course, it wasn’t conservative – but the pundits never let semantics get in the way of a full rant.
As we prepare for the 2016 presidential election, at least two Republican aspirants to the nomination – Jeb Bush and John Kasich – have embraced Common Core. As stated in another post, Traditional Teacher profoundly believes that Common Core has no chance of working. If one of these gentlemen were to be elected, the likely result will be that history will repeat itself and that the failure of Common Core will be blamed on a ‘conservative’ president.
If Traditionalist Teacher may briefly digress at this point, has anyone else noticed that one still sees ‘No Child Left Behind’ cited as a bogeyman in the educational press, and yet President Obama’s equally unsuccessful ‘Race to the Top’ is seldom mentioned? Curious, no?
They see teachers and teachers’ unions as identical in outlook.
This is the most important, but by no means the only, misconception that many conservatives have about classroom teachers. The logic behind this idea is simple – teachers’ unions are set up to help teachers; teachers’ unions are gaining power; therefore, teachers are the beneficiaries of the power of teachers’ unions.
There are several problems with this bit of reasoning, First, while teachers’ unions were set up to improve the pay and working conditions of teachers, in the modern world, they frequently operate on the assumption that electing liberal Democrats helps teachers. The fallacy of this can be seen in examining the plight of teachers in big cities.
Teachers’ unions have been successfully implemented job security and pay based upon seniority. On that basis, many complain – with some justice – that these achievements insure employment for negligent teachers.
Unfortunately, those same commentators seldom if ever look at the conditions faced by competent teachers in those districts.
All too often, the seniority system traps teachers in positions in which their satisfaction gradually decreases until they reach a point in which they think that the school is literally squeezing the life and joy out of them. Leaving is often not an economic option because other school systems’ contracts force them to hire employees with experience at a higher rate based on their experience in other systems. Few schools will pay the extra money to hire teachers with more than ten years experience when they can hire those who have fewer than five years in the field.
The unions’ bitter fight to prevent school competition also limits the potential of good teachers. Schools in a competitive system would not only have to attract students, but good teachers as well. A teacher with a good reputation could bargain with several possible employers – who would then be able to use that teacher’s reputation to attract new students. A traditional teacher could find a school with a traditional philosophy. A progressive teacher could do the same thing. The school that shows better results would attract more students, and the teachers would both benefit from and enhance that reputation.
The teachers’ unions also use their members’ money to advocate social positions with which many of their employees do not agree. The national teachers’ unions – the NEA and the AFT – are both very liberal politically and are reliable segments of the Democrat’s coalition. This gives the union’s leaders a degree of access to leaders when Democrats are in power. They become apoplectic when Republicans win, proclaiming dire warnings about the abandonment of “the children.”
Teachers, on the other hand, are on the front lines of what Lyndon Johnson called the “War on Poverty”. Many teachers enlisted because they wanted to play a part in helping children break cycles of ignorance and poverty. They have also seen its limitations. They see the effects of one-parent homes. They weep for students who wreck their lives through drug abuse. They decry the loss of motivation and the rise of a sense of entitlement. They understand that the students’ lack of respect and poor work ethic will handicap those students when they need to compete for wages.
Many teachers have come to question the big government approach that has helped to create this situation. At the same time, neither party offers any relief. The liberals and moderates offer “No Child Left Behind” and “Common Core” while the conservatives talk about stripping away their pay and job security.
They believe that the battle over schools is primarily about content.
All too often, conservative commentators let themselves get too worked up over the content of instruction. They see a bastion of liberal teachers and college professors who are trying to brainwash American youth into accepting a statist system and abandoning traditional social values. They remember the off-the-wall social theories of one of their own teachers. They may have watched Bill O’Reilly expose Professor Ward Churchill. They may hear of teachers assigning Howard Zinn’s radical interpretation of U.S. History as required reading.
The current controversy over the new framework for teaching Advanced Placement U.S. History may be illustrative. Full disclosure – Traditionalist Teacher occasionally works as a reader for the AP US History Exam.
The Advanced Placement program was created in the 1950s as a way for exceptional high school students to gain college credit. The U.S. History Exam made its debut in 1956. It was a basic (albeit difficult) test in which half of the score was based on multiple choice questions and the other half was based on written essays. The content of the test started with European exploration of the Americas and continued to a moving point usually 10-15 years before the date of the test – for example, the 1956 exam went up through World War II.
By 2005, this framework was in trouble. The simple fact was that the nature of the exam made it significantly more difficult as the years went by. The 2005 student needed to cover 50 years more material than did his/her 1956 counterpart. Yet the school year was still the same 180 days that it had been in the 1950s. Obviously, if there was no change, that situation was only going to get worse.
The College Board, which writes and administers the exam, decided that the time was ripe to revise not just the exam, but the whole method of teaching Advanced Placement U.S. History. In keeping with current trends, the goal became to focus on the skills of historical inquiry rather than simple (?) mastery of content.
A new framework was introduced, laboriously revised, and became effective during the 2014-2015 academic year.
Many conservatives read the new framework with alarm. Typical of their concern was the fact that only six U.S. presidents are specifically mentioned. How, they asked, can a student of U.S. History be considered “advanced” if he/she only knows about six presidents? Still worse, the context in which those six were mentioned appeared to imply a specific political point of view – for instance, the mention of Ronald Reagan’s “bellicose rhetoric”. 
Clearly, it appeared that the same liberals who were behind Common Core were trying to force the best students into their own interpretation of American History.
While sympathetic to their point of view, Traditionalist Teacher has two words of comfort for those who feel this angst.
First, all too often the students aren’t listening anyway. This may be the only time that an ineffective educational system yields a real benefit. Students tune out a teacher who goes off on a tangent and gets worked up about ideas that the students do not understand and about which they do not care. Most students aren’t reading the radical textbook – because they seldom read anything. Many intelligent students have long since mastered the practice to retaining the material long enough to take the test and then discarding it. Yes, some students may be impressed with the radicals, but Traditionalist Teacher suspects that most of them were inclined in that direction already.
Second, the liberal monolith that these commentators fear is not as solid as it might appear. Many teachers are themselves conservative, and many of those who are politically liberal embrace traditional codes of personal behavior. For many years Traditionalist Teacher taught the first year of a two course sequence. Inevitably, in that class traditional ideas prevailed. The second year of that sequence was taught by a teacher who was far more liberal. The outcome was that those students heard from both sides of the social divide, and were in a position to decide for themselves. Traditionalist Teacher knows at least one conservative history teachers who assigns Mr. Zinn’s book (referred to above) because the teacher’s ethical system holds that the students should be exposed to a viewpoint that would not be otherwise represented in that classroom.
Traditionalist Teacher believes that the efforts of those commentators would be far better spent examining the methodology that makes schools ineffective. Only effective schools can convey any content, be it reactionary, radical, or some place in between.
They believe that a school can be run like a business.
Like most enduring falsehoods, this one has a germ of truth at its center. There are many aspects of schools that would benefit if the people making the decisions had a better background in the methods of business. In many communities the school system is the largest landholder and the local high school its largest building. Usually that land and building is run by someone whose highest degree is a Master’s of Science in Educational Administration. A holder of such a degree, Traditionalist Teacher has never received the slightest training in building operation or maintenance. There is little doubt that multiple millions could be saved over time if those buildings were properly managed.
Likewise, certified school administrators oversee the labor of many who are not teachers. Clerical personnel, custodians, and school security officers all answer to the principal. While that principal probably has some training in evaluation and supervision of educational personnel, he/she has little (and probably no) direct experience in those fields or even as much as a one-day seminar about situations unique to them.
However the core mission of education, the teaching of the young, is not one that can be improved by the application of modern Business principles. Teaching is an art, not a science. Business methods can tell you nothing about the production of literature or the quality of a song. Those in the world of fine art would gasp if someone tried to evaluate a painting by the amount of time that it took to produce, the number of pounds of paint on the canvas, the efficiency of the brushstrokes, or the application of some scientific measure of the brightness of the pigment.
There are several basic problems with the application of business measures to teaching.
First, the basic elements in any teaching situation, the student and the teacher are too variable to be measured in any standardized way.
At its essence, teaching is an essentially simple process, the material is introduced and explained, some form of practice is assigned, the material is reviewed and reinforced, and then the student’s mastery of the material is evaluated. Even though the process may be simple, it is seldom easy. The methods involved in doing any of the steps in this process are capable of nearly infinite variation. The selection of method is best done by the individual teacher in reference to his/her own strengths and those of the students being taught. To argue that there is any method that is inherently superior makes no more sense than arguing the basic value of oil paints over watercolors or pen and ink.
In another context, the specific subject area implies a certain variety of teaching methods. “Chalk and talk” methods common in the teaching of language and history would be absurd in an art or shop class. Mathematics often involves the teaching of a relatively small number of processes, and then the application of those processes multiple times with slightly different sets of numbers. Science implies a certain level of experimentation.
Then, the varieties of students are simply staggering. Students came from a wide variety of racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds. A student who has travelled widely may well sit next to others who have spent their entire lives within a hundred mile radius of their birthplace. Students with wealthy parents rub elbows with those who suffer severe economic disadvantages. Some are raised in highly regulated households while others live in near anarchy. Some students are rural, others are urban. Some are highly motivated; others can barely summon the energy to cross the street. Drug use is no respecter of societies divisions. Fourth grade students born in September may greatly outpace those born the following July. The same student who works well in the morning may be almost asleep after lunch. Even within the same family, the variations of intellectual ability and motivation are often significant.
Given this variation, anyone who says that their favored framework or set of standards is best for all teachers and all students should be laughed out of the room.
Second, there is no way to predict a clear relationship between inputs and outcomes. If one is assembling automobile engines or light bulbs, there is an exact and predictable relationship between the size and quality of the materials used and the power of the engine or the brightness of the light. No such relationship exists in a classroom for at least two reasons. No one, even the teachers or students themselves, can predict the quality of either teaching or learning. Every teacher and every student has great days, good days, and terrible days. Sometimes, students want the comfort of familiarity and other times they want the stimulation of variety. There will be some of each in any classroom. Many students want both at different times. Sometimes the same student may want both at the same time.
So how can a conservative avoid these errors? Traditionalist Teacher would like to respectfully offer the following suggestions:
- Don’t assume that your schooling is typical – the fact that you went to high school ten (fifteen? thirty?) years ago does not make you an expert on education.
- Realize that there are no experts on education – no one has their fingers on all of the varieties within the educational system.
- Be true to your principles – big government works no better in education than it does in any other aspect of life.
- Understand that the vast majority of classroom teachers are there because they passionately want their students to learn – and that we don’t like the bad apples any more than you do.
- Challenge your ‘progressive’ friends to do the same.
 Examples can be found in the writings of Lynn Cheney and Phyllis Schlafly. Traditionalist Teacher does not mean to question the competence or thoughtfulness of these and other commentators, only the emphasis on content as opposed to methodology.
 This scenario is intended to be a capsule description of a process that took place across a decade, and is intended to illustrate a larger educational trend. Traditionalist Teacher does not pretend that it is an exhaustive or complete description of the College Board’s work or the efficacy of the Advanced Placement program.
 The complete framework can be read and downloaded at http://media.collegeboard.com/digitalServices/pdf/ap/ap-course-exam-descriptions/ap-us-history-course-and-exam-description.pdf