American schoolchildren should not be taught to hate their country, or to view it as an “inherently racist” or “white supremacist” nation. But to move forward constructively on this point, instead of in a manner that further divides the country, it would be much better for a broad coalition of the center-right to the center-left to embrace a teaching of history that is clear-eyed, patriotic, and critical.
President Trump caused a stir last week when he celebrated Constitution Day by attacking the “radicals” who “want to burn down the principles enshrined in our founding documents” and calling for a 1776 Commission. It echoed his comments from the Fourth of July, when he warned that “our children are taught in school to hate their own country, and to believe that the men and women who built it were not heroes, but that they were villains.”
Much of what the president said was right on the money. American schoolchildren should not be taught to hate their country, or to view it as an “inherently racist” or “white supremacist” nation. But with Trump as the messenger, this message got lost as it was refracted through the media. Instead of hearing an argument that history should be taught in a balanced, clear-eyed way—both the good and the bad—what millions of Americans heard instead is that we should turn history class into a jingoistic exercise—a field day for the nation’s humorists.
For those of us who care deeply about how our history is taught to young Americans, it can’t be a positive development that this is turning into a culture-war wedge issue, now identified with Trumpy Republicanism. Yes, it feels good to us conservatives for someone to punch back pseudo-scholars who seek to besmirch the story of our founding. After all, as George Will argues, the heart of American conservatism is the defense of the nation’s founding principles, as articulated in the Declaration of Independence and brought to life in the Constitution.
But to move forward constructively, it would be much better for a broad coalition of the center-right to the center-left to embrace a teaching of history that is clear-eyed, patriotic, and critical. Otherwise we might end up with “red history” and “blue history” when what we need is purple history. As Washington Post columnist Max Boot argued this week, maybe a commission empaneled to find middle ground isn’t such a bad idea—especially given how desperate we are today for something to bring our country together rather than tear us further apart. And given the happy ending to the Advanced Placement U.S. History controversy, perhaps middle ground is in fact findable.
The background reading for such a commission should include two chapters from How to Educate an American: Jonah Goldberg’s “Irradiating the Past,” and Eliot Cohen’s “History, Critical and Patriotic,” later turned into an Education Next cover-story.
First, from Goldberg, an acknowledgement that of course we should teach America’s history, warts and all, including the horrors of slavery:
Only fools and bigots could belittle [slavery’s] evil. Yet slavery’s resonance in America comes not from its evil but from the founders’ hypocrisy. Since the Agricultural Revolution, nearly every civilization practiced slavery, but none also claimed to believe that “all men are created equal” and that they are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights....” The staggering hypocrisy of slavery is regrettable in one sense, but glorious in another. Hypocrisy is only possible when you have ideals....
A decent, patriotic, and most important, honest education system would not belittle past sins. It would teach these sins to students—future citizens—to show that, while there is always more work to do toward our ideals, those ideals generate our progress and prosperity.
And from Cohen, a call to attach our students to our democracy:
Civic education requires students engage with their history—not only to know whence conventions, principles, and laws have come, but also to develop an attachment to them. And civic education is also inextricably interwoven with patriotism, without which commitment to the values that make free government possible will not exist. Civic education depends not only on an understanding of fundamental processes and institutions (for example, why there is a Supreme Court, or why only Congress gets to raise taxes or declare war) but on a commitment to those processes and institutions, and on some kind of admiration for the country that created them and the men and women who have shaped and lived within them. In a crisis, it is not enough to know how the walls were constructed and the plumbing laid out in the house that Madison, Washington, and Lincoln built. One has to think that the architects did remarkable work, that as their legatees we need to preserve the building even if we modernize it, and that it is a precious edifice like none other.
I suspect that these sentiments attract widespread support. But what some in the center and on the left may not understand is how offensive some revisionist historians have been to these common sense notions. As Boot explains with respect to the New York Times’s controversial 1619 Project:
It has come under fire from distinguished historians (nary a conservative among them) for mistakenly claiming that support for slavery was a principal cause of the American Revolution. Even one of the historians consulted by the Times warned its fact-checkers that the “the protection of slavery was not one of the main reasons the 13 Colonies went to war,” but her correction was ignored.
Or take the famous Howard Zinn textbook, A People’s History of the United States. Central to its narrative is the premise that the world is, always and forever, divided into oppressors and the oppressed. This is a deeply cynical idea, though resurgent today in discussions of “anti-racism” and “critical race theory.” Do its adherents expect conservative-leaning parents—scratch that, most parents—to welcome this ideology into their children’s schools with open arms?
The job of a well-constructed 1776 Commission, then, would be to construct a demilitarized zone between the weaponized histories of the far left and the far right, forging one that is honest, critical, and patriotic. And most importantly, one that empowers the next generation to stand on the shoulders of giants and help our country get closer to living up to its founding ideals.
There’s much energy in the cosmos these days around civics education, history education, maybe even “patriotic” history and civics education. Raj Vinnakota’s project on behalf of several private foundations yielded an admirable “landscape analysis,” and the WW Foundation (née Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation) that Raj now heads launched a “civic spring” project to foster “hands-on civic learning” among young people.
The federally-funded “Education for American Democracy” road-mapping project led by iCivics and several other organizations is finalizing an impressive framework for strengthening history and civics education, and any number of other groups are buzzing with ardor to do something about the parlous state of that education—and of American civic life more broadly.
The problem is obvious, not only in NAEP data and other formal gauges of weak knowledge among Americans, especially younger Americans, about their country’s history, its government, its animating principles, and the urgency of doing something about major institutions, practices, and behavioral norms that seem to be crumbling even faster than the infrastructure.
Yet big bumps lie in the road to a solution. To my eye, three of them look big enough to break axles and wreck suspensions.
First, as we’ve done so often in the past, we may be asking too much of schools. Just about every time there’s a big problem on the minds of adults—drugs, STDs, nuclear proliferation, obesity, teen-age pregnancy, smoking, environmental degradation—we turn to the schools to tackle it and sometimes singlehandedly to solve it.
This never works. Schools, when they’re effective, are pretty good at teaching the three R’s, making young people literate and numerate, even giving them a decent grounding in science and (rarely) the humanities and arts. Schools are not powerful enough, however, to stop drug abuse or prevent obesity, much less to end climate change. They don’t occupy large enough places in kids’ lives. Clearing space in their curricula for adult causes will result in less attention to the things they’re (sometimes) good at. And—most worrying—when we assign one of these adult causes to the schools, we tend to let everyone else off the hook. Yet it’s almost always “everyone else” that’s causing the problem.
Second, as so often in the past, reforms in this realm are powerfully tempted to expect the federal government to take the lead and leverage the desired change in schools and, through them, in society. Plenty of politicians are available to make this popular cause their own and plenty of interest groups are available to endorse their moves. President Trump has already made his with a campaign pledge to “fully restore patriotic education to our schools.” But it’s not just the fellow in the Oval Office, whom many view as a major part of the reason we need better civics education. A billion-dollar bipartisan proposal in the House of Representatives would, in Education Week’s words, “dramatically increase the federal government’s investment in civics education” and “has a broad range of support from social studies and civics organizations and eyes a much larger role for the feds in this neglected content area.”
Sure, almost everyone wants more federal funding for their program or passion—the aforementioned road-mapping project, itself federally funded, is likely to end up calling for more action by Uncle Sam, too—but this is an especially brambly forest for him to stumble around in. The very same meltdowns in Washington (and in our politics more broadly) that are leading to such calls will inevitably politicize any federal response. Consider the first purpose set forth in the new House bill: helping schools “in selecting and making available to all students innovative, engaging curricula and programs in American civics and history that prepare them to understand American Government and engage in American democratic practices as citizens....”
Nothing whatsoever wrong with that until...well, until you begin to imagine political appointees at the Department of Education—doesn’t matter who’s president—drafting the regulations and organizing the peer reviews by which it gets decided what sorts of “curricula and programs” in civics and history will prepare school kids “to understand American government and engage in American democratic practices....” Think about it. Will those regs—and peers—change every time the education secretary is replaced or the White House changes hands or the relevant appropriations subcommittee adds another condition or limitation to the program’s funding?
Besides all that, just as entrusting grown-up problems to schools lets most adults off the hook, federalizing an education campaign tends to let states off the hook. States are where crucial decisions about academic standards, teacher preparation, student assessment, and school accountability get made. Legislators, boards of education, governors, and chief state school officers should be struggling—today, yesterday, tomorrow—with how to get their schools (within their aforementioned limits) to do better at this and to do so in ways that align with the priorities and values of the citizens of their states. Besides, Uncle Sam is legally proscribed from meddling in school curricula! And while I have plenty of issues with “local control” as practiced in the U.S. today, nearly two decades of painful experience since NCLB have left me even more wary of federal control.
Third, for all the earnest efforts at road-mapping and consensus building, several of which I’ve participated in, good education in history and in civics means very different things to different people. The “action civics” that many are passionate about kids engaging in is light years away from understanding “separation of powers” and “checks and balances.” Perhaps there ought not be any tension between “dispositions” and “knowledge” in this realm, but when you try to wedge something more into the K–12 curriculum, a teacher-prep program, or a state’s accountability regime, you have to make choices. Which will take precedence? Which will get more time, energy, and resources? Similarly, while it’s possible—highly desirable—to teach history in ways that bring out both the unum and the pluribus, both the “warts” and the fundamentally sound body that they adhere to, choices will again have to get made. Teachers don’t have time (or background knowledge) to try to harmonize the 1619 curriculum with the 1776 version, so either they’ll make a mishmash of it or someone downtown will end up deciding for them.
These are hugely fraught choices on the ground in real places, probably destined to destroy the fragile consensus that may be emerging around the 30,000-foot conviction that of course we should do “both/and.” They’re even more fraught when state leaders attempt to wrestle with them—and pretty much beyond imagining when turned over to Washington. Watch what happens the next time NAEP opens up its civics and history frameworks and assessments for updating! That hurricane will make today’s fracas over NAEP’s ELA framework resemble a spring shower.
So yes, I want better civics and history education as much as anyone (and have for longer than most). But I’m not sure my axles can withstand the bumps.
This spring, the nation was slammed by a pandemic that has thus far killed nearly 200,000 Americans, thrown millions out of work, shuttered schools, and upended the rhythms of teaching and learning. Suddenly the kitchen table became a makeshift desk and “school” came to mean hours seated in front of a Chromebook. Meanwhile, only half of schools plan to offer any in-person instruction this fall and parents are turning to alternatives to traditional school. For all that’s changed, though, there’s at least one constant: School leaders demand more money and fiscal hawks insist that money won’t matter.
Debates over school spending are as old as public education itself. But rather than growing more nuanced with age, the debate has sometimes begged for caricature, seeming to pit mushy-headed big spenders against flinty-eyed penny pinchers. As with most strawmen, the resulting dispute bears little resemblance to the reality inhabited by school leaders and elected officials.
For all the complicated econometric attempts to link spending to student outcomes and all the skeptical arguments that school spending tends to wind up paying for administrative bloat and retiree benefits, it seems like there’s some sensible common ground.
Does money matter? Sure. In no other aspect of life would we spend a lot of time debating the issue. If we’re talking about buying a house, choosing a cell phone plan, or paying for preschool, we sensibly assume that more money makes it easier to afford better options.
So the more interesting question is how much a dollar in extra spending actually matters for students. And there the answer should be equally obvious: Money matters more when it is spent in ways that improve teaching and learning. How to make that determination is a subject of fierce debate, but the key is to start by recognizing that how money gets spent probably matters at least as much as how much is spent.
That brings us to the central question of our new Teachers College Press book Getting the Most Bang for the Education Buck, in which a terrific line-up of contributors try to help educators and policymakers think more clearly about how to rethink spending decisions on everything from pensions to staffing to technology to school construction.
Here are three takeaways from the volume that seem particularly timely.
While the smart incorporation of technology can make a big difference for learners, technology can be a wasteful distraction when it’s incorporated poorly. As districts across the nation grapple with virtual education and policymakers consider massive new outlays for ed tech, they would do well to ask themselves, “What are the goals and objectives for this technology?” The most important question should never be, “How much technology does a school or system have?” It should be, “What’s being done with it?”
State laws and directives are littered with rules, regulations, and routines that essentially lock in one-teacher, one-classroom structures. Policymakers should reconsider line-item budgets that limit reallocation of funds, rigid class-size limits that make it difficult for teams of teachers and paraprofessionals to collectively serve a group of students, and certification requirements that inhibit cross-functional teams or efforts to develop new approaches to mentoring and induction. This has become particularly pertinent as Covid-19 has forced districts to seek new ways of leveraging their workforces to accommodate novel challenges like online and hybrid schooling.
Decisionmaking always involves trade-offs. Approaching spending decisions as an “either-or” choice and being transparent about the per-unit cost of a given proposal can help promote clear-eyed assessments of price, value, and potential pay-off. For example, district policymakers wrestling with whether to offer physical learning packets or online-only instruction this fall might do well to ask parents if they would rather have X dollars for home educational expenses or the option of picking up physical packets for their child. Presenting the trade-offs can help stakeholders think more honestly and creatively about the decisions before them.
Now, more than ever, we hope this volume will be a resource for districts that are pinching pennies to make ends meet, for school boards figuring out how best to support their families in the face of looming budget shortfalls, and for states trying to tackle sticky issues like how to fund pensions while tightening their belts.
Editor’s note: This was first published by Teachers College Press.
There are two aspects of standardized testing to which opponents tend to object: The testing itself and how the results are used. A recent study out of Denmark looks at the latter, attempting to determine if critical feedback delivered to parents about their child’s performance on a math test adversely affects students along academic and social-emotional dimensions. But in fact it finds the opposite: Negative feedback appears to spur improvement.
Denmark has a nationwide system that requires testing in subjects including reading, math, geography, and the sciences in grades two through eight. Analysts matched four cohorts of third grade students in 2010 through 2013 to their sixth grades scores in 2013 through 2016, respectively. They were able to match nearly 95 percent of all the third grade cohorts, totaling almost 192,600 students. Danish schools are mandated to report the results of the tests to parents via a letter that is automatically generated within their testing system and may be distributed by postal mail or through the school’s online portal. The letter does not include the child’s raw score, but rather a label that converts the score into one of five categories: considerably below average, below average, average, above average, or considerably above average. The scale score that produces the rating is held in strict confidence by the teachers (in fact, the school principal, school board, and municipal board only have access to the average test results by school year and cohort). Analysts accessed the raw test score data and used a regression discontinuity design to compare the outcomes of students scoring just below each category’s threshold—and thus receiving more negative feedback via a corresponding negative label—to the outcomes of students scoring just above the threshold. They produced estimates based on the cutoffs for each of the five performance levels. They also combined student-level scores with student level survey data about multiple aspects of well-being.
The key finding is that negative feedback—specifically, a more negative-sounding label—received in third grade math generates significant increases in math achievement in sixth grade by 6 percent of a standard deviation (SD), compared to students who received the relatively better label or “signal.” This is true regardless of the child’s ability level, meaning analysts observed a similar pattern of improvement all along the performance distribution. Still, students who fell below the lowest threshold—labeled as considerably below average—appeared to benefit even more from having the test information (i.e., the larger impacts amount to 0.12 of a SD for the lowest performers versus 0.06 of a SD for the average student).
It is unclear which group is driving the observed pattern. It could be that those falling just below the cut off get more motivated and try harder, but it could also be that those above the cut off now feel comfortable and reduce their effort going forward. That question aside, analysts are able to determine that the effect seems driven by boys, who perhaps, based on prior research, often overestimate their math abilities compared to girls. Maybe a negative label serves as a reality check for them to step it up.
Analysts also looked at Danish national survey data on student well being conducted in 2015 and 2016, which asked kids about a variety of topics such as school satisfaction, whether they have been bullied, and their intrinsic motivation. These are exploratory analyses because they only have data for two cohorts. Still, they see no systematic negative relationships on students’ self-reported well-being. In other words, information communicated to parents about their child’s relatively poor performance does not decrease that child’s well-being. If anything, there’s some evidence that academic confidence increases for kids in the lower part of the distribution. In short, low performers are no worse off in social-emotional terms after receiving negative feedback, at least insofar as it is defined in this study.
The report concludes that information on test performance in elementary school improves future academic performance in math. Moreover, rather than being viewed as negative or harmful to students, the categorical labels appear to communicate valuable information to parents upon which they can act. The study adds to a growing literature that shows that personalized feedback and informational “nudges” have the potential to motivate action in K–12 education. That said, upwards of 90 percent of American parents continue to believe that their child is performing at or above grade level, despite what standardized test results say. Maybe that’s because the labels that states tend to use to describe performance in general fail to connote negativity at all (and some are inscrutable!).
SOURCE: Louise Beuchert, Tine Louise Mundbjerg Eriksen, and Morten Visby Krægpøth, “The impact of standardized test feedback in math: Exploiting a natural experiment in 3rd grade,” Economics of Education Review (June 20, 2020).
has —and common sense reinforces—that postsecondary when the overall labor market is weak. But that boost could come from many parts of the population, including recent high school graduates attempting to avoid a fruitless job search or individuals who switch jobs voluntarily in response to signs of trouble in a given sector. Very little direct evidence exists on whether workers who actually lose their jobs due to an economic downturn really do head back to school. A new NBER by three researchers from Columbia and Stanford is the first to explore the direct effect of job displacement—as far as the data will currently allow—on college enrollment in Ohio.
The data come from various Ohio state agencies made available through the(OERC). They include enrollment data at public colleges and universities in the state, as well as information from all public and private employers subject to Unemployment Insurance (UI) contributions. A majority of employers in Ohio fall under this category, although many workers (contractors, gig employees) do not work for UI-contributing companies. The timeframe covered is the start of the third quarter of 1999 through the end of the first quarter of 2013. Importantly, the earnings records include individual identifiers that link to post-secondary education data. Thus, the analysts can identify the exact quarter when an employee left the workforce (referred to as a “separation”) and when they enrolled at a public college or university. Unfortunately, the earnings records don’t identify the employee’s reason for separation, so it is impossible to definitively determine whether they were displaced due to an economic downturn.
The analysts construct their sample using separations that occurred during any mass layoff event—defined as a 30 percent or more quarter-to-quarter reduction in a firm’s employment, with adjustments made for smaller employers. An employee was considered displaced if they were let go during a mass layoff, worked at a firm for at least one year prior to the mass layoff, were not re-employed at that firm during the quarter after the mass layoff, held only one job at the time of separation, and earned the equivalent of at least minimum wage while working at least thirty hours per week. More than 68,500 workers were so identified. A comparison sample of just over 898,000 workers, dubbed the “continuously employed,” was constructed with the following criteria: those who were continuously employed (but not necessarily at the same employer) throughout the study period, who had at least three years of tenure at any firm, and who earned at least minimum wage while working at least thirty hours per week.
Even before examining the layoffs, the groups differed a little. Displaced workers were more likely to have previously enrolled at a two-year institution than continuously employed workers, though the latter were more likely to have enrolled in a four-year institution. Displaced workers showed lower earnings than continuously employed workers, and they were more likely to be employed in heavy industry. In fact, nearly half of all displaced workers were laid off from just three industries: manufacturing, construction, and retail trade (think grocery stores, car dealerships, and gas stations).
So far, so intuitive. But what happened to those displaced workers? Less than 10 percent of them ended up enrolling in any Ohio public institution of higher education following their separation, and a majority of those were folks going back to school after previous enrollment pre-separation. Of those who enrolled in college, more than a quarter earned a degree within two years of separation and nearly 33 percent did so within four years of separation. If you’re interested in an even deeper dive into this finding, there’s a good but sobering article in a. Bottom line: The idea that most displaced workers will retrain or “skill up” after a layoff—at least by enrolling in college—is not borne out by the data.
There are two caveats to point out amidst this somewhat surprising news. First, a significant number of displaced workers enrolling in college after separation were also working at that time. Of those, more than half were employed more than part-time. This is not just an indicator that college enrollment takes money; it is evidence that living in tough economic times requires gainful employment. Second, data limitations mean that individuals who leave Ohio, exit the labor force, begin working for non-UI covered employers, or attend private or out-of-state institutions after separation cannot be tracked. The latter point is particularly relevant as previoushas that for-profit colleges providing short-term certificate programs in high-demand fields are attractive to individuals looking to retrain. The analysts, while unable to fully explore for-profit enrollment data, are able to demonstrate that workers are less likely to enroll in public colleges if they are displaced in parts of Ohio where a higher concentration of for-profit institutions are located. This is likely not a coincidence.
While no recommendations are provided in the working paper itself, discussion from co-author Judith Scott-Clayton at Inside Higher Ed includes this analysis: “When you lose a job, it really is a complex calculus. How do you know when it’s worthwhile to actually step away from the labor market and go back to school? It is a more complicated decision that they’re making. They need guidance counselors, too.” Some of the onus for better guidance to displaced workers falls on the postsecondary institutions seeking to help them, but a more concerted state level effort—especially—seems a stronger first step.
SOURCE: Veronica Minaya, Brendan Moore, and Judith Scott-Clayton, “,” NBER Working Papers (August 2020).
On this week’s podcast, Brandon Wright joins Mike Petrilli and David Griffith to discuss his and Rick Hess’s new edited volume, Getting the Most Bang for the Education Buck. On the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines whether community crime monitoring can improve student attendance.
Amber's Research Minute
Robert Gonzalez and Sarah Komisarow, “Can Community Crime Monitoring Reduce Student Absenteeism?,” retrieved from Annenberg Institute at Brown University (September 2020).