Those best positioned to push back against much of the nonsense that courses through our schools are school board members. And those interested in effecting positive change should adopt a three-part agenda: let our schools refocus on preparing children for informed citizenship; restore character, virtue, and morality to the head of the education table; and build an education system that confers dignity, respect, and opportunity upon every youngster.
Let us start with a confession: As card-carrying members of the school-choice and testing-and-accountability wings of the education reform movement, we have at times been dismissive, even hostile, to local school board members. That’s because these elected officials, constrained as they may be by laws, regulations, and the leanings of those they employ, have often seemed willing to protect the status quo and resist changes intended to overhaul the jalopy we call American public schooling.
But we’re ready to look afresh, mindful that it’s unfair to view anything in the sprawling K–12 sector as a monolith. Plenty of school boards may still be allergic to change, but that doesn’t mean all of them are. We’ve also come to see that, viewed in a certain light, school boards are mainstays of civil society—a subset of what political theorist Edmund Burke long ago called “society’s little platoons”—which the United States needs to strengthen in order to rebuild communities that have been stressed by globalization, the hollowing out of the middle class, and drug- and alcohol-linked deaths rooted in despair.
Most importantly, we’ve come to see that the individuals best positioned to push back against so much of the nonsense that courses through our schools and our society—history emphasizing the nation’s shortcomings, antipathy toward strict discipline, and on and on, much of it stemming from the political left—are school board members, especially those with a conservative orientation.
No, they can’t make change singlehandedly; even a unanimous school board vote doesn’t guarantee that any given policy or program will be implemented faithfully. We also understand that conservative board members are outnumbered in many places, especially blue and purple parts of the country. Yet if we don’t want to cede public schooling to the “progressive” left, as we have seen in many universities, it’s urgent that conservatives make their views and voices heard.
So we come to you now, school board members, not with hat in hand, but with a three-part agenda to recommend.
First, let our schools refocus on preparing children for informed citizenship. Let’s rekindle young Americans’ understanding of history and civics, including the kinds that inculcate an informed love of country, even while acknowledging past failings and present challenges. (Saying no to the New York Times’s dubious “1619” curriculum, which casts America as a fundamentally racist nation, would be an excellent start.) Not just civic activism, not just protest, not just the odd community-service project, but the totality of informed citizenship for a democratic republic that values its pluribus but also needs a lot of unum.
Second, restore character, virtue, and morality to the head of the education table where they belong. No human attribute matters more than good character, and nothing is more important for schools to do than to foster such character. A core attribute of sound character is self-discipline—and a core problem facing educators is indiscipline in their classrooms. How to address this has emerged as a key distinction between contemporary liberals and conservatives. The former tend to focus on whether disciplinary actions taken by schools are discriminatory—that is, they concentrate on the interests of those so-called perpetrators—while the latter tend to focus on the interests of well-behaved learners whose education is being disrupted. Schools need to rebalance these concerns.
Finally, let us build an education system that confers dignity, respect, and opportunity upon every youngster, including those who don’t go to college, as well as those capable of zipping through it. Committed as we are to a solid, shared core in everyone’s curriculum, we mustn’t suppose that everyone is headed to the same destination or moving at the same speed. By the midpoint of high school, it’s important to open multiple pathways into adulthood—and to make clear that they have equal merit. America has overemphasized college-for-all at the expense of high-quality career education and other honorable alternatives, thereby robbing many people of the dignity, respect, and neededness that make for a healthy society. Character, responsibility, and self-discipline reappear here, too. A key goal of school should be to inform teenagers about the “success sequence” and encourage them to follow it: Finish school, get a full-time job, get married, and start a family—in that order.
Together, these three elements constitute a solid—if potentially provocative—agenda for school board members with a conservative tilt. Make sure your district’s approach to American history is both critical and patriotic. Don’t be afraid to embrace forms of character education that instill good old-fashioned notions of right and wrong. Ensure that your elementary and middle schools offer opportunities for acceleration and deeper challenge for your strongest students, but also make sure that your high schools don’t send the message that a four-year college degree is the only path to dignity and a family-sustaining wage.
We don’t expect all who view themselves as conservative to agree with all those recommendations. And those who do must expect to lose many debates. Leftist, Howard Zinn–style curricula will often continue to prevail over proper respect for America’s history in all its wondrous complexity. Social-emotional learning and “action civics” will often swamp purposeful efforts at character education and civic education. College-for-all and hostility to gifted and talented education will often win out over plural pathways and timely acceleration.
But defeat is not inevitable. Many times, school boards will find a way forward that takes the best ideas from left and right, not just from the left. That’s essentially what happened during the previous era of school reform, back when compromise was a way of getting important things done and bipartisanship wasn’t a curse word.
That’s how to act as Americans. And that’s how to educate Americans.
Editor’s note: This article was first published by Education Week.
Many urgent challenges await the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and its governing board (NAGB) in the coming months, including whether the scheduled biennial testing of reading and math in grades four and eight is feasible during the 2020–21 school year. Present law requires that this happen, but what if schools aren’t open or if health precautions mean the assessors must don PPE to enter classrooms where spotty attendance also distorts the student sample?
With such weighty matters pending, probably no one responsible for NAEP has geography on their minds today. Which is a great pity because NAEP’s inattention illustrates the broad neglect of this important subject across American K–12 education.
Think hard and you may recall—I know it feels like ages ago, but it was just a few weeks—that NCES released results from the 2018 assessment of civics, U.S. history, and geography among eighth graders. A fair amount of attention got paid to the dismal civics results and some to history. Nobody mentioned geography. Yet those scores were down, too, and down from the depressingly low results of four years earlier.
Civics and history at least get taught in U.S. schools, though not necessarily in a purposeful way in the K–8 grades. But what about geography? What’s even known about its status in our elementary and secondary schools?
Way back in 2005, NCES reported (on the basis of a transcript analysis associated with NAEP) that 31 percent of American high-school graduates had taken a course in “world geography,” up from 21 percent in 1990. That respectable increase was the good news. The bad news was that geography was by far the least taken of six social-studies subjects.
To my knowledge, that’s the latest data on how many American students tackle geography during high school, although we also know that upwards of 200,000 U.S. students take the Advanced Placement exam in “human geography.” It varies hugely by state, however. For instance, about ten times more students in Minnesota take that AP exam than in Michigan. Often, though, AP is the sole high school geography course on offer. That’s the case in sprawling Montgomery County, Maryland, where the AP class isn’t even available in upscale Bethesda-Chevy Chase and Montgomery Blair high schools. Which is to say, students in those two highly regarded schools have no access to any geography courses.
Across the river in Fairfax County, Virginia, state-mandated default courses include a two-year sequence in “world history and geography,” but students opting for Advanced Placement need only take a pair of history courses, no geography.
The Gilbert M. Grosvenor Center—which to its huge credit does pay attention to geography—reported in 2017 that just seventeen states require any geography study during high school, but only six of those feature “standalone” geography courses, while the rest are combos like Virginia’s, i.e., blending some geography with other subjects.
The sad truth is that, as Grosvenor Center data also show, across most of American public education, the organized study of geography is confined to the elementary and middle grades, where it’s typically just one among the multiple “strands” of “social studies”—which itself doesn’t get much curricular attention, as it’s seldom part of the state accountability system, which is to say it “doesn’t really count.” Although 63 percent of eighth graders claim to have taken a class or course that includes geography (“or with some geography topics”) at some point along the way, few learn much, as is clear from the NAEP data: As reported in April, only one in four of them was “proficient” or better in the subject in 2018, and 29 percent were “below basic”—4 percentage points worse than in 2014.
Note that these woeful results were for eighth graders, which highlights how little of geography (or history or civics!) actually ends up inside the heads of middle-schoolers, and those data are for the country as a whole, not for individual states. Worse, aside from the AP data, we know nothing about what has or hasn’t been learned by the end of high school. This is but one of many gaps in NAEP’s twelfth grade coverage. And even the occasional eighth grade geography data will get even less frequent, as NAGB, forced to make budgetary trade-offs even before COVID-19 arrived, had shelved the next geography assessment until some unknown date beyond the present decade.
How much does it matter? A few commentators have said not much, mostly because (they say) NAEP’s expectations are too demanding and because American kids have never known much about these sorts of things.
I beg to differ. The things our kids don’t know are pretty basic, such as not being able to locate four of the world’s most significant cities on a map. But their ignorance goes far beyond place locations, for today’s geography—properly conceived and taught—includes all manner of environmental and climate topics, as well as great issues of what the AP folks call human geography. These include migration, urbanization, land use, agriculture, and demographics. What could be more important for today’s young Americans—and tomorrow’s citizens—to understand?
The sample questions that NAEP released last month include (in the content area they term “environment and society”) a photo of a nomad standing, in an unmistakable desert, next to a kneeling camel with a saddle on its back. Only a meagre 4 percent were able (in an open-ended question) to use this picture to illustrate human adaptation to climate.
That doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily grow up to become climate-change deniers. But it’s mighty likely they won’t understand climate or how people relate to it. That’s in addition to not being able to locate Los Angeles or London.
Is there any way to get our schools and education policymakers to show a little more love for geography during the K–12 years? Call me a dreamer, but—assuming American education eventually resumes a semblance of normalcy—two moves seem obvious:
First, require everyone to take a year of high school geography as a condition of graduation, just as almost every state does for U.S. history and most require for civics. And give a statewide end-of-course exam that kids must pass, unless they take and earn a decent score on the relevant AP exam or equivalent external test.
Second, add social studies to the middle-school courses that states assess, the results of which are featured on school report cards and counted for accountability purposes. I note that Ohio assessed—and reported—social studies in grades four and six through 2017, before it sacrificed this subject to the anti-testing forces.
Once social studies is taken seriously, make sure that geography gets its due within states’ standards for that subject and on the tests, with curricular encouragement to districts and schools to make it its own distinct subject for at least one year of middle school.
How to make room for this within curricula? Some states—such as Alaska, Arkansas, and Idaho—have figured that out. Others, not wanting to forego anything they’re already teaching, may have to add a period to school days that are way too short—or lengthen the school year and give social studies its own double period a couple of times a week. If that sounds too painful when the subject at hand is as seemingly obscure and inutile as geography, here’s another idea: Give it a new name. Stop calling it “geography.” Call it “people adapt to a changing world.” And cue the applause.
Few vocations have suffered more in the hands of Hollywood mythmakers than teaching. This is curious. Schools offer a familiar and fertile setting, and teaching is inspiring, aspirational work. There is rich potential for drama in student backstories or in a good teacher’s ability to change a child’s life trajectory. And say all you want about how teachers should be the guide on the side not the sage on the stage, there is a performative aspect to teaching that ought to lend itself to character-driven, compelling storytelling.
All of the elements are there. So why is it so hard to make a good teacher movie?
Mostly, it’s because, when the subject is school, filmmakers have never been able to resist swinging for three-run homers with one man on base. The clichés are legion: the inspiring maverick (Dead Poet’s Society) who unlocks the hidden brilliance of rowdy students (Stand and Deliver) while pushing back doggedly against the system’s low expectations (Lean on Me). Even worse is the subgenre of white savior teacher movies (Freedom Writers, Dangerous Minds) set in inner-city schools. We’re so conditioned by these tropes that when struggling musician Hanan Harchol tells his father over breakfast in a New York City diner in the opening scene of About a Teacher that he’s taking a job as a high school film teacher “to support myself while I’m making my art,” we smirk. Oh Lord, it’s Mr. Holland’s Opus. Here we go again.
To be sure, About a Teacher, currently streaming on Amazon Prime, follows the same story arc as other formulaic plucky teacher movies: A teacher of inner-city kids uses art to inspire students to tell their stories. But it makes a virtue of its small budget and human scale. The vast majority of the film is set inside the classroom, in the tiny apartment Harchol shares with his wife, or in diner conversations with his father. There are no big stars, no soaring soundtrack, no gritty mean street tableaus or tear-jerking grand finale. The movie it most closely resembles is The Class, a 2008 French film that was praised for its documentary style and verisimilitude.
The intimacy of the film enhances its credibility. It’s mostly about Harchol’s effort to master his craft and his struggles with student indifference and energy directed at anything other than what he’s trying to teach. It’s nearly painful to watch him try and fail to get students to comply with even the smallest requests. The movie should carry a trigger warning for teachers who will be reminded of how draining it is to be a new and poorly prepared teacher.
Harchol’s interactions with his fellow faculty members will likewise bring knowing smiles (or grim nods) from teachers. You know these people: the overconfident colleague who tells the novice not to smile until Thanksgiving to show students he means business. The veteran who won’t even acknowledge the new guy since he won’t last (the opening credits note that 41 percent of New York City teachers leave within five years). The humorless scold who has mastered behavior management but not her subject. The edgy and cynical banter in the faculty lounge. Harchol himself is the guy whose out-of-control class you walk past and feel sorry for. An officious supervisor is played to such icy perfection by Leslie Hendrix that when we learn she has been protecting and defending Harchol behind the scenes, it strains credulity. When she shows up in his classroom it is only to demand lesson plans and paperwork. Her professional development sessions are redolent with acronyms, bureaucratese, and demands for “higher order questioning” and pedagogical techniques that she seems not even to understand.
The only useful tips he gets come from a younger teacher, Ms. Martinez (Aurora Leonard). “Do you like your students? Do you talk to them?” she asks. It is only when Harchol starts to relate to his students as people (the movie is not 100 percent free from teacher movie clichés) that his and their performance begins to improve.
As Harchol, Canadian actor Dov Tiefenbach succeeds a little too well at being overwhelmed and frustrated. He is so lacking authority, presence, and the ability to project confidence, so physically overmatched by the job, that when he finally gets his feet under himself—in his third year in the classroom, not the third day—it seems implausible that he could have lasted so long without quitting or getting fired. The cognitive dissonance is only resolved at the end of the film with a montage of the real Harchol, who wrote, directed, and produced the semi-autobiographical film, with his students, many of whom won scholarships and cash prizes for their films and worked on About a Teacher. He looks the part.
Hollywood hasn’t nailed the teacher movie and perhaps never will. Classroom life is full of compelling characters and drama, but the scale is intimate, the pace deliberate and contemplative, not epic or explosive. The narrative arc of a teacher’s year unfolds slowly through hundreds of small actions and interactions. This puts filmmakers in a bind. Show too little, you reduce everyone to a tintype and character development feels forced and formulaic. Show too much and things slow to a crawl. There’s a rhythm to actual classroom life that is difficult to capture in two hours.
About a Teacher is not a perfect teacher movie, but it improves on the genre with its small scale, intimate focus, and attention to detail. It turns out that it takes a teacher to make a decent movie about a teacher.
Editor’s note: This article was first published by Education Next.
A skills gap occurs when the demand for a skilled workforce increases faster than the supply of workers with those skills. As the U.S. economy recovered from the 2008 Great Recession, that gap was evident in many economic sectors. As a result, large swaths of people were underemployed while higher-paying jobs went unfilled. Formal education has traditionally played a part in boosting young people’s skills, especially four-year colleges, but what of workplace education? A new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) explores the idea that on-the-job skills acquisition could be just as valuable as a bachelor’s degree in filling the skills gap.
Analysts identify workers without bachelor’s degrees who are potentially skilled for higher-wage work through work experience. They use data on the skill requirements of jobs in the O*NET database, a comprehensive collection of occupational information, to compute the “skill distance” between a worker’s current occupation and higher-wage occupations with similar skill requirements in their local labor market.
They also use the Current Population Survey (CPS) to sample the worker population, since it is a monthly household survey that provides loads of labor force and economic statistics. For each worker in the CPS under a declared occupation—which totals roughly 68 million workers—they match the O*NET skill requirements for that same occupation to the worker. Then based on the skills of the current population, they estimate the degree of similarity or relatedness between the skills needed for the worker’s current job and those needed for one or more higher-wage jobs; the distance between those two points is the skills gap.
Still, having higher-level skills and accessing higher-level jobs are two different things. To identify feasible pathways to higher-wage jobs, analysts consider those that meet four requirements: they currently employ some workers without bachelor’s degrees; the skills they require are close to those required by workers’ current lower-paying jobs; in recent years, they have hired workers from those jobs who did not possess a bachelor’s degree; and they pay higher average state-cohort median wages than those jobs. They break down the non-degree-holding workers into several categories based on their skill levels—which translates into their ability to move up—and then compare their skills to those of workers in the higher-level jobs.
The key finding is that skills developed on the job by many lower-wage workers are compatible with the requirements of higher-paid jobs. By their calculations, thirty-three million workers without bachelor’s degrees have skills compatible with jobs paying wages that are higher by $7 per hour, and another thirty million have skills compatible with jobs paying $11 per hour more.
Predictably, the skills gap between workers’ current jobs and those that pay more varies by occupational category. For example, roughly 40 percent of jobs held in the Personal Care/Service category—which has the lowest national median income—impart on-the-job skills that only prepare workers for jobs within that same low-paying category. Thus, there’s substantially less room for wage increases. Yet 20 percent of Personal Care/Service jobs prepare workers for positions in other, higher-paying categories, such as Educational Instruction or Office and Administrative Support.
To be sure, the classification of skills and the size of the gaps between them in this study is not an exact science. But with any luck, the unparalleled athleticism of LeBron James and Lionel Messi should net out similarly in such an exercise—although there’s a problem if it suggests La Pulga should go to the NBA.
In the end, we can’t ignore the very real data showing some hiring trends could favor non-degree-holding candidates, or the suggestion that there are more routes to upward mobility than college. So let’s be open to the possibility that in-demand jobs might be filled from the ranks of skilled, hard-working lower-wage workers—not only from the ranks of “the B.A. Cartel.”
SOURCE: Peter Blair et al., “Searching for Stars: Work Experience as a Job Market Signal for Workers Without Bachelor’s Degrees,” NBER Working Paper #26844 (March 2020).
One of the tougher accountability nuts to crack is how to gauge educational quality in early elementary grades. Federal education law does not require state exams until third grade, and states choose not to administer end-of-year assessments in grades K–2. Despite the importance of these formative years in children’s lives, the absence of standardized testing makes measuring their academic growth difficult.
Some early-childhood education analysts have proposed that states rely on classroom observation or attendance data to evaluate quality. But a number of states, including Ohio, do require assessment when students enter kindergarten. The Ohio assessment, for example, includes content across four domains: social foundations, math, language and literacy, and physical well-being and motor development. A child’s teacher administers the assessment. The results have largely diagnostic aims—to inform instruction for the coming year—and are not widely used in accountability systems. Could states use these baseline data, combined with later state exam scores, to measure growth?
A team of analysts from Mathematica recently explore this possibility using data from Maryland, a state that administers a Kindergarten Readiness Assessment (KRA). They examine student-level data from the first cohort of children taking the KRA in 2014–15 along with their third grade test scores from 2017–18. Approximately 54,000 students had scores on both assessments and are thus included in the analysis. Another 26,000 students, however, are excluded because they were missing either KRA or third grade scores (due mainly to exits from or entrances into the school system after Kindergarten).
The research team first demonstrates that academic growth can indeed be measured using KRA and third grade scores. Relying on the same methodology that the state uses for accountability in higher grades—known as “student growth percentiles—they calculate K–3 growth results for Maryland elementary schools.
However, their analysis raises a few concerns about the validity of the results—the extent to which they reflect schools’ true contributions to student growth. First, due to the significant time between assessment, a number of students switched schools within the Maryland system. To address mobility, the analysts apportion responsibility for growth based on the amount of time spent in each school. This “shared accountability” is sensible, but without annual testing, uncertainty remains about which school actually contributed more to transfer students’ growth. Second, the researchers discover only a modest correlation between KRA and third-grade test scores. This, they suggest, indicates that the two assessments may be “measuring different aspects of academic ability.” In comparison to correlations in higher grades—e.g., third and sixth grade test scores—the KRA-third grade correlation is weaker, leading the authors to conclude that the K–3 growth results are “likely less valid” than those calculated in the higher grades.
Though imperfect, a K–3 growth measure may be better than flying nearly blind about educational quality. And a measure similar to what is used in this report could be superior to Ohio’s well-intended but rudimentary approach to measuring growth in the early grades. At the same time, policymakers should heed the report’s suggestions about implementing a K–3 growth measure: States should either place less weight on the results in an accountability system or report the growth data but not use them to inform ratings or consequences. Sound advice, given the limitations of such a measure.
Source: Lisa Dragoset, et. al., Measuring School Performance for Early Elementary Grades in Maryland, REL Mid-Atlantic (2019).
On this week’s podcast, Paul DiPerna, vice president of research and innovation at EdChoice, joins Mike Petrilli and David Griffith to discuss his organization’s new monthly Public Opinion Tracker. On the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines how superior social skills improve the performance of groups.
Amber's Research Minute
Ben Weidmann and David J. Deming, "Team Players: How Social Skills Improve Group Performance," NBER Working Paper #27071 (May 2020).