Broken field defenses

Jack Schneider has a defense of American public schooling up at The Atlantic this week, and while it has an historian’s argument, it feels much like the claims of David Berliner and Bruce Biddle in The Manufactured Crisis, published 20 years ago, in the middle of the Bill Clinton era and most of a decade before No Child Left Behind. What Berliner and Biddle got right — as Schneider gets right this week — is that the declension story that many school critics have told over the past 50-60 years is wrong. There was not a “rising tide of mediocrity” in schools at the time A Nation at Risk was published in 1983. Its modern corollary is also wrong — the idea that “the modern curriculum is a relic of the past” is wildly ahistorical (see Audrey Watters and me on that point, in separate posts).

Schneider is also correct that schools do change, in curriculum and structure. As David Tyack and Larry Cuban pointed out in Tinkering toward Utopia (also a 20-year-old book), the cycles of reform rhetoric obscure long-term institutional trends that are important and largely outside the focus of hype. Pop quiz: what was the modal size of American high schools in the late 1950s? How about today? Hint: they’re not the same.

Where I disagree with Schneider — and Berliner and Biddle — is the conclusion he draws from pointing out how wrong the declension myth is. There are two ways in which the “rising tide of mediocrity” claim could be wrong. One is that public schools are not mediocre. The other is that public schools have significant weaknesses, but that they are longstanding and not traits that sprang up overnight. That is where I stand. There is an important historical argument to be made that “disruption” is a poor universal model for education reform. But its converse is not correct, either; desegregation was as disruptive when done properly as anything else.

Thinking out loud: voluntarism in schools and historical perspective

This post is largely to think out loud about historical perspectives, and more specifically a topic I have not (yet) tried to put in historical perspective: volunteers in school. This is not probably a post that will provide great insight, and it certainly does not show great wisdom on my part: as you will see below, the scribblings I did before starting this post are rather stream-of-consciousness that I an repeating here to be complete.

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The American Estates as a thought experiment

Now that former Florida Governor Jeb Bush has dropped out of the race, it may be a little clearer that money by itself does not win campaigns. Today, that brought me back to a topic an ASU doctoral student and I had written about last year, on power and education policy. As I noted earlier last fall, the column Amanda Potterton and I wrote on Arne Duncan’s legacy did not answer the question, “What is the proper relationship between civil society and regulatory/administrative bodies?” That had been simmering in the back of my head a few weeks later when Stanley Hubbard complained that Donald Trump was not wholly controlled or owned by the billionaire donor class. As Hubbard opined to The Hill reporters,

This idea of “I don’t need to have any funding, I’ll fund myself,” that scares the hell out of me… That’s like a dictator. I think that any politician should have to answer to their constituents. … I don’t think it’s healthy to have somebody who doesn’t answer to anybody.

Never mind that someone who becomes president does have a constituency, the American voting public. This quotation is a Kinsley gaffe, when someone accidentally says the truth in public: Hubbard sees his ilk as a separate constituency to which Republican candidates must kowtow. In effect, Hubbard and some other super-wealthy political donors see the American political system as akin to the French ancient regime, with separate and equally-powerful political classes. In pre-Revolutionary France, you had the estates of the nobility, clergy, and then everyone else, where the nobility and clergy could outvote the vast majority of French citizens and control public policy.

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Fordham Institute’s accountability design competition: A healthier mess

I will be in Washington early next week participating in the Fordham Institute’s design competition for state accountability under the Every Student Succeeds Act. I will be one of ten submitters making (very short!) presentations late afternoon Tuesday, February 2 (3:30-5:30 EST). The complete list of design sketches is available now (whether or not the submitters are presenting next week), and mine is also copied at the end of this blog entry.

A few notes about my entry:

  1. This is an exercise to squeeze what I could into the structure of ESSA. It copies some ideas from recommendations at the end of Accountability Frankenstein (2007), but it is not a statement of my policy preferences. It is an “art of the possible” design (or sketch, more likely).
  2. It uses various transformations of scale scores, proficiency percentages, and the like. There are other entries who make (probably more publicly-palatable) use of transformations, in contrast with those who assert transparency of calculation as a high-minded goal in state accountability systems. I will probably say more about this next week, but I just want to note the clear contrast along this dimension. More generally, my sketch has a deliberate jury-rigged construction; that is a feature, not a bug. There is at least one point where I see another way to tinker with something, less than three weeks after my submission. I’ll certainly think of another one within a few hours.
  3. And yet, at the same time, it also tries to make use of some well-researched assessments in areas that ESSA requires (English language proficiency) and in one of the critical areas that ESSA leaves to states (the general category, “other indicators of student success or school quality”).
  4. Finally, I am quite sure that my use of a grand jury system to make judgments about equal opportunity is unique. I am not sure anyone will like it, because this idea of trusting citizen judgment on critical matters of what constitutes equal educational opportunity is … well, we will see what people think of that on Tuesday.

And now, my proposal… (where I have identified typographical errors, you will see copyediting notes as appropriate)

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Interview season notes

We had dozens of candidates on campus last year for positions at the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, by far the most busy search season I have experienced in my career at any place. Since our college is searching for a new dean, I thought I would make any comments about on-campus interviews for faculty and administrative positions long before we have any dean candidates on campus.1 These are not in any particular order, and they are entirely idiosyncratic to me as an individual faculty member.

  • It is sometimes hard to remember that the issue is not about hiring a candidate who will be repeating the interview performance as the job, but rather trying to make inferences about future performance from all the evidence, including the interview. After you are hired, your main job will not be talking to your new colleagues about your research, though the research-oriented job talk is a natural focus of preparation.2 This is true for whoever makes a hiring decision and everyone on campus who interacts with a candidates, and also inevitably for the candidate. “Be great on the interview!” is about performance. Yes, dress professionally and avoid unforced errors, but people who interact with a candidate can often smell the attributes of a performance. When I interviewed for my current position, I decided that my responsibility during the interview was to provide all the information I could about what I would be like as an academic administrator and colleague. If everyone with input decided I was the right candidate but I really was not, I had very little chance of being successful or satisfied.3
  • The higher the position, the more you need to do research about the place. Part of this is in comparison with candidates for other positions: Of course many candidates for assistant professors do every bit of research they can about the college/university because they need a full-time job and will scramble to do their best. So if for no other reason than because graduate students will have done the research, you need to as well. But there is another reason: the more responsibility the position entails, the less the interview is about your current job and much more about how you look at organizational and other contexts. My automatic question for external candidates for dean and provost positions (and if you are a candidate for the dean of Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, you now know to expect it): What can you tell us about ourselves that we cannot see from the inside?
  • Some interview questions are about the past, and some are about the future — both your future and the institution’s. You do not need to have a pat answer for all questions, and you are almost always allowed to answer a question about the past with an answer to a closely-related question about the future instead. Especially if the question appears to be something like, “how will you weigh in on this internal conflict we’ve had for 15 years,” there is no good answer. So answer an appropriate, closely-related question about the future.
  • There is a difference between being flexible about job opportunities and not having an intellectual identity. On Friday morning, I spoke with ASU doctoral students from a number of programs, and one student applying for jobs asked about the tension between having an academic identity and applying for a range of jobs (especially the range of teaching workloads and research supports). Fortunately, I had opened up with a bad joke comparing academic identities with assembling IKEA furniture, so I could make the following point, I hope clearly: your identity is somewhat modular and will change across a career in response to where you are, your opportunities, and circumstances.4 So, yes, if you take a particular job, you will slowly change in response to wherever you are. But if you are finishing a doctoral program, or just starting a career, you have a current intellectual identity.
  • You will be judged by the questions you ask: they reveal how much you know about the position, about yourself, and about academic environments. So ask thoughtful questions.


  1. Disclosure: I am not on the search committee. []
  2. If you go for mostly-teaching gigs, remember to prepare for teaching-oriented slots in the interview! []
  3. I already had a tenured, full-professor position at the time. I did not need to be desperate for a full-time job. []
  4. Credit for the IKEA metaphor to Devoney Looser, who was the other speaker Friday. Any awkwardness in the “keep your Allen wrench with you forever” joke belongs to me. []