Thursday, May 14, 2020

Fordham Advises Conservative Board Members In Parallel Universe

It's a curious little piece in the Fordham Institute's blog, this "Conservative Agenda for School Board Members." The co-authors are Michael Petrilli and Chester Finn, the current and former head honchos of the right-leaning thinky tank (though I will say-- and I'm just guessing here--the level of pearl-clutching in this piece sounds a lot more like Finn than Petrilli to me).

The stock photo is a couple of cute little white kids holding a flag and walking out into sun-dappled greenery. That.... well, sets a tone.

First, they acknowledge that they have sometimes in the past been "dismissive, even hostile" to school board members, mostly because they "often seemed willing to protect the status quo and resist changes intended to overhaul the jalopy we call American public schooling" (that jalopy line does sound like Petrilli).

But we’re ready to look afresh, mindful that it’s unfair to view anything in the sprawling K–12 sector as a monolith.

Cool. I'll be happy if reformsters decide to stop referring to public education as a monopoly. The writers have decided to think of school boards as one of "society's little platoons" in rebuilding overstressed communities. In fact, the duo sees school board members as "best positioned to push back against so much of the nonsense that courses through our schools and our society." That nonsense list is actually pretty short and not very inclusive-- "history emphasizing the nation’s shortcomings, antipathy toward strict discipline, and on and on..."

They admit that board members can't change everything single-handedly, and that in many places conservatives are outnumbered but they don't want to just "cede public schooling to the 'progressive' left, as we have seen in many universities." And they have three specifics that they would like conservative school board members to champion.

First, citizenship. Here the duo try to thread that needle that some conservative edu-wonks have been trying to use to sew up the chasm at the heart of US politics-- let's inculcate pride of our country while still acknowledging its failures and weaknesses. It's a nice thought, but in fact plenty of conservatives don't agree with it and consider any criticism of the country-- past or present-- unacceptable. Not that it's entirely clear what the writers mean by "past failings" since they also reject the 1619 Project's picture of the US as "fundamentally racist."

Second, restore character, virtue and morality to education. Once again, these conservative thinky guys are swimming upstream against their own team, which is filled with people who swear that Donald Trump, quite probably the least moral and virtuous man to ever hold public office, as blameless, anointed by God, and a heck of an excellent human being. The authors locate the core of character in self-discipline and, again, I'm hard pressed to make a case that this is a conservative trait any longer.

They see a liberal focus on making sure disciplinary actions are discriminatory, which they see as focusing on the interests of the "perpetrators." But that's incorrect-- insuring that rules, both as written and as implemented-- are non-discriminatory is very much in the interests of the institution and everyone in it. There is absolutely nothing that undercuts a school's ability to discipline students effectively than the sense among students that the rules are discriminatory, that it's not what you've done but who you are. Once students grasp that, all moral authority of the school is lost, and all you've got is a battle of wills and power.

Third, well, hey write something about conferring dignity and respect on all youngsters blah blah-- but we can sum it up as "make sure your school doesn't discriminate." Part of what they mean is that schools should offer multiple paths and stop favoring college-bound pathways; on this, I absolutely agree. But they also want to push the "success sequence" of finish school, get a full-time job, get married, and have babies-- in that order. What "research" there is to support this is a testament to the age-old inability to distinguish between correlation and causation, not to mention the power of nostalgia for a rosy Leave It To Beaver past that never existed. It's another way to suggest that if you're poor, it's your own fault. Conservatives who are really invested in that sequence would do better to ask why it strikes many people as unattainable or not useful instead of just tut-tutting at how Those People choose to live their lives improperly.

There's other stuff here. Weird items framed as opposites, like suggesting social-emotional learning and character education are conflicting approaches and not two names for the same thing. And a plea for taking ideas from the left and right "not just from the left," which strikes me as odd only because so many schools boards are far too wrapped up in practical concerns to get very ideological about anything.

The piece mostly belongs in the file labeled Reformster Selective Memory Loss. Once again, folks who were instrumental in pushing education reform ideas for decades now look at the results and declare, "How did this ever happen." In this piece, it's America that over-emphasized college readiness and not, say, the entire Common Core onslaught, which acknowledged career education in the "college and career ready" tag line--and nowhere else. The Core was, of course, heavily pushed by Fordham, just as they have been relentless cheerleaders for high stakes testing, which gives less than a fig for character, virtue, and civics.

And while they acknowledge some past hostility, I'm not sure that even that word captures a movement that has sought to chop off the democratic process in any way possible from mayoral takeovers to privatizing takeovers to backing board members who would sell out their districts to promoting an entire parallel system of education that involves no elected representation whatsoever. For Petrilli and Finn to say "we've at times been dismissive, even hostile" to board members, or even the idea of board members, is like Trump saying, "I have occasionally stretched the truth a bit."

Beyond that, the piece almost makes me sad with its affection for a brand of conservatism that has been pretty much shouted down and stomped out by what passes for conservatism these days. This really does read like a piece from some alternate reality where the conservative movement still has ideas, even if they're bad ones, instead of rage and a desire to own the libs. Petrilli has never been, to my knowledge, a fan of Trump, but if he's going to try to talk to elected conservatives, he can't pretend that Trumpism isn't out there.

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