Tag Archives: Walter Russell Mead

Teaching US History in the Trump Era

So the first semester is coming to an end, with its three different preps and an ELL class. Up next: three trig classes. Normally, I kvetch at the idea of teaching three classes in a row. By time three, I’m improvising just to relieve the sense of deja vu (which isn’t as bad as it sounds, since it usually leads to insights into the next day). But I’m unlikely to complain anyway, since this semester I came perilously close to burning out. I managed my Thanksgiving break effectively, getting in sleep, grading, gardening, and holidaying in equal measure. I welcomed Christmas in the normal fashion, without the sense of needing it as I did going into Thanksgiving. So apart from the tedium of grading a hundred plus tests at a time (as opposed to 35 each time now), there’ll be no complaints from this quarter.

And! I’m teaching US History again. Whoo and hoo. I never thought I’d see another year when I’d use all my credentials.

When I last taught it, the big challenge was balancing content. I like teaching history in a semi-linear fashion, but there’s always something interesting in the past to bring up, and I forget all about the time. (Ha, ha.) I forgave my failings because we don’t have state tests and all evidence shows kids never remember the details anyway. You know how all the curriculum folk like E.D. Hirsch, Robert Pondiscio, Dan Willingham all say “Teachers today don’t teach knowledge?” They’re goofy. We do. Trust me. We do. But they tend not to remember. That’s another story.

Anyway. I wanted to get past World War II while still teaching my favorite topics of the past, and have been mulling possibilities in my copious spare time without much progress until The Election Happened. That, coupled with some breathing room over Thanksgiving, gave me a framework.

Five Questions:

  1. Wait–the Candidate With the Most Votes Didn’t Win?
  2. Why Black Lives Matter?
  3. What does “American” Mean?
  4. How Will You Contribute to the US Economy–aka, How Will You Pay Your Bills?
  5. What do Fidel and Putin Have to Do With Us?

I’ll continue to wordsmith the questions, but I do want them to be instantly relevant to a high school junior.

Question One

Main Idea: The Electoral College plays an important role in balancing regional tensions, a role that’s remained constant even as we’ve dramatically expanded the voting pool.
I.   History of colonial development
II. Brief (I said BRIEF, Ed!) history of Revolutionary Era
III.Constitutional Convention
IV. Rise of sectionalism and the role the electoral college played in balancing power (Hartford Convention, Missouri Compromise, Nullification Crisis, Compromise of 1850).
V. Expansion of franchise: all property holders, all men (technically, all women (technically), all citizens (really).
VI. Popular Vote/EC Splits a) Jefferson-Adams (Jefferson only won EV because of slave headcount) b) The Corrupt Bargain; c) Compromise of 1876; d) Cleveland-Harrison e) Gore-Bush f) Trump-Clinton, which I’ll probably defer until later.

Question Two:
Main Idea: “Black Lives” matter because the US violated its fundamental values to achieve and maintain unity, and our African American citizens paid the price.

I.   Development of slavery (I go way back to Portugal and kidnapping, the Papal Bull and so on)
II.  The evitable roots of American slavery and its development: Jamestown, South Carolina, Bacon’s Rebellion.
II.  The rise of Cotton
III. Deeper look at sectionalism from slavery standpoint: rise of abolition, range of reasons for opposition, free black role in movement, etc.
IV.  Civil War, Reconstruction
V.    Rise of black intellectual debate (Booker T, WEB, Garvey, MLK,).
VI.  Post-Civil Rights era–I see history past the Voting Rights as rather gloomy. Maybe examine riots in 60s/70s and compare to today?

Question Three:

Main Idea: From the first Beringian wanderers to the desperate migrants hoping for a miracle in Turbo, everyone wants to find a home here. At some point, the United States imposed its will on the process. What does that mean to the world? What does the expanding definition of “American” mean to its citizens?

I.    Early Americans and Corn Cultivation (one of my favorite topics!)
II.  Age of Exploration (again, brief, Ed!)
III.  Immigration Waves and Westward Expansion
IV.   Restriction: 1888, 1924
V.   Expansion: 1965
VI.  I’m still figuring out how to organize this.

Question Four
Main Idea: The United States’ economy has changed in many ways over the years. Many people think Trump’s victory was due in part to regional dissatisfaction with those changes. How do the transformations in the past help us understand the future–or do they?

This is a big section and I’ll have to chop it down. But it’s my favorite, so I’m listing everything to see if I can find any synergies to improve coverage.

I.    Colonial Mercantilism
II.   Hamilton vs. Jefferson (again, a favorite of mine)
III.  Rise of Industry (Eli Whitney! McCormack! Industrial espionage! and so on)
IV.  The “Worker” as opposed to the farmer or merchant (Jackson Kills the Bank will make an appearance)
V.    The Rise of Mechanization and the Industrial Era (immigration will show up again here)
VII. America as Industry Giant (Ford, impact of WWI/WWII on our dominance, the automated cotton picker & Great Migration, etc), including the rise of unions (thanks to Wagner Act)
VIII. Early Computing through the WWW and Information Age
IX.   Globalization and Automation, coupled with the fall of unions.
X.   Growing–and reducing–the work force

Question Five

Main Idea: How has the United States interacted with its neighbors near and far?

As I’ve written before, I’m a big fan of Walter Russell Mead’s Special Providence, and will use that as a sort of syllabus to outline key events in American foreign policy: neutrality, acquisitions, native American screwovers, world wars, and cold wars. I don’t have this one fleshed out, but the topic will definitely include the important international alliances that occurred before and during the Revolution, Founding Fathers, John Quincy Adams (you can get a hint of my thoughts here ). Then I’ll pick key events of interest in the 19th century, limiting my scope. Again, some talk of America’s position post-WWI/WWII, but bulk of time will be spent on Cold War and beyond, is my hope.


I have a lot of these lessons done already. I didn’t like to lecture the last time I did the class because it was too tempting to just lecture the entire time. But with this structure, I think I’ll be able to give lectures as well as do a lot of readings and analysis. That’s the hope, anyway.



Plague of the Middlebrow Pundits, Revisited: Walter Russell Mead

Three years ago, I taught at a super-progressive small school with a limited opportunity to offer elective courses. So each year teachers got to offer a one-week, 40-hour elective course on any topic they wanted, and if 20 kids signed up, they taught it.

I got twenty signups with this class (the original flyer was a single page, I broke it up into two pages for this, click to enlarge):


Will it surprise you that it was 18 boys and 2 girls? Thought not. Only one of them was an A student, the rest were your classic goofball geek underachievers.

On the first day, I gave a 40 minute lecture on the key ideas in Special Providence, by Walter Russell Mead, which I used to anchor the class: “Mead attributes [US foreign policy] success to four schools of thought, named after four American statesmen: the Hamiltonian (protection of commerce), Jeffersonian (maintenance of a democratic system), Jacksonian (populist values, military strength), and Wilsonian (moral principle). ”

I explained that science fiction, books or movies, always reflect social norms and values of the time, both intentionally and not so much. They would be watching the films looking for these norms and values, particularly as reflected in the interactions between science and the military and their varying reactions to the threats, with this graphic organizer:


Evaluated from this aspect, the cooperation between the scientists and the military in Them! really stands out. The kids all agreed that neither version of Invasion fell into one of the foreign policy models. When I asked why, several kids pointed out that the movie was really about being human, not about space invaders and the need to respond.

The most active discussion involved the Alien duo (I tossed them in as a surprise), as the kids all agreed that the society in the movie was dominantly Hamiltonian, but what was the view of the filmmakers? It seemed Jacksonian, as Ripley had no interest in understanding the aliens, but simply destroying them to protect her world, and the military personnel in Aliens were definitely heroic. Scientists, aka the androids, were untrustworthy—they might come through, or they might knife you in the back. But James Cameron’s Abyss and Avatar were both definitely Jeffersonian, with military goons threatening the live in peace water bubbles and blue people, so had he changed? Or did he use the money from Aliens to make movies he really believed in? (We put aside Ridley Scott, since his movies are hard to pigeonhole.)

Anyway. A terrific class. And proof, I hope, that I quite like Walter Russell Mead’s ideas. I agree in large part with his analysis of the death of the blue model. But the man* simply can’t free himself of pap when he talks about teachers.

As I said last year, he’s part of the plague of the middlebrow pundits:

…these aren’t people with a coherent view; they’ve taken the cheap way out.

They think about education the way I like Hall and Oates, the Eagles, or John Mayer. When I listen to music I want something I can sing along with the radio when I’m driving. Nothing more. I don’t want to think, don’t want to work. There’s nothing wrong with any of these musicians—they’re popular for a reason. I can go on at great length about the excellence of Don Henley. But I like them in large part because they’re easy to like and tuneful. I’m not going to do the work to listen to more challenging music.

Likewise, the middlebrows in education want to opine on a subject that’s very much in the news and, unlike global warming or economic policy, they think this is an area in which their opinions carry a lot of weight. There’s nothing terribly off about their opinions; they are safe and easy. But just as a serious musician hates the proliferation of pop, so too do I get tired of the proliferation of conventional wisdoms by people who haven’t really taken the time to think or research their opinions on education.

You might argue that WRM blasts teachers because they are a handy proxy for the blue model. But so are cops. Does Mead spend a lot of time criticizing cops for doing a terrible job, getting a raise every year whether needed or not, and blame their unions for all societies ills?

Let’s see. Here’s a google of “site:http://blogs.the-american-interest.com/wrm teachers”. Notice, at the time of this writing, that most of the entries are in the anti-union, teachers suck vein.

Meanwhile, a google of site:http://blogs.the-american-interest.com/wrm police reveals a whole bunch of foreign policy posts, interspersed with the occasional sympathetic comment about the poor cops whose pensions are going to be at risk.

I submit, dear reader, that WRM picks on teachers because like most educated elites he thinks he has a clue about what is involved in educating the populace, based on his own exposure to the vast challenges of educating the populace, won through his hard-scrabble experiences at Groton and Yale.

WRM generally hews to the general pro-charter, pro-accountability reformer line, except he’s not as well-educated on the facts as actual reformers. So you’ll often see him say, incorrectly, that teachers and unions are losing parental support (check out this piece when he says that during the CTU strike , ignorant of the fact that the majority of Chicago parents and public were firmly on the teacher’s side–even nearly half of whites polled—and that Rahm lost), that Americans want to go to charters for a better education, when in fact race plays a huge part in their choices, with safety a key second. Oh, and of course, he thinks the Memphis cheating scandal proves that teachers are stupid, when in fact…well, more on that here. And he opines that teaching isn’t a “lifer” job, deciding that older teachers are mostly just in it for the money. (What he means, of course, is that they are expensive. So are older lawyers, doctors, cops, firefighters, and Yale professors, but this doesn’t appear to matter.) Truly ignorant is his post on blue state shame of schools, in which he cites the Challenge Index–the frigging Mathews survey that celebrates how many kids were glued into seats for an AP exam, scores be damned–as evidence that red state schools are superior to the union-run schools in blue states. It is to weep.

You know what’s never mentioned on WRM’s blog? NAEP. Well, not by WRM. The four entries you see at the time of this writing were comments (no, I didn’t make them) made pointing out that if we use actual data, union states do far better than non-union states. (You can’t see them because he killed comments a while back.) Not that I think unions had anything to do these outcomes, but it certainly blows a hole in WRM’s thesis. But then, that’s him all over: citing Jay Mathews instead of Matthew di Carlo. Hey, maybe he just got their names mixed up.

It’s not like he hasn’t been doing this for a while, so what kicked off this rant?

Teachers Unions Don’t Empower Teachers

Our idea of education reform isn’t to take teacher union membership away and leave teachers exposed to the power of uncaring, rigid bureaucracies. Instead, we want to use concepts like charter schools and school vouchers to give good teachers the chance to build cooperative and community schools where a reputation for excellence ensures a stream of students.

Um. What the hell does he mean? Does he even know? Does he really think that teachers won’t get more expensive at charter schools over time? Does he think charters will be less likely to fire “good” teachers that cost thousands more? Really? Moreover, charters demand an ideological lockstep that isn’t even an issue in most comprehensive schools. It’s always dangerous for teachers to have opinions, but at charter schools, all teachers must share the corporate ideology (CF Match, KIPP, and so on).

And of course, most teachers don’t want to be entrepreneurs. Most people don’t want to be entrepreneurs, and they don’t want to work for charters. And anyone who thinks that isn’t a critical fail point in the charter school movement is innumerate.

We don’t like teachers’ unions, but it’s not because we hate teachers and want them to suffer. It’s because the unions are part of what’s wrong with the system: They are the biggest defenders of the bureaucratized, by-the-book system that has stifled many teachers and made it difficult for them to do their jobs as they see fit.

Oh, look, Desert Storm protesters figured out the new party line: “We hate the war, not the soldiers.”

Teachers unions ARE teachers. And unions don’t “defend” bureaucracy. They defend teachers, by finding them as many jobs as they can. That’s their function. That’s what teachers pay them for. I’m no fan of unions, but it’s arrant idiocy to pretend that there’s any space at all between teachers and their unions. Remember that Karen Lewis is in charge of the CTU because the teachers voted out her management-friendly, pro-charter predecessor and she now faces opposition because she wasn’t militant enough (although her slate is very popular.).

We understand the appeal of unions to teachers. We understand why people under the rule of bureaucrats, who are ultimately responsive to big city political machines, would want to have their own representatives as the table. But we think there are ways to decentralize the whole system, to give teachers more autonomy and ground their evaluations more deeply in the views of their peers and local communities, while also giving parents more choice.

So we, the elite, think you teachers are totally wrong to fight our plans for your career. We have a much better way to employ you, even though we personally have no experience in any aspect of public education much less teaching, and we think you should take our word for it. We want you to be totally in favor of lucky parents taking their kids out of schools that have to abide by constitutional protections and educational policies—policies that we, the elite, put on public schools via lawsuits and well-meant but utterly nonsensical requirements—in favor of schools that can boot any kids who don’t toe the line. We also want you to be judged by the test scores of your students without regard to their cognitive ability because we find it distasteful to acknowledge that student cognitive ability is highly relevant to academic outcomes despite decades of established research showing otherwise. Of course, we think teacher cognitive ability is fundamental to student academic outcomes, so we want to wipe out black and Hispanic teachers entirely by raising the require test score burden for all teachers, even though research shows a tenuous at best link between teacher demonstrated ability and student outcomes.

Yeah. Good to see you understand the appeal of unions, Walt.

Or, to avoid repeating myself:

Say what you will of reformers like Rick Hess or Fordham, or of progresssives like Larry Cuban or Diane Ravitch, they have coherent views supported by research and struggle intellectually with the grey areas.

(Well, maybe not so much Diane Ravitch.)

Off I go to Starbucks, listening to Henley and Hall & Oates.

**There may be more than one writer in the WRM blog, but they are unauthored and it’s under his name.

More on Mumford

(Totally accidental pun, I promise. The man’s a disgusting sleaze, but he’s not stupid.)

So for some reason, the Clarence Mumford story broke this week. Odd, that.

A sample, just from my twitter feed:

Robert Pondiscio: “Cheating on teacher certification tests? Seriously?? Not exactly the highest bar to clear.”

Eduwonk: “The real scandal is the low-level of the Praxis test and why it continues to be used at all. The Praxis II is different, but the basic Praxis is much too low a bar given what we expect of teachers.”

Sarah Almy, Director of teacher quality at Education Trust: ““These are pretty basic tests….The fact that there were folks who felt like they needed to bring somebody else in in order to meet a very basic level of content knowledge is disturbing, in particular for the kids those teachers are going to wind up teaching.”

Walter Russell Mead: “Massive cheating scandal on teacher certification tests. Worse: tests are pathetically easy, only idiots could flunk.”

Here are the names of the people thus far indicted:

Notice all these people are black. Which is what I predicted back in July, when this story first broke. Some of the other names are Jadice Moore, Felippia Kellogg (somehow, this Fox news story couldn’t find a picture of her), Dante Dowers, Jacklyn McKinnie. (A primary tester was John Bowen; I haven’t been able to find a picture of him, oddly, Fox News couldn’t find a picture of him, either.) If I do some bad ol’ stereotyping based solely on those names, I’d advise gamblers to bet on them being black, too.

I am pleased to be wrong about one thing—I thought it likely the testers who could easily pass the test would be white, but it appears that most of them are black, as well. Notice also that the Fox News story and many others make it clear that many of the people paying for the tests were already teachers, and that some of the tests were Praxis II. I’d written about that, too.

If you’re wondering why I am pretty sure that most, if not all, of the teachers paying for testers are black, here are some helpful graphics:

And yet, no one save little old me is even mentioning the race of the people involved, as if it’s this totally random factor, like you could find white teachers desperately paying thousands of dollars to pass these tests.

Robert Pondiscio, WRM, and Andy Rotherham and the many other people sneering about the people who need to pay someone else to pass the test, be very specific: Only 40% of African Americans can pass the Praxis I the first time. The other 60%? That’s who you are calling idiots.

Let’s be clear what I am not saying. I am not excusing the fraud. I am not hinting that African Americans are incapable of passing the tests (this fraud ring shows clearly that they are not).

And since I’m prone to prolixity, I will bullet my points.

I am saying that reformers are:

  • hammering constantly on the need for “higher standards”,
  • sneering at the low standards on teacher credential tests,
  • scoffing at grossly distorted stats suggesting that all teachers, regardless of content area, have low SAT scores,
  • declaring that the only way to “restore credibility and professionalism to teaching” is to pull teachers from the top third of college graduates, ignoring the fact that high school content teachers are already drawn from the top half, as well as the fact that there’s no real need for elementary school teachers to be rocket scientists

And while they rant on endlessly on these talking points, they are ignoring the following unpleasantness:

  • the low cut score on the basic content knowledge tests are put in place specifically to ensure that some small number of African American and Hispanic teachers will pass. The white averages are a full standard deviation higher; a huge boost to the cut scores in most credentialing tests wouldn’t bother the bulk of all teachers (white females, remember) in the slightest.
  • research has turned up very close to empty in proving that teacher content knowledge has any relationship to student achievement. (Cite to research in my earlier article).
  • research consistently shows that teacher race has a distressing relationship to student achievement–specifically, more than one study shows a positive outcome when black teachers teach black students. (again, cite in earlier article)
  • Raising the cut scores will decimate the black and Hispanic teaching population.
  • Many states dramatically increased the difficulty in elementary school credentialing tests after NCLB, yet research has not shown these new teachers to be far superior to the teachers who just passed the much easier (or non-existent) earlier tests. There hasn’t been research done specifically on this point. Hint. Oh, and by the way–those cut score boosts have already dramatically reduced the URM teaching population.

So reformers, when you call for higher content standards, when you say that teachers who can’t pass the test are idiots who should never be allowed in a classroom, you are talking about black and Hispanic teachers. When you demand that we need far more rigorous demonstrated content knowledge for teachers, you are merely making calls for changes that will decimate the already reduced URM teacher population.

And you are doing this with next to no evidence that your demanded changes will impact student achievement, merely on your own prejudice that smarter teachers would make better teachers.

Maybe you’re right. Maybe there’s a perfect research paper out there waiting to be written that will winkle out the lurking variables to prove that yes, we need smarter teachers and yes, it’s okay to annihilate the black and Hispanic teaching population in a good cause. Fine. Go find it.

Or maybe you just want to be snobby elites who don’t personally know anyone who scored below 600 on any section of the SAT, and think your own personal prejudices should substitute for education policy.

Whatever. Just learn and accept what you’re doing. You are calling for changes that will further homogenize an already white career category, closing off a major career option to over half of all blacks and Hispanics, for what is thus far no better reason than you think teachers should be smarter.

Got it? Own it. Or shut the hell up about it.

The Aussie story and the plague of the middlebrow edupundits

This article is getting a lot of cheap responses.

Headline: “Federal School Education Minister Peter Garrett says teachers do not have to be smart”

Which leads, of course, to everyone mocking him for saying it’s okay for teachers to be stupid. But here’s what the article says:

[Garrett] said he didn’t think the teaching profession needed to be more selective.

“It is not necessarily a fact that someone who is academically smart makes a better teacher than someone who isn’t,” Mr Garrett told reporters in Canberra.

“I don’t think education should necessarily be the province of the particularly smart or gifted.”

Mr Garrett said he knew teachers who weren’t the most academically gifted but nevertheless went on to be great because they had passion and enthusiasm for the kids they taught.

I’ve written at length about this for America, at least. There is no evidence that smarter teachers make better teachers and our teachers are smart enough. And yes, many people with less than exceptional content knowledge make very good teachers, and plenty of brilliant people make terrible teachers.

So really, there’s nothing even slightly objectionable about Garrett’s points. Not that this stopped anyone from mocking.

I started this blog in some small part because I got irritated at all the idiots that I finally could capture in a name: the middlebrow* education “expert”. You find these preferences often in otherwise political pundits: Matt Yglesias, Megan McArdle, Noah Millman, Walter Russell Mead. In fact, almost any time a political pundit expresses even the briefest of thoughts on education, it’s straight from that part of the opinion spectrum. Most of the billionaire reformers are middlebrow. And of course, middlebrow education experts are legion in blog comment sections.

The middlebrows are educated, generally intelligent people who succeeded in the private sector—or married people who succeeded in the private sector. They hold a number of conventional opinions about education, even though they aren’t directly involved in teaching or educational policy.

One middlebrow profile is the quasi-reformer view: teachers aren’t very bright, unions are evil and a primary reason students are failing, standards aren’t high enough, merit pay will draw better people into teaching, everyone can succeed, we just have to catch the kids early enough.

The other middlebrow profile is the quasi-traditional view: teachers aren’t very bright, merit pay will draw better people into teaching, unions are evil and a primary reason students are failing, standards aren’t high enough,kids aren’t being taught the basics, bring back tracking, unmotivated students should be kicked out, weak-willed school administrators aren’t willing to let kids bear the responsibility of their actions, .

The overlap is intentional; all the middlebrows are consistent about blaming teachers. But these aren’t people with a coherent view; they’ve taken the cheap way out.

They think about education the way I like Hall and Oates, the Eagles, or John Mayer. When I listen to music I want something I can sing along with the radio when I’m driving. Nothing more. I don’t want to think, don’t want to work. There’s nothing wrong with any of these musicians—they’re popular for a reason. I can go on at great length about the excellence of Don Henley. But I like them in large part because they’re easy to like and tuneful. I’m not going to do the work to listen to more challenging music.

Likewise, the middlebrows in education want to opine on a subject that’s very much in the news and, unlike global warming or economic policy, they think this is an area in which their opinions carry a lot of weight. There’s nothing terribly off about their opinions; they are safe and easy. But just as a serious musician hates the proliferation of pop, so too do I get tired of the proliferation of conventional wisdoms by people who haven’t really taken the time to think or research their opinions on education.

Say what you will of reformers like Rick Hess or Fordham, or of progresssives like Larry Cuban or Diane Ravitch, they have coherent views supported by research and struggle intellectually with the grey areas.

Anyway, the middlebrows had fun with this story, even though the Aussie was, for the most part, right.

*I knew the term before now; I just finally figured out that it applied to this issue.